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Spain : El Hierro


The Canary Islands are a Spanish archipelago that, in turn, forms one of the Spanish Autonomous Communities and an Outermost Region of the European Union. The archipelago is located just off the northwest coast of mainland Africa in the Atlantic Ocean and comprises seven major islands Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Tenerife, Gomera, La Palma, El Hierro and several minor ones, all of which are volcanic in origin. For the purposes of this case study we are concentrating on El Hierro, the smallest and farthest south and west with an area of 278 sq km. Like the rest of the chain, the island is sharply mountainous with the highest point in Malpaso, 1501 meters high, situated in the middle. The weather is mostly dominated by the NE trade winds so the climate can be mild and wet or very dry. El Hierro has a population of 10,753 with around a third living in the largest town Valverde, which is the seat of the Cabildo (island government). The main economic activities are livestock rearing for milk, fruit growing, fishing and tourism. Traditional practices have largely been maintained which allows for a well-developed partnership between people and the environment.

The original native settlers of the island called Bimbaches arrived from north Africa and created a peaceful, cave-dwelling society that left many interesting petroglyphs on rocks and cave walls throughout the island. They were ruled over by one king - Armiche prior to Spanish conquest at the beginning of the 15th century. When Jean de Bethencourt landed on El Hierro he had Augeron, the king Armiche's brother with him and more through the process of negotiation than by military action took over the island. Augeron had been captured years previously by the Europeans and now served as mediator between the Europeans and the Bimbaches. In return for control over the island, Bethencourt promised to respect the liberty of the natives, but he eventually broke his promise, selling many of the Bimbaches into slavery. Many Frenchmen and Galicians subsequently settled on the island and in their quest for farmland, much of El Hierro's forests were destroyed.

Nobody really knows the origins of the name El Hierro but it could be derived from the ancient Canarian language in which 'hero' meant milk. One thing that's absolutely certain is that it has nothing to do with the metal of the same name (hierro meaning iron in Spanish is only conspicuous by its absence). El Hierro is also nicknamed Isla del Meridiano (the Meridian Island). Until the discovery of America in 1492, the island was considered the western edge of the known world and so, according to Ptolemy's criteria in his work "Geography", it was accepted that the line joining the two poles or 0° meridian passed through El Hierro. In the year 1634, France ruled by Louis XIII and Richelieu decided that El Hierro's meridan should be used as the reference on maps. It was thought to be exactly 20 degrees west of the Paris meridan so old maps often have a common grid with Paris degrees at the top and El Hierro degrees offset by 20 at the bottom. This remained in effect until 1884 when Greenwich replaced El Hierro as Zero Meridian.

Renewable Energy & Eco Housing

In 2009, twelve years after the island's (integrated) sustainable development plan was first launched and after countless drafting studies and environmental impact assessments, not to mention numerous bureaucratic hurdles, El Hierro announced it was on the verge of starting construction on the world's first wind-hydro power station www.gif (1287 bytes), and . For several years this project has been detailed and widely reported, for example by INSULA in its journal and by ITC (Canary Islands Institute of Technology).

The Cabildo, ITC and Unelco/Endesa (the local utility) are collaborating in this 64.5m euro project whose objective is to meet the island's electricity demand entirely through a variety of renewable energy measures by 2012. Gonzalo Piernavieja, R&D Director at ITC, the organisation behind the technical details of the El Hierro project which is being administered by a government-funded company, Gorona del Viento, explains that the real technological challenge is to create a system based 100 per cent on renewable energies on an island disconnected from the main power grid. Renewable energy sources, most notably wind power, are intermittent and fluctuating, and as a consequence, need to be stored in times of excess.

"When you are thinking about providing full power supply to an entire island," he says, "you have to create a massive energy storage system. Since small islands' power grids are by definition weak, you cannot just inject the excess energy into the grid as that would cause the system to collapse. So you need to modulate the flow of excessive renewable energy into the system by replicating more or less what hydroelectric power plants do, modulating the flow of energy into the system according to demand fluctuation."

