Heart of Fire


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By Richard Torné

OK, let’s get this over quickly. If you’re a bloke, it’s highly probable that one of your childhood dreams was to become a fireman, and if you’re a woman…do the words ‘calendar’ and ‘charity’ perhaps spring to mind?

Gender stereotyping aside, fire-fighters belong to that select group of professionals the public invariably look up to because they seem to represent the best in us. It’s a powerfully compelling image (who can forget that image of exhausted fire-fighters lying on the ground like rag-dolls the morning after the Grenfell Tower blaze?)

It was a poignant footnote to a terrible tragedy which pulled at the collective heart-strings of the entire nation. There was an implicit understanding that, however beaten they looked, they would have lifted themselves up, dusted themselves down and charged back into the inferno without a moment’s hesitation.

Turre’s fire-fighters may hopefully never have to confront such hellish scenes, but after guarding over the Levante area of Almería for more than 20 years, no-one doubts they would if they had to.


The station’s chief, 50-year-old Paco Flores, has been in charge from the start, although you wouldn’t think the pressure has ever got to him, judging by his jovial manner. “We had no fire trucks at the beginning. Instead, we lugged around rucksacks containing 30 litres of water with a pump,” he says with a smile.

A serious fire in Cortijo Grande more than 24 years ago led a Scottish businessman to donate the first two fire trucks (the handover ceremony was covered by UK TV at the time), and not long afterwards Flores obtained a subsidy to buy an additional two fire tenders.

They’ve never looked back since. The two original fire trucks, a lowly Bedford van and a Dodge with the steering wheel on the right, now lie quietly rusting away in a corner behind the station, while Flores gets to choose all the new equipment from a specialist mail-order catalogue.

The station was temporarily closed before being hastily re-opened in January with a skeleton staff of about two. Put simply, while there are 12 vehicles to service the Levante there are only two in Albox to cover the entire Almanzora valley. Firemen know they would struggle to cope if two, large fires were to break out simultaneously in the Almanzora and the Levante, and although there are plans to increase the force by 26 more firemen, they’re keeping their fingers crossed that nothing major happens until then.

I follow the team on an emergency call out to a reported fire near Sorbas. Chasing the pack along the motorway’s exciting, the climax less so. Drivers on the A-7 motorway, alarmed at the sight of what appeared to be smoke billowing from below a bridge, had in fact seen nothing more than dust being kicked up from the hooves of sheep.

But the threat of wildfires is very real. In the first week of August alone, more than 8,000 hectares of Spanish countryside went up in smoke, according to the ministry of agriculture. And in the first six months of the year there have been double the number of fires across the country compared to 2016.

So far the Levante has been largely spared, with only two, relatively minor, bush fires in the last two months. “People are more aware now, but we’ve had five wild fires by the side of the road recently. You can sometimes see from the way it’s started that it was caused by discarded cigarette butts,” Flores reveals.

By contrast, car fires have been more common – eight since the beginning of July. Many are due to poor vehicle maintenance, but the increasing use of aluminium in car bodies is an added hazard as the alloy reacts with water and burns more fiercely, often leading to a catastrophic meltdown. Fire-fighters also have to take extra precautions with airbags, as these can accidentally deploy while trying to free a crash victim.

As in any job, there’s a routine. With firemen, it’s a daily check on equipment to ensure everything works as it should – it could make the difference between life and death. “The last thing you want is for something to fail just when you need it most,” veteran fire-fighter Felipe Gómez tells me.

Among his pet peeves are drivers who freeze and fail to get out of the way when a fire tender, sirens blaring, is dashing to an incident. “Some get nervous and simply brake. My advice is to just get out of the way.”

Carlos Artero, one of the younger firemen at the station, is reticent about discussing the more harrowing aspects of the job, but he gradually opens up. Four years ago they were called out to deal with an accident on the A-7 motorway near Sorbas, when a BMW somersaulted over the barrier and landed on its side. When they arrived, they were met with a chilling scene. “It was a family of four – father, mother and their two daughters. Two were already dead. The man’s body was lying on top of one of the girls who had survived the crash but was pinned down, and her arm was badly crushed under the car. It seemed to take forever to get the two survivors out of the wreck.

“Some people are very lucky. In one crash, the car fell on the female driver after rolling several times before coming to a rest on a ‘rambla’ (dry river bed), but she walked away without a scratch.”

Every fireman handles stress differently, but chief Flores simply shrugs when asked how he copes with emotional trauma. “There are times when it’s hard, but I feel it’s the same as being a doctor. The worst part is when you meet the relatives of the deceased at the scene of a traffic accident and you have to stop them from getting through.”

It takes three months to train a fire-fighter, but Flores stresses that the learning process continues “for the rest of your life”. I note that there aren’t any female fire-fighters in Turre. He says he would have no problem employing one – as long as they pass the tests. “There was one in Albox and there’s one now in Almería (she was recruited in January). I thought it was a very positive move.” It sounds a bit like a standard PC response. When I ask if he believes women are less physically capable than men, he dodges the question. “I don’t want a ‘wardrobe’ (a big bloke) who is psychologically weak working for me, I prefer a balance between physical and mental attributes.” Presumably that applies to both, but he admits women have to pass less stringent tests to enter the fire service. For instance, to get top marks, men are expected to do 20 repetitions on the pull-up bar; while it’s 17 for women.

But why would anyone want to become a fire-fighter, anyway? “When you know that you’ve saved a life with your work, it’s worth it. I’ve had better paid jobs before, but this is the best one I’ve ever had.” Maybe it’s not too late to get my Fireman Sam colouring book out.


Cheap at half the price


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Britain’s long drawn out industrial decline has less to do with EU membership and more with the country’s inability to punch above its weight as an exporter, argues Richard Torné. Only by stepping up its game – and not by blaming Brussels’ red-tape – can the UK become a more successful trading nation.

By all means, let’s keep railing at the flawed EU, its bloated bureaucracy, penchant for waste and high-handed leaders.

But it’s all coming to a head. The country will on June 8 finally have its say on whether to rubber-stamp Theresa May’s vision for a post-EU Britain.

So far social care, pensions and terrorism have seen to it that the economy plays second fiddle in this election. But we can’t get away from the fact that Brexit is the single issue that will have the greatest impact on the lives of British people, and Britain’s ability to trade and export goods will be a deciding factor in whether the country becomes richer or poorer in the 21st century.

Brexiteers are painting a rose-tinted future for British firms. Free from the shackles of crippling regulation, the UK will be able to secure its own trade deals and flourish in the world’s markets.

If only.

Politicians such as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson have conveniently ignored the fact that Britain’s industrial decline began long before it joined the EU. The sobering truth is that under-investment, woeful management and the destructive force of unions crippled British industry in the past, not the EU.

