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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 September, 2004, 12:28 GMT 13:28 UK
Spanish farmers hit by desert growth
By Katya Adler
BBC, Madrid

Reflecting in the burning Spanish sun, there is an angry glare in Francisco Pineda's eye.

In amongst his olive trees, he is furiously raking earth so thin it sends up clouds of dust.

Working the land
Some farmers cannot afford to wait until the situation improves
For generations his family has farmed this land in the hills of Malaga, cultivating olive groves and vineyards.

But what was once bountiful and fertile, is now dry and almost barren.

Francisco says it has become impossible to live here. The soil, he says, has turned into stones.

Years of over-exploitation of land and water resources has provoked a farming disaster in southern Spain.

He says he, like many other farmers, is thinking of abandoning the land altogether.

Standing on a hilltop near Francisco's farm, it is the same story wherever you look: yellowing, burnt-out expanses, bare of vegetation. Dried-up, stony tracks where river beds once ran.

Tourist threat

This process of desertification is worse in southern Spain than anywhere else in Europe, but it cannot simply be blamed on the hot climate.

According to ecologists, the problem has been hugely aggravated by the local farming and tourist industries.

Man is responsible for the advanced state of desertification in southern Spain. So man has to change his habits to stop it
Cesar Vicente Fernandez,
Junta de Andalucia
"Generally, people just care about a making a quick profit. They don't think about the long-term damage they're causing to the environment," says Jose Luis Gamez, of the Malaga-based Ecologists in Action.

"Intensive farming and mass tourism in southern Spain are straining our limited natural resources to breaking point. There simply isn't enough water to go round."

You do not notice this lack of water when splashing in a swimming pool at one of the thousands of private villas or hotel complexes along the Spanish coast.

With its endless sun, water-based fun and all-night bars and restaurants, this is the world's top tourist destination after France.

But this holidaymaker's dream is an ecological nightmare.

Illegal wells

Take southern Spain's numerous golf clubs, for example. Countless sprinklers keep the courses green and lush, in stark contrast to the dried-up desert outside their gates.

Golf clubs say they take environmental concerns into account, recycling water where they can. But the annual water consumption of one club alone can be equivalent to that of a town of 12,000 people.

Tourist demands are draining the countryside of water and life
The desperate dig for water to satisfy the tourist and intensive farming industries has led to illegal wells springing up all over southern Spain, bleeding dry already stretched water supplies.

These days in Malaga, where there are an estimated 10,000 illegal wells, you have to dig an average of 100m underground before finding any water.

The pressures on the land here have reached breaking point.

"The situation is untenable," says Cesar Vicente Fernandez, of the Junta de Andalucia's (the local government's) department for environmental affairs.

"We've launched a 10-year plan to combat desertification, including the reforestation of mountains and financial aid for farmers.

"But it's all a waste of time if people don't co-operate. Man is responsible for the advanced state of desertification in southern Spain. So man has to change his habits to stop it."

Too late

The Junta de Andalucia is introducing education programmes to better inform the public about environmentally-friendly farming methods and water conservation.

Cesar Vicente Fernandez says he is not expecting miracles overnight. He is just hoping the situation will improve in the long term.

But farmers like Francisco Pineda cannot afford to wait.

Desertification, he says, is forcing him to sell up, move out and turn his back on a way of life. In his village, there are only three farmers left under the age of 50.

The younger generations are turning to the booming tourist and construction industries to make their future fortunes.

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