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Housing swallows up Spain's plain

A building boom in the heartland is endangering some of the most precious flora and fauna in Europe.

September 08, 2008|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

TOLEDO, SPAIN — A frayed copy of "Don Quixote" was tucked under the front seat of Roberto Oliveros' battered white truck as he sallied forth through the fast-changing plains of central Spain.

Where the addled Cervantes hero tilted at windmills, Oliveros and his environmentalist friends see another towering enemy dotting this La Mancha landscape: construction cranes.

An unbridled building boom, which first turned much of Spain's once captivating coastline into a mile-wide belt of shopping malls, vacation homes and sunburned foreigners, has more recently spread deep into the country's heartland, endangered some of the most precious and diverse flora and fauna in Europe and sucked an already arid region dry of water.

Nearly 30% of Spain is in the process of becoming desert, according to a report by Adena, Spain's branch of the World Wildlife Fund.

"We have tried to raise the alarm, before everything goes to hell," said Oliveros, from the Toledo office of Ecologists in Action, Spain's largest consortium of environmentalist groups.

Fueled by corruption, speculation and a hot market that only recently cooled, vast patches of regions such as Castilla-La Mancha are being swallowed up by enormous housing developments, often on land designated as national parks or as protected zones because of delicate ecosystems and near-extinct wildlife.

Once a quiet countryside of gentle hills, olive groves, medieval castles and cattle ranches, the land is now pocked with patches of cookie-cutter condos, golf courses and prefab swimming pools. And billboards: "Get your chalets now!" "Easy credit, no money down!" "A new way to live!"

And the most bitter twist for environmentalists is that an abrupt downturn in the Spanish economy, not unlike the current U.S. financial crisis, means that most of the tens of thousands of new houses will go unsold.

Spain caught a roaring case of property fever a few years ago; owning a home became part of achieving the European dream in a nation catching up with the rest of the West. Compounded by an influx of British and other foreign second-home buyers, demand soared, prices soared even higher, and greed infected the boom.

Backroom rezoning has stolen property from under the feet of small landowners and farmers. Building permits have been granted where there is no possibility of water or sewerage infrastructure.

The abuse became so widespread that a special investigative commission of the European Union last year branded Spain's urban-development practices illegal under European law and a violation of basic cultural rights.

Despite a slew of criminal cases brought by prosecutors, government officials have proved themselves unable, or unwilling, to control the growth; often, they profited from it, in cahoots with unscrupulous developers.

"From the political right, or the left, it doesn't seem to matter," another member of Ecologists in Action, Juan Aceituno, said as he toured some of the eyesores with a reporter.

Developers say they were merely meeting a demand for housing and turning a legitimate profit; because government in Spain is so decentralized, with each of 17 autonomous regions in charge of urban policies, officials have claimed impotence in setting or enforcing rules.

For the last couple of years, it has been up to a ragtag band of environmentalist guerrillas backed by so-called green attorneys to challenge what they call "savage urbanization." Battles are won, and many more lost.

In one victory here in Toledo, Oliveros and his associates managed to stop an apartment complex from being built on the ruins of one of the most important Visigoth sites in central Spain, planting themselves in front of bulldozers poised to dig up the site.

For every triumph, however, there have been defeats. Driving up the road from Toledo, the entrances of towns are gantlets of cranes, brick factories and warehouses selling tile, plumbing materials and bathroom fixtures. Aquamarine prefab swimming pools stand on their ends like giant monsters challenging the buyer.

Thirty-five miles north of Toledo, a sprawling mini-city and 18-hole golf course are encroaching on the picturesque medieval town of Escalona. Environmentalists say its builders destroyed 100-year-old oak trees (which were used by the developers in promotional literature as a reason to move there) and that the settlement, like similar projects, is dipping ever deeper into aquifers to supply prospective residents with water.

Across Spain, nearly 20,000 illegal wells are sucking water reserves from aquifers to support new housing tracts. And especially in the drought-ridden south, scores of water-guzzling golf courses are incongruously covering the land like kudzu.

The drought of 2005 was the country's worst in more than half a century, and rainfall is continuing to become scarcer in the Iberian peninsula, said Francisco Pugnaire, a member of the state's Arid Zone Experimental Station. This year, water had to be shipped to Barcelona.

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