One story, which curiously happened in Spain, illustrates this beautifully.

Turn the clock back to before 1973, when the UK wasn’t a member of the EU’s forerunner, the EEC. In order to circumvent highly protectionist trade rules (something Britain will still have to deal with when it wants to sell to China and Japan) British Leyland formed a partnership with a Spanish manufacturer to build the Mini and the Austin Victoria, an elegant Triumph Dolomite spin-off, under a newly formed conglomerate called Authi.


It all looked promising at the beginning. There wasn’t a single French or Italian-designed car in Spain at the time that could compete with these two models in terms of sophistication. The Mini was simply leagues ahead of its closest rival – the stumpy, rear-engine Seat 600.

Although the bubble-like Seat is rightly remembered as the car that brought cheap motoring to the Spanish masses, the truth is the 600 was a pig. It was under-powered compared to the Mini, it handled like a brick, and contrary to perceived wisdom it was not reliable – the only thing it had in common with the BL legend.

But it proved to be a false dawn. Authi folded in 1976 in the wake of BL’s all-too-familiar financial problems and poor management decisions – the same reasons that eventually caused the collapse of its successor Rover less than 30 years later.

Fast forward to today, and car manufacturing in the UK is now a relatively successful story, but that’s been largely thanks to foreign ownership and investment, not British business acumen.

Indian firm Tata came to the rescue of Jaguar Land Rover, which is now enjoying unheard of commercial success. BMW stepped in to save Rolls Royce and MINI, and Volkswagen took over Bentley. Even Aston Martin’s recent revival is linked to the financial clout of foreign equity firms – one of them Italian. What this shows is that while Britain may be good at inventing and packaging a product, its track record for running large manufacturing firms is pretty cruddy.

There are many other examples, too. High-street retailer Marks & Spencer inexplicably pulled out of the European market in the early noughties in favour of focusing on its ailing UK stores. It proved to be a hasty decision as the shops in Europe, unlike the ones in Britain, were largely operating at a profit. When M&S later returned to Spain, the company had gone off the boil. Just last week the board announced that annual profits had plunged by 63 per cent.

Closer to our Spanish home we have a plethora of small British businesses along the Costas whose success has often been a bit of a mixed bag. English-only signs, clearly just targeting expats and whose staff are often unable to speak Spanish are object lessons in how not to do business. It certainly didn’t help the chances of survival for many during the last recession.

You may argue that British bars in the Costas have little to do with the cut-and-thrust of international entrepreneurship, but there’s a correlation between failing to identify your potential client base and being an export-shy nation. Let’s not forget the UK lags behind even Italy and Holland when it comes to selling goods abroad.


The future could be even worse. Britain’s post-EU road map was laid out with relish by fervent Brexiteer and economist Patrick Minford before the EU referendum last year. And it made for disturbing reading.

He envisioned a laissez-faire dreamland; a bargain basement economy where nothing much would be made any more. He reckoned that the pulling down of all trade barriers and effectively saying to countries ‘you sell your goods to us at the price you want’ would somehow transform the UK into a new economic powerhouse.

In fact it would spell the end of what little remains of the UK’s manufacturing sector, which currently makes up about 13 per cent of the economy. To compete with other countries, UK companies would have to slash wages to even greater, third world levels, something Minford actually crows about. Mind you, some would say this process has already begun with wages struggling to keep up with the inflation rate – another unwelcome consequence of the decision to leave the EU.

It’ll take more than misplaced optimism and nostalgia to put things right. Let’s hope 10 years from now we won’t be looking back at Brexit as a remarkable confidence trick – as though sizing down from a modern, four-door saloon to a second-hand jalopy was actually what we really wanted all along.

Almería’s poster girl for abandoned animals

As opposition councillor in Almería, Inés Plaza has become an unwitting but staunch campaigner for animal welfare in the city. Her single-minded quest to save the lives of hundreds of abandoned pets came about after a visit to the notorious municipal pound. Despite an uphill struggle she’s not giving up on pooches. Richard Torné tries to find out what makes her tick.


Inés Plaza at the pound

Almería city’s municipal dog pound is an odd-looking structure from the outside. A large cartoon of a dog at one end of the blood-red building appears to be a lame attempt to brighten the mood for the visiting humans. After all, who in their right mind would want to know what really goes on inside?

The pound has been regularly in the news since May last year, when the PSOE party first called on the conservative PP-run council to stop putting down all potentially dangerous dogs at the point of entry (more on that later).

In April, the socialists released some disturbing figures about the pound, claiming that more than 500 dogs and cats had “probably been put to sleep” between 2013-2016. Although the PP disputes the data – despite the fact it was that party that released the figures – the thought that hundreds of animals had apparently vanished into thin air did nothing but add to the shelter’s already macabre track record.

Behind the drive to end the alleged slaughter is 38-year-old Inés Plaza, the PSOE’s diminutive opposition councillor who has been campaigning for the rights of abandoned pets with a crusading zeal unheard of in a local politician.

I arrange to meet her at the pound and when she arrives in a battered red mini I must confess to feeling reassured. Given that politicians currently rank even lower than journalists in the public’s estimation, she remains convinced that politics still holds the key to bringing about profound change – a conviction she says started at an early age.

My mother was a member of the PSOE and I loved politics even when I was a little girl. There are many politicians who are corrupt, but there are many more who are in politics to help people,” she says with a distinct Andaluz accent.

Despite appearances, she admits she was not much of an animal lover until she visited the pound for the first time, “I never even had a dog before”. Seeing for herself the conditions the animals were being kept in changed all that. “It gave me a jolt. They were putting down dogs left, right and centre, it was unbelievable. They weren’t even arranging adoptions. I felt something had to change.”


Some of the scared inmates

Inside the pound, there are rows of small metal cages, some overcrowded with puppies. There are even two ponies that were recently abandoned by their owner, and a handful of cats. Unlike other pounds I’ve visited, the animals are not given a medical check up upon arrival. Many look terrified, some carry nasty wounds, while others are infested with ticks.

Plaza was so incensed by what she witnessed on her first visit that when a PP councillor, Carlos Sánchez, loftily challenged her to “adopt a dog herself if she was that upset”, she did just that. Sánchez sheepishly declined to take up her offer to do the same, however.

She’s highly critical of the ruling conservative Partido Popular party (“they’ve shown absolutely no interest, all they worry about is doing campaigns about dog mess and blaming the animals themselves.”). I suggest that politicians are limited in what they can achieve, and that in the end it’s down to the public to change. “It’s a generational thing, but society is changing,” she insists.


