Monday, March 25, 2013
The Main Criminal is Man
[p. 424] The destruction of forests is the historic crime of agricultural Spain. In the past, sheep and the privileges of the Mesta may have been to blame: but the ravages continued into modern times, long after the great days of sheep. Sheep destroy trees less than goats and even donkeys and the main criminal is man.3 Apart from the demands of the fleet, the building industry, and the kitchen, it was the constant extension of the plough that [p. 425] destroyed the forest cover.1 The hatred of the peasant for trees is one of the most reliably attested and curious features of country life outside of northern Spain: trees harboured sparrows, weakened corn, and 'wasted' land.' Nowhere is the liberal optimism of the eighteenth century more evident than in Jovellanos's dogma that forests were better preserved by private interest than public legislation. In fact, only strict legislative control, a state forestry service, and large-scale state investment could begin the immense task of restoring the forests of Spain.Hat tip: Eric Thomson.
Without effective legislation the destruction of Spain's forest cover was continued in the late nineteenth century; between 1866 and 1932–largely to meet the increasing demands of the building industry–perhaps half of the woods left standing by the mid-century speculators were cut down, usually without replanting.2 Critics pointed to the crime, to the mean grants for forest services, without realizing the immensity of the difficulties involved in replanting partially eroded scrub. In Murcia 5,000 trees were planted, protected by individual shields and hand-watered: after five years twenty-five trees were still living.3 Without adequate cover crops, the soil of Spain blew away or was washed away by the winter torrents, its balance and texture destroyed. In similar conditions in north Africa the cultivation of a slight slope meant total ruin within ten years.4 Only scientific re-afforestation, combined with cutting on a sustained yield basis, could have re-established a permanent [p. 426] stream flow by absorbing water in the higher reaches of the river system and reducing the enormous and devastating fluctuations characteristic of deforested watersheds: recurrent flood disasters were a consequence of heavy rains on a hard, baked soil. Useful rivers, which could form the basis of profitable irrigation and hydro-electric schemes, were thus a corollary of useful forests.1
3 Should this be doubted, I had a hundred beech trees ringed by one donkey in less than a month; sheep prefer grass seeds and dry pasture and I have watched sheep for days in Aragon without seeing them destroy saplings. Goats on the other hand, apart from ringing trees, will even climb stumpy trees to destroy foliage.
1 In some parts of Spain burning ground to improve grazing is common, though illegal, practice. Sometimes fires do great damage in dry years and their origin is attributed to private feuds or to shepherd 'carelessness', a lingering relic of the great feud between graziers and agriculturalists. The tourist may observe such fires on the Costa Brava between Puerto de la Selva and Cadaqués.
2 A farmer in Aragon told me he had cut down all his trees in the lean years after 1939 and had assumed they would replant naturally. In 1952 there were no signs of natural replacement.
3 E.G.H. Dobby, 'The Agrarian Problem in Spain' (Geographical Review, New York, xxvi (1936), 187). For an examination of the budgetary allocations for re-afforestation see Celedonio Rodrigañaez, El problema económica, 187. There was one forestry officer per 41,387 hectares as compared with 3,862 hectares in France. Half of the 'cultivable land' of Spain was counted as forest: of this 58 per cent. had no trees. Understandably the production of wood per capita was among the lowest in Europe (Portugal 1.59 cubic metres; France 0.63; Spain 0.10).
4 It might be argued that latifundia scrub pasture (cf. J. Carandell, Córdoba, 14, for its extent in a typical latifundist area) respected the soil and prevented gully erosion. This is true only where the scrub is not heavily grazed.
1The flood flow of some Spanish rivers is 1,000 times that of its normal flow. Much Spanish replanting was of eucalyptus, in itself a doubtful remedy (cf. South African experience).