Wednesday, 29 April 2009
It’s all too easy to land in the Canary Islands and, feeling the sun on your face and the breeze in your hair, scurry straight to an idyllic beach resort or quiet rural retreat, not to be heard from again until the morning of your flight out. Yet while we’re sunbathing, swimming, sailing, snorkelling and strolling, the ‘real’ Canaries are chugging along in the background.
Construction is strong in the archipelago; proof of that is the 2.5 million tons of concrete that’s poured annually into hotels, homes and businesses. Agriculture is still alive and well; thousands of Canarios work as farmers, and their growing number of crops (planted across around 520 sq km) are responsible for tasty fruits and veggies and for the often-photographed, well-tended landscapes. New crops such as grapes, avocados, tropical fruits and flowers are contributing to a modern farming miniboom. The fishing industry is also still strong.
Still, there’s no doubt that the prosperity we see in many parts of the islands was brought in large part by tourism. When Spanish dictator Francisco Franco opened Spain to the sun-starved masses in the 1960s, he paved the way for development (and overdevelopment) on the islands. Naturally, this large-scale construction brings its own problems.
With few rivers or sources of fresh water on the islands, getting clean drinking water has always been a problem. Added to that are issues related to erosion, with the depletion of nearby marine life and the general degradation of coasts and tourist areas. Thanks in large part to vocal environmental groups, leaders are beginning to take note. One particularly encouraging step was taken in 2007 by El Hierro, which set in motion a plan to make the island energy self-sufficient, using only renewable energy sources like water, wind and solar power. Less encouraging is what’s happening on Tenerife and La Palma, where projects for new ports, golf courses and hotels are being pushed through over the screaming voices of environmentalists.
These seven islands were long some of the poorest regions of Spain, and only decades ago this territory was practically an afterthought to mainland Spain. Although prosperity has brought the Canaries closer to the mainland, the perceived separation still strikes a real nerve with islanders. Whatever you do, don’t refer to the Iberian Peninsula as Spain – you are in Spain! A minority of islanders, however, argue just the opposite, insisting that the Canaries would be better off as an independent country. This sentiment, although often visible in the form of scrawled ‘Spanish Go Home!’ graffiti, is not a real threat to unity.
Ironically, the islands that have traditionally been sources of poverty-driven emigration are now the recipients of mass immigration. The presence of African immigrants, who arrive almost daily by boat to the islands, is one of the most polarising issues facing the Canaries today. The human drama played out on the beaches here, where sunbathing tourists are at times the first to greet the often infirm and dehydrated immigrants, is heart-wrenching.
Aside from constantly calling on the Spanish government and the European Union for help, the Canaries so far have no solution to this situation.