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odd allies:  the “environomental” movement under Franco

Earlier this month it was announced that the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP25, will be held in Madrid 2-13 December, after social unrest in Chile forced the anticipated host to rescind the invitation.

As bureaucrats, the media and delegates prepare for this circus of international diplomacy, grassroot collectives are preparing actions to force policy-makers to move beyond talk and take substantial, potentially live-saving, actions.

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Inviting all rebels to Madrid for COP25

To make change happen, these groups of concerned citizens will need the support of well-placed allies in the mainstream culture.

During the Franco dictatorship in Spain, environmentalists, social justice and democracy activists forged alliances or quietly worked in the wake of academics, scientists and elites with influence to make changes happen.

Here is that story, in brief.

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Environmental movement in Spain under Franco

During the dictatorship (1939-1975) …

  • Nature enthusiasts and scientists shaped and challenged Franco’s environmental policies throughout the regime. They worked within official channels to protect natural spaces and species.
  • In the process they “legitimized” environmental language and ideas that were then used by more politicized activists.
  • Franco dammed rivers, drained wetlands, exterminated predator species, encouraged unregulated industrial and urban growth, expropriated public lands for private use. “Land use planning” was largely ignored and retroactively legalized by the pro-growth regime.
  • Reputable scientists, big-game hunters, aristocratic landowners, nature enthusiasts used their political influence to protect natural spaces. They challenged the dominant narrative of progress with alternative facts, science and international values.
  • They argued ecological health was essential to economic productivity; fisheries, eel canneries, and the sale of duck hunting licenses could provide income only if the wetlands could support the species; rural tourism etc.
  • The hungry years saw rural population decrease from 50% to 15%. People move to the cities and coastal resorts. Two hundred thousand people starved to death despite a policy of national self-sufficiency, industrialization, land reclamation and agricultural modernization.
  • Support for the Axis powers left Spain out of the bid to rebuild Europe. Eventually the US would re-imagine Spain as an anti-communist ally. In exchange for economic and diplomatic aid Franco authorized the building of US military bases in Spain in 1953.
  • Three national parks established in Franco’s first 2 decades – Caldera de Taburiente and Teide in the Canary Islands, Aiguëstortes i Estany de Sant Maurici in the Pyrenee.

How the elite used their influence with Franco to save wild areas: Doñana Park in Andalusia

  • Doñana – Marshes, sand dunes, and forests, vast wealth of flora and fauna. Deer, boar, fox, and lynx and tens of thousands of migratory birds nested among the trees and fed in the wetlands.
  • Doñana was owned by three large land owners who were ordered to plant eucalyptus trees or face expropriation. Reluctantly they did but one landowner Mauricio González-Gordon invited Franco there to hunt and experience first hand its sublime beauty.
  • Franco asked his host how he thought the tree plantations might affect the game populations. The landowners responded with a 30-page letter stating that the plan would destroy “a beautiful relic of virgin nature that houses perhaps the most formidable and famous zoological community that survives in Europe.”
  • While Franco never rescinded the order, the landowners quietly and slowly stopped planting the eucalyptus trees and Franco didn’t do anything.

Towards the end of the regime (1960s, 70s) …

  • 1.75m Spaniards lived in neighborhoods with public health issues like open sewers, no water, or sanitation, no health clinics, or schools or parks.
  • Left-wing cultural elites linked environmental health with the regimes injustices.
  • A new generation of activists used similar language and ideas to assert a more radical agenda. Working class groups used this environmental language to protest the impact of development on their neighborhoods. They made links between environmental degradation and disproportionate burden of development in the working class.
  • Sparse rural population and few roads meant great biodiversity in the countryside, but also threats from dams, rivers re-channeled, the Mediterranean coast developed. The Forestry Administration planted thousands of hectares neat rows of pine, poplar, and eucalyptus for pulp and lumber.
  • Conservationists maintained distance from the social issues while creating space for political ecologists to use evidence of environmental degradation as a condemnation of the regime

Into this context social movements emerge …

  • Late 1960s, environmental, social justice and democracy activists used the space opened up by the scientists and elites who had pressured Franco to protect spaces.
  • Regime weakened and this new group of activists linked environmental protection to issues of social justice: clean drinking water in Madrid, green spaces in Barcelona, air pollution in Bilbao – environmental campaigns worked through neighborhood associations so as not to be accused of attacking the regime

Environmental justice and more in the Albufera in Valencia

  • Albufera – 10 km south of Valencia, the zone was incorporated into Valencia city at the turn of the 20th century.
  • The area is notable for its unique ecosystem with marsh land, an in-land lake, pine forests, sand dunes and the sea.
  • There are four small communities in the zone: Pinedo, El Saler, El Palmar and El Perellonet.
  • Working-class Valencians used the area for leisure and recreation, summer swimming, autumn picking mushrooms and spring time foraging wild foods like asparagus.
  • The area attracted developers who wanted to change the licensing of the land use from natural park and agricultural to build Benidorm-style apartment blocks. Some development began.
  • Academics, leftist intellectuals, young people came together and formed a group, that was really a respectable “front” for a clandestine group.
  • Someone sabotaged a newly opened golf resort, spreading herbicide on the grass. They distributed campaign material written in the prohibited local language Valencian.  Leaflets entitled “El Saler per al Poble “ (El Saler for the people) authored by Team 3 was a clever tactic to make the group seeem bigger. There never existed Teams 1 or 2.
  • The Valencian group worked with the Royal Spanish Society of Natural History to pressure the mayor to reconsider development. With time and exhaustive studies the Albufera was recognized as a migratory bird sanctuary and special eco-system. Using science and other tactics activists forced the building to stop.
  • Conservation efforts continue today to re-create the dunes and marshy areas that were affected by the initial development activity.

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Read more in Environmental Change and Protest in Franco’s Spain by Sarah Hamilton

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