Eroding Franco

‘Eroding Franco’ is a documentary project that relates the environmental debt of Franco’s regime (1939-1975) with Spain’s current desertification crisis. 

Desertification, the transformation of fertile territories into barren landscapes, is a critical global challenge intensified by unsustainable practices such as poor water management or harmful agricultural methods. While this environmental challenge spans continents, its imprint is deeply felt in Spain.

The legacy of Francoism goes beyond social and political repression. The regime’s decisions over 36 years, fostered a culture of destruction and neglect for the land, prioritizing economic growth.

The regime cemented mass tourism, agro-industry, and construction as the ‘economic pillars’ of Spain, setting the stage for the country’s future. These ‘economic pillars’, which now make up nearly 30% of Spain’s economy, were heavily promoted in the 1960s and 70s, an era referred to as the “Spanish economic miracle” (1959-1974) that established the transformation of Spain into a ‘desertification machine’.

This legacy has set the country on a trajectory where, by the end of the 21st century, an estimated 80% of its territory could be grappling with the critical impacts of desertification, according to scientific reports from the Spanish Ministry of Environment.

During Franco’s era, some scientists were studying Spain’s environmental trajectory and its potential consequences. However, the regime, possibly without a full understanding of these implications, prioritized other aspects of development and economic growth. This lack of awareness set Spain on a path that would pose significant environmental challenges for future generations.

The synergy between historical information and contemporary photography is at the heart of ‘Eroding Franco’. It delves into the key factors of Spain’s desertification—mass tourism, construction, and agroindustry—and intertwines archival research with documentary photography, an approach that offers a comprehensive but distinct perspective of how past decisions shape present realities.

Alongside the historical legacies, Spain’s desertification crisis is exacerbated by contemporary climatic factors such as torrential rains and wildfires. These events, often caused and worsened by human actions in the context of climate change, strip away fertile land, leaving behind poverty, especially in rural areas. As fields turn barren, farmers struggle, highlighting a direct link between environmental damage and economic hardship. This aspect of the story shows the ongoing effects of past decisions on today’s communities, adding a crucial layer to our understanding of Spain’s environmental and social landscape.

‘Eroding Franco’ seeks to expand photographic boundaries by incorporating scientific insights, offering a fresh perspective on the human-environment narrative. The project challenges conventional thinking and immerses audiences in the realities of climate change. In essence, ‘Eroding Franco’ underscores the importance of understanding our past to address the pressing environmental challenges of today.

This project is made possible with support from the National Geographic Society, The Royal Photographic Society, and Photographic Social Vision.


AuthorJordi Jon PardoYear2024LocationSpainStatusWork in progress

Background: El Cabo Cope, a largely virgin enclave of the Mediterranean coast, stands as one of the last bastions against mass tourism, a development that has transformed much of Spain's Mediterranean coastline.

As the sun dips beyond the horizon, tourists gather to soak in the captivating spectacle in Benidorm. The city, once a humble fishing village, was radically transformed during Franco’s regime with a clear vision of establishing a coastal tourism hub. Decades later, it stands as Spain’s major epicenter for mass tourism. However, beneath the allure of beaches and vibrant nightlife, a crucial environmental concern emerges. A typical tourist in Spain reportedly uses three to four times more water than a resident, approximating to 300-400 liters per day, according to the Spanish Forum of the Economy of Water. A disparity that underscores the environmental strain imposed by the burgeoning tourism industry on Spain’s natural resources. Benidorm, June 2022.