"Here is where El Hierro's Gorona wind-hydro station comes in. This is an innovative concept that combines two renewable energy sources: wind and hydro power, using water as energy storage. The system overcomes the usual problems of discontinuity and power fluctuations caused by the random character of the wind and, thanks to the potential energy storage (pumped water) and the controllable power output of hydro turbines, can establish a stable grid in terms of frequency and voltage."

"Among the main components of the wind-hydro system is a wind farm (10-12 MW) that will supply energy to inject directly into the grid or to pump water from a lower to an upper reservoir. The wind farm will be set up on top of a cliff close to the upper reservoir, a waterproofed volcanic crater, located at nearly 700 metres above sea level. This reservoir will have a capacity of 500,000 cubic metres of water, while the lower reservoir, located at sea level, next to the future mini-hydropower station, can store 150,000 cubic metres of desalinated water. Both reservoirs will be linked by nearly three kilometres of pipes that will distribute water between the two sites. The system also includes a seawater desalination plant that fills the reservoirs. Once they are full, the plant can cover evaporation losses and supply water for irrigation purposes to the island's foothill farms."

"When wind is scarce and does not cover the demand, the water from the upper reservoir will be released through turbines to the lower one. If a long period without wind has exhausted the water in the upper reservoir, the system will transfer to the existing and conventional 10 MW diesel power station to supply the necessary energy for island consumption."

"The capacity of the upper reservoir, half a million cubic metres, is sufficient to meet the energy demand of the island during five consecutive days without wind. It is rare, though, on this island to go more than two days without adequate winds. The system enables the electricity production to match the electricity demand. This adjustment can be achieved because the five wind turbines will be able to operate between 10 and 100 per cent of their rated power (by changing the flow rate) with the same efficiency. The estimated yearly electricity production from the system in its initial stage is 36 GWh, of which 24 will come from the wind farm, and the remainder from the hydro station. At the moment, the island's electricity demand is 45 GWh."

"Another important benefit of the plant will be to reduce its dependence on oil. At the moment, El Hierro requires 26 oil tankers, each carrying 2,000 tonnes, to meet demand. The new system will reduce that to just six tankers per annum. The station will also help to reduce the amount of CO2 emissions ' the main cause of the greenhouse effect ' by 25,500 tonnes a year. Further down the line, transport on the island will become 'clean', virtually eliminating the need for diesel (the island consumes 6,000 tonnes annually)."

Whilst this whole initiative appears to have been well received both on the island and internationally, it has not been without severe public criticism from a local cultural and ecological association, Ossinissa. This association complains that there has not been enough public consultation and have detailed a whole number of serious concerns backed up with more technical data and reports available on their website. These include:

  • i) the site chosen for the development was a protected area and should never have been approved in the first place;
  • ii) the individual size (2.3 MW) of wind turbines procured are the largest on the European market with a total height of 99.50 m and considered only suitable for flat terrain where the wind flow provides less turbulence, or offshore, where greater reliability is achieved;
  • iii) the actual location will present obvious difficulties associated with transporting these large turbines to site and stability issues in the mountainous terrain;
  • high costs of subsequent maintenance and replacement parts been taken fully into account;
  • iv) the economic and technical viability of the project has never been proven nor have the high costs of subsequent maintenance and replacement parts been taken fully into account;
  • v) the availability of desalinated water on a continuous basis to counteract evaporation loss in the upper reservoir is likely to become a problem;
  • vii) the existing diesel power station will still need to be maintained since at best only 70-80% of the island's energy consumption will come from renewables;
  • viii) the authorities have spent little time investing in a solar thermal programme and encouraging more homes to switch to such systems for domestic hot-water production thus reducing the total amount of electricity used and helping reduce peaks in demand and their biomass programme has also been abandoned. 

