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.

‘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

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. This disparity underscores the environmental strain imposed by the burgeoning tourism industry on Spain’s natural resources. Benidorm, June 2022.

This thematic souvenir from Benidorm offers a tangible representation of the marine ecosystem, subtly drawing attention to the broader impacts of desertification on Spain’s coastal territories. More than a mere tourist trinket, it inadvertently symbolizes the environmental realities of the region. As Benidorm’s bustling tourism sector thrives, it simultaneously sparks a set of environmental consequences. 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. Benidorm, October 2022.

A hiker traverses a barren hill in the arid expanse of Tabernas, recognized as the most parched region in Europe. 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, while exacerbated during 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. May 2019.

Tabernas, known as the 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. Beyond its entertainment value, Tabernas holds a deeper, somewhat chilling relevance. Situated in the heart of a 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.

Artistic Resonance Amidst Almeria’s Desert Expanse. Almeria, the solitary desert of Europe, holds a captivating allure for artists and filmmakers drawn to its distinctive landscapes. This photograph showcases artist Ada Zielinska setting an old BMW aflame, embodying a symbol of artistic expression. In the broader context of ‘Eroding Franco,’ this scene underscores Almeria’s magnetic pull, while highlighting the urgency of addressing the implications of desertification on Spain’s environmental canvas. San Juan de los Terreros, August 2020.

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 in the face of 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 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 2022 scene: a young boy playfully interacts with the horn of a sun-weathered bull statue in the Oropesa de Mar’s bullring. Oropesa, July 2022.

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. August 2023, Mediano.

A regular football match unfolds every evening on the periphery of Cuevas del Almanzora in Andalusia. 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 succumbing to 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 afflicted tree standing in stark contrast against the backdrop of Almería’s ‘Sea of Plastic’. This tree is more than just a victim of plastic pollution emanating from the boundless greenhouses around. It’s a silent testament to the environmental degradation that ensued in the wake of former and current economic policies, which prioritized growth over ecological sustainability. 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.

Casting an eye from the sky over an olive grove in Jaén, the fingerprints of drought and soil erosion become apparent. This landscape is the same that once served as the bedrock for Hugh Hammond’s scientific study, forming a compelling visual bridge between past archival records and present reality. The stark prevalence of gullies and barren soil speaks silently but eloquently to the ongoing, relentless challenge of environmental degradation in arid Spain. Jaén, July 2023.

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.

As dynamite shatters the tranquility of Alcover’s mountains, a testament to the relentless pursuit of construction resources unfolds. This quarry in southern Catalonia, a vortex of limestone extraction, is just a small symbol of Spain’s aggressive construction boom. It embodies the stark visua​l 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 scene sheds light on the environmental impact of Spain’s building sector, pointing to the legacy of a past that prioritized economic growth over ecological conservation. ‘Eroding Franco’ not only highlights these past mistakes but also emphasizes the urgent need for a shift towards sustainable construction practices to protect our shared environment. Alcover, March 2021.

Eugenio Merino’s silicon representation of Franco, a ghostly echo of Spain’s past. Even more than four decades after his demise, 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. This haunting reflection of Franco underscores the project ‘Eroding Franco’ and its exploration of the environmental and societal impacts of his era. A seemingly frozen visage serves as a stark reminder of our shared responsibility to confront history, understand its consequences, and strive towards collective healing and environmental regeneration. Barcelona, October 2016.