A road trip through the Pyrenees to the Sierra Nevada observing both animal and human rewilding.
The struggle for self sufficiency
In this article I reflect on the International Rainbow Movement and models for sustainable and wildlife-friendly resettlement of abandoned land and ‘ghost villages’. I begin in the Alpujarra where I have been trying to live a certain model of sustainability. I eat only organic food – no meat, no fish, mostly good quality bread, local artisan goats cheese, fresh salad grown in the garden, and all the vegetables sourced within a few miles. Rice and lentils come from further afield, but are European. No food is processed. We have our own water. We are off-grid with solar panels and wood-stoves. Butane to cook with is the one eco-criminality, as I guess it is shipped by tanker from the Persian Gulf. The house is a renovated finca half-way up a Spanish mountain – and we source our own olive oil and almonds from the ancient Moorish terraces.
All manner of fruits grow in the valley. There is no daily TV – though we can get satellite news when we need to (as well as the Six Nations rugby!), and we have internet. Our local social ecosystem is complex and just about functional. It requires cooperative effort across the mountain to safeguard the ancient irrigation system and protect against wildfire. We generate very little plastic or other wastes, and it all goes to the appropriate bins in the nearby town. Nevertheless, we need money. My friends make things – bracelets, jewellery, yurts, run dance workshops, do odd jobs, and provide healing services like bodywork and counselling. We are dependent upon old but robust vehicles that will eventually need replacing. Our social and our ecological systems work but are precarious.
Shamanic dimensions of a wilder life
Our neighbours in the Alpujarra (see map below: location 4) run a centre for shamanic ceremony, with ayahuasca, peyote and the like, attracting people from all over the world. They rely heavily on people seeking a work experience living in yurts and looking after the visitors, the organic gardens and the olive groves in exchange for food and lodgings. Across the rest of the mountain there is every variation on this theme. Some are extremely successful, such as a beautifully built mainstream yoga and music retreat centre and some barely functional permaculture units. In the valley below is a famous ‘international rainbow’ community – the original ‘hippies’ grown old and now a draw for all kinds of refugees from ‘the system’, not all of whom are welcome. There are people there with psychiatric disorders who need to be in professional hands, and others who, if they could be found, would be jailed. Some older hippies have inherited some capital and then built eco-houses further up the valley. And then there are the Italians… a small group of hardy individuals who have squatted and rebuilt the abandoned ruins and barren terraces. They have gained some respect from the locals for their hard work and rejuvenation of traditional silviculture.
New recruits for managing the land
There is no ideal model of sustainability here, rather a mix of initiatives over a period of 40 years, all of which have brought people back to the land. On my way through Spain I saw one small scheme that might be a beginning – friends who bought land in northern Spain for £10,000 and a few miles from the remote village of Cretas (see map below: location 3). They will not get permission to build, but they have a well, and an old barn to be converted to sleeping space, a live-in truck, and a large tipi. The land has enough wood for fuel and some good quality soil for a vegetable garden. They travel and give shamanic trance dance workshops that go down well in Ibiza. Another English refugee has bought an adjacent plot and maybe a new ‘village’ will evolve.
I know from the network of contacts that there are dozens of such initiatives from Portugal and Spain in the South West of Europe, to Czech Republic and Slovakia in the East. Last year I devised a proposal for European funding to study this re-population of abandoned land as a model not just for sustainable living, but for wildlife-friendly resettlement of land that some ‘rewilders’ gleefully embraced as surplus to agriculture and where wolf and lynx and bear could return. Core areas could be insulated by buffer areas where economic activity can take place that does not compromise the wildland core. I was greatly encouraged by the support I received from the academic environment – from the Wildland Research Institute at Leeds University, and the Centre for Environmental Sustainability at the University of Surrey, as well as from cooperative institutes in Germany, and even co-workers looking at the same phenomena in the USA and South America. However, it became clear to me that the funding demanded too much academically (from me at least) and also would not embrace the need to communicate results through film and then to network and find means to enable change. It could still be done and I am dreaming of young social anthropologists becoming engaged at community level in developing the ideas for which I am personally too slow and not equipped to implement.
Traditional rewilding in Catalunya
On my journey south over the Pyrenees, I was welcomed by Jordi Palau whom I last met at the 2013 Wilderness Congress in Salamanca. He had read my book on rewilding, Beyond Conservation, and we kept contact. At that time he was working for the main National Park in the Catalunyan high Pyrenees. Now he was in charge of a state project to rewild an old hunting reserve – Boumort, a large area of limestone cliffs and plateau in the pre-Pyrenees (see Map above location *2). The reserve was fenced and the old land uses long abandoned, including one secluded mountain hamlet. (www.pallarsjussa.net/boumort)
Jordi had been successfully breeding black vultures for release and also re-introducing lammegeyer from captive breeding in zoos and the park rangers have been nurturing the native Lammergeyer with feeding programmes since the 1980s. In other areas of Europe this magnificent vulture has recovered due to captive breeding and release programmes. He had brought over three magnificent Przewalski’s horses, and aimed to re-introduce Spanish ibex (there were already Pyrenean chamois) and eventually, wants to bring in European bison to diversify the herbivore guild.
