The Forests of Spain Return to Life

Mountain Recovery Project Team in La Póveda (Soria)
Various members of the mountain recovery project pose together with a centenarian oak in La Póveda (Soria). Photo by Carlos Rosillo.

Pedro Medrano y Cándido Moreno
Pedro Medrano and Cándido Moreno show one of the registry sheets with all the heirs to the communal mountain.

The Forest Returns to Life
El bosque vuelve a estar animado
Carmen Morán reporting from Soria November 28, 2011

This story covers more than a century and connects the dots on the Spanish map: from Zaragoza to Cáceres, from Asturias to Soria, leaping between communal mountains. The laying of railroads and the Carlist Wars had left the national treasury teetering…suffocating in debt, the state decided at the end of the 19th century to hold public auctions of the lands that were in the hands of the dead, the church, the military, the universities…and the municipalities as well, on whose pastures entire communities depended for firewood and hunting.

That’s how this story began. The Soria Forestry Association today wants to bring life back to that natural patrimony that belonged to neighbors. In some towns, there are already advanced plans and movements in progress to clear vegetation from mountains, build walls with fallen stones, organize the introduction of livestock, sell holly in a regulated manner, restore homes, plant potatoes, hold food festivals, recover irrigation ditches, save centenarian oaks…but who could do all of this? The property owners. And who are the owners of these mountains now? That brings us back to ancient history…

The confiscation planted fear in the people: anyone could buy public land and deprive them of their livelihoods They organized, took on debt and mortgages, and sent neighbors to public auctions. “Buying the mountain wasn’t easy. 117,000 pesetas was a lot of money at the time. Things went badly for most; they sold cattle at a loss to pay the bills, and in my town they had to renounce logging rights for 40 years. They were only reserved the rights to use the pastures and to collect wood for home construction or firewood,” said Cándido Moreno de Pablo, age 71, a native of Herrera de Soria. But they got the property. Her great-grandparents were among 45 neighbors, possibly the entire community, which bought the mountain and benefited from it equally. This occurred in many provinces, and there were many joint-stock mountains owned by neighborhood organizations, vacant lots with each site registered in someone’s name.

But the migratory waves of the 20th century emptied the communities. The mountains and homes abided, as did the proprietary documents, though many were lost forever.

This documentary fragility has persisted until today. If there are not papers, city halls can claim the mountains for themselves. “It wasn’t just for these properties, which had been purchasd at such great cost and which belonged to residents, would change hands like that, with nothing more. We decided to find the heirs and propose to them the rescue of the mountains to catalyze rural development,” explained Pedro Medrano, technical director of the Soria Forestry Assocation.

Last year, the Ministry of the Environment and Rural Areas invested €732,000 in combing the archives for the names of the heirs to these properties. The branches of those family trees have where one would expect: to Argentina, for example, but also to Barcelona and Bilbao…the work in Soria, the province which is farthest along, is already complete: 185,000 hectares were sold, and 81% became joint-stock mountains decided among individuals. The same process occurred in Zaragoza. Data that has been released indicates that studies until this date have been very brief (see the graphic). Some experts in this field calculate that the communal territory could occupy more than 2 million hectares of the close to 7 million hectares of confiscated forested land. The communal mountains, or lucky mountains, have been cared for by some few locals, but they could not make decisions without the agreement of all the proprietors, which was practically impossible. To clear this legal hurdle that had paralyzed hundreds of hectares, the Mountain Law was modified in 2003 to allow for solicitors’ unions, which would require just 11 neighbors, and which would have decision-making powers. There are already 22 such unions in Soria, seven in Asturias, and some in pockets of León and Segovia – but not all communities have conformed. Some are seeking all the heirs, casting out lines for them not only in archives but also in the memories of the elderly, “which, what’s more, has propitiated fruitful encounters and exchanges between generations.” The creations of solicitors’ unions in themselves, to which some have contributed with great solemnity, has been a grand affair in some communities. The streets have been decorated; the people have welcomed various authorities; some of the very old have attended to sign know papers crediting them with their property. “The mountains in the proindiviso regime have been the great forgotten areas, in official statistics, partially by forestry administrations and partially, even more sadly, by the heirs of the buyers themselves, who had forgotten this part of recent history,” said Amador Marín of the Soria Forestry Association.

The rescue of these lands has “a principal objective: to conserve the populations that live in these small towns, so they will not continue moving to the cities. For this reason, some of the benefits citizens obtain, if not all, should have this priority, to restore houses and allow neighbors economic assistance so they will continue living in their communities,” Medrano explained.

What’s more, no one is thinking of becoming rich off this. When only 11 proprietors are found, just enough to make a solicitors’ union, the rest of the money can only be reinvested in improvements of the mountain or the town. And if all are found, the division of the money is ridiculous. “We’ve had the experiences we’d hoped for: some of the heirs are young people who are excited to participate and give life to their grandparents’ villages; they know that a 0.0008% share will never make them rich, and they don’t even dream of receiving a single payment for all the wood they could sell,” explained Manuel Gómez Ceña, president of the solicitors’ union of La Póveda (Soria), one of the towns with the most advanced plans.

