Spanish father and daughter fight desertification in southern Spain

by Lorraine Williamson
desertification

HUÉTOR VEGA – The Spanish Pepe, his daughter Beatriz and nearly 200 other families from a small town in the Andalucian province of Granada have managed to combat some desertification in the east of the region. 

How? By directly watering the taproot of the plants they sowed. Plants that grow into holm oaks. Pepe and his daughter have spent six and a half years reforesting an area in the municipality of Huétor Vega with no fewer than 8,000 holm oaks. In some cases, they are already three metres high and are even producing acorns much earlier than normal. 

“When the oak begins to grow out of the ground and is five centimetres high, it has already taken root almost a metre,” explains Pepe Vibora, a retired mechanic. “In the nursery tray, that root stays on one side, as if it were a bonsai. Then when it was transplanted into the ground, it used to work well unsupervised. But with the high temperatures and lack of hydration in the soil, it is now impossible for the plant to grow at this early stage,” he adds. 

Reclaiming land from the desert 

If the soil is still hot at 50 centimetres due to high temperatures and the lack of rain and moisture retention due to deforestation, it will not survive with a 20-centimetre bag. That’s why the ‘Operación Encina team starts planting the saplings every summer. These are then regularly watered by families and children from the village. 

Reforestation after fire 

It all started in 2015 when reforestation was cancelled after a fire in the area. Beatriz suggested to her father to start planting trees herself. In November of that year, they, therefore, started collecting acorns. They germinated them at home with peat and seed bags from the olive grove. 

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Once the plants grew, they asked the Huétor Vega City Council for a place to plant them. However, it only gave them the option to plant them in gardens, when they wanted land to reclaim land from the advancing desert. However, they could use the cattle road that runs through the municipality as a solution. 

cogesa expats

“We saw when the first acorns come out and from that moment on we take care of them and guide them,” summarises the retired Pepe. After two years, some specimens already had acorns and several have flowered since 2021, a process that can normally take up to 40 years for holm oaks. 

There are three metres high trees and with their project father and daughter try to plant and grow enough of them to walk in the shade along the cattle road. As many forests as possible, so that moisture is retained in the soil and the whole can survive despite the decrease in rainfall and the increase in temperature. 

A young tree can barely grow on its own 

“The reforestation always does not work anymore. It is now very difficult, if not impossible, for a tree to move forward on its own,” explains Pepe. Over time, the project – now called Operación Encina (Operation Holm Oak) – has become an environmental education program with little institutional support, but a lot of involvement from Pepe and Beatriz and their fellow villagers. 

The holm oak 

Pepe is a staunch defender of the holm oak: “It is the typical tree of the peninsula, which provides shade and food for both animals and the population. Before the Romans came, people did not know wheat here, flour came from acorns. everything along”. 

When other, and much more productive crops emerged, many holm oaks were removed. As long as it rained regularly, that was no problem. But now that it rains so little, wheat cannot even be planted on the dry land. Pepe: “If we don’t regenerate the soil again and make sure that trees cover the earth so that the moisture from the winter rains does not disappear immediately with the sun, this disaster will only get worse”. 

Few resources required 

Pepe started the project to show it is possible to grow trees with very few resources. However, they could use more help with planting. “What does this world need? More trees, shade, humidity, carbon sequestration,” concludes Pepe. He also explains that to do this on a larger scale, people need to receive a salary for their efforts. It takes money. 

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