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.

AuthorJordi Jon PardoYear2023LocationSpainStatusWork 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

Background: The Algarrobico Hotel, a construction halted amidst legal battles for more than 20 years, represents a clash between development and environmental regulation in Spain. The paused superstructure stands facing the Mediterranean where some locals still reflect on the ongoing debates from past ambitions to the present realities. Carboneras, August 2023.

A hiker traverses a barren hill in the arid expanse of Tabernas, recognized as the most parched region in Europe. The Desierto de Tabernas is not static but continually expanding. According to studies, 35% of the province's is suffering notable forms of desertification, especially exacerbated by human activities. Jaime Martínez Valderrama, Doctor in Agricultural Engineering specializing in Desertification and Global Change, explains that agriculture and tourism are the main factors in the expansion of desertification in areas such as Almería. Beyond the legacy of Franco, the ecological challenges faced by the region have ancient roots. Long before the Francoist era, the environment of this area was shaped by centuries of human decisions and activities. From the deforestation during the Muslim dominion, driven by the demand for wood for shipbuilding and other industries, to the overexploitation of resources in the 19th century, the landscape has been continuously altered. The desertification process in this region, while exacerbated since Franco’s regime, is a culmination of millennia of unsustainable practices. The current state of the region serves as an evocative reminder that environmental consequences often outlive political regimes and historical epochs. Tabernas, May 2019.

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.

While often overlooked, Europe does have its deserts, with Spain's Desierto de Tabernas standing out as probably the most significant example. The aridness of the Southeast represents a unique backdrop that captivates artists and filmmakers. In this setting, artist Ada Zielinska ignites an old car, an act of artistic expression from her project 'Pyromaniac's Manual'. San Juan de los Terreros, August 2020.

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.

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 tangible reminder 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 everyday lives and leisure activities of the residents persist, creating a juxtaposition between human resilience and environmental crisis. Cuevas del Almanzora, August 2020.

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.

An affected tree stands against the backdrop of Almería’s ‘Sea of Plastic’, enduring the effects of greenhouses' pollution and environmental policies that have long favored agroindustrial growth. The branches of many trees in the Southeast hold the struggle of the land itself, grappling with the consequences of rampant desertification and ecological abandonment, a legacy of a time that valued industrial progress over nature’s balance. San Juan de los Terreros, January 2023.

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.

As desertification spreads, paradoxically intensifying the threat of sporadic torrential rains, communities worldwide find themselves grappling with the devastating aftermath. These flash floods, often a consequence of the barren lands unable to absorb sudden water influxes, wreak havoc on homes, livelihoods, and local economies. For families like Ricardo Cardenete and his son, Richard, who rely on their family workshop for sustenance, such events are not just environmental disturbances but a cruel blow to their already fragile financial stability. On a broader scale, these climatic extremes exacerbate poverty, further deepening societal inequalities and amplifying the call for humanitarian intervention and sustainable environmental solutions. Benferri, September 2019.

Background: Detail of the sun-baked ground in the Desert of Abanilla, where the earth splits into a natural mosaic during a summer's day of extreme dryness. Abanilla, May 2019.

An aerial view over an olive grove in Jaén, where the scars of drought and soil erosion are apparent. This landscape is the same that once served as the fieldwork for Hugh Hammond’s scientific study, forming a compelling visual bridge between past archival records and present reality. The proliferation of gullies and barren soils are indicators of environmental degradation, particularly in southeastern Spain where research highlights the vulnerability of abandoned fields to gully erosion. These fields, left uncultivated, suffer from soil crust formation and reduced water retention, exacerbating erosion and sedimentation issues. This degradation cycle, fueled by land abandonment and lack of irrigation, not only diminishes agricultural productivity but also threatens the ecological integrity of the region, signaling an urgent need for sustainable land management to combat the advancing desertification. Jaén, July 2023.

A detail of the quarry of Dosrius in Tarragona. The excavator tracks embedded in limestone represent a common picture in Catalonia's recent history. Post-war demands and economic policies dramatically increased quarrying. In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and throughout the 20th century, Catalonia experienced a significant surge in quarrying activities, largely driven by the Franco regime's push for economic self-sufficiency and industrial development. This period, marked by the regime's autarkic policies, saw an expansion in the variety of materials extracted and a notable increase in the number of quarrying operations, both large and small. The landscape of Catalonia, rich in geological diversity, became a key player in this industrial upswing. Dosrius, November 2020.

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 mindful stewardship of our planet. Òdena, March 2021.

Background: Over four decades, the Alcover Quarry in Tarragona has meticulously harvested limestone. Now half a mountain and a visual testimony 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.

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.