Perhaps wolf, bear and lynx would find their way to this reserve as they have increased under protection elsewhere. In actuality, outside of defined areas in NW Spain, wolves and bears are often unwelcome by some people and have been shot or poisoned.
I was treated to a wonderful display of vulturine behaviour when all three vulture species descended on the carcasses his team laid out next to the photographer’s dream hide. I was particularly glad to see several pairs of black vulture among the hundred or so griffons, not just because they are rare, but because they are birds of character. They mate for life and are very affectionate. There is something dreamy about them, as also with griffons, that belies their fearsome beaks and talons – a softness and gentle nature. And they are returning now to old haunts. This is a consequence of less persecution, and breeding programmes for release into the wild. Jordi Palau has a hacking platform on the bluff above the rearing pen.
My favourite, however, has to be the lammergeier – or bearded vulture. It is huge. In some languages it is ‘eagle-vulture’, or ‘bone-eater’ (the Germanic name suggests in eats sheep, but now that its unusual habits are known, it would only ever have been their bones, most likely after a wolfkill). As I was watching the melee of vultures, several of these magnificent birds alighted, ranging from the dark plumaged juveniles, to the handsome white-breasted and orange-tinged adults. The unbelievable orange comes somehow from iron oxides in their rocky nesting sites. At one point an adult bird did a sword-swallowing act with the femur of a young goat! These birds have also suffered historic persecution and thus attracted modern breeding programmes to restock the Alps and the Pyrenees. There is another re-introduction site in southern Spain. The main risk now to all vultures lies with poison bait put out for foxes or wolves. Or lax pharmaceutical laws that allow dangerous veterinary contaminants. There is also a high risk from the banks of giant wind turbines.
Within the reserve there is an abandoned hamlet at the base of the cliffs. We talked of how the ruined village might one day house eco-tourists, photographers or even reclusive writers. And so, what began last year as a would-be academic research exercise has at least played out as a personal reconnaissance. And as these things do, when shamanic worlds are involved, by a little magical coincidence one of the co-workers at the neigbouring centre here where I am based happened also to be a trainee social anthropologist from the University of Strasburg, whose interest has centred on how people perceive nature and the changes about them!
Land-use change and forest fires
In all of this travel there is an opportunity to observe the broader changes in the countryside of SW Europe. Rural depopulation is a major political issue in Spain and Portugal. Young people have been attracted away to city-life. Village life is becoming less viable as these settlements change. Traditional farming, especially extensive grazing of sheep and goats is no longer economic. The more beautiful environments provide second homes for those who can buy cheaply and afford to renovate. The more mundane locations simply decay. And forests do return, certainly all over the Pyrenees. But further south, the soils are long gone and fertility depended upon active irrigation and terracing. The state has moved in and planted pine. Not a good move considering the recent patterns of drought and wildfires. The underbrush in the closely spaced young trees lies unmanaged and builds up flammable detritus, and the thin young trees have no thick and crusty bark to protect them. Many fires are deliberate – either from wanton vandalism or as in the not too distant past, from the voicing of political dissent. This incendiary policy was practised throughout California which has suffered in the last decade from massive wildfires and some loss of property and life. Some blame so-called global warming, but a review by the forest services concluded that inadequate controlled-burning of underbrush was the primary cause.
In the dry central regions of Spain, corporations have planted olives on an extensive scale, often with no concept of watercourse protection nor wildlife corridors. The ground beneath the trees is kept bare, courtesy of Monsanto, to guard against fire risk. Where once goat herds roamed, there are long concrete sheds and feeding hoppers with a supply chain of GMO grains all the way from Argentina, and the goats don’t get out much. Along the coastal strip, there is what has been described as the most god-awful landscape in Europe – hundreds of miles of ‘plasticos’ shimmering white and visible from space, and all to grow tomatoes and peppers in an otherwise desert environment. The water comes piped from the Sierras – every river now dammed.
Spain has also exploited the new cash crop of renewable energy developers – with industrial scale wind turbines leading the charge. Yet, as its economy grows, so do its carbon emissions. The price is loss of wild landscape character and impacts on certain birds. Only the National Parks and their Natural Park buffer zones are protected. Just around the corner of our mountain in the Sierra Nevada, this once remote Andalucian world is dissected by a new high-tech motorway soaring across the valleys, reflected as I look, in the massive new lake that supplies the far coast that glistens white with plastic in the evening sun. The valley bisects the Sierra Nevada as a main route from the coast to Granada. Its mass of wind turbines leave me wondering whether any migrating raptors or storks will ever make it through the pass.
