Ecocide in drought-struck Spain: untouchable developers destroy wild nature near Madrid
In the sun-beaten municipality of Torrelodones near Madrid, healthy, much-needed trees are being chopped down and rock outcrops blown to pieces, while nature lovers can only watch in horror. Nature must make place for the pharaonic Las Marías II luxury villa project complete with concrete sidewalks, parking lots, streets, golf courses, tennis courts and private swimming pools. The obliteration of this emblematic wild Sierra landscape by Ten Brinke, Kronos Homes and Grupo Inmobiliaro MG, amongst others, stands in stark contrast to Spain's most pressing needs: curbing extreme drought and the threat of desertification through sustainable and responsible management of its irreplaceable natural heritage.
Author: Kathelijne Bonne. Pictures: members of Asociación Torreverde.
Expressions of outrage have appeared on social media since the onset in March of the unannounced "Las Marías II" megaproject of 300 to 400 walled luxury villas ("chalets") with over-the-top amenities at prices ranging from 500,000 to 2,000,000 euros per home, continuing the rampant speculation trend that has done so much damage to Spain already.
Not just trees are being felled but an entire landscape is being irreversibly erased: ancient rocky granite outcrops, dating from Palaeozoic times when Spain lay at the heart of the supercontinent Pangaea and which were exposed at the surface much later when the Iberian microcontinent collided with Europe, are being bulldozered to make excessively wide, flat, straight generic roads and for preparing villa, tennis, golf and pool plots.
Las Marías was, till now, synonymous of nature with gnarled cork oaks which are protected by law, stone pines, elms, rockroses, wild daffodils and mosses, growing amongst the granite boulders, and a refuge for deer, wild boar, badgers, falcons, hoopoes and nightingales, as well as nature loving human visitors.
At just half an hour from Madrid city centre Las Marías was one of the remaining patches of relatively wild nature in the increasingly build-up suburban sprawl, that has engulfed pre-existing villages and expands with shopping malls, commercial and industrial zones, already encroaching upon the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains.
In a protest against the decline of nature in Torrelodones, the civil movement Asociación TorreVerde was founded, whose members demand the cessation of the bulldozing and tree felling activities and question the legality of the relentless and indiscriminate attacks on nature. But developers Kronos and Ten Brinke seem indifferent and untouchable.
As such, after many protests, the drilling and cutting continue and seem to have accelerated.
Nature and human wellbeing
In order to reach the UN Sustainable Development Goals, to which also Spain signed up, nature must be protected and brought closer to and into big cities, as this is no longer a luxury but a necessity for human wellbeing. In Spain the opposite is happening. 'Urbanizaciones' or housing parks are erected as prefabricated cities, fragmenting and degrading nature. Just enough trees are being left to deceitfully market the new homes as "set in an exceptional setting and perfectly integrated in nature".
Despite signing several international climate and nature deals, Spain's decision makers' minds remain drunk with construction fever and concrete addiction that have marked the country over the last decades. The predatory building madness has already destroyed large swathes of Spain's inland regions and unparalleled coastline – it is only a matter of time before a Costa Blanca villa falls from a cliff – and is responsible for the many so-called ghost towns and never to be finished skeleton-like buildings.
Spain is very far removed from what the visionary American biologist Rachel Carson noted in 1953: "The real wealth of the nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife … Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics."
All large trees that line the existing streets in Las Marías are marked with an eerie orange dot, meaning they'll be cut down. Many trees are native stone pines or umbrella pines, Pinus pinea, a common pioneer that projects striking silhouettes against the lapis lazuli coloured sky of the Madrid region and cheer up the streets with their rough scaly trunks, resin scent and singing birds. This species is resistant to extreme heat and drought and thrives on the rocky nutrient- and humus poor granite soils. Therefore, having them felled is a tragic act of ecocide as not much other species will be able to regenerate the future degraded lands.
Once these trees are gone to build new walkways and parking lots, you won't see any villa-owners walking, because driving is the preferred and most comfy way of getting around. Only the live-in house aids "las internas", often Latina women, will be seen rushing around on foot, sweating under the blazing sun, its heat amplified by concrete, as they carry supermarket plastic bags in one hand and the leash of the bosses' pedigree dogs in the other, taking them out for sanitary walks. I image that the dogs will only have car wheels to relieve themselves against, as all the trees will be gone. It's very unfortunate that the developers have failed to see that the felling of much trees could easily have been avoided by designing cut-outs in the sidewalks.
Meanwhile, the incessant daily roar of the huge power drills, together with the unfriendly atmosphere near the building grounds and the sad sight of the condemned trees marked at heart height, evoke an unnerving concentration camp scene in Torrelodones.