The blood-red building

Increasing the size of the pound as the council intends to do is not the solution if the conditions are going to be as bad.”

She believes the answer lies in increasing the public’s awareness and introducing pet neutering campaigns that include open days and adoption initiatives.

Her first success came in 2016, when she tabled a motion that no potentially dangerous dogs (PPP) should be put down the moment they enter the shelter. Although this was defeated, the PP had not accounted for public opinion.

Days later, when Spanish actor and comedian Dani Rovira denounced what was being done at the pound live on a popular TV show, Plaza saw it as a golden opportunity to table the motion once again, knowing that this time the entire country would be watching.

Her gamble paid off. When it came to a second vote both the PP and C’s – who had previously abstained – unanimously backed her proposal. It took almost six months to implement the modified bylaw, during which time her plea not to sacrifice any dogs went unheeded – 25 were unceremoniously put down – but it marked a turning point.

Her latest campaign to introduce a domestic animal by-law – which would ban the display of puppies in pet shop widows – has been languishing in a town hall drawer since October 2015 due to lack of support. But she fights on.

The latest harebrained idea by the PP is to capture all the stray cats in Almería and dump them in fields on the outskirts of the city. “I’m not sure if the council really wants to do that or if the councillor didn’t have a clue what he was saying and just blurted it out,” she muses.

Her solution is simple. “Spay the cats and release them back in the streets. It all costs money, but do we want a city that’s free of rodents or a city full of strays that are continually fighting and meowing?”

Talk inevitably shifts to the wider issue of animal rights, including bullfighting. I ask if it’s compatible to care about abandoned dogs and yet celebrate the Spanish fiesta. There’s a deep intake of breath followed by nervous laughter. “I think it is. We could talk about this issue for another couple of hours. Yes, they’re animals too, but in my view…and I’m sure you think differently…the bull is bred for that purpose. The bull lives free. Granted, it dies in the ring, but it can defend itself. I cannot understand of course the Toro de la Vega (a recently banned ‘sport’ where the bull was chased in a field before being lanced to death by horsemen) or those sorts of fiestas.”

It’s the first time during the interview that she appears less than assured, but it’s only for a fleeting moment. She admits to being an avid fan of the national fiesta and has been going to bullfights since her parents first took her at the age of two. Her own brother is a banderillero. “It’s a cultural thing”. I change tack and ask if circus and fairground animals are fair game. They’re not, she concludes.

There is little doubt in my mind she feels passionate about animal welfare issues – bullfighting notwithstanding. “With some people they get a maternal instinct to have children, with me it’s having dogs.”

Blaming Trump if the Palomares clean-up deal is shelved won’t do – Spain is merely covering up for its own failings

By Richard Torné

Trump’s inaugural speech came as no surprise. It was a bombastic exercise in nationalist and religious sentiment, delivered with all the gusto of a crusading Chief-in-Command. Well, at least in his eyes.

Many understandably believe the planet will be in for a very rough ride in the coming years as a result of Donald’s election success, so Spain’s verdict on his inaugural speech was equally predictable: Trump is a big-screen villain who will scupper the Palomares clean up deal.


Given his ambivalence towards environmental issues, and his desire to undo his predecessor’s work, one can expect Trump to tear up the Palomares clean-up deal. But there has never been the political will in Spain to resolve the issue

Given his woeful track record on environmental issues, his thin-skinned response to criticism, his ‘USA-first-at-the-expense-of-all-else’ mantra and his ambivalence towards Hillary Clinton, it’s reasonable to assume he will bin the much-hailed ‘statement of intent’, signed by both countries in October 2015, to remove all the contaminated soil from Palomares following the 1966 accident.

But if this happens, it would be wrong to lay the blame entirely at Trump’s feet. If we’ve learnt anything about the Palomares saga so far, it’s that apathy, ignorance and downright negligence have always been key factors in this sorry tale – and the Spanish are partly to blame for this.

If the 2015 deal eventually proves to be a false dawn it won’t be the first time this has happened. In February 2012, before the last US presidential election, Spain was assured by the Spanish foreign minister Jose Margallo that a deal of sorts had been struck with the US to remove all the contaminated soil (some 50,000 cubic metres, no less). “Clinton promises Margallo good news soon about Palomares”, screamed the headlines, but the press failed to point out that no joint statement was issued to confirm this (Clinton was noticeably absent when Margallo made the remark).

Seeking clarification, I contacted US embassy spokesman Jeff Galvin at the time. He revealed that Clinton had not said anything of the sort, but it was clear the Americans weren’t about to contradict Margallo’s comments, which were aimed mostly at a domestic audience.

It was said that Clinton, who was the US State Secretary at the time, wanted to resolve the matter before the elections in November that year. But November came and went and nothing happened. The agreement was put on hold, apparently because the US feared a precedent would be set if the clean up went ahead, as other countries affected by nuclear mishaps would seek similar deals – although this amounted to no more than a rumour.

It didn’t help matters when Palomares was kept off the agenda during an hour-long meeting in Washington between presidents Rajoy and Obama in January 2014.

By now, it should have dawned on everyone that the Spanish had once again been fobbed off with vague promises, but there were no major voices of dissent; no protest marches, and there was no political backlash against Margallo for having misled the public.


Serious diplomacy this ain’t – Foreign minister Margallo presents US State Secretary John Kerry with a guitar as a gift during their encounter in 2015

The latest ‘agreement’ in 2015 was billed as a major step forward, but it was filled with caveats. For a start, it was a non-legally binding ‘statement of intent’ – which is another way of saying it was not worth the paper it was written on.

There were clear disagreements, too, about who should pay for the cost of the operation, where the soil should be shipped to, and how it would be removed. A bizarre suggestion that a special road should be purpose built to transport the earth from Palomares to Cartagena did nothing to quell the suspicion that the Americans ‘were having a lark’.

A source from the environmental association Ecologistas en Acción once told me that at one of the crucial meetings between the two countries, the Spanish had come totally unprepared. He said the Americans took it as a sign that their counterparts weren’t really that serious about resolving the issue.

It may be an apocryphal story, but one only has to look at Margallo, who has spent far more time and resources over the last few years banging on about Gibraltar than he has about Palomares, to show how frivolous the Spanish have been in their approach to this particular conflict with a close ally.

And if the Spanish Government can be accused of not taking Palomares seriously enough, it is because it knows there is no effective pressure being applied to do otherwise. Even warnings that plutonium will in time degrade into the far more lethal americium have had little effect on the public, while many home-owners in the area are more concerned about the impact adverse publicity will have on the value of their properties.

Trump has yet to make a statement on Palomares, but if this is the best Spain can come up with at the negotiating table, we’re doomed.