Taking all the above into account, one does have to seriously question whether the €64.5 million price tag of the initiative, slightly bigger than the island's annual budget, could have been used in better ways to reach the same target, that of reducing oil dependence. The argument that this, albeit innovative, attempt at sustainable living might have a potential positive impact for other island communities around the world to emulate is an unrealistic scenario. Indeed, it may well have the opposite effect because if it does not deliver it could well be perceived as a very expensive 'white elephant' that might jeopardize EC funding for more modest and practical pilot renewable energy projects on other islands or any future European funding for El Hierro itself.

Waste Minimisation & Recycling

One of the basic features of the island's integrated sustainable development strategy is a group of actions generated under the initiative 'El Hierro - zero waste' started in 1998. Amongst other things, a group of 19 senior pupils from the high school received training and then made individual visits to householders encouraging them to recycle. There are now some 45 collection points around the island where people can deposit glass, paper, plastic and organic waste. The contents are then taken to a new central recycling centre on the island. On a fortnight rotation the paper and plastic is compacted then transported to Tenerife for onward shipment to Seville for further processing. The glass goes by container lorry on a ferry to Gran Canaria where there is a crushing and recycling factory in Santa Cruz. A composter at the recycling centre takes the organic waste where the use of worms has also been introduced to assist the process of aerobic decomposition. A new idea to use the waste from pineapple farms and straw from fodder crops to grow organic mushrooms is currently being investigated. Waste wood is also collected and fed into a chipper. There is one badly regulated landfill site situated in the remote western side of the island. This location probably accounts for the fact that a fair amount of fly tipping, particularly of construction rubble, is still ongoing within the El Golfo valley. Hopefully, this may lessen once a second, and better managed, landfill site is built near to the industrial estate.

The local government recognised early on that resources such as sewage sludge, animal waste and the organic part of MSW (Municipal Solid Waste) as well as organic industrial waste (slaughterhouse and dairy) could be used in biogas plants. As the result of an international co-operation initiative with Cuba that provided technical experience and training, an experimental plant for the production of biogas by exploiting stockbreeding effluents and sewage was constructed in Frontera. As well as installing the anaerobic digester the system also comprised a 'living machine' whereby wastewater was purified through a series of plant filled tanks and then used to supply a small hydroponics crop unit. It seems a great pity that this complex was mothballed after only six months purely because the EC funding grant had expired.

The future production of biofuels is currently being examined and it is hoped local restaurants might get involved by making available used cooking oils for collection and recycling. Both a vehicle and scooter running on biodiesel are already operating on an experimental basis around the island.

Water Management & Security

The geological characteristics of El Hierro are a serious constraint on the island's ability to harness water. Over the centuries it has been collected in many different ways and this is reflected by the fact that Garoe or Holy Tree, whose leaves condense dew carried by the Trade Wind mists to be then stored in drinking troughs by the Bimbache, is still a local emblem. Today, water management remains poor throughout the island with some important aquifers contaminated through having no adequate sewerage system in place within areas of high population like the 55 sq km crescent-shaped plain of El Golfo valley.

Extensive Agriculture & Organic Food Production

Some of the best wine and cheese produce in the Canaries can be found on El Hierro. Vine cultivation has a long tradition on the island. It began in 1526 and in 1833 around 1.3m litres had already been produced. Half of this quantity was converted into spirit. In the 19th century production fell off, as in the rest of the Canary Islands, and wine became a farmhouse product until the end of the 20th century, when it resurged. In May 1994, the wines of Hierro obtained their designation of origin. White wines, greenish or golden in colour and dry, are the most important of the island and produced by the Frontera Cooperative.

