A death foretold in Spain’s ‘Wild West’

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The mysterious disappearance of 51-year-old Dutchman Martin Verfondern in a remote abandoned village in the mountains of Galicia in 2010 and the subsequent murder trial last month of two brothers has highlighted the darker side of rural life in Spain.

By Richard Torné

Martin and his wife Margo Pool were determined to start afresh. They quit their office jobs, sold their home and happily set off in their camper van in search of new beginnings in the wilds of Europe.

Their dream appeared simple enough, even if the details were sketchy – to live off the land and create an eco-friendly rural retreat for backpackers (“a Noah’s Ark,” according to Martin).

After arriving in the northwest Spanish region of Orense in May 1997, they stumbled upon the abandoned hamlet of Santoalla, where almost every building lay in ruins – all, that is, except the house belonging to the Rodriguez clan.

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The Verfonderns set off in their camper van across Europe to seek new beginnings – but their quest ended in tragedy

Inside the ramshackle home lived Manuel O Gafas, his wife Jovita and their 30-year-old mentally disabled son, Juan Carlos Rodriguez. Another son, Julio, lived in the nearby village of Petín but regularly helped out with farm chores.

Margo recalled the early years with fondness. “We thought we had found the perfect place, the first four years we were very happy.”

There was a mood of bonhomie between the Rodriguezes and the Dutch couple, as evidenced by contemporary local TV news footage, showing a smiling Julio helping Martin out – even if the former gave a hint of the trouble that was to come by remarking “yes, I’m happy they’re here – as long as they leave me alone”.

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Happier times: Martin Verfondern (right) pictured with Julio Rodriguez, who would eventually confess to disposing of the body and concealing the crime

The cracks began appearing when Martin tried to make modest improvements and the Spanish family objected to the installation of a water intake and the clearing of rubble from the dilapidated streets.

Eventually, the hostility which had been simmering under the surface turned into all-out war and Verfondern began to fear for his life. Armed with a camera – and a deep sense of foreboding – he began videotaping the clashes, particularly with Juan Carlos, who often appeared with a hunting rifle slung over his shoulder. In one instance he tells the Dutchman: “I’m coming for you – you’re fat enough to kill.”

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Juan Carlos Rodriguez, the man who shot Martin dead, being led away by the Civil Guard

In separate footage, Verfondern filmed the family, apparently invading his land and spraying weed killer on his crops. By now desperate, he accused the Rodriguez clan of committing “rural terrorism”, ranting that at times he felt as though he was “living in an Arab country” and that the octogenarian family patriarch behaved like a feudal “lord of the mountains”.

The conflict came to a head in December 2009 when the couple won a legal battle against the Rodriguezes over communal land rights. This meant the Verfonderns, as bona fide residents, would be able to reap the economic benefits of exploiting the land.

But it was a Phyrric victory as it sealed Martin’s fate less than two months later. On a bitterly cold January afternoon while Margo was abroad, Juan Carlos lay in wait for Martin along a country lane and shot him dead in his car.

Julio arrived at the scene shortly afterwards and decided that the best option would be to hide both the body and the car in the woods.

The Civil Guard gave up searching for Verfondern after three months, and for years it looked as though the case would never be solved. It was only through sheer chance that in June 2014 a police helicopter crew discovered his remains and partially burnt-out Chevrolet Blazer hidden next to a firebreak, sparking a murder investigation and the arrests of both Juan Carlos and Julio, and culminating in a week-long trial last month.

The jury reached a majority guilty verdict against Juan Carlos, now 51, but although he is due to be sentenced soon, it is not certain he will remain in prison for longer than the three-and-a-half years he has so far served on remand.

His learning disability became a key issue during the trial after the public prosecutor Miguel Ruiz agreed to reduce the charge to second-degree murder, arguing that while he was able to tell the difference between good and evil, he was incapable of premeditation. He described Santoalla as “the wild west” and blamed the parents, who have since passed away, “for messing up his head” and instilling the hatred that led to the shooting.

His elder brother Julio confessed only to having disposed of the body, but as covering up a crime for a relative does not constitute a penal offence in Spain, he will not remain in jail.

Such was the moral dilemma faced by the jury over Juan Carlos’ condition that they recommended he be pardoned, but the clash has left a bitter taste in the mouth of the local community and thrown up uncomfortable questions about rural life in deepest Spain.

Defence lawyer Sonia Jiménez insisted the tragedy was mostly to do with “a clash of cultures and not money”, but local businessman Celestino Naveira, the head of the Bioca winery and close friend of the Verfonderns, disagreed. “This was a problem with the neighbours who didn’t want him there for economic reasons. The rest of the family are morally to blame because they filled his (Juan Carlos’) head with hatred.” He insisted, however, that the tragedy was a one-off. “Galicia is a quiet place, with good neighbours.”