"Paradise" with lots of large trees
According to Internet sources, developer Grupo Inmobilario MG, working together with Dutch Ten Brinke and Kronos Homes, among other players, describes the new luxury project as follows: "... a typical setting in a rocky, tree-lined environment ... Most plots have beautiful gardens with large trees, pools and a tennis court, as well as great views ... you will fall in love and look forward to coming to live in this paradisiac location". Kronos Homes just blatantly lies: "... respecting the original ecosystem without need to alter the natural equilibrium of the surroundings".
Meanwhile, transparency is a big absentee. Are there any laws that bind developers to disclose exactly how many trees will be cut down and how the long-term environmental impacts will be compensated? How much are the trees worth in carbon dioxide and ecosystem terms? The residents know nothing and have no access to data, concrete figures or deals. Planting a few saplings cannot compensate for the damage in an already vulnerable country. Spain's climate and current drying trends are not favourable for new tree growth.
Each tree matters
Central Spain has a semi-arid climate. Drought, soil erosion and desertification pose great risks for ecosystem regeneration and more notably for the crops, as Spain cultivates food for a large part of Europe. While wealthy people worry about the cost of maintaining private pools, Spanish reservoirs have dropped to worrisome levels and dry river beds and dead fish lie baking in the sun.
Tree death due to drought is also increasingly common. Tree skeletons – reminiscent of Deadvlei in Namibia – can be seen everywhere. If we do not take proper care of the remaining forests and wild areas, Spain may transition into an inhospitable desert and suffer disasters like the Dust Bowl. Doñana is probably the most (in)famous example of the combined effects of extreme drought, water abuse and the encroaching 'civilization'.
The importance of each single tree can't be stressed enough:
- The shade reduces soil evaporation, allowing more moisture to remain in the soil, which helps vegetation overcome longer periods of drought.
- When the shaded soil is also covered with herbs, more humus forms, which improves soil structure and the water and nutrient holding capacity.
- Trees break the impact of downpours and prevent soil erosion, already problematic in Spain.
- They release moisture and generate a cool bubble.
- They purify the air by producing disinfecting chemicals (especially conifers) and these are probably the cause of the happy feeling we get in forests.
- As their best-known effect, trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
- Some conifer chemicals contribute to thicker cloud cover, reflecting more sunlight back into space, causing local cooling.
Replacing mature trees with saplings elsewhere as compensation often ends in failure if there is no follow-up. In Torrelodones saplings were planted and then left alone. They all died, but even if they would have lived, they cannot replace (quickly) the complex ecosystem services of a natural mature ecosystem, which contains trees and shrubs of all ages. Size matters because a single mature tree is also an ecosystem unto itself. When old trees die, their tissues become food for billions of organisms that release the essential nutrients back into the soil.
Invasive species versus chainsaws
In Spain (and far beyond) there are complaints about the invasive species Ailanthus, the tree of heaven, which seems to benefit from our deforestation frenzy and thrives on degraded land. In Torrelodones, several large, mature, planted ailanthus specimens have been cut down on the pretext that they were invasive, but they were probably just "standing in the way". The best way to control invasive species is to restore and protect the existing natural vegetation. The more nature is cleared, the more invasive species advance. But no tree, not even the audacious tree of heaven, is a match for the chainsaws of concrete-addicted developers.
Nothing describes the indifferent attitude of the developers better than writer-painter William Blake's comment, two hundred years ago: "The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way…"
If only developers cared about the fact that trees are not only beautiful and good for health, but also crucial and indispensable for a liveable climate in the future. To protect trees is to protect the future. I hope that at least some pines, cork oaks and elms in Torrelodones will be allowed to live on, that their orange dots of death are erased and that the voices of activists will be heard.
Read more on similar themes: Drought waves set the scene for wildfires. According to Stephen Pyne, this is why we now live in the Pyrocene, the era of the fire. In Spain, drought and overexploitation have contributed to the decline of the world famous Doñana Natural Park, where the Queen of the Marshes is worshipped. We can only hope that no Dust Bowl will come to Spain, as soil erosion and desertification are on the rise. Soil is an increasingly discussed topic, especially in light of processes such as soil salinization which puts food security at risk and the biogeochemical cycles, such as that of nitrogen, over which wars have been fought. Nitrogen is used in fertilizers, as is the essential element phosphorus, which was formed by lightning when the earth was young.
Kathelijne Bonne: "As an earth scientist and nature lover I am intrigued by how rocks, soil, ocean, air and life interact with each other on geological and human timescales."
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