Joya: arte + ecología / Los Gázquez / a life long project

 

Cortijada Los Gázquez (3281 ft.1000m alt.) a 50-acre (20 hectare) ‘off-grid’ rural farm in the heart of the Sierra María-Los Vélez Natural Park, Almería, Spain.

Simon and Donna Beckmann purchased Cortijada Los Gázquez in 2009. This is the full name of the property. Cortijo is the word for farm in castellano and a cortijada is a collection of small farm houses. Gázquez is the family name of those who once lived here.

 
 Cortijada Los Gázquez in the late 1960's

Cortijada Los Gázquez in the late 1960's

 Gázquez family member using a trillilo to thresh wheat. Late 1960's

Gázquez family member using a trillilo to thresh wheat. Late 1960's

 

The Gázquez family, along with many families in this region, abandoned their homes in search of better fortunes in Spain or abroad in the late 1960's. Life at Los Gázquez was hard. No electricity, no water, no access to education. Living as subsistence farmers, clawing a living from old land technologies, using livestock as beasts of burden. The riches of colonial Spain had passed them by. In the 1930's the Guerra Civil had brought them to their knees. The subsequent autocratic rule of Franco suppressed rural areas and once the slowly emerging awareness of other people’s fortunes elsewhere came upon them their collective impulses drove them to leave. They left for the factories in Valencia, Tarragona and Barcelona. They left for the vineyards of France. Many searched out their former Republican supporting family, the exiles once caught up in the vortex of civil war.

 
 
Gazquez-web.jpg
 

In 2009 the Beckmanns started a long road in the pursuit of restoring Los Gázquez and the land that surrounds the farm. They created a challenge for themselves, a task that exhausted the skills they already possessed and left them in need of acquiring new knowledge. Conventional aspirations were thrown aside and once Joya: AiR, the residency, became a reality so did the reality that their continued existence here was more inexorably intertwined with the land, how we live and how we take responsibility.

 
 Los Gázquez, winter 2009, in a state of ruin.

Los Gázquez, winter 2009, in a state of ruin.

 After the restoration. Spring 2012.

After the restoration. Spring 2012.

 

Consequently, for the Beckmanns, Joya: arte + ecología / Los Gázquez has become a manifest research project, an exploration into contemporary art, sustainability, culture and history. It has become an attempt to ameliorate old ideas in the face of climate change, a search for new strategies, an exercise in self-reliance. It has become the embodiment of their creative instincts. Their art has occupied an effective and practical role in the philosophy of living sustainably. By positioning contemporary art alongside rural culture, they have come to understand this non-tangible asset we call the natural world, how it can serve us and how we can reciprocate.

Joya: arte + ecología / AiR at Los Gázquez has become a lifelong research project that aims to use science and the humanities as a strategy to rebuild a diminished rural community in an arid zone. By utilising the intertwined realities of research, innovation, science and culture, this plan seeks to create a socio-ecological system resistant to external global influences  by providing security, a sense of identity, purpose and wellbeing.

 
 Los Gázquez 2012

Los Gázquez 2012

 

So how is this research project to be structured? What follows is a description of the situation as found at Los Gázquez. We also define the actions which need to be taken and how they will manifest, along with the expected outcomes. The intention of this text is to be the first steps in engaging artists and academics, individuals and groups to a project that we hope can be one small part in reversing negative global trends...

Anthropogenic activity is keenly felt by dry lands which are acutely dependent upon rainfall.  Food security becomes vulnerable, leading to conflict and migration; abandoned landscapes become unstable. A human’s metaphysical attachment to ‘place’ and specific knowledge, as defined as local ‘creed’, is lost.

 
 Los Gázquez (right) in relation to the land.

Los Gázquez (right) in relation to the land.

 

Historical land abandonment has created a vulnerable monoculture of re-forestation leading to forest fires and disease expansion. Novel ecosystems and the resulting reforestation of abandoned human-used land are not necessarily the best strategy against current global changes. Excessive land tillage, over grazing and mechanised farming has destroyed traditional water catchment systems and has all led to soil degradation such as extreme erosion. Combine this with changing rainfall patterns and extreme weather events and you see the consequence of mismanagement. 

The project has a two-fold strategy of research-driven innovation. The restoration and conservation of land, with the sustainable use of soil and rainwater, combined with contemporary art practice as a means to express, interpret and disseminate the ideas created. This creates a unique opportunity for regeneration.

Through the restoration of an abandoned landscape-integrated irrigation system, the project aims to demonstrate the value of traditional land-use to provide both ecosystem resistance to global change and community sense of attachment.

The problems structure the research process while the art reconfigures the conclusions into cultural life in a contemporary context. This holistic approach is designed to mirror vital and component parts of any society, large or small. Science and innovation realises both problems and solutions and seeks technologies that can give the food security such regions need whilst humanities manifest an understanding of our place in nature, connect us to the means to define our society and how we protect our environment.