Psychologist Izcalli Fernández painted a more disturbing picture, telling this reporter she was hounded out of another Orense village when she tried to open an animal assisted-therapy centre in Esgos.

“They began tearing fences down and I was constantly threatened. I was told by an elderly man to leave the village as I was ‘not from here’, and people would turn up in the middle of the night shouting insults at me.”

One of her horses died after getting entangled in barbed wire she believes had been deliberately placed to injure her animals. In another incident while she was away, her house was ransacked.

“They have a twisted mentality in inland villages and have a strange attitude towards property – they are prepared to kill for every centimetre of land. Even though the land may be barren, they prefer to leave it that way rather than have someone else make the most of it.”

She has since relocated her centre elsewhere in the region and encountered no further problems.

Lawyer Gerardo Vázquez, who advises the AUAN expat property rights association in southern Spain, suggested “going native” to avoid problems.

“You need to respect and understand local customs and try to work in collaboration with the community. The best way to channel (investment) is to work hand in hand with the locals.”

As for Margo Pool, she has chosen to remain in Santoalla. “I’m grateful to Martin for bringing me here. It made me the person I am today. Santoalla is my home and I will never leave.”

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The trial over, Margo Verfondern has chosen to remain in Santoalla and is now the sole inhabitant, now that the Rodriguez clan has virtually disappeared

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Spain’s plunge into political chaos

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Socialist leader and Spain’s new PM Pedro Sánchez (left) shaking hands with Mariano Rajoy, the man he has just ousted from power

Mariano Rajoy’s refusal to distance himself from corrupt members of his own party proved to be his undoing, but it’s unlikely that Pedro ‘the comeback kid’ Sánchez will remain in power for long in the aftermath of the country’s biggest corruption scandal to date.

By Richard Torné

The right-wing PP government has been brought down by hubris.

As if to prove the point, in the dying hours of his premiership Rajoy was still in denial. Instead of attending Thursday’s parliamentary debate to oust him he sat at a nearby restaurant for an eye-popping eight hours, dining and most likely wining, judging by the way he stumbled out the door later that night.

The episode spoke volumes about a man who survived as head of the government for as long as he did by simply doing nothing.

Part of his approach to politics stemmed from a belief – not unfounded, as it turns out – that Spaniards are not unduly bothered about corruption as long the economy is doing well.

Blind as he was to the ongoing crisis, the Gürtel money laundering, tax evasion and bribery scandal that led to his downfall was the tipping point. But it’s not as if he hadn’t been warned.

Last month, Madrid president Cristina Cifuentes was forced to step down after an old security video emerged showing her shoplifting some years ago, and that came after allegations she had fraudulently obtained a master’s degree.

Then, a couple of days before the Gürtel verdict came out Eduardo Zaplana, a former PP minister who had served under president Aznar’s government, was arrested and charged with taking kickbacks amounting to more than 10 million euros.

Throughout it all Rajoy made light of every incident. Days ago he appeared on radio, describing the “10 or 15 cases” of corruption in the PP as “isolated”. It was vintage Rajoy.

Visibly uncomfortable under the glare of the media, he always avoided answering awkward questions and would only make a half-hearted attempt at contrition when there was no other option.

His exit leaves many doubts as to how the party will respond, but so far the impression is that the PP has yet to understand the importance of showing humility. Perhaps it believes it can play the same game as Rajoy.

But what about his nemesis? The entire country knows that the position of the new president, 46-year-old socialist Pedro Sánchez, is far from certain.

An editorial in El País, a newspaper which traditionally backs Sánchez’s PSOE party, gave a sobering assessment of the new government’s prospects, pointing out that he lacks a mandate to lead a stable government while claiming that he has no future as president. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

There’s no question Sánchez has risen phoenix-like from the ashes. His current trajectory began in May last year after winning the party leadership elections for the second time, much to the chagrin of the PSOE’s grandees. He had  earlier stepped down in October 2016 after failing to garner enough votes to remain as leader amid a bitter squabble within his own party.

But Sánchez boasts less than a quarter of the seats in Congress, and to secure the support of the two main Catalan nationalist parties – ERC and PdeCAT- Sánchez has expressed a willingness for dialogue, something Rajoy refused point blank. But the end result will be the same – they will insist upon holding a new, binding referendum on independence, and if that happens the knives will be out for Sánchez from within his own party.

There’s also the fact that he has become president, not through the ballot box but thanks to political bartering. And while he is not currently linked to any corruption case the same cannot be said of his Socialist party. Gürtel proved to be the PP’s undoing, but the PSOE has yet to face the music about its own, and potentially much bigger, scandal involving the trial of two former regional presidents of Andalusia.