My time in the Calais Jungle


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What’s it like to do humanitarian work in a refugee camp? And why would anyone want to go there? Having recently spent time as a volunteer in Europe’s biggest camp Felicity Rose stopped off for a break to talk about her experiences.

It’s Ms Rose’s first visit to Mojacar. The trip had been intended as a quiet holiday-come-family reunion, but it must have come as a bit of a shock – the seaside resort is a world away from the suffering she witnessed barely weeks ago working as a volunteer in one of the world’s most notorious refugee camps: the Calais jungle.

We sit for a chat outside a bar in the hill-top village. Wrapped in a shawl to keep out the chill, she recounts her time working with autistic children in Brighton, and with Indian tribes and Australian aborigines, but her tone changes when she talks about her experiences in northern France. “I thought I was pretty prepared for what I was doing until I arrived in Calais.

I saw some horrific things. I’d watch fights as people tried to get out and saw them getting tear-gassed by the police and fires going off as I was teaching the children.”

The world watched as the drama unfolded in Calais earlier this month, when the last vestiges of what had once been intended as a temporary staging post for migrants was demolished. At its height, the jungle was home to more than 8,000 migrants, according to the Help Refugees association, but the dire conditions sparked riots and a diplomatic row between the UK and France. The endless stream of negative news coming from the jungle also had a profound impact on public opinion in Britain. From the fear of jihadist terrorists infiltrating the site, to assaults on lorry drivers and even the rape of a female interpreter at the camp just as it was being dismantled the reports ensured there was little public sympathy for migrants.

But the problem is not going away. The United Nations high commissioner has said the world is witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record, and estimates that 65.3 million people have so far been forced from their homes – 21.3 million of whom are refugees.


Happier times at the camp

The crisis requires governments to provide solutions on a grand scale, but it’s the volunteers who will be on the front line. In Calais there was an army of about 300 such people, hardly enough to cope – so who would want to be one? A fashion designer by profession, Ms Rose was effectively set up for life in her early 20s, but she walked away from a glittering career and a huge salary 10 years ago after seeing how workers at a garment factory in China were being exploited.

I saw people hunched over rickety stalls working long hours in appalling conditions,” she says. For many, the incident would have been shrugged off as an inevitable consequence of having a fast-growing economy – and it still fails to explain why she made such a life-changing decision.

I hate injustice and racism,” she explains. “I hate the fact that people judge others by the way they look and where they come from.”

Her principles cut no ice with her family, who could not understand why she had thrown her career away, but she says she has no regrets. “Once your eyes have been opened you cannot shut them again – you can’t walk with blinkers on.”

When she first arrived at the camp it was in the middle of the night. “I would never recommend anyone to just turn up, because you don’t know what you’re walking into. It’s like any society, only intensified. You’ll find amazingly beautiful people – the majority are – but there is a lot of desperation and it’s also a male-oriented place. Anything can happen inside.”

At first she began teaching English to Eritrean and Sudanese men, but she quickly “burned out”. She admits sexism was prevalent and on occasion an obstacle to teaching, which included – of all things – unexpected marriage proposals. “I was nice and polite about it and they were as well, so it was never a major problem, I would simply find them a male teacher or an older female one to continue teaching them.”

I mention the tabloid reports about young men who were allegedly passing themselves off as children in order to obtain refugee status. “A lot of those children look a lot older than they are because they’re exhausted, they’ve suffered trauma and have been travelling for months – some of them looked 20 but were in fact 14.

One kid who was 16 had lost his parents at the age of seven and been sent to prison twice in Sudan for stealing food. He spent five days travelling from Libya in a truck full of sheep and was kept as a slave by people who tried to kill him because he couldn’t pay them.

When he fled on a boat, out of 355 people only 55 survived. The first bit of humanity he got when he reached Europe was to be fingerprinted.”

Her voice quivers as she recounts the boy’s story. She accuses both the UK and French governments of aggravating the problem by failing to recognise the site officially. “By not having refugee camp status, there aren’t the trained professionals you need to support the people in the camp as well as the volunteers, many of whom end up suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”


Police moving in to evict migrants at the camp back in March 2016 (Photo: Wikipedia)

I suggest that no European country wants the stigma of having a refugee camp within its borders. “You can’t stop it happening, there are already satellite camps going up all around northern France again.”

She is also highly dismissive of the tabloid claims that refugees are just jihadists-in-waiting. “People who are running away from Afghanistan aren’t terrorists, they had their mothers, brothers and sisters killed by the Taliban, or they were running away from their own families who were Taliban.”

Her ideals could be dismissed as a convenient way to mask her own prejudices, but she sticks to her guns – it’s people, not borders, that matter. To make her point she says it was not all gloom and doom in Calais, as the better side of human nature often shone through. “There were female freedom fighters from Kurdistan who were amazing individuals. Some of the most incredible food I’ve ever eaten was in the camp. Singing in a choir and live feeding the concert to London was another amazing moment, as was hearing about the 15-year-old kid you’d been with who had been allowed to go to the UK.”

Next year, she plans to go to a refugee camp in Jordan, which has taken in more refugees than any other country (1.4 million, according to the UN high commission), and then to another camp in Palestine, but won’t say when or where for fear that the Israeli authorities will prevent her from entering the country (“they won’t let you in if you’re doing humanitarian work in Palestine”).

Jumping from the frying pan into the fire comes to mind. I ask how she psyches herself up before embarking on a new mission, and despite everything she has said it still comes as a shock when she admits she’s suffering from PTSD. So why do it? “I was recently told a native American story about a forest fire. All the animals flee except for a humming bird which keeps collecting water in its small beak to put on this big fire. An animal watching says ‘Why do it? You’re not going to make any difference’, to which the humming bird replies, ‘I do what I can’.”

Planting the seeds of a revolution


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Almería is known as Europe’s greenhouse, but despite strong export figures the farming sector is facing an uncertain future due to an over-reliance on subsidies, questionable production methods and the spectre of water shortages. Some however are spearheading a new wave in crop growing methods. Richard Torné visits one such high-tech company in Pulpí.

Neat lines of Chinese cabbages – Pak Choi – stretch out as far as the eye can see. The temperature – and the smell – from inside the modern, high-tech greenhouse is surprisingly fresh and pleasant. A handful of workers labour away, the silence occasionally broken by the gentle whirr of a computer-controlled production line.

Elsewhere, strawberries and tomatoes are being grown in a smaller greenhouse in what can only be described as a display area. The strawberry plants hang from a motorised mobile rack suspended in the air; each one placed inside an inverted triangular bag, its innards concealing a complex irrigation system patented by NGS, an offshoot of farming conglomerate Primaflor. It’s crop growing in Almería, but not as we know it.

