Francisco Armenteros stood beside a framed map of the Bay of Cádiz. “I remember something that my father once said: It was amazing when you came along the road and you could see so many little mountains of salt, like pyramids of salt.” Dating from the mid-1900s, the map reveals the complex saltscape of the Andalucían bay as it would have looked at the time, when those white pyramids rose in profusion across the expansive marshland. With over 160 salt works then in existence, the harvest season must have been luminous to witness. Mounded up by hand, rake and shovel, the salt pyramids would have stood shimmering at the edge of the numerous tidal creeks threaded like veins through the marsh, ready to be carried by river barge out to waiting ships, or to be transferred to large ports along the coast. And on the map, colour-coded according to which family worked specific areas, there was barely a space that wasn’t devoted to the cultivation of this mineral, each of the irregularly shaped salinas meticulously named in handwritten black ink: Carmen San Lorenzo, Santo Cristo de la Misericordia, San Rafael del Monte.
“We have this treasure, we say, from Phoenician times,” says Francisco, “but it’s sad to see so many abandoned now. We always say that water is life, but the abandoned salinas have lost their water, so there’s little life.” Of those 160 salt works spread across the map, only ten remain active today.
The causes of this abandonment are complex and many. The historic transition from wooden to plastic barrels for brining olives meant that salt was only required once in the curing process, whereas previously the vessels had needed topping up regularly because of leaks. The development of canning in the 19th century meant far less salt was required to preserve perishable food, a dramatic shift in storage processes that reached its zenith with the invention of the refrigerator. And the extraction of salt from underground deposits by mining, a process backed by a powerful political lobby and able to be carried out year-round instead of only in the summer from the surface, has become the predominant source of the mineral in recent decades, accounting for 80 percent of the world’s total production. All of which have muscled naturally-evaporated sea salt to the relative margins of the industry.
But the Armenteros enterprise has resisted this trend. Entering the trade with just a lorry, Francisco’s grandfather delivered sea salt around the Bay of Cádiz and further afield until eventually, with the help of several loans, he bought a salt works in the 1970s. Now the family operate three salinas, and although industrial as opposed to artisanal in both the scale and method of production, utilising large ponds and machinery to harvest the salt instead of traditional tools, their work has proved not only commercially viable amidst a worsening financial climate for sea salt but also of paramount importance to biodiversity in the bay.
“It was a completely dry place,” says Francisco, describing one of the abandoned salt works they’d restored, “but in just one year we started to see more than forty species of birds. And in two years, more than eighty. Again, water is life – it’s completely joined.”
The salt pans of La Tapa were encrusted with white crystals when we stepped outside his office, glittering like polar snow fields. Steering sunwards over the pools, a flock of flamingos snared the summer light in their pink feathers until they glowed. Redshanks flared through the rippling heat haze and common terns hawked the waters. Spoonbills shuffled their beaks through the briny pools alongside elegant avocets, their snow-white plumage cut with crisp black curves. In the distance, an osprey quartered the lagoons.
Until the 1980s, ospreys were a regular feature of continental Spain. As the decade wound down, however, the bird joined the ranks of the extinguished as a breeding species, due to the ravages of poaching, egg theft and habitat loss. There were to be no more of those sudden, daunting dives into the water, all the concentrated power, dynamism and focus of its fall, when the raptor, as if by some miraculous underwater exchange, emerges with a glistening fish tangled up in its talons. Except that Fundación Migres, an organisation advocating for birds in southern Spain, put into action a plan to amend this disappearance, carefully relocating 182 osprey chicks from Finland, Germany and Scotland to the provinces of Cádiz and Huelva in a reintroduction programme between 2005 and 2013. One of the key elements of their restoration efforts was the erection of nesting platforms in suitable habitat, and I watched how the osprey circled the high platform anchored to one of the salt pans it had returned to. Breeding in Spain once more, a total of eighteen pairs of the magnificent raptor now call the wetlands of Cádiz and Huelva home.
What makes the osprey’s return to the Bay of Cádiz possible is the density and diversity of fish existing in this interconnected system of salt pans, marshes, tidal creeks and small aquaculture ponds, including the rare Aphanius baeticus. Known in Spanish as salinete, or the salt-inhabiting fish, it’s endemic to only a few wetlands in southern Spain, including these salt pans of Francisco’s. Such species not only enrich the entire ecosystem with their presence, but as a source of food they enable a vast number of resident and migratory birds to thrive. But when salt pans become inactive, as we’d seen on that map, everything about these landscapes can change.
“It’s a mosaic of different situations,” says Alejandro Pérez Hurtado, referring to the entirety of the bay, “but the trend now is towards abandonment.” A professor of biology at the University of Cádiz, Alejandro has devoted much of his professional life to this bay. He described how the salt pans nearest to the tidal channels are able to rejuvenate into natural marsh after abandonment, but for those located further from water the inevitable result is dry land coarsened with vegetation. “And when this happens,” he continues, “we lose the fish for a start. And then the birds. People then start to put their rubbish there because there’s no wetland. And some people say, There’s no water, so I can build on it.”