Using the theory that socio-ecological systems and their properties should be valued as part of a whole as opposed to collections of parts, the project has designed a program that incorporates strategies that can not only create ecological resilience but also create clear avenues of expression for cultural/scientific human engagement and more profound intellectual and emotional non-material investment. Los Gázquez offers the ideal context to develop such a program.

Cortijada Los Gázquez is located at the driest place within Europe, receiving an average rainfall of 200mm annually. This is a sedimentary limestone/clay area and the role of climate, topography, time and human influence on soil formation is an essential element for agrarian communities. After 2000 years of anthropogenic influence on this landscape, we now see a sharp polarity dividing the traditional ecological knowledge developed by our predecessors and contemporary land use over the last 50 years. Our predecessors created a variety of agroecosystems as coevolutive processes between nature and humans, now land use has become extremely negative and unsustainable.

 
 
 Stone terracing in a mountain gully. Designed to slow down the passage of rainwater...

Stone terracing in a mountain gully. Designed to slow down the passage of rainwater...

 
 

In the first half of the 20th century, this land supported an extended family in five adjacent dwellings. Man-made terraces provided flat ground suitable to capture sufficient rainwater for growing arable crops for flour and feed. The water-catchment system at the farm created a water resource stored in a small retention area. This resource allowed them to grow vegetables and rear a source of meat. Wild zones provided traditional foraged food and wild meat. There is a strong tradition of pastoralism with sheep and goats both providing meat and dairy relying on ‘commonland’ as well as transhumance practices across Spain.

Abandonment of the farm and land in the late 1960's has led to unchecked amplification of pine forest. The rainwater catchment system no longer functions and does not provide a water resource for agriculture. This is a consequence in changing rainfall, lack of maintenance and over extraction of ground water at lower altitudes.  All areas are currently suffering from serious soil erosion and lack of fertility. Ground water extraction for industrialised ‘out- of-season’ agricultural practices has led to man-manifested earthquakes, groundwater salinity and hygroscopic desiccation. Well-intentioned European Union subsidies have driven an insecure monoculture of agricultural land use, which is susceptible to global market prices and consequently reduces regional food security. In short, the ecological, economic and cultural value of this arid zone has all but disappeared. Slow to regenerate ecosystems are outpaced by the drive to gain short-term financial returns. Traditional activities that provided a sense of ‘place’ have been ignored or forgotten. There is no longer a beneficial interaction by humans within a balanced environment. Within this context inside Europe the first signs of climate change will be felt most keenly here. 

 
 The Los Gázquez project illustarating the water catchment system (bottom right) and the terraces maintaining rainwater.

The Los Gázquez project illustarating the water catchment system (bottom right) and the terraces maintaining rainwater.

 

The Los Gázquez project’s principal hypothesis is that novel ecosystems followed by land abandonment are less resilient to global change. However agro-forestry and socio-ecological systems based upon traditional and sustainable management techniques improve the livelihoods of local communities. Within this context we have four specific objectives:

1) We intend to consider the essential human factor as interventionists (both negative and positive, past, present and future) to best preserve diversity and endurance within our landscape. This process will begin with the study and investigation of the ancient water-catchment system at the project site.

2) The second step is the establishment of several restoration techniques, aimed at the reconstruction of the rainwater catchment system, the incorporation of diverse agricultural techniques of soil and insect natural community’s conservation, and followed by the appropriate research. Although in a long-term basis, we hypothesise that original diversity will be recovered, showing the need for traditional management in arid areas of Europe at the edge of desertification pressures.

3) We aim to re-align contemporary culture as a fundamental asset in the re-imagining of diverse and preserved socio-ecological systems. Networking and social learning activities should promote the engagement of locals, the wider community, Spain and beyond.

4) Once the project is established we intend to model the process making it transferable to all arid landscapes, to all communities struggling to survive amongst diminishing resources. Consequently we aim to involve local and regional policy makers from the very beginning to share and select with them the best management practices conducted during the project that could be offered as engines of development.

If you would like to engage in this project please contact Joya: arte + ecología at simon(at)losgazquez-joya.com

Postscript:

The world has changed in a lifetime. Los Gázquez fifty years on from the days the original family lived here has changed. They visit come the fiestas in summer. Wherever they found themselves after their exodus they gravitate back to their land, even if only in mind. They share their stories of life here with the Beckmanns. They never talk of hardship, of lost children or of hunger. They talk of toil, yes, but they also talk of happiness. They were self-reliant, they produced food from such scant resources. They swam in water. Their life was one co-evolved with all the flora and fauna that mutually benefitted from their culture, their invention. Our challenge is to match their resourcefulness within a climate radically different from theirs. In such a short time, we have become so interdependent upon each other, upon our networks we lack their resilience. Lives are now unequivocally combined in a mutual challenge created by our own profligacy. It is our hope that this project, our combined strategy shall return us to some form of balance with nature whilst exploring the world we hope to change around us..

 
 The view from the top of the Sierra Gigante towards Los Gázquez. The house is at the bottom of the fire break you can see in the centre of the photograph.

The view from the top of the Sierra Gigante towards Los Gázquez. The house is at the bottom of the fire break you can see in the centre of the photograph.