When you came to this part of Spain for the first time, you probably expected, to a certain degree, to find orange groves, olive trees and mountains, and were surprised to also encounter pine trees, blackberry bushes, green lawns, and cold weather – but deserts? Isn’t that a little further south – the Sahara, for example?
Apparently not. It seems that the province of Alicante has the fewest trees in the whole of Spain – in fact barely five per cent of its countryside can be classed as ‘densely forested’ and only a further ten per cent has any trees at all. The intense heat of the summer sun – often reaching the mid-forty degrees inland during July and August - has ravaged the land over the course of time, although human intervention has also played an enormous part in its slow destruction. Careless behaviour creates almost daily forest fires in the summer, and many of these are started deliberately either by vandals or unscrupulous developers in a bid for land protected against building to be reclassified. Those areas that are populated with trees are frequently abandoned and with time, the plant life dies out and the land becomes barren.
The consequences of this devastation are more than simply visual. Trees take on an important role in nature’s ecosystem – humidity and rainwater are absorbed by the soil, nourishing the roots, and this moisture is regenerated from the leaves, creating the vapour that forms clouds and thus rain. Irritating as it may be at weekends and when you have planned a barbecue, without rain, the countryside and crops that many natives continue to depend on for survival will quite simply curl up and die. This process, known as photosythensis, relies upon a certain density of trees to function and, in its absence, our landscape in the Alicante province begins to resemble Bondi beach without the sea.
One of the trees left to ruin and abandon in the province is perhaps its most famous – the olive. Originally imported from Asia Minor – possibly by the Moors or the original Punjab gitanos – it is as deeply entrenched in Spanish culture as it is in its diet, land and agriculture. Once, olive trees covered nearly twenty per cent of the entire province, or about 26,400 hectares, learning how to adapt themselves in order to survive and even flourish at altitudes of more than 400 metres. It was olive trees that gave the landscape of Eastern Spain its characteristic shade of deep green, so distinct from the emerald plains of northern Europe. Tragically, however, a walk through the countryside inland of Benidorm and Alicante is enough to be able to witness the decline of its cultivation – trees bursting with fruit left uncollected, which eventually drops to the ground forming a rotting circle around its roots. For a province that is famous nationwide for the quality of its olive oil, which is one of the richest in Spain, full of flavour and packed with goodness, it seems ironic that nobody cares enough to save the crop.
A similar situation is now occurring with orange groves, particularly in more unspoilt parts of the province of Valencia. Unable to survive on the paltry profits from their fruit – once world-renowned for its superior taste, and now slowly being pushed out of the market by cheaper produce from the Far East – farmers certainly cannot afford to pay staff to pick the oranges. Not legally, anyway, which often means they run the risks involved in taking on illegal immigrants to cultivate the fruit. Determined to protect the countryside against mass building, farmers refuse to take the easy option and sell the orange groves to developers, preferring instead to let them lie fallow. Through Gandia, Oliva and Pego, the trees are packed to the limits with oranges that nobody can afford to collect.
Clearly, government support, public effort and human education, perhaps in the form of conservation and reforestation programmes or grants to encourage fruit farming, are vital to ensure the survival of the Valencian Community’s most treasured asset – its countryside.