Wetlands are being rapidly drained from the world. Between 1970 and 2015, 35 percent of the planet’s wetlands were destroyed. And in Europe, roughly two-thirds of the continent’s wetlands have been lost in the past century. Essential for pollution filtration, coastal flood protection, abundance and vitality of wildlife, recreation and tourism, agricultural irrigation and other human needs such as drinking water and food, their loss releases a cascade of ruinous consequences throughout the entire web of life.
“Water is like blood,” says Alejandro. “This is an organic life system, and the moon is the heart because it moves the tides. But when you cut this movement, the biodiversity, the life, drops.”
Alejandro showed me around the artisanal salt pans of La Esperanza. Managed by the university, they underscored the fact that for many centuries breeding birds had successfully exploited the function of salt pans, meaning that both human and wild lives were conjoined in one place. “They started to link their behaviour with traditional human patterns of livelihood,” he explains. “They took advantage of the predictable movements of water.” But with the abandonment of such patterns these long-existing connections between wildlife and habitat break down.
“The birds associated with wetlands,” says Macarena Castro, a fellow professor of biology at the university, “are decreasing.” This diminishment is a reflection of the overall loss of wetland habitat and the deterioration in quality of the pieces that remain. And for species such as the Kentish plover, further losses threaten an already freefalling population in Europe. A small and delicate wader, the Kentish plover nests on bare scrapes of earth in sparsely vegetated terrain alongside lakeshores, rivers and salt pans. But instead of the well-drained substrate of small shells and stones that the regularly flowing water would typically leave behind at the edge of salt pans, the abandonment of so many of Cádiz’s salinas has meant a landscape increasingly slathered in mud from sedimentation. And so the plover’s eggs, reliant on being regularly turned and evenly warmed in order to hatch, often fail after becoming stuck in the glue-like mire.
“Every spring since 1993,” says Alejandro, “I’ve spent some part of three or four days a week at La Esperanza speaking with the Kentish plovers. And then listening. What about you? What do you need today? I would say.” This act of attention, of trying to understand the needs of these vulnerable and threatened birds, led Alejandro down a path of greater affiliation that ultimately proved fruitful for both. “I took my body, my small strength, and started bringing various well-draining substrates to the salt pans, trying different vegetation covers, changing the colour of the substrate and the percentage of stones and shells.” Nearly a quarter of a century later, he and his university students still transport different substrates to the salt pans in wheelbarrows, seeking to make a positive difference to these local wild lives. “When we started working here in these salinas we had ten to twenty pairs of Kentish plovers,” says Alejandro. “Last spring I checked the nests of 150 pairs.”
Alejandro’s story was a crucial reminder that while entire ecosystems require urgent rehabilitation and restoration in order to improve their natural functionality and richness, there is also an essential place for individual actions in the repair and renewal of the natural world. Even small acts of listening can lead to profoundly affirmative reverberations. “When we don’t hear the heart,” says Alejandro, “we cut the connection between human and nature.”
“For me,” says Macarena, “this is such an important place to demonstrate that the human isn’t always a monster in nature. Often it’s true, we can be the worst parts of the ecosystem, but this is an example of how we can also do good things.” As the salt pans restored by the university have begun to function once more, La Esperanza pulls in large numbers of avocets, little stints, redshanks and black-winged stilts as if it were a magnet, alongside those rare Kentish plovers breeding on its banks, birds whose ecologies are directly tethered to the influence of humans on this captivating landscape. Unlike salt mining – or even sea salt like Maldon, which, while of indisputable quality, is produced by piping water directly from the sea to industrial indoor heating units – the ancient process of producing sea salt through natural evaporation creates something beyond the mineral itself: it enlarges the very possibility of a place, transforming a landscape of livelihood into a vital repository of life.
“We want to create a space to live with the birds, the salt, the fish and everything else,” says Francisco, flamingos gleaming against the cool blue of the outer pools. “We want to act with respect.”
While it’s unlikely that the map of the Bay of Cádiz from the 1950s will ever be anything but a historical curio, there is considerable opportunity and hope for this place to regain some of its former meaning. For more of those “little mountains of salt” to rise once again. The key, according to all, was to diversify. To make sea salt valuable, not only as a mineral but also for the connective potential that is at the heart of its cultivation and harvesting. To bring together the culture, economy and biodiversity of a place, through environmental education classes, ecotourism, salt museums, spas, therapies, culinary traditions and research into the wide-ranging use of micro-algae on site, with the intention of supporting and nourishing all.
“It’s important that consumers understand what’s happening,” explains Francisco, surrounded by the wild calls of migrating birds flashing and furrowing southwards. “Look, this is what your salt is doing.”
This is the second in a four-part series exploring the history, biodiversity, cultural traditions and associated bird and human migrations of the traditional salt pans of Southern Spain and Morocco. Part one can be read here. This article first appeared in Lush Times.