Baltasar Cabezudo, in the botanical garden at Malaga University, next to the Faculty of Science. :: ÁLVARO CABRERA
Baltasar Cabezudo holds 17th place on the ‘H-index’, which measures the quantity, quality and impact of the research work he has been carrying out for 36 years. The working visit to the countryside continues to be an enjoyable ritual every Friday and for most of the last 20 years this has taken him to the Sierra de las Nieves natural park, of which he has been the president. The work carried out so far that will enable it to be classified as a National Park owes a great deal to this biologist from Ceuta who started working with animals before moving on to botany. On the way to his office in the Department of Plant Biology at Malaga University, a French student approaches him with a copy of his book and asks him to sign it. The professor takes the pen: ‘May you be very happy in your work,’ he writes before signing it, and as he says goodbye he adds: “ I’ll come to your village one day and we’ll look for butterworts in the Alps”.
–What did you think when the Junta said it would make the Sierra de las Nieves a natural park?
–At last. I’m delighted, but it has taken them three years to organise. I have fought for this for 20 years, as an expert and as the president of the management board, so I know the park very well from a scientific and management point of view. The regional government’s work is easy, but the management board must be involved. Three or four years ago it made the proposal to the Andalusian government. There have been meetings with technicians and with the mayors.
–Was it not receptive to the idea then?
–Yes, it was, it even put some very valuable technicians at our disposal. The maps were drawn up, but then everything suddenly came to a halt; I don’t know if it was because of the elections or because it was not the opportune time. The Sierra de las Nieves is so valuable...
–Incredibly so, I imagine.
–Of course. The law says that a National Park must have native and unusual species, and what can be better than the ‘pinsapo’, which grows in no other park. Or the peridotites and serpentines, because its geological wealth also counts.
–If electoral reasons stopped the project and now it is being reactivated, is there conflict over a National Park that those of us outside are not aware of?
–I see it from a scientific point of view and a National Park does not have many more restrictions than a Natural Park.
–As an example?
–What present use would be incompatible in a National Park?
–Hunting, for example, would be incompatible. It is allowed in some private areas of the Natural Park at present. In others, there are certain restrictions at different times of year because of its fragility, but not many more than in the Natural Park. There are restrictions but there are also magnificent advantages. There are about 80 or 90 Natural Parks in Spain, but only 14 or 15 National Parks. They do not all receive the same funding. This future National Park is already a Biosphere Reserve, which is the maximum international category, and this is something that is reassessed every five years but it has been in jeopardy.
–Because of things like electricity pylons, the race track that has been built and the huge residential development that has come to a halt because of the crisis. If it had gone ahead, that area would have been excluded from the Biosphere Reserve, which is not an extreme form of conservation but a commitment to sustainable development; this includes protecting the human species. Las Nieves is also part of the Intercontinental Reserve of the Mediterranean and classified as a Special Conservation Zone by the EU.
–Could the government stop it being declared a National Park?
–Yes, it could be vetoed. I have never understood how politics can become involved in environmental values. When the environment is mixed up with politics it is bad for everybody, whether they are on the left or the right.
–Such as the battle over the sale of La Almoraima, in Cadiz province?
–That’s one example. It was also very complicated not long ago to increase the area of the Doñana park, maybe because of problems within the Junta de Andalucía, which had to present the proposal. La Almoraima is very important for sustainable development and it should not be part of a political or economic battle. It belongs to the Andalusian people and it should remain that way, and if it forms part of the Grazalema park then something has to be done. The Junta must have drawn up the plans to extend the Natural Park ages ago, but it did it with water up to its neck, when the government decided to sell an estate that ought not to be privatised.
–Is there a risk of this being a rural ‘El Algarrobico’?
–Of course. Why have there been some sentences that say the hotel should be knocked down and some that say it shouldn’t? I believe it is for the same reason that they changed the Coastal Law: there is an interest in promoting new developments, but we could enter into another bubble. As a naturalist and biologist I would have preferred them not to have changed the Coastal Law, but I understand that Carboneras wants El Algarrobico, which is a monstrosity on the virgin part of the coast. The politicians will have to come to an agreement.
–Have you experienced these tensions when they have wanted reports on the impact of some works and activities?
–In those cases, when you are intervening as an expert you can’t go in as a winner because then there is no dialogue. The projects are highly regulated. The developers have to make their proposals and from then on it is a case of waiting to see what happens.
–Tell me about a case like that.
–The golf course in Nerja. I acted as an expert for one side, in this case the Junta. I like to give positive reports, with corrective proposals, because I believe that tourist and economic development is important. This golf course should adapt to the environment and not the other way round, but Nerja Cave is below it and it is a BIC so it has to be protected. The Junta opposed the project, logically, and now it is appealing against the Supreme court decision in the developers’ favour.