A souvenir from Benidorm offers a tangible representation of the marine ecosystem. The southeastern city’s marine ecosystem, a vital part of its unique allure, grapples with pressures exerted by human activities. These challenges, a part of the larger narrative of desertification, serve to emphasize the delicate balance between tourism, conservation, and sustainable development. Since Francoism, the city's booming tourist industry has reshaped the landscape, compressing sand dunes into beaches and replacing natural coastlines with concrete. As revealed in recent studies, such urban developments have led to habitat loss and a decrease in biodiversity, challenging the survival of native marine life. In the broader context of climate change, with rising sea levels and changing weather patterns forecasted to alter coastal landscapes, Benidorm's commitment to enhancing coastal resilience becomes crucial. Benidorm, October 2022

Tabernas, known as the former cinematic playground for spaghetti westerns, now plays host to a unique theme park. The dusty lanes and weather-beaten structures that once acted as the backdrop for dramatic duels and dusty horse chases are now populated with visitors, each relishing their chance to step into a live-action western narrative from the Southeast. Beyond its entertainment value, Tabernas holds a deeper, somewhat chilling relevance. Situated in the heart of Taberna's desert, it serves as a potential harbinger for Spain’s environmental future. As the nation grapples with escalating desertification, Tabernas could be an early glimpse of the landscape that may define Spain by the close of the 21st century. Tabernas, June 2021.

Background: A close view of a barren hillside in Tabernas. Tabernas, May 2019.

Water Paradox in a thirsty land: Swimming pools within tourist apartments in Torrevieja, a town in the water-stressed southeastern corner of the Iberian Peninsula. Spain’s paradox and status as one of the countries with the highest number of swimming pools per capita worldwide, even as it contends with growing desertification and acute water scarcity. This scenario is more than an ironic contrast, but a direct confrontation of the intricate relationship between water management, tourism, and environmental conservation. The prevalence of swimming pools, largely driven by the demands of mass tourism, signifies an uneasy imbalance when facing an escalating water crisis. Herein lies a tension between economic pursuits and environmental sustainability, where the abundance of water, a life-sustaining resource, is used liberally for widespread recreational purposes. This usage, while catering to the temporary needs of tourism, inadvertently perpetuates the cycle of desertification, a major outcome of which is further water scarcity. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, where attempts to alleviate one issue inadvertently exacerbate another. Torrevieja, July 2023.

Reflecting on the historical transformation of Spain during the late 1960s and '70s, this collection of postcards captures the dawn of mass tourism and the ushering in of an era driven by technical governance and economic expansion. Time windows to a moment when Spain was on the cusp of change, evolving from post-war isolation towards global exposure. Yet, beyond their sun-soaked facades lies the inception of an environmental trajectory that resonates profoundly with Spain's contemporary landscape challenges. Spain, April 2024.

Fading symbols. Despite the encroachment of mass tourism projects, Oropesa (also known as Marina d'Or Ciudad de Vacaciones) tenaciously holds onto its historical traditions. Yet, the town’s authenticity is being eroded as these traditions transform into tourist attractions. This cultural shift suggests a form of identity desertification. The photograph captures a summer holiday scene: a young boy interacts with the horn of a sun-weathered bull statue in the Oropesa de Mar’s bullring. Oropesa, July 2022.

Background: A fence lines the edge of a greenhouse in the 'Sea of Plastic,' where endless rows of polytunnel greenhouses dominate the landscape, another road to the intensive agro-industry thriving in the region, the world’s largest greenhouse complex. Adra, November 2019.

The Church of Mediano stands as a ruin of Spain’s dam-building legacy. During the Franco era, an ambitious water policy led to a proliferation of these structures across the nation. This period saw tension between visions of how and for what purpose water should be used: to power the growing electrical demands of a modernizing Spain or to nourish fields and sustain agriculture? Dams and reservoirs became symbols of progress and modernity, grandly inaugurated by the regime. Yet, behind these massive hydraulic structures lie stories of displacement, of submerged towns like Mediano, and of lives forever altered. Spain’s water reservoirs, currently accounting for the highest number of large dams in the European Union, stand testament to these complex narratives of progress, displacement, and ecological considerations. In the photograph, the Church of Mediano, built in the XVI century, normally inundated, emerges completely from the water. The village of Mediano was inundated in 1969, and now, particularly during times of drought, the church’s appearance prompts reflections on the balance between human ambition and nature’s resilience. Mediano, August 2023.

