The plastic coast

The dry river bed east of Órgiva and a high mountain village (Chris Feare)
The dry river bed east of Órgiva and a high mountain village (Chris Feare)

The main road eastwards from Órgiva runs along valley sides of the Sierra Nevada foothills through stunning scenery, ranging from the wide gravel valley bottom, doubtless periodically a raging flood but during our visit little more than a dry river bed, to high mountain peaks. The mixture of wooded and scrubby slopes is periodically studded with small white villages. The few we visited seemed to be hives of inactivity – sleepy jumbles of houses that the main road and time appear to have passed by. This is clearly not the full story as TV antennae and dishes and cars pervade the scenes.

The road (A348) is extremely good, well-surfaced and displays amazing feats of engineering as large bridges span deep dry gorges and occasional tunnels bore their way through rocky headlands.

The further east we travelled, woodland was largely replaced with scrubby desert-like vegetation indicative of an extreme scarcity of rainfall. Although we were concentrating on driving rather than birdwatching, we were both surprised how few birds we saw along the journey and during occasional stops.

Our fist encounter with plastic greenhouses (Chris Feare)
Our fist encounter with plastic greenhouses (Chris Feare)

Our intention was to turn south near Cádiar in order to reach the coast near El Ejido, with an expectation that we would see more bird life. However, as we approached our turn-off we rounded a corner to see a wide gorge in the arid land. The steep sides of the gorge had hidden its contents until we were close, when we were suddenly faced with a complex of white plastic greenhouses. This proved to be the first part of a landscape-transforming activity that became more pervasive as we approached the coast. The scale of this form of agriculture can best be seen in Google Earth, which reveals the white carpeting of the coastal region around El Ejido. Furthermore, the plastic scenery accompanied us all the way along the coast road west to Motril. Most of the greenhouses appeared to be in good condition but some were in a state of disrepair with decaying plastic sheeting widely spread on the ground and other fragments blowing in the wind.

A more pervasive "greenhouse effect" by the coastal motorway (Christine Larose)
A more pervasive “greenhouse effect” by the coastal motorway (Christine Larose)

We are now in an era when we hear increasing concern about the ubiquity of environmental contamination with microplastic particles and plastic microfibres. Plastic waste from this dominant form of agriculture in southern Andalucía, doubtless highly profitable for the Spanish farming industry and its exports, could well wash into the enclosed waters of the Mediterranean during winter rains. Here it could enter the food chain, ultimately finding its way into the human diet in which locally caught fish is so important and contributes so much to the reputedly healthy “Mediterranean diet”.

The carpet of plastic greenhouses around El Ejido (centre left of picture) as revealed by Google Earth (to whom thanks for the image)
The carpet of plastic greenhouses around El Ejido (centre left of picture) as revealed by Google Earth (to whom thanks for the image)

As for the expectation of better birdwatching by the coast south of El Ejido, we found the halophytic scrub behind the beach at Almerimar to be as barren of bird life as the interior had been earlier – a few Swallows hawked insects above and a lone Sardinian Warbler foraged in the scrub. The only excitement was provided by a migrant Whimbrel that flew silently close by overhead before disappearing into a dry depression.

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