The local cheese is made with a mixture of fresh or pasteurized cow, goat or sheep's milk and the blend of these milks define the flavour of El Hierro cheese. The cheeses are smooth on the outside, with the base branded by the dairy, and have a veined colour (white and yellowish), due to the smoking process with 'tabaiba' and bark from Canarian pine trees and green heather. They also have an intense aroma, due to this process. They have a slightly acid and smooth taste. The famous 'quesadillas' are cakes whose principal ingredient is cheese. Sheep's milk is now also being used to produce an organic yogurt that is proving to be very popular.

There are 57 organic farmers on El Hierro according to government figures but this total is disputed locally. In the El Golfo valley sits Finca de los Palmeros, a government research farm which was supposed to become the motor for the island's push towards organic farming - perceived here as vital to protect the thin topsoil and to add value to its small-scale crops. Nearby, rent-free plots were once given to new organic growers on five or six year leases but this practice appears to have now ceased. It has been reported that on one plot a conventional pineapple farmer for 18 years tried his first organically grown pineapples that could be worth double the price of conventional ones. Pine needles were scattered between the bromelias' to help retain moisture and the soil was loaded with natural animal manure with extra iron to compensate for the fertiliser. The plants ripened slowly, weeding by hand turned out to be slow work and any premium price paid did not compensate for the overall fall in yield. A farmer on another plot had been successfully growing frying bananas, taro, papaya and broad beans. Chickens rather than pesticides in his greenhouse kept pests away from banana plants, sheep not herbicides left fields weed free, and crops were rotated every season. His produce, like all the island's organic vegetables and its semi-wild organic hedgerow fruit - plums, apples, strawberries, apricots and famously luscious green figs - are grouped for sale by Mercahierro, the island's wholesale market.

About 65 families live off fishing which is centred in the southern village of La Restinga. The most caught species include tuna, seabream, bass, morays and parrotfish.


El Hierro has a small airport near Valverde opened in 1972 and flights to the island are operated by Binter Canarias either from Tenerife or Gran Canaria. The port of La Estaca has ro-ro facilities for cargo boats and ferries and mooring facilities for small cruise ships. The Fred Olsen shipping line runs services twice a day to El Hierro from Los Cristianos in Tenerife and the journey takes about two and a half hours. Naviera Armas also has a number of scheduled ferries from Santa Cruz de Tenerife to Valverde per week.

The local transport co-operative, under the island's integrated sustainable development strategy, claim to have started the following demonstration projects:

  • incorporation of a hybrid bus to the local fleet. Initially, its use will be limited to the shuttle between the airport and the capital and may use biogas or hydrogen as fuel
  • introduction of an electric, battery-powered minibus in the area of El Golfo for mixed tourist-public use. It would rely on a photovoltaic station for its recharge
  • creation of an ingenious electronic ticketing system for the optimisation of journeys in scattered rural areas, occasionally turning the private vehicle into collective transport, thus helping to provide an energy saving
  • development and consolidation of an extensive pedestrian network


Sustainable Tourism & Niche Marketing

Life on El Hierro is relaxed and quiet. The mass tourism engulfing the other Canary Islands, with all the negative fallout that goes in hand with it, has left El Hierro virtually unscathed. Only around 60,000 tourists a year come to the island that can boast just 10 medium-sized hotels. The local people have resisted package tourism so vehemently that there are no direct flights to El Hierro - not even from the Spanish mainland. Residents often refer to their homeland as the 'forgotten island.' Tourist guidelines for the next eight years include a pledge to allow new hotels in only a limited number of coastal areas and that these should be of at least four or five star category with the maximum number of beds not exceeding 2,000 overall.

There are a few beaches on El Hierro which is more renowned for its dramatic volcanic landscapes; its craggy coast, where waves hurl themselves against lava-sculpted rock faces; by the eerily beautiful juniper groves with trees twisted and tortured by ceaseless winds; and the fertile valley of El Golfo. Although over 200 years have elapsed since the last eruption, El Hierro has the largest number of volcanoes in the Canaries with over 500 open sky cones, another 300 covered by the most recent outflows, and some 70 caves and volcanic galleries, notably the Don Justo cave whose collection of channels surpasses 6km in length.