–Even the greenest left parties are reluctant to question golf courses.
–They are a source of wealth, but to say that they give the most profit per hectare in Andalucía... profitability is another matter, even if it is an environmental profitability. The Junta should define where a golf course can be created, it shouldn’t be the developer who chooses. The problem is not with the courses, but the developments that are built on them. Without those, a golf course can even improve the appearance of a site.
–And what do you think of the wind energy generators on hilltops in beautiful countryside?
–I was involved in the project in the Sierra de Carratraca and I have to say that the developer accepted all the corrective measures and allowed us two years to research where he would have to revegetate after installing the turbines. That is a model wind park. It has its monstrosities, of course, but all the flora that was destroyed was recovered.
–In Spain, we associate environmental issues more with animals.
–Because we are animals too and we worry more about things that are close to us. In the last century the protection policies were all about animals, but it is the plants that are the start of the food pyramid.
–The way people treat plants and trees says a lot about a country.
–Without a doubt. The British and Germans care about them a great deal. They come here because we have the greatest botanical variety, although now there are more of what I call ‘botanophiles’, who are not professionals but who post photos and comments on blogs. Plants give us landscape and ecosystems.
–But it’s a bit much to send someone to jail for picking camomile.
–That’s a difficult subject, but punishment is necessary in environmental policy. On the roads, if there were no speed checks we would all go at 200 kph. The media had a lot to say about the camomile case , but the law says that it must not be picked. It was an important case in terms of environmental education. The shepherd knew what he was doing, and that is a shame because there are some unscrupulous people who pick it and others who sell it. The Junta has nurseries where camomile is grown, but there are some who want to drink the latest wild variety. When a resource is used in excess of its ability to regenerate, it disappears.
–Not to mention marine flora, which cannot be seen.
–Yes, exactly. The marine environment is the most unprotected, but there are now many specialist biologists. The sea grasses were in a critical situation, but they create oxygen, stabilise mud and facilitate the reproduction of species.
–Are you in favour of the ‘green parties’?
–They are necessary. The ecologists and green parties attract the attention of others... they are our environmental conscience in a country where there is none, where children in towns don’t know where water or food comes from because they don’t go into the countryside. The environmental problem is not to do with the butterflies or the daisies but with pollution, water shortage and climate change.
–In fact, you have warned that the pinsapo is in danger from rising temperatures and from decreasing rainfall.
–I don’t know if I will be proved wrong, but it is a relict species, which survived very well when the climate was different and it has stayed in an area where the soil and the climate are similar to how it used to be. They are going to move upwards, but whereas an animal can move two thousand metres in a short time, a plant needs many years to move a few metres. The Sierra de las Nieves and that of Grazalema can’t get any higher and if climate change is rapid the pinsapo will be in danger from the rise in temperatures.
–The crisis has meant that people are less concerned about the environment and less money is allocated for protection or research.
–Obviously, when times are hard lentils are more important to people than daisies and butterflies. People want jobs, they want work, and that is a problem that we have when we talk about creating a National Park. People approve, yes, but they want to know what they get in exchange. That is the eternal problem in Andalucía with those who are in or on the edge of a protected area. What have they received? I would say, nothing. Distribution is decided by other criteria. I believe we should impose an ecological tax so that those who live in a park and whose usage is restricted should receive compensation. Just as where a village has a quarry or a reservoir and both of them give money, environmental services are also very important.
–And monitor them more to prevent fires like the one of two years ago.
–We carried out a study before that fire and we knew all that was there, but they took no notice of us.
–And what is that area like now?
–We are working as researchers in our own right to see how the vegetation is responding after the fire. For us, sadly, it is a major research project into how species recuperate.
–What lesson has been learned?
–More education and better prevention are needed and the Junta has worked very well with Infoca on that. The summer fires are prevented by pruning and clearing works in the winter. Some plants love fires because they eliminate competition. The pines drop thousands of seeds to cover everything again within 50 years because reproducing, expanding and eliminating rivals is the plants’ mandate. The problem in this area is that town planning is very interwoven with the environment. That fire apparently started when branches were felled and burned. There are houses in the woods and on that day it seems it wasn’t monitored well.
–Isn’t it illogical to restrict access to a Natural Park but not to ban smoking?
–I once went to a French park and the warden asked me for a light. He did it to take the lighter off me. Environmental awareness demands no smoking in the countryside. It is totally prohibited for my students and some found it hard. The Andalusian mountains are a tinderbox in summer but some people don’t want to have a barbecue in an authorised area: they want one under the pinsapo tree at La Escalereta. And if you tell them to take a sandwich, they throw the wrapper on the floor.