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Shaken Genal Valley residents start to look to the future

SALVADOR SALAS
SALVADOR SALAS
  • These villages are used to battling against the elements. Their losses from the forest fire are incalculable, but they are considering how to reinvent themselves: “That is how we are”

Nobody dares to put a figure on it yet. The impact of the recent Sierra Bermeja fire on the economy of the area is "incalculable", according to the mayor of Jubrique, Alberto Benítez. The villages of the Genal Valley make a living from their ecosystem, and it is now bleeding from a wound of ashes and smoke. The six days during which the whole country held its breath because of the way the fire was advancing, because it seemed unstoppable until the rains came, have left a stark scene of charred mountains, ruined properties, lost animals and cancelled reservations. However, in the face of all this ruin, there is still local resilience. "It's as if they have uprooted part of me," says Fina Márquez, who owns some land in Jubrique, "but I already have a million ideas".

The Márquez family are still working out their losses: "We expected to have cork within three years and the chestnuts this year," they say. But the cork oaks and chestnut trees have been destroyed, and they were sustaining half the village.

"I had a project to build cabins among the chestnut trees. That is going to take longer now," says Fina, although the flames would have been equally as painful even if this had not been her way of making a living. "This is our identity," she says. But people here are used to surviving with the wind against them.

"We are the resistance, the people who decided to stay in the countryside. The administrations should start organising financial assistance for private individuals who own a bit of land, because being small doesn't mean you are any less important," she says. For that reason she is calling for the forthcoming political negotiations to take place on site, and not in offices: "They should stop fighting on party lines. They should speak directly to the people who are affected. We need to replace the fences, clean up and sow seeds. The valley is our home," she says.

Andrés Muñiz has two holiday apartments in Faraján and says all bookings have been cancelled until November, which is when it is supposed that some sort of normality will resume. "There will be thousands of euros in losses. Hiking, which is one of the main attractions in this area, is difficult now. This is a disaster," he says. However, he manages to remain stoical. "Other people are going to be hit even harder," he says.

Antonia, from the same village, is one of them. She says the firefighters insisted that she evacuated her property. "I wanted to see if the chestnut trees would burn," she says. Her concern was due to a recent and significant investment: she had just planted 1,000 oaks from the nursery in Cortes de la Frontera. They were all burned. So were the pines, although many chestnuts, which were her main concern, were saved. "I'm in a state of shock. We were planning to get rid of the brambles and clear the mountain, and then reforest it with cork oaks and chestnuts," she says. She calculates that with the clearing and planting, she has lost around 40,000 euros, a sum that will have a serious effect on the family budget for months.

The state of the mountains was one of the biggest obstacles to controlling and extinguishing the forest fire: the undergrowth becomes a biological fuel. Once, it used to be removed naturally by cattle but now, with depopulation, it accumulates and so does the risk that it will accelerate any fire. Juan Caballero, a shepherd, is one of the handful of brave people who did not give in to the rural exodus: he is 58, has been involved in extensive farming since 1987 and lives in Genalguacil, although he was born in Benarabbá. He lost around 150 sheep, and has only recovered 30 of them. "When I found them their wool was all scorched, and they were very scared. They didn't respond to my calls, and normally when they hear me they come running to me. The only way I could get near them this time was with a bag of bread," he says.

Juan, who comes from a family of shepherds, had thought that some of his animals, which were loose, would be on the Casares mountains. He has some of the so-called 'ovejas bomberas' or fire-fighting sheep, which are essential in preventing fires: they graze on the firebreaks to keep them free of undergrowth. But nowadays there are fewer shepherds and fewer sheep, something which increases the risk of the flames spreading and crossing over the firebreaks: "They eat at night. I thought about going to rescue them then, but if I had done that I would be in a wooden coffin now," he says.

"Ruinous"

The mayor of Pujerra, Francisco Macías, doesn't hold back. "This is ruinous for everyone. Entire estates have been burned," he says. The crisis caused by the fire has come on top of the financial disaster caused by the coronavirus pandemic, from which they were still trying to recover. "In the village there is a hotel and a restaurant. There were hopes of reopening them, but with all this, you can forget it, and the fire didn't even reach us here," he says.

His counterpart in Faraján, Fernando Fernández, says the councils in the area are still waiting for a meeting to be called, to find out how many hectares have been affected and how much the financial losses will be.

"If we are to stop this happening again we need grants from the administrations, even though the owners of the land have to pay part of the cost. Remember that the Genal Valley is a lung for Malaga. Here, we make a living from chestnut trees, corks and pig farming, basically. The part of Genalguacil and Jubrique which has been burned has a major impact because the chestnuts, cork oaks and other trees will need at least 30 years to return to how they were," he explains.

But waiting with arms crossed for help to arrive is not an option for anyone here. This was demonstrated by the people of Benarrabá who, led by their mayor Silvestre Barroso, created their own firebreak in the river to try to stop the flames reaching the village, although in the end it didn't work.

Together, with no official permission and against the advice of Infoca, they used tools and agricultural equipment to remove the undergrowth and water the vegetation. That initiative, which is somewhere between heroic and reckless, sums up the spirit of these villages which for years have been trying to tackle the depopulation problem. That's why the mayor of Jubrique is already thinking of ways to turn this crisis into an opportunity.

"We will stay strong. We need to take advantage of the fact that the whole country has heard of the Genal Valley now, and promote ourselves, to show people what we still have here, that a lot of it was not destroyed by the fire. We will be issuing a decree so that local people can tell us what they have lost, so we can see what the situation is, but then we have to build our beloved mountain again, together, for the good of everyone," he says.

Jesús Ponce, who owns the hostel in Benarrabá, feels the same. Many of the firefighters stayed there. "We don't want to look on the dark side. We have to look ahead. That is the spirit of this valley, it reinvents itself time and again. We are not entrepreneurs, but we love the Genal. There is still a lot of greenery here. There is still hope," he says. He is emotional about messages received from many firefighters, grateful for their hospitality. "They thank us, but all we did was give them somewhere to rest and coffee and food. They are the heroes," he says.

Jesús, Fina, Juan, Antonia, Alberto and many more have the ability to look past the burned land to the mountains which are still green and splendid, as if one of the worst ecological disasters in recent times had not occurred a couple of kilometres away. "The valley still has so much to offer," they say.