The Slow Recovery of Millennial-Old Salt Marshes in Spain

a man carrying tools while walking across a salt marsh with the setting sun in the background on the horizon
Ereb Climatica
Andalucía, Spain
The Slow Recovery of Millennial-Old Salt Marshes in Spain

The seawater feels pleasantly warm. A former environmental educator, Eva María Añino Pedreño, rubs salt flakes between her fingertips, a satisfied smile on her lips. She collects her own ‘fleur de sel’ out of the ‘tajo’ – the traditional name for the ponds used to crystallize sea salt– outdoing her father.

Eva’s father learned the trade of salt collecting from a young age, as was the custom in the Cádiz Bay area, located on the Atlantic coast of Andalucía, Spain. By the age of 9, he had become an ‘hormiguilla’ –a “little ant”–, charged with taking the heavy salt buckets, by donkey, to the markets for sale.

But unlike his own father, a lifelong salt worker, Eva’s father was born too late to become a grown ‘salinero’; by the 1950s, the growing popularity of the recently invented refrigerator had led to a rapidly declining salt value –once essential for food preservation–, and the family switched livelihood. “We skipped a generation”, Eva says now. Together with her associate Iryna Lavrentieva, she is taking over after setting up her own business in the recently restored salt pan, La Esperanza.

Behind Iryna and Eva, the natural park of the Bay of Cádiz opens out onto the Atlantic Ocean, with an urban setting encircling it on the other side. This is the largest tidal wetland in Spain, protected under numerous international legislations including the EU Natura 2000 Network of biodiversity conservation areas. Most of the 10.5 thousand hectares of the park consists of salt marshes making a watery no-man’s land between the open sea and the coastal, industrial town in the bay.

The neglect of the marshes, long disregarded as smelly and dirty, has raised increasing alarm, as scientists have highlighted their crucial role in mitigating the impacts of the climate crisis. These special ecosystems form natural barriers against rising sea levels, and provide a critical defence against flooding. Moreover, coastal marshlands act as potent carbon sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide ten times faster than mature rainforests.

However, wetlands worldwide are under severe threat, with up to 71% already lost to urbanisation, sea-level increases, and erosion since the 1900s. Between 2000 and 2019, an area the size of two football pitches was lost every hour, NASA research revealed. In Cádiz, over 80% of the salt pans are in a state of abandonment and at risk of disappearing, and along with them the livelihoods of traditional salt workers.

In order to preserve both the biodiversity and the heritage of salt pans, local restoration projects have sprung up across the Mediterranean and Atlantic region. In the Bay of Cádiz, among others, a university funded project has restored the once abandoned salt pan, La Esperanza – in Spanish, “Hope”. Artisanal workers, entrepreneurs like Eva and Iryna, and university researchers, collaborate on elaborating market-competitive products while monitoring the local bird fauna.

This is a summary. Read the full article in English, French or Italian at Ereb and in Spanish at Climatica.

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Spanish in two parts by Climatica on October 1 and October 29, 2023 and in English, French and Italian by Ereb on October 19, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: A worker at the salt marsh / Credit: Helena Rodríguez.

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