Surrounding the town of El Ejido, Almeria Province, southern Spain is a sea of greenhouses, stretching for tens of kilometres, visible from space. Millions of tons of vegetables are exported from there to other European countries and further parts of the World. Along the Mediterranean coast, tourism flourishes, fuelling a booming real estate economy…
This NASA image covers an area of 19 x 30.5 km. It was acquired with a digital camera by the crew of the International Space Station on 20th July 2008.
It shows a sea of plastic tents, located at 36.75 degrees north latitude, 2.75 degrees west longitude.
The dense, bright pattern of thousands of greenhouses extending from the shoreline right up to the base of the mountains and even into some of the smaller valleys. Salt pan operations can also be seen in the long coastal lagoons.
Do you like fresh tomatoes? Me too. And salad, avocadoes, cucumbers, peppers and melons, kiwis, mangoes…
More to the point, do you know where and how they have been grown? All-year-round… Unsustainably… On your own doorstep?
Sunny southern Spain offers more to the national economy than simply tourism. Decades ago, the region of El Ejido was identified as an ideal production site for the healthy Mediterranean diet.
Or perhaps, it was actually the reinvention of an extremely deserted territory that boosted our consumption of fresh vegetables?
Anyway, the resulting fact is that El Ejido’s Plastic City learnt how to profit from its huge underground water reservoirs in the 1960s. Over the past 50 years, the small coastal plain (campo), some 30 kilometres southwest of the city of Almería, has been intensively developed for agriculture.
The economy of Almería is based on agriculture, which is located mainly in the western part of the region. Numerous greenhouses mostly constructed with plasticulture produce tonnes of fruit and vegetables, more than 70% of their product being exported to the rest of Europe.
Campo de Dalías
The area has a dry, mild, Mediterranean climate and is further sheltered on the north by the Sierra de Gador mountains. With little more than 200 mm of annual precipitation to support crop growth, the area also relies on groundwater fed by small stream aquifers from the mountains.
Almería has an average temperature of 20°C and boasts about 3,000 hours of annual sunshine. Salad vegetables can be grown during the winter months without having to use expensive heating systems, as in other places of Europe (The Netherlands).
By introducing optimal Israeli methods of drip-irrigation and covering the soil with sand to conserve humidity and avoid erosion (Enarenado technique), the Spanish desert was eventually reclaimed. Approximately 90% of the greenhouses use an artificial soil called Enarenado – a soil mix of clay, manure and sand that sits on top of the original soil base – in order to overcome the productive limitations of extremely poor indigenous soils of the region. In the remaining greenhouses, plants will never touch soil – they are grown using a hydroponics system where chemical fertilisers are drip-fed to each plant from large, computer-controlled vats.
In 2004, an estimated 20,000 hectares of extra-early market produce was grown in greenhouses in the Campo de Dalías, and accounted for over $1.5 billion in terms of Spain’s economic activity.
Greenhouses afford a greater control over a growing environment, which temperature, levels of light and shade, irrigation, fertiliser application, and atmospheric humidity, can be more carefully regulated.
The greenhouses are also used to overcome shortcomings in the growing qualities of a piece of land, such as a short growing season or poor light levels, and they can thereby improve food production in marginal environments.
As they enable certain crops to be grown throughout the year, greenhouses are increasingly important in the food supply of high-latitude countries.
One of the largest complexes in the World is in Almería, Andalucía, Spain. The crops are grown continuously from October to July, with production peaks in December-January when tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, and peppers are harvested, and then again in May-June when melons come into season.
Tomatoes and sweet peppers represent the greatest crop area, followed by melons.
Greenhouse production demands 800-1000 mm of water per year, in a region that receives just 200 mm of annual rainfall. Water efficiency was improved dramatically, especially with the introduction of drip irrigation, and a new seawater desalination plant opening in 2009, which supplies 60,000 m³/day of fresh water to the region.
Today, 36,000 hectares are endlessly covered with greenhouses, configuring the World’s largest surface under plastics.
The formerly desertic region of Almería in southern Spain produces one third of Europe’s winter consumption of fruits and vegetables and reaps two thirds of the country’s farm profits.
Up to 120,000 people work here, producing nearly three million tonnes of fruit and veg every year for export to Britain and across Northern Europe.
But at what cost…?
Albedo Effect and Environmental Impact
Albedo is the fraction of Sun’s radiation reflected from a surface, quantified as the proportion, or percentage of solar radiation at all wavelengths reflected by a body or surface to the amount incident upon it.