I’ve been given a tour of the complex in Pulpí by bubbly sales rep Carla Ramos, who assures me that this is the future of farming. “Lettuces have a lot of pesticides, but because we don’t use any soil to grow our crops in, we’ve eradicated those which are soil-based,” she says, keen to impress upon me the firm’s environmentally-friendly credentials.

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The company has been refining its hydroponic system for more than two decades. It’s an ingenious method of crop growing that is soil-free, or in the case of strawberries virtually soil-free. Although NGS is not the only firm to have adopted the technique, it claims its watering and oxygenation process is more efficient as it involves a more advanced form of drip irrigation, producing a ‘cascade effect’ to feed the free-flowing roots. It helps to eradicate many of the soil-based diseases which devastate crops, resulting in greater production and a 50 per cent reduction on pesticides and water.

The system has been adopted by UK jam maker Wilkin and Sons, and the firm is now growing its own strawberries back in England. It may open the export floodgates – and not before time.

With an annual turnover of some €2.6 billion, Almería’s farming sector is one of the country’s economic mainstays, but there are many who feel farmers are sticking their heads in the sand, particularly when it comes to the issue of illegal workers, the overexploitation of water resources and pesticide use.

A Guardian article from 2011, denouncing the exploitation of tens of thousands of immigrant farm workers unsurprisingly came in for much criticism, but despite boasts from farmers’ unions and the regional government that Almería’s farming methods are modern, the reality is often more complex – and less edifying.

In January, Spain’s pepper growers were hit with a year-long export ban in the US after inspectors detected the presence of a harmful pest in a number of batches from Almería. And last month, the Junta’s agriculture delegate, José Manuel Ortiz, urged farmers to do more to implement biological controls instead of relying on toxic pesticides, after figures showed there had been a marked drop (down by 875 hectares this year) in this natural method of pest control.

And while drip irrigation may mitigate the impact of drying aquifers, when you are watering more than 120 square miles of greenhouses and a further 10,000 hectares in the open air, careful water management becomes a hazy concept.

Business is also going to get a lot tougher. Spanish farmers will have to rely on less state aid while striving to become more competitive in an increasingly fierce export market. In Almería alone, farmers have had their subsidies slashed by €13.6 million following the EU’s common agricultural policy reforms for 2014-2020. To cap it all, farm unions are complaining their members are being squeezed out of the market by the all-powerful high-street supermarkets.

If farming is to survive in Almería it must embrace ever more high-tech solutions, according to Primaflor agronomist Antonio Oliva. “Systems like ours are being adopted worldwide, but these advanced farming methods account for less than five per cent of the total in Almería. Compare that to Mexico, where it’s more than 30 per cent. In Portugal they love our system for growing strawberries, but not in Huelva – there it’s the unions who dictate when to collect the crops.”

The Junta, he says, has so far showed little interest despite making big noises about the need to up the ante. “They won’t change until they’re on the edge of the precipice.”

He reckons it’s mostly big Spanish firms that are embracing change, to the detriment of small farmers, who are simply unwilling or unable to make the necessary investment and modernise their production methods. He refuses to say how much that would cost, but he assures me that a farmer could recoup his investment within six years. Soon, they may have no choice. Large producers are extending their reach by agreeing to rent land from uncompetitive farmers on condition they grow crops exclusively for them, often in long-term lease deals of 30 years or more.

Sr Oliva however believes the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. “One of the problems with traditional farming methods is that pathogens become resistant on land where the same crop has been planted for decades. There is also the build up of toxins from fertilisers, while organic crops still have the problem of pest control. But with our system there are no carcinogenic disinfectants on the ground, excess water is collected and re-used, and bees are used to pollinate the flowers. The farmer employs fewer people, too, doubles production and decides when to reap the harvest.”

Consumers will perhaps have the last word. Pre-cut washed salads are becoming an increasingly common sight on supermarket shelves – even if these products are up to 10 times more expensive. The idea of growing your own crops is also catching on. Ikea has adopted a similar, albeit less sophisticated, system to Primaflor’s, and Sr Oliva believes the concept will become ever more popular. “Children love to see how plants grow; to follow the process. They take a personal interest in their food.”

Farmers have a stark choice to make, he concludes. “Five or 10 years from now agriculture will be transformed, and small to medium sized producers will disappear.”

Adapt or die. Luddites were faced with a similar dilemma exactly 200 years ago with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and who is willing to bet against history repeating itself?

A soothing balm in an arid landscape

Fancy a flutter? Richard Torné wanders into deepest Níjar to learn more about Almería’s only butterfly farm and discovers the fascination with these colourful insects

A young girl looks on open mouthed, gazing at the inside of a small wooden cabinet where a host of butterflies in the pupal stage are being cosseted prior to emerging, phoenix-like, as adults.

It’s not all dewy-eyed amazement, though. Another girl snaps away on a large camera but flinches in horror whenever a butterfly hovers close by, her weary mum explaining for the umpteenth time that they don’t sting.

Irritating children aside, it wouldn’t be stretching the truth to say that the ‘Mariposario de Níjar’ butterfly farm is an oasis of calm and colour in the barren desert of Níjar. Not much larger than a tennis court, it’s also home to some 16 exotic species of butterfly, mostly from the Far East, and central and south America.

Two enthusiastic French women, Yolanda Renedo and Evelyne Stofer, run the place single-handedly. Ms Renedo caught the bug six years ago, during a visit to a butterfly farm while on holiday in the caribbean island of Saint Martin.

I fell in love with the idea of opening my own butterfly farm – the one in Saint Martin was magical.” For Ms Renedo, a translator by profession, it was a “life-changing transformation”, albeit not as miraculous as the ones she’s used to seeing when butterflies emerge from the chrysalis.

It may not come as a surprise to anyone who has lived in Andalucía long, but the biggest challenge the two faced was not becoming butterfly experts. “It took us two years to do all the paperwork and to comply with regional and EU regulations. That was really hard.”

The centre opened its doors to the public for the first time in April, much to the bafflement of locals and the bemusement of some ecologists, who initially expressed scepticism about the project. Some of the local Nijareños have taken more time to adapt to the concept of a butterfly farm, however. “It makes no sense to them, but to be fair the shop owners send loads of people to us,” she adds.

It’s not hard to fathom the appeal of butterflies – they’re colourful, elegant, gentle and don’t appear to share the more undesirable traits of some of their insect cousins. Well, not all. Some butterflies feast on rotting flesh rather than nectar.

But don’t let that put you off. No other animal epitomizes life’s transience and all its vigour better than a butterfly. Perhaps it’s also to do with the transformation of something seemingly insignificant into something beautiful and life affirming.