The search for heirs has generated immense sheets of paper that are unfurled over the table of the Soria Forestry Association. Tears have been shed more than once by people who were contacted and told of their origins in Castilla and that part of a mountain there is theirs, at least 0.005% of the stock. “Elías cried like a Nazarene (Spanish metaphor for “penitent”). He took some rocks from the house that belonged to his grandparents and took them back to Argentina,” said Cándido Moreno de Pablo about a family’s recent visit. I explained to all of them that we will never permit the mountain to be used for self-interest. They answered that they were satisfied just to be able to show their children they are descendants of Spaniards. They are very sentimental people,” said Cándido, an old Castilian, in a flattering tone.

“We have to insist that this is not being done for economic benefit, that what we’re trying to do is recover a system of integrated management, of silvopasture, which was egaliatarian and sustainable,” Pedro Medrano continued.

But when money rears its head, things inevitably get complicated. In some towns, the mountain has become more profitable than before because of new windmills. The aerogenerators have caused conflict among neighbors and governments, such as Ledrado, a hamlet in Las Aldehuelas. “We have nine windmills. We have organized a solicitors’ union, and we plan to exploit the opportunity. We’ve already been delayed because the business is waiting to find out who they should pay,” explained Pedro Antonio Marín, who returned to the community after retirement and is emotionally invested in the idea of bringing life to the mountains. A windmill could bring some 3000 euros per year. “But so that no one will call it a swindle,” the dividends will be used for rural development, for reinvestment in the forest, for the common good of the community. The mayor, Segundo Revilla Jiménez, believes the same. “Our grandparents bought these mountains; they belong to the people; there’s no doubt about that. Why would City Hall reclaim them? In addition, the benefits would go to the people themselves and the maintenance of the population, which is vital here,” he added.

Whatever the case may be, everyone involved in this adventure points out that this story was born from solidarity and should not shift toward anything else. This was always so. In the town of Cándido, Herrera, there are 15 people according to the census but only four open homes. Each of these homes, in payment for keeping the community alive, receives 5% of the revenue from lumber and leases for cattle grazing. “It was always that way,” Cándido recalled. “The money was used for electric lighting, running water, and the construction of schools and roads. It was money that neighbors invested in neighbors.” So it continues.

The support mechanisms neighbors are organizing to share the mountains and their yields are diverse, and all involved speak of the past: precious traditions that constituted a formidable symbolic patrimony. “In Espejón, for example, to receive benefits, one has to agree to live in the community, and there is a log for overnight stays: the days someone can spend out of town are limited, and when neighbors leave, they have to inform the secretary,” Cándido recounted. It seems like an ancient story, but it’s happening right now.

From community to community, the enjoyment of the mountains is anchored in natural descendance: parents, children, marriages, new parents, new children. But the outflow of people is unstoppable. Some communities have been deserted again, although now the emmigration is only in terms of some kilometers, to the regional mastheads, to the cities. “They’re already talking about opening up communities to families who aren’t from there but who want to live in them: immigrants, for example,” Pedro Medrano recognized. Cándido is doubtful, mindful of tradition, of the old buyers…but times change, and she knows the priority is that communities stay alive, and their mountains with them.

“The Matter of the Mountains is Very Moving”
Upon the death of his father, an elderly Spanish emigrant who has lived in Argentina since 1925, Elías Pascual, wanted to search for his origins. His father had never spoken much about them. “We knew that he was from a town in Soria, and sometimes he mentioned El Burgo de Osma (another town). My father lost all his contacts when my grandparents died. We also knew that it was a very small village, so we took a car there and talked with them. At the first door we knocked on, a place where there were clothes hanging to dry, we met a cousin who, obviously, we had never known of before, and after that I met other cousins…it was emotional,” said Elías, age 73.

On that journey, he shed good tears. He collected many stones from the home of his grandfather for himself and his sister and returned to Argentina. But he never lost contact again. The economy did not allow them to travel as they wished, but he made a second visit to Spain three years ago with his children. That’s when he met Cándido Moreno, who had written him in advance asking for information so he and his children could be credited as proprietors of Mount Herrara (Soria). She sent the papers to Argentina; they were signed and sent back to Spain.

“I should get my hands on one of the trees – I don’t know if they’re big or small,” he joked. “But most of all, it’s satisfying to have these memories of my family, of my grandfather, who was one of the people who went through so much to buy the mountain.” Emotion overcame Elías, and he had to pass the phone to his wife, Adriana Mattioli, an Italian who also immigrated to Argentina. “He’s very emotional – there are lots of memories, you know? All this about the mountains is very moving, about what our ancestors did with so much love for the land; we have to keep taking care of it so it won’t disappear. And it’s very clear that there aren’t any economic interests or favors involved, none at all. It’s only to maintain what our elders did.”

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