Thursday, 8 December 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: the Spanish Dehesa

Our series on new metaphors for sustainability continues with Alison Turnbull's 'Spanish Dehesa', a sylvopastoral system that marries production and nature conservation.  Alison was born in Bogotà, lives in London and exhibits her artwork there.  

I first saw the Spanish dehesa on a trip to Extremadura some twenty years ago. We drove for over fifty miles without passing another car and the temperature soared to 53º C. It was difficult to believe we were in Western Europe and not in the plains of the American west or crossing an African savannah.  I’ve been back every year since, walking and experiencing this unique eco-system in all kinds of weather, under all sorts of light.

Rather like the evocative Spanish term duende, used in the performing arts to mean ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’, dehesa is a difficult word to translate. Meadow, wooded pastureland and grazing operation, it is a sylvo-pastoral system that covers 20,000 square kilometres, mostly in southwest Spain but also stretching into Portugal and Morocco. It is one of the oldest created landscapes in Europe – a cultural landscape if you like - just how ancient no one quite knows, but certainly several centuries, and it remains an outstanding example of intelligent husbandry.  It is beneficial to the needs of human beings but also hospitable to a whole variety of other creatures, including many rare butterflies.

The grassed zones in between the oak trees are famously home to acorn-fed Iberian pigs that produce the most wonderful ham in the world. Honey, cheese, cork and charcoal are all products of the dehesa. It is an area of exceptional bio-diversity - for instance it is the wintering ground for most of Europe’s population of Grus grus, the common crane.

The dehesa is special in that it is an area where maximum exploitation sits side by side with maximum conservation. It’s man-made and it’s right here in Europe.

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