Worldwide there are between 150,000-200,000 species. At the farm you can view the magnificent Emperor, a large blue butterfly that feasts on rotting fruit (there’s another of life’s contradictions), and the well known Monarch.

The most common question Renedo gets asked from visitors is about a butterfly’s life expectancy. “That varies. It can be as little as a day with some species like the pine processionary moth, (which is harmless but notoriously deadly to other creatures in the caterpillar stage), while others can live up to a year.”

The numbers you see vary depending on the season and even the time of day, but during my visit I was surrounded by a cluster of butterflies at any one time, their silent flight becoming a hypnotic and playful dance.

As I sat on a bench to observe them, I was reminded of Renedo’s saying which has also become the farm’s motto: “Butterflies are like happiness, if you chase it it’s beyond your reach, but if you sit and wait, it’ll settle over you.” It may sound like the sort of pseudo, philosophical clap-trap you get in Facebook or a Chinese fortune cookie, but I found myself helplessly drawn in. I’m not sure if it worked, sitting there like an awkward statue, but my wife later assured me two Emperor butterflies had teasingly been hovering over and even under me – a sure sign they were in tune with my spiritual state, she said. Bless her.

But that’s perhaps the point. In this age of noisy and brash theme parks, and the increasing demand for a bigger bang for your buck, the farm was a soothing balm. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

Renedo dismisses as fanciful the suggestion that butterflies have a personality but agrees that different species have separate behavioural traits, and admits to being surprised whenever they break that pattern. “There’s no question that some species are more gregarious than others. The Julia Butterfly likes to flit around people a lot – they’re naturally inquisitive. Others lay eggs almost anywhere and I remember one laying an egg on a girl’s finger once.

Every butterfly is a world apart,” she adds grandly. “Even their life expectancy surprises you. It’s wonderful watching them gather together at night to sleep.” Magic.

The ‘Mariposario de Nijar’ is open daily from April to November. Guided tours in English. Tickets for adults cost 8.50 euros. Pensioners seven euros. Children aged three-11, students and the unemployed six euros. Special reduction for groups. For more information, call 617692778 or 673367135. Website mariposariodenijar.blogspot.com

A butterfly emerges from its pupal stage, about to take its first flight

A butterfly emerges from its pupal stage, about to take its first flight

Death in the evening


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Spain’s Civil War and its aftermath sparked almost 10 years of death and revenge-driven destruction. In the Almería village of Turre, the murder of a parish priest just weeks after the start of the conflict was symbolic of the madness that swept through the entire country, dividing small communities and causing wounds which have yet to heal.

By Richard Torné

Father Ejea

Father Ejea

Death came knocking on the door late that night. But it wasn’t totally unexpected. Florencio López Ejea, Turre’s much loved parish priest, had been repeatedly warned by friends to leave the country or face certain death. His response had been typical of a man in his position: “A shepherd never abandons his flock.”

Now, it was too late. The 15-strong mob, many of whom had been drinking throughout the day, were armed and in no mood to talk, knowing they were about to lynch the priest.

Father Ejea had hidden for some weeks in his sister’s house, a humble cortijo perched on the ‘Barranco del Negro’ hill just outside the village. The local head of the Revolutionary Committee (a well-intentioned man who, despite his position, did not want the priest to come to any harm) had warned Father Ejea not to open the door to anyone except him.

But that night the mob set out without the knowledge of the Revolutionary Committee’s chief. When they came knocking, Father Ejea’s brother-in-law caved in, and despite being armed he opened the door, effectively handing the priest over to his executioners.

A small commemorative stone marks the spot where the priest was murdered

A small commemorative stone marks the spot where the priest was murdered

The vicar, a small man with such poor eyesight he could barely see without his glasses, was led away to a field. One of the gang slapped him in the face, sending his glasses flying. “You won’t need them for what you are going to see,” retorted one of the thugs.

It’s impossible to know for sure whether Father Ejea knew he was about to die, but scenes like this one would be repeated in Spain throughout the Civil War. Revolutionary committees, known as ‘Consejos Municipales’, were set up in every village tasked with organising summary executions. Legitimate authority disappeared overnight and many grabbed the opportunity to settle old scores. It didn’t take much to fan the flames of hatred in villages, where old resentments and family jealousies had been simmering for generations. Mobs sympathetic to the Republic went on a rampage from July to September 1936, murdering priests and anyone suspected of having right-wing sympathies. As a symbol of the establishment, the Church became a prime target even before it threw its weight behind the rebel fascist general, Francisco Franco. Spain was, after all, a largely backward society run on feudal lines. It didn’t matter if you were a dedicated priest who did not support the far right. Wearing a dog collar in Almería was enough to seal your fate.

Father Ejea’s short march ended in a field known as La Higuera del Conejo, but historical experts cannot agree on the exact details of his death, ironically mirroring Spain’s ongoing inability to reconcile its bloody past. Eusebio Rodriguez Padilla, a writer who is currently compiling a series of booklets on the Fascist post-war repression in Almería, says Ejea’s death was mercifully quick and relatively painless.

“They shot him as he tried to flee and finished him off as he lay on the ground.” Turre’s parish priest, Francisco Martínez Botella, has a different version. “They beat and tortured him without mercy, cutting off his genitals. And they found his body riddled with bullets.” A young shepherd raised the alarm the next day after discovering Ejea’s body dumped in the field where he had been shot. The Revolutionary Committee hastily removed the body, anxious to prevent anyone from seeing the mutilated remains, and buried the priest in the local cemetery.

But why was this much-loved priest brutally murdered in what was a small close- knit community? Local historian Juan Grima believes Ejea’s death was linked more to money than religion. “Father Ejea lent money to people who were trying to emigrate to North Africa and Argentina in search of work. Some of those who owed him cash decided that by killing him they’d clear their debts.” It was simple but ruthless logic. Father Botella disagrees and insists his predecessor was killed “simply for being a vicar”.

Either way, Father Ejea’s murder opened the floodgates. Following his death, 33 priests were executed in August alone. Jose and Antonio Fuentes Ballesteros – two priests who were uncles of Jacinto Alarcon Fuentes, a future mayor of Mojacar – were murdered in October in a field in Los Gallardos. In all, some 116 bishops, priests and people connected to the Catholic Church – including two women – were put to death in the province.

Predictably, there were no immediate repercussions following Ejea’s death, and although no one else was killed in Turre the murder would hang like a dark cloud, casting shame on everyone, irrespective of whether they had been involved in Ejea’s death or not.

But Turre, like the rest of Spain, had not seen the worst of it. With the victory of the fascists came Franco’s brutal post-war repression, which was even bloodier and more ruthless. All those linked to any party associated with the left-wing Popular Front were charged with rebellion.

