Ancient Sustainable Agriculture, Alive and Well in Spain

Jonathan Harris | June 2021

With the challenges of climate change, growing populations and intensive agriculture, I find it inspiring to explore the ancient sustainable agriculture traditions that preserve the biodiversity and landscapes of Spain while providing excellent foods and a sustainable livelihood to Spanish communities.

In many ways, Spain arrived late to modern agriculture and industrialization. Under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, much of the Spanish economy remained rural and traditional. While this period caused untold hardships on the Spanish people, a silver lining is that many traditional agricultural practices survived long enough for people to recognize their priceless value. I’d like to share the stories of some of Spain’s oldest (and most sustainable) farming and aquaculture traditions that are alive and well today.

Today let’s look at four amazing traditions designated by the UN as Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS). According to the UN, GIAHS are “outstanding landscapes of aesthetic beauty that combine agricultural diversity, resilient ecosystems and a valuable cultural heritage… They are a living, evolving ecosystem of human communities in an intricate relationship with their territory, cultural or agricultural landscape, or wider social environment.”

The La Axarquía Raisin Region, Ruta de la Pasa

Eat raisins, drink wine, preserve history! In this mountainous region of Malaga, Muscat grapes thrive. The vines are planted on steep hillsides using cultivation techniques that date back to Phoenician times. The vineyards are far too steep for machinery, so the farmers do almost everything by hand, tilling with hoes and harvesting the grapes with pocketknives. The baskets of grapes are then transported by donkeys up the treacherous trails. Finally, the grapes are spread out on paseros, or traditional drying beds. Some become delicious, plump raisins, and some are used to make muscatel wines. 

Because of the steep terrain, no other crop can be grown in this landscape. The preservation of this centuries-old growing method not only limits erosion and prevents desertification, it is also an important part of the local economy. In recent years, the Ruta de la Pasa, or “Raisin Route,” has attracted a growing tourist industry, supporting the local community.

The Salt Valley - Salinas de Añana, Mountain Harvested Sea Salt

In the tiny valley of Añana, in the mountains of the Basque region, is a very special spring that bubbles up through a gigantic underground vault of salt, a remnant of a sea that disappeared millions of years ago. This spring water is not drinkable, but it is the source of the incredible “mountain sea salt” of the region. Starting thousands of years ago, the people of the area built a system of channels to direct the water to raised wooden platforms, where the water evaporates, allowing the salt to be harvested. Eventually 5,000 of these platforms were built, transforming the tiny valley into a monument to the salt harvest.

This beautiful salt drying architecture is integrated into the valley, allowing salt to be sustainably harvested without mining or other environmentally damaging processes. Human activity coexists with nature, allowing both to thrive.

Ancient Olive Trees of Sénia

The Sénia region of Tarragona has a special microclimate that is home to over 5,000 olive trees that are older than most civilizations. This is the largest concentration of ancient trees in the world, and amazingly, they continue to produce olives and olive oil that sustain the local community. Some of the olive varieties, called Morruda, Sevillenca and Farga are very rare and protecting the trees preserves these unique olive oil olives.

The trees are under threat because of development and harvesting. Thankfully, the local community and the government have come to realize that these trees are an incredible and irreplaceable treasure. They are now protected and are a growing tourist attraction.

1,200-Year-Old Sustainable Farming - Horta de Valencia

In the beautiful region of Valencia, the "Horta de Valencia" is a stunning example of humans and nature living in harmony. In the 8th century, the Moors began a complex system of canals, ponds and lakes to channel waters from the Turia River to irrigate farms and rice paddies around Valencia. Over the centuries, this system has been maintained and augmented, creating a beautiful region of lush farmland and wildlife habitats. The system even transformed a lagoon into a freshwater wetland, La Albufera, which is now a prime habitat for endangered birds and other wildlife.

To this day, countless small farms raise many delicious crops, like onions, artichokes, pumpkins, oranges and chufa nuts. The most famous crop of the region, rice, grows in the Albufera Natural Park alongside the thriving wildlife of the area. Without Horta de Valencia, we would not have paella!

There are many other amazing sustainable agricultural systems in Spain, from the Dehesas rangeland of southern Spain, where Ibérico pigs and fighting bulls graze under cork trees, to La Doñana, a massive, protected wetland near Cádiz, where fish are farmed in an ecosystem that preserves endangered wildlife. In each case, humans adapted the environment to their needs in a way that that preserved and sometimes enhanced the ecosystem. We have much to learn from these ancient systems, and so much to gain by protecting them. Next time you are in Spain, I encourage you to visit some of these heritage areas and support their preservation.