An ideal white body has an albedo of 100% and an ideal black body, 0%.
The albedo is an important concept in both climatology and astronomy. Visually, the albedo of an object’s surface can be estimated from its tone or colour – a method which suggests that albedo becomes higher as an object gets lighter in shade.
Low albedos are associated with surfaces that appear dark coloured to our eyes, including black-top roads, coniferous forest, and dark soil.
The average overall albedo of Earth, its planetary albedo, is 30-35% because of cloud cover, but it widely varies locally across the surface because of different geological and environmental features.
Almería’s sea of white-roofed greenhouse is so vast that researchers from the University of Almería have found that by reflecting sunlight back into the atmosphere, the greenhouses are actually cooling the province.
While temperatures in the rest of Spain have climbed at rates above the world average, the local temperature has dropped an average of 0.3 degrees Celsius every 10 years since 1983.
In an area of South Eastern Spain, most famous for “Spaghetti Westerns”, the ancient Sorbas-Tabernas fossil water aquifer has been exploited to such a degree that it is in danger of collapse, putting at risk the livelihoods of small farmers and the fresh water supply of the whole area.
El Rio De Aguas Sorbas in Almeria, one of Spain’s oldest fossil water aquifers, is under threat. The impending death of this ecosystem is a direct result of unsustainable exploitation, exacerbated by massive irrigation which will kill the olive trees.
The area receives little or no rain. Drinking water is being supplied by trucks to local villages, as wells are either dry or unsafe to use as drinking water supplies.
Fossil water or paleo-water is groundwater that has remained sealed in an aquifer for thousands, or even millions, of years due to changes in the surrounding geology.
By definition, fossil water is a non-renewable resource. Whereas most aquifers are naturally replenished by infiltration of water from precipitation, fossil aquifers get little or no recharge. Extraction of water from such non-replenishing groundwater reserves (low safe-yield reserves) is called water mining.
If water is pumped from a well at a withdrawal rate that exceeds the natural recharge rate – which is very low or zero for a fossil aquifer, the water table drops, forming a depression in water levels around the well.
Aquifer drawdown or overdrafting, and the pumping of fossil water, increases the total amount of water in the hydrosphere – the combined mass of water found on, under, and over the surface of a planet – and it may well be responsible for up to one quarter of the Earth’s total sea level rise since the beginning of the 20th century.
Plasticulture – “Costa del Polythene”
By 1999, almost 30 million acres worldwide were covered in plastic mulch. Only a small percentage of this was in the United States (185 000 acres), the majority of this plastic growth was happening in economically poor areas of the World and previously unproductive desert regions, such as Almeria in southern Spain.
The largest concentrations of greenhouses around the World are mainly found in two areas:
- 80% throughout the Far East (China, Japan, Korea), and
- 15% in the Mediterranean basin.
The area of greenhouse cover is still increasing at a fast rate. During the last decade, it is estimated that it has been growing by 20% every year. Areas such as the Middle East and Africa are growing in their use of plastic greenhouses by 15-20% per year, compared to the weaker growth in more developed and economically stable areas, such as Europe.
China leads the World’s largest growth of plasticulture at 30% per year, translating into a volume of plastic film reaching 1,000,000 tonnes per year. In 2006, 80% of the area covered by plastic mulch was found in China where it has a growth rate of 25% per year – the highest in the World.
The greenhouses are so successful that they have swamped the Campo de Dalías, moving up the valleys of the nearby Alpujarra Hills – one of Spain’s most pleasant and unspoiled areas… until now.
A few small towns have been completely swamped by the white plastic farms. Plastic manufactures and recycling companies have also set-up in the region, where discarded plastic sheeting and rubbish piles wherever, blocking up riverbeds.
Last year, the death of a sperm whale that washed up on Spain’s south coast was linked to the Almería greenhouses after it was found to have swallowed 37 pounds (17kg) of plastic waste dumped into the sea.
Empty pesticide containers bearing toxic warnings lie among the plastic litter. On the coast, at El Pozuelo, plastic waste lies calf-high…
The Hidden Side of the ‘Economic Miracle’
But El Ejido phenomenon also has its unseen side effects, apart from aquifers vanishing, local temperature drop and rising environmental concerns.
Thousands of smallholders, as well as larger companies, tend the crops inside the plastic greenhouses.
Most of the producers are small family-owned greenhouse operations, with low capital investments, generally producing on a site of 1-1.4 hectares in size. The family-run companies generally retain low labour costs and have a strong motivation for work.
