By Nick Meynen.
You don’t expect smiles and jokes from a man who lives in a village that’s facing extinction due to ecocide (1). But David Dene (66), a UK-born globetrotter, is beaming with energy and happiness. The story he brings us is the story of Rio de Aguas, the eco-village in Almeria (Spain) where he settled in the late nineties. It’s a remarkable story about extraction versus renewal. About a real-life David vs Goliath battle, where Goliath stands for a much bigger and destructive enemy.
Ecocide at Rio de Aguas
People have been living in the Rio de Aguas area since Neolithic times – despite the semi-arid climate and the fragile ecosystem. This is one of the last wild places in Spain. The landscape is dotted with caves and cliffs. The desert of Tabernas, where Westerns were shot, is just seven kilometres away. The difference between Rio de Aguas and Tabernas is that Rio de Aguas is fed by a spring from a very ancient aquifer, which makes a huge difference in ecosystem. The Natural Park around Rio de Aguas has wild goats, wild cats and turtles, and many types of cactuses, fig trees and flowers.
That semi-arid paradise is now under threat, including the people living in it. The Department of the Environment has allowed a change of land usage, allowing “agricultural production” on the aquifer. Permission has been granted for an industrial, mechanized olive tree plantation on 3,600 hectares of land that sit on top of the same aquifer that turned El Rio de Aguas in an oasis in the desert. One million trees have already been planted on only 500 hectares, but investor Juan Carrion Caceres bought a total of 1500 hectares and plans to add another 2 million. It takes 25 times the flow of the Rio de Aguas to irrigate the 1 million already planted, which is why fossil underground water that has accumulated over millions of years is now pumped up at great speed. As soon as there are 2 million more trees, at least 1 billion litres of water per year will be needed, 3 to 5 times more than the total rainfall falling on the water basin and 75 times the flow of the river. Already, water tables and the flow in the Rio de Aguas have dropped sharply, making life extremely difficult for all villagers downstream. But in the face of these facts, David refuses to see the investor as evil ‘I can only presume that he is unaware of the catastrophe that he is bringing on our communities.’
Olive trees are of course not the issue here. Olives are connected to life in the Mediterranean like salt is connected to the sea. The issue is the industrial method. First, the land is stripped naked and bulldozed until all slopes are at around 20 degrees to allow for mechanized harvesting using grape picking machinery, harvesting at two hectares per hour. The planting of up to 9,000 trees a day uses laser technology and all trees are treated with herbicide. ‘It is like mining everything flat, piercing the land, poisoning it and sucking up all the ancient water to drip-feed export products.’
David versus Goliath
Communities from Brazil, Cameroon or Indonesia might recognise both the industrial tree plantation problem and the David versus Goliath struggle: ‘we’re facing nepotism here: jobs are given to friends and families, companies are closely tied to the politicians in power and the attitude here is: if you don’t do what I want you to do I’m going to give you trouble.’ As a result, most people don’t want to be named because they’re afraid to stand up against injustice perpetrated against nature and society by the rich and powerful. ‘But that’s exactly why you have to show this mafia that it’s not just you protesting, but that thousands of people are behind you, including people of power and influence.’
So how did David get this campaign started? ‘We had a torrential rain in 2012 and after that the water situation was good. But six months later, the river went down as if a bath plug had been taken out.’ David emailed pictures to the University of Almería and in July 2014, Professor Jose Maria Calaforra confirmed what the villagers already knew: the olive plantations are severely damaging the spring of El Rio de Aguas. In 2011 an European Union financed report had already declared the aquifer to be 330% over-exploited. ‘With such facts I started the campaign. Three months later, the Facebook page on the Ecocide in Rio de Aguas has 23.000 followers. We distributed 7,000 leaflets, had coverage in local newspapers and received tremendous support from the End Ecocide team. Legal support is coming in from both the USA and Europe. Our call for help is being answered.’
Meanwhile, other organisations are doing their bit in the resistance. The Grupo Ecologista Mediterráneo (GEM or Mediterranean Green Group) opened a criminal investigation into a plantation of 350 hectares irrigating 600,000 olive trees without apparent irrigation permission and without an Environmental Impact Assesment (Gespater S.L). This represents only one tenth of the area under olive plantations, but it’s an important diversification in the struggle as it opens a key battleground.
Inspired by Ecuadoreans
I want to know how David copes with all these seemingly depressing facts. ‘It helps that I used to work in Ecuador, where the situation is much worse and the leaders of the resistance there are amazingly brave and strong. My fight here is easier. I do not think that I will be criminalized and arrested for protecting our water and our lives (2). There is no need to feel down when I am working with such spirited people in Ecuador. It also helps that there is a strong solidarity here in Rio de Aguas. I live in a global circle of friendship, confidence, trust and help, which avoids fear and anger. Look at our campaign: there’s no judgment, no anger. The whole campaign is about facts.’
But these facts are so depressing that I still wonder how David beams with positive energy. Only in the end of the interview I start to understand how he does it. ‘It’s essential to enjoy what we’re doing. We’re going to enjoy the intensity of this experience every bit of the way. We’re soon organising a music festival for 300 to 500 people. We keep talking about facts and with the festival people can’t ignore it. It is happening. But you have to have compassion for those who don’t understand – you cannot become judgmental, and that is the hard part. Don’t fight it, allow it. Don’t move into a confrontational situation. I try to expand the box without belittling the other person. It also helps that here in the valley I have a super-direct connection to the ecosystem and everybody here has that, somewhere inside. It’s here that we can and must reawaken the idea that we are the custodians of the planet and to stop acting like rapists and parasites; that we need to work for the well-being of nature and the biosphere, our life-support system. My mission is to raise that awareness of the total interdependence. We have to disengage from the consumer society which is blinding us to the reality of nature. I’m part of nature, part of the micro-organisms, and so are you. We are not masters, but a part of the system. We have to stop denying this.’
It seems that globetrotting David has moved once more to settle down in this most energetic and promising place, or rather sphere, which Naomi Klein eloquently describes as Blockadia: the land of people connected to place but also globally united in their struggle for environmental justice.
(1) Eco-cide derives from the Greek “oikos” meaning “house” or “home” and the Latin “caedere” meaning “strike down, demolish, kill”. It literally translates to killing our home. Ecocide is the destruction of our natural environment. Defined as the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystems of a given territory it covers all major environmental disasters. More information on ending ecocide is here.
(2) In between recording and pubishing this interview, José Isidro Tendetza Antun, one of David’s Ecuadorian friends and a leader from the Shuar resisting the Mirador mine project, was found dead. See our reporting on that here. David asked us to include the following lines in this interview:
“José Isidro Tendetza Antun was our companion, we bought him his ticket to Lima. This was a great man who devoted and gave his life in the protection of his territory, his land, and for the lives of his people. This man has become a martyr for the land of the Ecuatorian Amazon, and for the Shuar Nation. We honor, remember and hold his inspiring words in our hearts. May our warrior friend rest in peace.” On the facebook page of Ecocide El Rio de Aguas Spain there’s also a tribute video.
The issue of industrial tree plantations is covered in depth in EJOLT report 3: An overview of industrial tree plantations in the global South. Conflicts, trends and resistance struggles