A regular football match unfolds every evening in the Almanzora River. It’s a shared ritual for the young African men who call this region home. Their vitality contrasts the arid surroundings shaped by relentless climate shifts and human actions. Here, the Almanzora River stands as a shadow of its former self. Once a thriving waterway, it has been reduced to an almost dry riverbed by persistent droughts and local agricultural practices. In this environment of scarcity, the residents' everyday lives and leisure activities persist, creating a juxtaposition between human tales and environmental crisis. Cuevas del Almanzora, August 2020.

After a rare rainfall, the Rambla de Albox, a tributary of the Almanzora River, briefly reclaims its role as a waterway in southeastern Spain, hosting transient pools that reflect the fleeting clouds above. For most of the year, however, its dry riverbed underscores the challenges of water scarcity that confront a region increasingly affected by drought and intensified urban development. Albox, May 2024.

Naseem, a ten-year resident in Albox, and Imran, who has newly arrived from Islamabad, discuss life's challenges far from home. Behind them, a faded sign depicts a real estate project that never materialized, unfulfilled ambitions during Spain's economic crisis. As Imran learns Spanish and adapts to his new surroundings, the surrounding landscape, marked by unused plots and modern ruins, underscores the region's unrealized economic potential. Albox, May 2024.

Fields of greenhouses ripple across Southern Spain, creating the ‘Mar de Plástico’ or ‘Sea of Plastic’ in the province of Almería. Concealed behind the gates of Adra, these hectares of greenhouses mask an underlying reality of lands affected by waste pollution and chemical residues. The birth of this agro-industrial expanse dates back to the 1960s, during Franco’s period of autarky. Fast forward to nearly six decades later, this corner of Southern Spain has morphed into the largest conglomeration of greenhouses in the world. The relentless spread of these greenhouses has now claimed more than 30.000 hectares of Mediterranean nature. Adra, July 2021.

A reflection of the Christ of Monteagudo, initially erected in 1926 atop a historically Islamic castle, was commissioned by King Alfonso XIII as a symbol of Christian supremacy and met its demise during the Spanish Civil War, torn down by Republican forces. The act was emblematic of the broader secular and anti-clerical sentiments that marked the Republican side, reflecting their opposition to the Church’s alignment with the Nationalists. After the war, Franco, seizing the symbolic and ideological power of the statue, ordered its reconstruction in 1951. A calculated assertion of his regime's commitment to re-establishing and centralizing Catholic values as a cornerstone of his authoritarian rule, intertwining the narrative of religious revival with the narrative of national recovery under Francoism. A sentinel etched against the sky, the silent narrative of the Southeast reveals itself—a portrait woven with threads of fervent belief and the former reality of nature's plight. And despite its contentious past, the Christ of Monteagudo remains a tourist attraction in the Southeast. Monteagudo, April 2024.

The ancient holm oak in El Valle Almanzora, recognized as Andalusia's largest tree, has witnessed centuries of history but now faces a dire future due to the impacts of desertification. Since 2021, its grand stature has been artificially supported, employing bracing to counteract the accelerating impacts of climate change. Almería's rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall contribute to severe water stress, challenging the tree's survival while diseases and pests exploit its weakened defenses. Valle del Almanzora, May 2024.

Background: The impact of 'La Gota Fría': In the aftermath of torrential rains, the municipal pavilion in Benferri was blanketed in mud. This severe weather phenomenon, commonly striking numerous Mediterranean communities towards summer's end, left a trail of destruction in its wake. Benferri, September 2019.

In the stillness of an empty laboratory, echoes of a world disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic resonate. This photo, taken in February 2021, offers a glimpse into Sener Aeroespacial, a Spanish company at the vanguard of aerospace research and engineering. With a core focus on understanding the impacts of human activity on our planet, the company has been paying particular attention to the advancing desertification across the Iberian peninsula. This image also speaks to the perils of human error in the pursuit of understanding our changing planet. In November 2020, an inadvertent mistake resulted in a devastating trajectory deviation of a rocket carrying Spain’s SeoSat-Ingenio and France’s Taranis. This mishap led to the ruin of a decade-long project worth €200 million, designed to monitor desertification and other climatic shifts in Europe. The setback was significant, yet the company’s commitment to studying the environment and advancing sustainable practices remains unshaken. Barcelona, February 2021.