Anyone who had been a mayor or a councillor in Almería during the Civil War could be sent to prison for 14 years. Military courts went further and handed out summary justice to civilians, who were generally notified of the charges against them barely 15 minutes before being put on trial.

Some 373 people were eventually tried and executed in Almería, bringing the total to 1,200 non-combatants killed before, during and after the Civil War.

The climate of fear from 1939 until 1945 also swept through Turre, resulting in some odd scenes. When the Guardia Civil came to arrest one of the suspects involved in Father Ejea’s murder in the square, the priest’s brother-in-law (the same one who had blatantly failed to defend him three years earlier) lunged at the hapless youth, wailing “Let me at him!” Few, however, were taken in by the charade.

As for the arrested 16-year-old youth, he was executed by a firing squad soon afterwards, but not before he had written a note to Father Ejea’s sister, expressing his sorrow and shame at the murder.

Yet, in a typical cruel twist of fate, the three hotheads who had masterminded the priest’s murder (one of whom was reportedly a Catalan anarchist with no direct links to Turre) fled to France and were never brought to justice.

The vicar who eventually took over Father Ejea’s vacant post dished out his own brand of justice, according to Grima, and was reportedly a pederast who preyed on the children of former left-wing party members sent to prison by Franco.

On the site where the cortijo once stood in the Barranco del Negro hill, a new village school now stands, where children are taught about tolerance and respect, blissfully unaware of one of Turre’s darkest episodes. Just beyond, on a piece of scrubland close to where Father Ejea was killed, lies a modest commemorative stone marking the date and site of his death.

Amid Franco’s lust for revenge and the madness that was unleashed by the opposing side during the first few months of the war, a faint voice of humanity can still be heard. Turre resident Luisa Martínez López, who was a six-year-old girl at the time of the priest’s death, is still visibly moved at the mention of the murder, and her eyes well up with tears. “Yes, I remember Father Ejea. He was a nice man, ‘un hombre muy bueno’. It’s terrible what they did to him. I never really got over his death.”

The last of a dying breed: Mario Sanz, Mesa Roldán’s lighthouse keeper




Mario Sanz has been Mesa Roldán’s light house keeper for almost a quarter of a century (Photo: Richard Torné)

Think of a lighthouse and you’re likely to conjure up an image of a frail-looking tower, stoically resisting the crashing waves as it shines a comforting beacon for lost ships during a fearsome storm. Inside, a solitary lighthouse keeper stands dutifully at his post.

It’s the picture of grim solitude for most, perhaps, but for Mario Sanz, becoming the lighthouse keeper of Mesa Roldán in Carboneras was the best thing that ever happened to him.

I don’t regret coming here at all. After I passed my entrance exams for lighthouse keeper I could have been sent anywhere but got posted here. I told my wife ‘you wanted the beach? Well, here it is’.” It helps that the couple have no children – and that his wife was “over the moon” with her husband’s career change.

At 55, he looks fit and healthy. A photograph dating from 1992 – a year before he became Mesa Roldán’s keeper – shows that his white hair was already a feature before he took on the job, which he admits is anything but stressful.

In Almería we don’t get the terrible storms they get in Galicia – lightning is a far more common problem for us. I am also responsible for the upkeep of one buoy only, whereas in Galicia I’d have to maintain 30.”

His is a typical tale of the city dweller who turned his back on the hustle and bustle of the metropolis to start a new life in the unforgiving wilderness. “Before I became a lighthouse keeper I owned a bar in Madrid. We earned a lot of money but I had nothing to do in the mornings, so I started an official course on lighthouse keeping.”

He failed his first entrance exams (“I had no idea about electronics, or the sea”) but was more fortunate the second time around and was posted to Carboneras.

The lighthouse was falling apart – the previous keeper was a nice chap, but very lazy.” Thankfully for him, the port authority renovated the installations months later – and he hasn’t looked back.

Sanz is the last of a dying breed. The Government is gradually phasing out lighthouse keepers in favour of fully automated lighthouses, which are reputedly cheaper and require less maintenance. “There haven’t been any entrance exams since 1991, so when I retire no-one will take over from me.”

He smiles ruefully as he admits the port authorities “don’t do anything to keep lighthouses going”, but he doesn’t sound bitter at all, which suggests that he is a lot happier being left alone. In any case, lighthouses per se are not likely to disappear as long as there are ships. “Despite today’s GPS systems you need a physical reference. That’s what ship captains tell me, anyway.”


Mesa Roldán is one of 10 operational lighthouses in the province. Each one emits its own distinct pulse, so that ships can identify them. “Mesa Roldán gives off four intermittent flashes every 20 seconds,” he points out.

So what’s the appeal of lighthouses? “They are totally unique. There’s also the contrast between light and shade…the sea. They’re not easily accessible, either, which adds to their mystique.”

It’s no wonder, then, that lighthouses have been extensively depicted in both literature and film. Who can forget a young Jamie Lee Curtis clambering onto the roof of a lighthouse in her desperate attempt to escape from the clutches of a ghoul in John Carpenter’s horror classic, ‘The Fog’? More recently there was the Spanish drama ‘Lucia y el Sexo’, with the Cap de Barbaria lighthouse providing a striking backdrop for a scantily-clad Paz Vega as she rides her moped across a bleak Formentera landscape.

Loneliness, fear of the unknown and man’s battle against the elements are common lighthouse themes, but Sanz, whose disarming nature is apparent from the moment you meet him, is keen to dispel the image of moody misanthrope, so often associated with lighthouse keepers. “Most of my colleagues are loners,” he concedes. “But not me, I like to socialise.”

To prove the point he regularly organises poetry readings and has written extensively on the history of lighthouses. He is also the self-appointed curator of a quaint on-site lighthouse museum – all done without the help of the public administrations.

Mesa Roldán, which he describes as being “a very kind lighthouse”, in contrast to its more desolate northern counterparts, was built in 1863. Since then, the original oil burning lamps have been replaced by modern and much smaller electric bulbs. Keen to see how it all works I am led up some narrow steep steps to the top of the lighthouse – the light station – which houses the classic lantern room. Sanz opens the large lens to reveal the heart of the operation: a tiny, five filament bulb. “They’re more efficient than ever, but they need replacing every two months.” Perched atop what Sanz says is “highest lighthouse in the Mediterranean”, we enjoy a breathtaking view. He deflates my sense of occasion, however, by dispelling the belief that you can glimpse the African coastline on a good day. “You can see up to 150 kilometres out, and from left to right it’s double that. But although you can observe the curvature of the earth, you can’t see the Algerian coastline from here.”

