European´s plastic garden
For sure, you have eaten tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, cucumbers or strawberries before.
For sure you have also sometimes bought vegetables grown in spain.
At least you have caught sight of it in the glowing shelves of the endless landscapes of supermarkets.
Preferably these vegetables have to be the most fancy, round, polished, glaring, crisp and of course as cheap as possible.
Yes, cheap they are – Spain´s vegetables.
Or let´s better say: grown around Almeria, a city and an area in the province Andalucia in the southern-west part of the country.
There they come from – most of the vegetables produced for the European market and for the industry for further production (like tomato-sauce).
But have you ever thought about how this food has been produced, which ends up on millions of european people´s plates, stomaches and dumpsters every day ?
Why it is so cheap, while the same plants just from the neighbourhood´s farmers are ten times more expensive ?
And mainly: who grows the food for us?
And what are the working and living conditions for them ?
Not many people ask themselves questions like this.
Why should they, when they are fine, have enough daily food, some warm rooms and a TV which hypnotisizes and deflects you from asking yourself questions like this.
While a halfnaked lady presents the new and more delicious deep-frozen vegetable-pan for 1,99 € in the daily talkshow programm.
In this moment, who is interested in how everyones actions and consumer behaviour effects the social and ecological problems on this planet?
In he question under which conditions and with which social background of this agrarproduction the people who grow our “daily bread” for us are living ?
Everyone who ever had a flight over southern spain, has propably seen it – the “mar de plastico” like the spanish like to call it.
A “sea made out of plastic” – more then 35.000 hectars cultivable acreage under synthetical foil.
Greenhouses as far as your eyes can see.
But no one can recognize what happens below it.
Maybe some closer information has reached some of you.
Informations which trickled detached and inconspicuously through the dense filter of media and didn’t get lost in the huge landscape of deflecting advertisement and boulevard.
Amnesty International, one of the words biggest organisations for human rights, is shouting for help for the “conflict area Almeria” since many years.
Also smaller NGOs and campaigns are acting and helping in this not well known conflict area or try to spread infos.
I read for the first time about the devastating living- and working conditions of the farmers and harvesters, as well as of the corruption, social and ecological crimes of the moneymakers in this “agro-industry” , in the A.I.-magazine of the year 2006.
After I read it, it was clear for me:
I will do more research and get more engaged in this and in other related social and political problems and topics.
I was never able to imagine or believe all this, till i was myself around Almeria in the year 2008 and saw the dimension of it with my own eyes.
In the midst of unbelievable wide labyrinths made of plastic halls, which first seem to be extincted, you recognize more and more the impoverished and anxiously worker immigrants. Most of them came from Africa.
Some of them with their children on their arms, without protective masks in green clouds of poison pesticides, harvesting for their survival.
Most of the daytalers are living in totally dumps, car wrecks or small selfmade huts pieced up with plastic foil and materials they find.
Many without water and electricity. Just a few of them are living on the property of their landlord.
Some have to cook on oil-barrels fired with trash.
Their food they get it out of the stinky dumpsters, which they had to fill up before with vegetables which are “not worthy setting for sale” anymore.
What to do with all the tomatos ?¶
We visited a small community near Campohermoso, a small workers city in the middle of the greenhouse-desert north-east from Almeria.
From this base we organized some excursions into the plastic landscape.
A few times a day, a truck drove from the greenhouses to the halfdesert around the community to through tons of fresh tomatos on the ground and to let them rot in the midday sun.
The goats of the farm where happy about it.
Walking to the top of a hill closeby and looking down to the valleys around, you are able to see huge orange-red layers of trash-tomatos allover from one horizont to the other, as far as your eyes can see.
Its the destruction of an unbelievable surplus production to raise and stabilisize the prices on the european vegetable market.
The more that is produced, the less value it has, cause there is enough or too much of it.
To give the product more value and higher prices, you have to destroy as much as you can, cause the less of the product exists, the higher the value and the price, cause the product is more “rare”.
h2. Old story, but for some of you maybe new words.
- The profit margin of “mar de plastico” is more then 100% and the endprize exceeds the production price seven times . (source: 1) )
- Yearly 2,8 million tons fruits and vegetables are produced around Almeria. (source: 2) )
- 1,4 mio tons are sold at the northern European market. (75% of the total amount into the german market) (source: 2) )
- Within 48 hours, the plastic vegetables reach the northern European wholesalers (source: 1) )
- Almeria´s most important consumer-markets:
Germany, Netherlands, France, GB, other European countries and parts of USA. (source: 1) )
- In the year 2001 more than 100.000 tons of tomatos were destroyed, around Almeria. (source: 1) )
How did the water come back into the desert ?¶
Southern Andalucia is one of the warmest places in Europe, where even vegetables thrive all winter long.
All around the year there is a high solar radiation – a high production value.
Over winter, the average temperature in the greenhouses is between 25 and 30 degrees (°C).