Left: Embodied within ‘Eroding Franco’ is an exploration of the daily transformation of our environment for the sake of our materialistic pursuits, a global phenomenon that sits at the complex nexus of economic growth and ecological sustainability. At the heart of this exploration, we find ourselves in Òdena, Barcelona, home to a significant metal foundry. This place is just another room of human's relentless quest for progress, where raw materials - a product of extensive mining activities - are metamorphosed into components integral to our daily lives and industry machinery. ‘Eroding Franco’ endeavors to capture these intersections between historical forces, human actions, and the environment’s resilience, reiterating our collective responsibility towards our planet. Òdena, March 2021. Right: Located in the Almanzora region, this expansive marble quarry, larger than Manhattan, has been declared public property since 1947. For centuries, it has adorned civilization's evolution, its marble shaping landmarks from ancient Rome to iconic structures like the Alhambra in Granada. Central to the local economy, this marble has also graced the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi and numerous ancient amphitheaters, palaces and sacred locations. This vast landscape hosts a legacy of human craftsmanship harmonizing with natural resources, significantly shaping not only majestic structures but also the cultural identity of its community. Almanzora, May 2024.

The football field in Beas de Granada is distinctive for its grayish-white surface, sourced from the local mountain. This feature is made possible by Triturados Puerto Blanco, a company that has been extracting materials from the village’s quarry since the 1960s era of Spanish developmentalism. This use of local aggregates mirrors the area's geology and integrates the village's natural resources into its community life and infrastructure. Beas de Granada, May 2024.

Background: Over four decades, the Alcover Quarry in Tarragona has meticulously harvested limestone, a testament to the enduring balance between industrial progress and the Spanish landscape's integrity. Its materials contribute to civil works, honoring a tradition that melds the natural with the built environment. Alcover, May 2021.

From chains to waves: once a Francoist concentration camp, now a water park where memories fade into the waters of oblivion. This composite image juxtaposes an official record of the Francoist concentration camp in Torremolinos with a current aerial view of the exact location, now Aqualand. The text overlay on the image is part of a review from the Torremolinos concentration camp, Málaga. The transition from a site of repression to one of leisure underscores a collective amnesia about Spain's dark past, emphasizing the shift towards mass tourism initiated during the 'Spanish economic miracle.' Torremolinos, May 2024.

As dynamite shatters the tranquility of Alcover’s mountains, a 'soundscape' to the pursuit of construction resources plays. This quarry in southern Catalonia, a vortex of limestone extraction, is just a small symbol of Spain’s aggressive construction boom. It embodies the visual desertification borne out of this insatiable demand. Meanwhile, Spain has around 4 million empty houses, making it the country in Europe with the highest number of unoccupied homes. The efforts of conscientious companies to counterbalance this toll are noble yet insufficient, as open-pit mining continues to etch lifeless patches onto Spain’s landscapes, creating zones that defy easy rehabilitation. The environmental impact of Spain's building sector highlights past mistakes, pointing to a legacy that prioritized economic growth over ecological conservation. This not only underscores the consequences of these choices but also emphasizes the urgent need for a shift towards sustainable construction practices to protect our natural environment. Alcover, March 2021.

Eugenio Merino’s silicon representation of Franco, a portrait of Spain’s past. Even more than four decades after his death, Franco’s shadow continues to pervade Spanish society, inciting fervent debates and controversies. The 2016 Barcelona exhibition ‘Franco, Victòria, República’ manifested Spain’s ongoing struggle to reconcile with its contentious history, evidencing the perpetual dialogue it holds with its past. While many physical statues of Franco have been dismantled, his symbolic presence persists. Streets and buildings bearing names tied to his dictatorship continue to fuel controversy. His influence extends far beyond politics, etching deep into Spain’s societal fabric. Barcelona, October 2016.