"Here, before, there was a forest of holm oaks (...) Today, it's an inert landscape," says Gabriel del Barrio, dusty sneakers and canvas hat on his head, pointing to a hill with gully slopes where only stunted shrubs remain.
A researcher at the Experimental Station for Drylands (Eeza) in Almeria, Andalusia, this desertification specialist observes landscapes in this southern region on a daily basis. Not without a touch of apprehension.
"Spain is not going to become a desert, with dunes like in the Sahara, it is morphologically impossible," he said. But desertification, marked by intense "soil degradation", is no less "worrying", insists the sexagenarian.
In the dock: global warming, causing a rise in temperatures favoring the evaporation of water and the multiplication of devastating fires, but also and above all human activity - and especially intensive agriculture.
Desertification in Spain © Guillermo RIVAS PACHECO, Anibal MAIZ CACERES / AFP
Despite its ultra-dry climate, the province of Almeria has been transformed over the years into the "vegetable garden of Europe", developing huge greenhouse crops: an area known as the "sea of plastic", from which thousands of tons of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers come out winter and summer.
However, these 40,000 hectares, irrigated thanks to a multi-millennial water table, aggravate the problem "by depleting the aquifers", explains Gabriel del Barrio.
Although extreme, this is not an exception in Spain. According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, 75% of Spanish territory is now subject to a climate that can lead to desertification. This makes it the country in Europe most affected by this problem.
"This puts us in a complex situation, where the combination of extreme temperatures, droughts and other factors aggravates the risk of erosion, loss of soil quality," warned recently the Minister of Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera.
An aerial view of the tourist desert of Tabernas, taken from Illar, near Almeria, on July 11, 2023 © JORGE GUERRERO / AFP
According to the Spanish Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), on which Eeza depends, active land degradation has tripled in the last ten years. A phenomenon all the more problematic as it is often "irreversible on a human scale", insists this organization.
Inability of soils to retain water and organic matter, to support crops and livestock... For Spain, which has made agriculture an economic pillar, with nearly €60 billion in exports per year, this situation is worrying.
"Soil erosion is today the main problem of most farmers in Spain," said the Union of Small Farmers (UPA), which evokes a "serious" situation that can have a significant "economic cost".
In Andalusia, this situation has convinced some to roll up their sleeves. "We must act at our level when possible" and not "give in to fate," said Juan Antonio Merlos, owner of a 100-hectare almond farm on the heights of Velez-Blanco, north of Almeria.
With a handful of farmers gathered within the AlVelAl association, this forty-year-old has set up new practices, called "regenerative", by taking over three years ago the farm of his parents, now converted to organic farming. Hoping to "curb the erosion" underway in the region.
Spanish farmer Juan Antonio Merlos shows his farm in Velez Blanco, near Almeria, July 10, 2023 © JORGE GUERRERO / AFP
These practices include using manure instead of chemical fertilizers, abandoning pesticides "that kill insects," limited tillage "that damages the soil" and using a canopy of grains and legumes to conserve moisture when scarce rains fall.
"It's a long-term work", based on techniques "known for a long time", details Juan Antonio Merlos, examining sprigs of barley planted at the foot of his almond trees.
This does not prevent him from being optimistic. "In theory, it takes seven years to see the results of regenerative agriculture. But I'm already starting to see a change in the behavior of the earth and insects," he said.
Beyond these new practices, environmental associations are advocating, for their part, for a change of model, with a reduction in irrigated areas and the use of crops that consume less water. "We must adapt our requests to the resources actually available," insists the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
An analysis shared, with a nuance, by Gabriel del Barrio. "We have to find a balance" to meet food needs without endangering the soil, says the researcher. Which calls for "managing the soil in the most sustainable way possible", to avoid having "lifeless" land.
© 2023 AFP