In summertimes it’s more than 65°C (source: 1) )
The whole countryside was grown over by very fruitful primeval forest, till they cut down all to build warships for the 700 year long war between England and Spain. This transformed the landscape into an unusable dried out desert, where nothing else grows than small bushes, cactees and delicious herbs.
And like it usually is in deserts – there is not much water.
But where do the thousands of tons of usage plants, which consist of more than 90% water, get their liquid from ?
It is a long time ago that the last rain came down over the blending and mirroring plastic landscape, which heats up the air with it’s reflection and creates a totally new subclimatezone.
The ground-water-level is sinking more and more and gets poisened by pesticide and overfertilization.
The soil gets leached out.
Dams got built to establish water-reservoirs which dry out more and more. The constructions took the homes of many people and animals.
Displacement and forced eviction are on the daily agenda.
Some water also comes from northern Spain, cause there’s alot of it.
The water gets canalisized or sent through pipelines to the mega-greenhouses hundreds of kilometers south.
In the north the ground-water-level sinks as well now and the land dries out slowly but surely.
According to some calculations, there are more than 6.5 million liters of water needed per hectar yearly, for the cultivation of tomatoes under plastic in Andalucia.
Speed is a basic principle of the utilisation of capital.
Now established in food production, it shortens the ripeness and because of that destroys, taste and essential nutrients.
The art of trashproblems, or, how you make food out of plastic.¶
Beside greenhouses the “landscape´s” picture is characterized by a huge trash problem.
It reminds you of a blowing avalanche of plastic frazzles or of a bomb attack in a plastic factory. ;)
Beside the foly-houses you just see nothing else than trash.
Empty plastic bags of fertilizers and socalled “plant protection products”, normal residual waste, and any kind of greenhouse rubbish you can imagine.
Whole streets of savaged and tattered ruins of greenhouses, like skeletons, where fleshy plastic rests of a former intensive-cultivation fluttering in the wind.
The wearout of the plastic tarps is amazing.
On average they effloresce after one year.
This is the reason why lots of farmers are forced to buy a new coat for their “plant garages” every one to two years.
But what is happening with this unbelievable ammount of permanently incurred rubbish?
Long time it was usual just to bury the rubbish in huge landfills.
In this way, the poisoned trash from the greenhouses has time for centuries to spread in the ground and contaminate it slowly.
The last big landfill, which is still active is at the edge of the small town “El Ejido”.
But now: “The jewel” exists since a few years.
That’s the name of a innovative recycling depot for greenhouse-rubbish, nearby the small village called “La Mojonera”.
This depot is called the “ecological rescue anchor” for the poison rubbish problem of the tomato-desert of Almeria.
An endless convoy of trucks fill it up all around the clock.
Cranes are sorting the trash between different kinds of plastic, organic rubbish, greenhouse rubbish and different other kind of trash.
The organics are getting composted.
The plastic is used as a basic material for the production of fertilizer and pesticides, which will be sprayed onto the next generation of new plants growing in greenhouses covered with brand new layers of plastic-foils, to fullfill the stomaches of millions of European money savers.
A closed circulation of plastic trash, which is used as nutrient for our food.
And like an old spanish farmer used to say:
h2. "in all the time since the beginning of the construction of “mar de plasticó” not one single tree got planted."
According to some calculations, for the construction and maintenance of one standardized foil-greenhouse in Almeria, there is more than 2.600 kg plastic tarp per hectar needed.
Converted to the total area of cultivation of 35.000 ha, there is more than 91.800 tons of plastic needed.
The average living time of these foils is around 1,5 years.
Concentration and dimension of the plastic covered cultivation areas, expedite the transfer of viruses diseases and the dissemination of vermins which strike the plants.
The sanitary problems also get multiplied.
The farmers would rather use more pesticides than needed for disease treatments, than to put themself in danger at a bad harvest.
bilance of synthetical nutricion and protective measure¶
The usage of fertilizer and pesticides in the region of Almeria is boundlessness.
Just in the year of 1999 there where expenses over 348,08 million Euro for phytosanitary products for the fruit- and vegetable harvest in value of 1,8 billion euros.
The farmers of Almeria use twice more fetilizers and three to four times more pesticides like their dutch colleagues.
Every year more than 100.000 tons of it (soil-desinfectation included) are being used – tendence: rising !
(source, 2) and 3))
The pesticides are a huge problem.
They do not only conterminate our food by depositing poison substances and heavy metals in the fruits.
Also the ground, air and water gets polluted and it stays in the environment for centuries. It even can be attested in the fat tissue of small children after birth.
The workers are suffering especially and every day because of the synthetical substance’s effects on human body, like vomiting, feeling giddy, circulatory collapse, skin and airway disease.
Breast cancer is a disease occuring especially often .
In the year of 1996, there were more than 506 patients suffering from heavy intoxication of Endosulfan (an often used mixture of different pesticides) in just one single hospital called “Torrecardenas” in Almeria.
26 of them died in the same year because of this intoxications.