Hopeful glimpses of rewilding
Nevertheless, Spain is engaged upon rewilding. I went looking for a small project, the Chaca Suarez, a marshland on the outskirts of coastal Motril (south from *4 on the map above). It was hard to find. It lay between the Playa Granada, an upmarket development of holiday apartments said to hold European royalty, a golf course, and an industrial park. By chance I caught sight of the guard holding open a steel-meshed gate between the apartment blocks and ushering in the evening cohort of birders. Once inside the fence, I was reminded of Camley Street Natural Park near Charing Cross station – looking up at the high- rise buildings on all sides. Here, the state had re-introduced the endangered (in Europe, it is common in Africa) red knobbed-coot. On one pond, there was a nesting purple gallinule – another rarity. The whole reserve was lovingly cared for and the many volunteers were engaged on an enlargement project, to reclaim some of the territory lost over the last 30 years.
As with most of Europe, there is a widespread decline in all wildlife associated with farming land, but curiously, eagles and vultures are recovering, in particular, the endemic Spanish imperial eagle. The plasticos have covered massive areas of steppe-like plains, now watered by the new dams, and led to encroachment on coastal wetlands such that waterfowl are in decline. However, the once critically endangered Iberian lynx, now subject to a recovery programme of breeding and release, may be increasing. Wolf numbers are up, but bears are struggling as their remote northern mountains are prime targets for hydro-dams, new roads and wind turbine developments.
Resilience and its enemies
It has been a strange journey south. I came looking for examples of communities that could live side by side with recovering wildlife. I asked questions of resilience – both social and ecological. The discoveries have been mixed. There are some amazingly resilient people living at very reduced levels of consumption (and impact), and then, there are the old hippy communes, jaded and faded, invaded at times by drop-outs and the down-right dysfunctional, with the spirit of the 60s having retreated to independent parentally subsidised eco-homes further up the mountain. And then, last week, the local police chief went on a bender of his own – taking a team up the mountain to the squats, the very places where people work and do not depend on drugs, waving their revolvers, ripping up irrigation pipes and ordering people to move. The Italians stood firm, but the less stubborn Dutch departed quickly. It is reported that the police chief now regrets the action.
And then, on the rare occasion we harnessed the satellite technology, we watched a documentary on the 2017 American International Rainbow Gathering… in a state forest somewhere in central USA. The interviews with what passes for a modern hippy were harmless, if somewhat cringe-worthy when old Viet Nam vets related how they got the peace and love message and tried out their new language… and then the most bizarre episode, where uniformed FEMA personel (Federal Emergency Management Agency, or somesuch) with strange-looking weapons, invaded at the segment of land where the children’s camp was located, ordering the assorted hippies and terrified children off the State’s land. The guns fired pellets which detonated on contact, producing not only severe bruising but choking gas. I was left with an image of a long-haired rainbow-clad middle-aged child carer handcuffed and led into the woods by an unlikely assortment of equally middle-aged FEMA recruits acting like a SWAT team with their pointed rifles and parabolic sights trained on his back.
En route south through France, I enquired of two alternative communities I had come to know during my time in Languedoc some five years ago (*1 Quillan on the map above). One had been a small eco-village of yurts and tepees within the bounds of a state forest. The military had cleared it. Another more advanced eco-village on land purchased by the yurt-dwellers, had been ordered to disband by the local authority. France is not particularly tolerant of the type of low-impact communities that in South Somerset and West Wales have won support and eventually planning permission.
The risk and rewards of alternative living
There is a Global Eco-village Network and I want to enquire how far the range of initiatives has included the settlement of abandoned land in areas of interest for rewilding projects. GEN-Europe (www.gen-europe.org) hosts a European Ecovillage Conference to be held in July 2019 in La Comune di Bagnaia, in the Sienese hills in Tuscany, Italy. Not all eco-villages share a spiritual or shamanic perspective, or even an alternative social ideal. Eco-sustainability demands changed lifestyles, but not necessarily coming closer to nature itself. It would also be on interest to know how many small initiatives never made it to ‘village’ level as a consequence of entrenched attitudes to change and interventions by the State, as in France. But there is a movement and it is of potential relevance to rewilding and wilder humans living closer to the kind of ecosystems that rewilders wish to create.
Have we reached the end of the ‘rainbow’ – at least in terms of the ideals of modern tribal living? The signs are not good. One thing I know for sure, is that the resilient few have learned to play the system. The old hippies are petering out, but the entrepreneurs of the new age are hanging in, trying to keep their kids out of the school system, maintain their own health, eat food free from pesticides and above all, stay independent. They are wildlife friendly….not because they can tell the rare Bonelli’s eagle from a golden one, or that they know their orchids which abound in the unsprayed olive groves, but because they are wild people, willing to take the risk of independence from a process they see as damaging not just the ecosystem, but humanity itself. They talk of needing to live closer to Nature, to respect the spirit of the land and many embrace shamanic practices along with permaculture. There are eco-villages and a growing global network to share ideas and experience. If there is gold at the end of the rainbow it is surely present in the hearts of a new breed of young people willing and able to form a like-minded community, to use fewer resources, respect nature, and take some big risks.
Peter Taylor is an ecologist and anthropologist, author of The Spirit of Rewilding (2016) and editor of Rewilding: Ecos writings on wildland and conservation (2011).
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