Production and labour requirements are seasonal.
As temperatures reach more than 45-50 degrees Celsius inside the greenhouses, many Spanish workers find it too hot and the conditions too brutal to work there. Despite a high unemployment rate in Spain, hardly any of the natives work in the greenhouses of Almeria.
Ninety-nine percent of workers in the “invernaderos” are immigrants.
The sweat-houses of Europe are staffed mainly by legal and illegal immigrants from Africa and Eastern Europe. Producers use a lot of temporary labour, especially from North Africa, Central and South America. Certain eastern European groups are also migrating to southern Spain for work.
Recently, there have been clashes between growers and mainly Moroccan immigrants, due to poor working and living conditions for foreign labourers. Several growers have faced strikes, and labour issues appear to be some of the greatest problems facing producers in the area.
The truth is this ‘economic miracle’ in a greenhouse relies on the labour of over 100,000 immigrants, half of whom have no working papers. They are mostly migrant workers who have come here in search of a better life, many risking their own lives on the way. Moroccans, Senegalese, Malians. All in search of their European dream.
This is no dream…
With or without working papers, the labourers are paid a pittance and are not ensured employment. Most workers cannot afford an apartment because their low income cannot begin to meet the high rents in Spain.
Some actually live inside the plastic maze, where they build communities of sorts between the greenhouses. They stay in chabolas – small constructions made of cardboard and plastic, barracks made out of old pallets, paperboards and plastic waste, where people live in degrading conditions. Without electricity. Without adequate water supply. Without rights. At night, when the security gates are closed, they are locked in.
Recent studies have tried to measure the scope of neuropsychological damage on greenhouse workers exposed to pesticides for long periods inside these encapsulated growing spaces. The use of pesticides must be reduced in conventional agriculture according to statements of civil servants and farmers.
Instead of spraying agents, the official version has it that farmers try to use beneficial organisms to control pests. However, workers still report that pesticides are used in the greenhouses, and that they do not have access to protective equipment. Local aid organisations have had reports of diseases, probably caused by exposure to pesticides.
Socialism or Barbarism?
Although the greenhouses changed from large-scale irrigation to droplet irrigation systems, water scarcity remains one of the main ecological problems in the region, among the usage of pesticides, leaching of soils and tons of plastic waste.
At the heart of this destroyed environment, where the air is vitiated by pesticides and ground water is running out, the prosperous village of El Ejido illustrates, almost to the point of a caricature, this industrial exploitation of men and the land encouraged by globalisation.
Many believe it is the lack of workers rights that helps the businesses to be profitable. Some workers are also sold contracts to work, which have to be repaid to their bosses. Corresponding to the collective bargaining agreement, workers should earn a wage of 44 Euros per day. Workers report that they actually earn between 33 and 36 Euros per day, some only 20 Euros.
According to the collective bargaining agreement, entrepreneurs are bound to register their workers in a social insurance system, if they work more than 180 days per year.
To save on these costs, workers are employed for shorter periods or not employed on paper. Wages are sometimes not paid for months. Few dare to complain or organise resistance, because employers often threaten to report them to the police.
Authorities appear to turn a blind eye to the systemic exploitation of the migrants, as becomes apparent in the 2006 documentary film, El Ejido, la loi du profit below:
The United Kingdom is the third biggest export market for these products, after France and Germany.
British supermarkets are rather secretive about how much of their products comes from Almería. For Tesco, this is called “commercially sensitive information”. But Rafael Losilla, the editor of a local farming magazine, names Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s as valued customers.
The growth of this industry is all the more odious because it is not the work of a single consortium, or any multinational industrial group, but on the contrary, of thousands of farmers from behind the vast majority of the poor peasants of Andalusia and Spain.
Something really quite grotesque is happening on your own doorstep.
The vast expanse of plastic at Campo de Dalías, Andalucia, concentrates all extreme forms of exploitation of man and his environment of which is capable the human genius devoted to capitalism.
And as our population grows… so does our insatiable hunger for cheaper and ever plentiful fresh products.
The exploitation of labour is at the basis of the production method in Almeria. And although a boycott of Spanish fruits and vegetables is not the solution, consumer groups ought to be more aware of the situation and put relevant pressure on the supermarkets.
Consumers ought to think about their own nutrition seriously. Do we really need such an abundant range of fruits and vegetables all-year round…? Should we not at least consider the seasonality of the products we buy…?
It is near-slavery that fills our tables.