In his time as keeper, he has witnessed the rescue of the crew of a burning fishing boat as it sank in waters 200 metres deep, as well as the foiled rescue bid of a Guardia Civil diver, who drowned close-by some 18 years ago. It took his grief-stricken colleagues a month to find the body.

Such incidents provide a painful reminder of the darker side of the waters around these idyllic shores. “The waters here are very deep. You have an underwater shelf, but not far out it plunges hundreds of metres deep,” he warns.

Sanz describes himself as a ‘land sailor’, but few landlubbers know as much about the sea and its dangers as a lighthouse keeper. He points to a yacht in the distance as it laboriously potters along against a head wind, sails fully lowered. “Look at them,” he scoffs. “Absolutely clueless. They must be from Madrid. That’s not how you do it. You’re supposed to use your sails to navigate in a zig-zag fashion to take advantage of wind direction.”

Bear that in mind next time you take a boat trip close to the Mesa Roldán lighthouse – this former bar owner from Madrid has had 24 years to suss it all out.

If you are interested in visiting the museum, contact Mario Sanz by email at mariosanzcruz@hotmail.com to arrange a guided tour.

Must the show go on?


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Animal rights group Equinac and the Izquierda Unida party unsuccessfully tried to ban the Circo Jamaica circus from performing in El Ejido (Almeria) recently. It was the latest episode in the bitter war being waged between activists and circuses that use live animals. Richard Torné went to see the embattled circus in Vera recently to find out if it’s time for such shows to call it a day.

Jorge is a troubled man. As the head of the Circo Jamaica, a travelling circus currently doing the rounds in Almería, he is seething with anger at animal rights groups, whom he blames for making his life and livelihood impossible. “Even before we get to a town activists have already pulled down our posters. They’ve even thrown stones at us.”

A modestly run family business, Circo Jamaica has been around since the fifties – an impressive feat by any account – but like all circus acts it is struggling to survive in the 21st century.

“No-one has a right to criticise us,” Jorge continues, eyeing me suspiciously, perhaps aware that I wouldn’t normally choose to spend a Saturday evening going to a circus. “If you own a dog and you take it everywhere on a lead, how is that better than what we are doing? I feel as though I’m being lynched in public, but if I’m to be judged it should be for what I do and not for what others have done.” He is of course referring to the use of animals in circuses. Behind the (fading) glitter, the clowns and the jugglers the big top is facing its biggest crisis in years, trying to convince an increasingly sceptical public that watching a show with tutu-donning monkeys and applauding seals is nothing but a bit of harmless fun.


Anita and Jorge, who run the Circo Jamaica, a family-run circus with more than half a century of history, are battling against animal campaigners while struggling to survive in the 21st century as a viable business


Tonight’s performance in Vera ends melodramatically with a rendition of Queen’s ‘The Show Must Go On’ blaring out from the speakers. It may be overtly ironic, but the plaintive cry from a dying artist neatly sums up the struggle of these circus performers.

The troupe travels hundreds of kilometres across the country every year. Come rain or shine the artists – clowns, jugglers, contortionists and trainers, both male and female – muck in together, erecting heavy marquees or taking turns at the box office. In between shows they also have to negotiate with increasingly hostile councils to obtain permits. These were rejected in Níjar just two weeks later, not because of the performing animals as such but because these were part of a travelling circus. Jorge fumes back, sending me text messages: “Aren’t pet dogs also abused? Should Níjar council also ban everyone from having pets?”

As far as he’s concerned there is no distinction between a wild and a domesticated animal. “They are just convenient tags we place on them.”

Serafin Pedrosa, spokesman for the Izquierda Unida party in El Ejido which tried to ban Jorge’s circus, disagrees. “The needs of a wild animal are very different to domestic pets, which have adapted to live with humans over thousands of years. We are also openly against the use of cages which is where wild animals are habitually kept.”

Animal associations have been exposing the underbelly of performing animal shows and the methods used by circus trainers for years, such as how they break elephants by forcing them to stand on a concrete floor for 23 hours a day for up to six months. One of the most publicised cases involved Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey – reputedly the world’s oldest circus. Last year it announced it would be retiring its 42 elephants earlier than expected in the wake of complaints from activists (although the circus denied this) and the morass of local US laws on the use of animals in live shows.

In Spain to date, more than 280 municipalities have banned circuses that use performing animals, according to pressure group Infocircos. In Almería province, only Níjar council has so far joined that growing list, despite a regional government law banning their use if the animal is “subjected to unnatural treatment”. The war is unrelenting. While Lorca council in Murcia rejected a motion in support of animal-free circuses last month, Librilla in the same region voted to ban their use soon after.

The show in Vera is about to start. There is a reasonably sized crowd on this unpleasantly dank, January night, but it’s almost exclusively made up of awe-struck toddlers and their duty-bound parents.

The show begins innocuously enough with a mismatch of dance and theatre, including the odd cinematic reference thrown in for good measure. Later on two rheas – sprayed white – are inexplicably joined by a galloping Emu that’s unceremoniously chased off the stage by a man in a Wile E. Coyote costume. A pony and a huge dromedary – the latter also sprayed white – rounds off the bizarre spectacle. The star of the show, a 16-year-old female puma, makes a token appearance but proves uncooperative (I was later told she was on heat), and ringmaster Jorge is forced to explain why this seemingly fearsome feline is behaving more like a listless household moggy.


The way things were…and still are in many circuses – poster dating from 1900

The overriding impression is that there is nothing in the act that couldn’t be done without animals. Instead, the public is left with a gimcrack of disconnected and ill-conceived sketches, as though someone had reached the conclusion that the mere presence of live animals would be enough to get the crowd going. And as campaigners often state, the animals don’t get a say as to whether they should perform or not.

Afterwards I’m taken to the enclosure where some of the animals are kept, but it’s pitch black, so it’s impossible to determine in what condition they are being kept. Jorge and his sister Anita are equally guarded about showing me their puma named, oddly enough, ‘Celda’ (cell), who is in a separate cage and I never get to see close up.

Jorge and Anita are both keen to remind me how much they adore their beloved Celda and that they treat her in much the same way any conscientious dog owner would. “I want you to understand how important this animal is to me and my sister,” he says. To prove the point he later sends me a recording of a song he wrote about her and a video of the three of them going out for a leisurely walk in the countryside – with Celda on a lead.

The two insist she is never forced to perform, but they are less able to explain why on the night I went she was trotted out regardless, or why a large apex predator is paraded under bright lights before a paying public as a rule.

He ends on a glum note, saying he’s not convinced his business can survive without performing animals. “It’s the big circuses that do well without animals and, anyway, the public is still attracted by the sight of them.”

His rival, Pedrosa, has a much clearer picture: “There is no turning back. Society is changing – the ban will come, like it or not.”