“solarizatión” – soil desinfectation¶
Based on the permanent pollution load and leaching of the soil through “plant protection products” and fertilizers, the soil can become unusable for the vegetable cultivation.
Therefore so called “soil-desinfectations” are accomplished regularily.
With a mixture of chemicals (so called “biological decontaminant”), the ground is desinfected for keeping the soil economically usable.
A study between the years 2005 and 2006 proved that in more than 91,7 % of all greenhouses around Almeria the soil is chemically desinfected.
(source: (Céspedes etal. 2008,unpublished , and 3) )
The acute danger and harmfulness of the biological decontaminant has already been attested a long time ago.
Detractors and organisations have a rough ride to forbid the substances by law, despite clear proof of their danger by medicinal studies.
“in the year 2001 we organized a fundraising-action with our independent project group of young people, who are active in human rights and safeguard of the immigrant workers. We bought 17.000 gas-masks to give for free to the workers who have to work in the clouds of pesticides unprotectedly.
This action was forbidden by the workers unions.
When we tried to give them to the workers, we were attacked brutally by militant groups hired by their employers.
The employers were explicitly against free sponsored safety precautions for their workers. We were never able to find out about the context of these reactions and topics.”
(verbal statement of a young man, we met in the area around Campohermoso)
And there is even much more trouble than only those few ecological and social problems which I wrote about in this article.
Like the racism against illegal immigrants, their poverty and living-conditions and the crimes of the employees, worker-unions, the state and police around this area.
In the year 2001 the social situation in the town “El Ejido” escalated in racistic riots where alot of huts of marokkan workers were set on fire.
h1. If you want to read more about this topics look at the book source: 1)
This article you read in these last few minutes, maybe gave you a small insight about the dramatic scale of political, ecological and social monoculture of the example of Almeria.
Everyone is just always searching for guilt. Who is guilty for these conditions ?
In my opinion: no one and everyone.
There is an intransparent and multitudinous mesh of social, political and economical developments – lots of small pieces which are contributing to the whole.
Most people are contributing by supporting this industry with money and consuming, not looking for alternatives and/or working on them.
Or say/think “It does not concern me”, “it’s not my fault”, “it’s not my job to do sth.”, “i cannot change something on my own”.
A people burying it’s head in the sand and consumers consuming busily on.
Without thinking about which effects this could have.
As i got in touch with all this topics and saw it with my own eyes, I realized how important it is, to build up alternatives to this fatal social, ecological and economical situations, and to support the already existing ones.
And with alternatives I dont mean buying vegetables from other growing regions or “organic” food from New Zealand.
With alternatives I mean for instance some basic approaches as presented in this brochure, for a more self determined and fair production and exchange of goods and needs. For more local and decentralized structures and ecological sustainability. And a critical glance on organisations who say about themselves they were sustainable, cause this word often gets abused as for marketing-strategies. For cooperations between people, organisations or companies stronger than the competitive war for money and power.
For a society in which people hold together and take responsibility in creating it. For politics and economies in a need- and interests-orientated selfdirected way. A society where people start to think again, exchange and act for themselves and don’t trust or support just a grey industry who sais to become more “green” now.
We have to overthink and come out of our common role as a passive consumer.
There is a huge wall in between the people who produce, the product itself and the consumers.
This wall needs to be torn down by building stronger social connections and organisations.
There is a lot to do.
Think about more where you invest your money, and if there are propably better ways for it, even when though it might sometimes be less comfortable than sitting in front of the television while eating the delicious deep-frozen vegetable-pan for 1,99 € again.
Don’t just think investing money in “better”, “greener” products is enough to help the world becoming a better place and don’t trust in other organisations and people who do this job for you. No.
It’s our all responsibility to act ourselves in many different ways.
Wake up !
Stand up !
h2. Good luck !
1) documentary-film (ca. 60 min)
“L’ocean de plastique andalou”
a film from Claudio Lange and Heiner Sylvester
In order of ZDF in cooperation with ARTE
The movie gives a good infew and overfew of different topics about the greenhouse cultivation of andalucia.
It shows some social and ecological relations as well the poverty and working and living conditions of some immigrant workers (with interviews)
for the german version search in youtube: “Der kleine Treibhauseffekt” (part 1-6)
2) book : “Anatomie eines Progroms – z.B. El Ejido” (Anatomy of a pogrom, e.g. El Ejido)
The book was written by a group of the “Europäisches Bürgerforum” (European Cicil Forum), who did researches in southern Spain while the riots of the year 2000.
The book gives a deep infew in the historical development of the cultivating area and the agriculture of spain, the political backgrounds
and the growing of racism against immigrant and illegal workers, which came to a head in the year 2000 by bloody riots.
3) study-work of Michaela C. Theurl
“CO2-Bilanz der Tomatenproduktion:
Analyse acht verschiedener Produktionssysteme in Österreich, Spanien und Italien”
Social Ecology working paper 110,
Vienna December 2008
Institute of Social Ecology
IFF – Faculty of Interdisciplinary Studies (Klagenfurt, Graz, Vienna)