There’s a sense that Spain is hell-bent on repeating past mistakes. The scenario is eerily similar to the 1930s when left-wingers led by president Manuel Azaña struggled and ultimately failed to keep hardliners and moderates happy. Meanwhile, the right wing hovered menacingly above, waiting to pounce at the first sign of ‘insurrection’ with the excuse that it was saving the motherland. And we all know how that particular episode ended.

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The gulls are big in Rome

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Photos and text: Richard Torné

Having been raised on a steady diet of Hollywood films about Romans, their distinctly skewed view of history clings to me like the smell of stale cigarettes – I can still hear Anthony Quinn as Attila the Hun, egging his men on: “Listen allayou! Is an arpatoonity to carnker Rome!”

Thankfully, my enduring fascination with ancient Rome has more solid foundations, and who can deny being awe-struck by their astonishing feats of engineering, even if that went hand-in-hand with a ruthlessly, efficient war machine? Never mind the brutality and violence, feel the width of that arena.

Rightly or wrongly, the overriding impression is that while the ancient Greeks were happy to muse over metaphysics and aesthetics, the Romans were far too busy building humungous aqueducts and getting dressed-up for a bloody night out at the Colosseum to ponder over such ‘trivial’ issues as philosophy.

Alas, my week-long trip was planned, not with the military precision the Romans were known for, but with all the chaotic haste of a Pompeian fleeing his home during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

I half expected Rome to be choked up with tourists, but nothing prepared me for the colossal size of the crowds. I should have known better, Rome has become the third most visited city in Europe after London and Paris.

Within hours of arriving I took a night stroll to avoid the masses and get a better feel of the place, and seeing St Peter’s Basilica and Hadrian’s Mausoleum lit up in the night sky was a perfect introduction to the city. Anyone who fails to be impressed by such a sight must have water coursing through their veins.

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Much of Hadrian’s Mausoleum – also known as Castel Sant’ Angelo – was in fact built in the 16th century on the base of a Roman built structure. There are so many cultural riches in Rome that you unjustifiably feel shortchanged by these historical ‘add ons’

The following day I ended up by Largo di Torre Argentina, a lesser known Roman square containing the remains of temples and Pompey’s Theatre, where Julius Caesar was knifed to death, no less. These days it’s also home to a cat sanctuary, where dozens of well-fed moggies, many showing battle scars or missing limbs, can be seen sunning themselves among the ruins.

My next port of call was an unplanned visit to what must be one of Rome’s ugliest buildings – Il Vittoriano, also known as the Altare de la Patria (Altar of the Fatherland) and a string of other, less flattering names.

Built in the late 19th century in honour of Victor Emmanuel, Italy’s first king following unification, it has all the subtlety of Spain’s Valley of the Fallen. A tribute to excess, this marble monstrosity seems more like an attempt to outdo Roman grandeur while ignoring one of the main rules of architecture – proportion.

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Il Vittoriano, also known as the Altare de la Patria, is a marble monstrosity – didn’t they know about proportion in the 19th century?

This proved to be the only blip as my next stop was the Colosseum. More than six million tourists visited the site in 2016, and when I went it looked as though they had all arrived at the same time.

A closer inspection of the Colosseum reveals the cracks. The structure may have undergone various renovations over the centuries, but even this has failed to prevent its steady decline. Despite this, the amphitheatre’s magnificence is undeniable and you almost forget the fact that thousands of people and wild animals met a gruesome end here. Completed in 80 AD, it may have taken eight years to build, but it has lasted more than 1,900 years despite the best efforts of many Popes – and the odd earthquake – to reduce it to a pile of rubble.

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Not a queue for a Seria A footie match but the Colosseum, where the Roman crowds were considerably crazier

By the time I ended my tour of the Palatine Hill a mere stone’s throw away I was ready for lunch. If you’re a vegetarian like me and want to eat out – and if you’re not a Roman who knows their way around – you have few choices: it’s salads, pizza a la fungi, risotto a la fungi and basically anything with a mushroomy/cheesy theme. If you’re a vegan, bring your own ingredients.

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The inside of the mighty Colosseum. Take your time to take it all in

I wasn’t done with that bunged-up feeling from eating bread-related products, so I ordered a calzone and eagerly bit into it. I proceeded to let out a blood-curdling yelp as a jet of molten cheese frazzled the side of my mouth. The burn was so severe I spent the rest of my holiday looking like a cross between The Joker and a patient in urgent need of herpes medication.

A cock-up with my credit card meant I was unable to pre-book a tour of the Vatican museum on my third day. I wandered over and found out to my dread that three-hour queues are the norm to get inside St Peter’s Basilica. Just as I was about to give up a guide, a lady from the Dominican Republic, waved me over and told me she could offer me the full monty – namely access to St Peter’s and the Vatican museum – for ‘just’ €46. She pointed out she was also offering me a €9 discount as she thought I was from Spain. That was nice, I thought. Then I discovered that a British woman in my group had paid €42 for the same deal. Crafty swine.

