Cultural landscape, palm trees and “huertanos” (allotment growers) in Elche.
The foreground of the photo shows a cluster of palm trees which are typical in the Elche landscape. In the middle, we can see a “palmer” climbing up the trunk to the top, using traditional climbing techniques. At the bottom there are two “huertanos” getting water from the network of ditches. We can also see traditional elements of working the fields of Elche like the cart and ladder.
This photo leads to a reflection on a current environmental problem, which is linked to human ecology: that of the palm grove and the traditional job of the “palmer”.
Over the centuries, upkeep of the Elche palm groves has been carried out by “palmers”, who have established a solid guild which has transmitted to generations much knowledge about pruning, picking dates, and capping of leaves of white palm trees; as well as the skills and abilities for climbing up the trunk.
Nowadays, this age-old profession which has determined the physiognomy of palm tree areas in the eastern peninsula, and has drawn the identity of certain communities is in grave danger. The landscape itself, the palm groves of Elche, is threatened by the picudo bug, a problem which has led to a collective effort to investigate this exogenous plague and possible ways of stopping it.
Different causes, from globalising regulations on work safety and hygiene, or the mechanisation of farm work, have triggered a crisis at the heart of this traditional employment. Palmers have been forced to make big changes in the traditional dynamics of their work, from clothing to climbing the palm trees, which, for safety reasons, is now with a harness. Likewise, the average age of those working in the palm groves is over sixty, which puts its viability and continuation at risk.
On the other hand, palm groves, market gardens and ditches have made up a typical cultural landscape over the centuries. The massive loss of kitchen gardens and the abandoning of traditional palm-tending put the environmental sustainability of the area and the upkeep of this peculiar ecosystem at risk.
Mª Pía Timón. Unidad de Etnología y Patrimonio Inmaterial, Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural de España. MECD