Rafael Jiménez working on a dry stone wall on a finca in his home town of Algarrobo / e. cabezas

Rafael Jiménez, one of the Axarquía’s last dry stone wallers

The centuries-old technique was added to Unesco’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2018

Eugenio Cabezas

After four decades of building dry stone walls in the Axarquía, Rafael Jiménez, 63, says that not even his back hurts. “I'm perfectly fine, and I've been building dry stone walls since I was a child, I was taught by my uncle, Rafael Rivas, who learned from my grandfather," says Jiménez, who is from Algarrobo. The centuries-old technique was declared an ‘Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by Unesco in 2018.

"Look, it is like a puzzle, the bigger stones go underneath, so that there is no weight on top, you don't have to worry about sorting out the old from the new," Jiménez says as he points to the section he is working on while being interviewed. He places one stone on top of another, without any mortar or cement and no machinery is required. The stones seem stay in place by magic, fighting against gravity and erosion on the steep slopes of the Axarquia.

"It depends, there are days when it takes longer and others when it takes less," he says, with all the wisdom of an expert who has been doing the job for many years. Jiménez is one of only half a dozen master dry stone wallers left in the Axarquía. "I have worked for many years in many towns, in Periana, Alcaucín, here in Algarrobo, I only do the work I like, it’s is like a vice," he confesses.

"I like to do it alone, if I bring someone to help me, for them just to watch me, I'd rather do it myself," he says laughing. The changing agricultural landscape of the Axarquia with the expansion of the subtropical fruit industry in the last three decades means that dry stone walls, which are environmentally sustainable, are dying out.

Heavy machinery

According to Rafael Yus, president of the environmental group, GENA-Ecologists in Action, in modern fruit plantations the traditional dry stone wall system is being "assaulted" to grow mangoes and avocados. "They come in with all the heavy machinery and raze everything there is including the stone walls to plant subtropicals," he laments.

Yus, who has been observing the importance of dry stone walls for years, defines them "as an important element of the Axarquia, which has been possible thanks to its people who have used the technique to be able to grow cereals, olives and grapes." If nothing is done, Yus predicts "a bad future for the walls." And if they disappear, he feels that the wealth of crops grown in the area will also eventually die out.

Jiménez does not like the modern cultivation techniques that are being used in in the Axarquía. "I am an enemy of the plates," he says alluding to the metallic structures that are being installed in farms to replace the traditional dry stone walls. "When the water gets into the fields it damages the trees, it can even pull them up," warns Jiménez, who emphasizes that, "evidently,” water is the greatest enemy of these walls.