Life in the Alpujarra (2)

As promised in my first blog about our adventure in the Alpujarra, I will elaborate a bit more about the relationship between foreigners and the locals as it is an intricate one. Small villages like Yegen are doomed to become ghost villages within a generation if the current trend prevails. Young people leave the Alpujarra to study in Granada (or other nearby cities) to escape the old-fashioned rural life. Once they’ve seen life outside the Alpujarra, there’s hardly ever a way back. They grew up with their parents’ struggle in trying to make a living of the land; strenuous physical work in a harsh environment. Much of the land is now owned by the generation that is between 50-65 years old. They migrated (mainly Germany) many years back to earn money as there was little work and the salaries were low in Spain. Upon their return, the “re-migrants” invested their money in agricultural land as a pension for later. However, their children are not interested in working the land, they rather have a job in the city. So, no pension, no children close by to take care of you plus they’re sitting on a large plot of land that is worth close to nothing. The question that has arisen many times in the past months: what will happen to the villages and to the land?

Already, a (large) part of the houses in Yegen is empty and many plots of land are deserted and often for sale. Watching the movie about Yegen from the 1970s (see earlier post) shows clearly that the land is not used as intensively anymore, it is simply not as green as it used to be. (This might seem contradictory, but the hills of the Alpujarra are organised into small canals called ‘acequias’. The Moorish people designed an entire system from as high up as 2000m from where all the water is organised through these canals; no water runs naturally. People irrigate their land using these acequias by digging their own canals on their own land. That means if the land is not used anymore, the water doesn’t flow on the land, it remains in the main acequia. However, things could change, albeit slowly. Most of the land that is for sale, is bought by foreigners who are looking for a quiet and natural outdoors life. It is generally perceived as a good thing, because the land is (still) owned by small families, who are working the land and bring some life to the villages. But, these foreigners live on their farms, and not in the villages like the Spanish do. That means the effect on the liveability of the villages is minimal; the foreigners don’t go to the bars in the morning and in the evening and even many of them don’t buy their groceries locally, they rather go to the bigger villages with more (organic) choice. Said differently: for the traditional village life this doesn’t do a whole lot. The land is worked, but the bars are still empty.

From what I’ve seen, in most cases you can witness two social worlds: the locals’ one and the foreigners’ one. Although the locals welcome new-comers whole-heartedly, somehow it’s difficult to truly mix. The new-comers want to do things differently, they’ve read books, been to university and are looking to apply the knowledge they’ve gathered over the years. The locals want to stick to the ways and techniques they know and learned from their parents, the foreigners don’t know this place and they don’t know what’s best. I know I am stereotyping and placing these two groups very black and white, reality is much more grey and mixed, but in essence that is what it is about. The whole organic ‘movement’ I have seen is a foreign one, there is hardly any Spanish person to be seen when trying to find organic products. When you are in the region a bit longer, you will see the same foreign people involved in the organic shops, markets, workshops, etc.; it really is an expat community. I have tried to understand the relationship locals have with their environment as it is not so straightforward. People value their plot of land and the fact they have their own vegetables, which gives them some security and strengthens social ties in the village by exchanging goods. People love being outside and enjoy seeing everything grow and be green. At the same time little attention is paid to how the food is grown. They use various kinds of pesticides, fertilizers, etc. if that’s easier, buy their seed from just anywhere and use techniques that were successful generations ago. The latter could still be sensible, but with the changing circumstances and the increased drought, it might be a good idea to look for other techniques. And that’s where things become tricky.

After we left Yegen, we went to a great place just below the highest village of Spain: Trevélez. Still in the Alpujarra, but a very different place ( The people running this place (yes, foreigners!) are trying to set up an organic farm and eco-lodge with various activities and workshops. If you look at their website, you think: “Wow! So, that is possible in that remote place in Spain?” At least, that is what we thought and triggered us to go there, to experience their way of doing things (even though they were foreigners and we initially preferred not to be in an expat environment too much). In reality, it is a beautiful website with a lot of good intentions but with very little results. Running an eco-lodge means you would need to offer organic products and items, but how to get them? At some point we literally spent half a day looking for organic detergent in the largest hypermarkets imaginable in Motril (a large city). They sold 12 brands of diapers, 30 kinds of dvd-players, rows and rows of clothes, shoes, toys, everything, but near to no organic products. There is so little demand for organic products, there is no offer and when there is offer the price is just ridiculous. How to break through this vicious cycle? Starting an organic farm means getting organic seeds or rather seedlings, but from whom? Finally, once they will have all this, they will most likely only attract foreigners. So far, Spanish people are not interested in the experience they offer. Is that a problem? I don’t know, but it certainly again creates this dual world I explained above. In the 5 weeks we have been at this eco-place, we have seen the struggle these people are going through to establish something so obvious and logical to me (I could – but won’t – talk much more about the strange situation here with the Spanish government owning the sun and thus making a business run on renewable energy nearly impossible, or the lack of willingness to cooperate, share and work together, which all contributes to the great difficulty people face who want to do things just a little bit different). It has been an interesting journey so far; Spain is geographically so close to the Netherlands, but yet so far away.