I soon forgot the mark-up once we were ushered through the museum’s doors. Looking more like an airport terminal than a repository for some of the world’s greatest works of art, the entrance sent a clear message that the Vatican likes to run a sharp operation.

But nothing quite prepared me for the artistic treasures that lay inside, amassed over the centuries by Popes who, we should not forget, were the Gordon Gekkos of their time. I was met by a whirlwind of classical statues and busts of Roman emperors and mythical Greek figures, stacked side-by-side, followed by a parade of frescoes, friezes, vases, drapes and paintings.

Our guide, Giovanni, happily reminded the group that this veritable treasure trove could only have been brought together by systematic looting. “If you wanted to preserve a Roman building it was easy, all you had to do was plant a cross in it.”

I was oddly disappointed by the Sistine Chapel and its star exhibit, The Last Judgment. Due to the fragility of Michelangelo’s masterpiece the chapel was poorly lit, and with the Vatican’s security staff hustling everyone along like a chain gang I found it impossible to give it the attention it deserved. You want to pore over The Last Judgement? Click on the picture in Wikipedia, you’ll have more time to inspect each figure and ponder over its meaning.

By contrast, the Gallery of Maps was the sucker punch. The gallery may have been named after Danti’s maps, but it’s the vaulted ceiling that’ll grab most of your attention. Casting my eyes above, I saw an explosion of light, colour and art. As I attempted to take it all in I finally got what it truly means to view one of the world’s most stunning works of art. It’s an experience that goes beyond mere intellectual appreciation.

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The Gallery of Maps in the Vatican. Words don’t do this magnificent place justice, but I’ve tried

The tour concluded inside St. Peter’s Basilica, where I watched the ‘party faithful’ solemnly line up to touch the feet of the statue of St. Peter. In fact, the guy’s toes have worn so badly from rubbing they now look like flippers. But don’t forget – today’s vandalism is often tomorrow’s history.

On to Pompeii, and no sooner had I got off at Naples train station than I spotted a young couple having a blazing row. Oblivious to all around them, they looked as though they were about to punch each other’s lights out – it could have gone either way. Yes, I was in the south of Italy. “Is laika ‘nother world!”, as my hotel receptionist put it.

Modern Pompeii may not look like much, but appearances can be deceiving. One of the main streets, the Via Sacra, has a row of delightful restaurants and nightclubs, even if a pub called ‘The British’ looks decidedly out of place (the head on my pint of Guinness had more bubbles than a bar of Aero).

I was determined to get the full sensory experience while in Pompeii, so I broke my long-standing vegetarian vow by ordering ‘Spaghetti a la Garum’, based on the eponymous fish sauce the Romans went crazy over, a bit like ali-oli for the Spanish, mayonnaise for the Belgians, and firearms for the Americans.

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The plaster casts of Pompeians in their final, agonising moments of life, have perhaps achieved too much notoriety, but it gets the punters in. This one, I felt, is particularly sad – it is believed to be that of a woman embracing her teenage daughter

Ancient Pompeii is everything it says on the lava-baked tin, and in a country spoilt by historical riches, this ghostly metropolis deservedly ranks as one of the jewels in the crown.

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A different type of ‘fast food’ establishment. Yes, McDonald’s didn’t get there first

Seeing everyday, humdrum tourists flocking in their millions to see what everyday, humdrum Pompeiians got up to is worth reflecting on, but by re-tracing their steps and stepping inside their homes, shops and brothels, visitors realise that these 2,000-year-old victims had stories to tell. They are much more than simply deathly shadows in fragile plaster casts.

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A stone bed in a Pompeii brothel, known as the Lupanar, which shows that clients probably didn’t spend too much time during each session (ok, they put some soft bedding on top, but still). The prostitutes were called ‘she-wolfs’, hence the name lupa…apparently because they attracted clients by howling like wolves, as you do

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A backstreet in ancient Pompeii – imagine hundreds of people ambling along and going about their daily business 2,000 years ago. Perhaps one of them was thinking: “Funny, I’ve never seen smoke coming off the top of that mountain before.”

I concluded that one shouldn’t be too harsh on the excesses of the ancient Romans. An empire built by men obsessed with personal hygiene and daily baths was never going to get along any nation inhabited by smelly, hairy Celts.

So my advice is get on a plane celerius quam asparagi cocuntur and follow in the mighty footsteps of Trajan, Hadrian and that creepy bloke who bedded his sister.

By the way, did I mention the gulls in Rome are the size of turkeys?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).”

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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