Walking is good and the main leisure activity on the island and there are several miradors (viewing points) on El Hierro, and one of these looks down along Las Playas and the east coast. Other walking routes take you through hamlets such as Echedo, in the heart of wine-growing territory, or the cheese-producing village of Isora.

Playa de la Verodal, in the extreme west of El Hierro, is the only beach of reasonable size. It is quite remote and noted for its reddish-black sand, a product of the last volcanic eruption in 1793 which coated the south-west in particular with fields of black lava. Due to the lack of beaches, swimming and sunbathing areas have been carved out of the rocks and natural swimming pools formed.

El Hierro offers its visitors many sporting activities of which scuba diving is one of the most popular. There are diving centres in La Restinga and Timijiraque which are fully equipped for both learning and practicing this sport, as well as trips to the most interesting underwater formations in the crystal clear waters which surround the island. There are also opportunities for paragliding, surfing, mountain biking, caving and lots of other adventure activities.

Local crafts still remain as thriving activities. These old traditions are kept alive with women who spin wool by hand and weave on their primitive, wooden looms, using wool or strips of cloth to make bedspreads, blankets and rugs as well as the very popular square rucksacks. Mulberry, pine, beech and chestnut are the raw materials with which craftsmen make utensils such as bowls, ladles, pincers for gathering prickly pears and 'chacaras', the local word for castanets. There are three potters and also basket makers who weave wicker containers of all shapes and sizes. Two museums in Valverde both display and retail these handicrafts.

All the festivals here are traditional and count on a large gathering of people. The Bajada de la Virgen de los Reyes occurs every fourth year on the first Saturday in July. The Madonna of the Kings is taken by procession from her Hermitage to Valverde, a distance of 42 kilometres, accompanied by dancers in their multicoloured hats, traditional red and white dress and their chacaras. There are drums and pitos (a kind of flute) and practically the entire population of the island, as well as several thousand visitors from all over the world. This fiesta lasts for almost a whole month, during which time the Madonna visits the other villages on the island.

The Bimbache openART project works to develop and teach new ways of cultural understanding. Once a year they organise a festival where artists from different places around the world come and live together with people on the island. Its purpose, by offering different workshops and courses around improving technical skills, is to connect the participants together in a life and learning experience so as to investigate sustainable possibilities of music and arts as a vehicle for social activism and civic engagement.

Biodiversity & Protected Areas

The Spanish Ministry of Environment and Global Biodiversity Information Facility provide a wealth of information as does the Canary Island Government Ministry of Environment. More specifically a Biodiversity Data Bank for the Canary Islands has been developed where all existing information on the biota of the islands has been selected and stored. Thousands of records have been collected and each reference contains geographic information on two scales of accuracy: grid squares of 500 m x 500 m and grid squares of 5,000 m x 5,000 m. This information has been recorded with a very stringent and uniform process with the intervention of over one hundred experts in the different taxonomic groups.

The unique biodiversity of the Canary Islands has long been recognised with about 4,000 species and sub-species that do not exist anywhere else in the world. But the Canary Islands government approved a bill in 2009 that will see the removal of more than half of the named species from the protected list. Ecologists have branded the plan as a crime against nature and merely a cynical ploy to allow new homes and golf courses to be built. The proposed alterations to the Catalogue of Protected Species envisage 226 species removed from the list, 131 reclassified with lesser protection and a further 94 given limited preservation status. It will mean that vast areas previously protected from urban development could now receive planning permission. The scientific community of the islands have joined conservation groups to lobby against the new proposal, called on the central government in Madrid to intervene and have threatened to take their case to the European Parliament claiming the new bill is in violation of European laws on the protection of endangered species.

El Hierro became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2000 and more than 60% of the island is classified as protected land, limiting growth options. Situated in the Macaronesian biogeographical region, the island's vegetation is composed of coastal matorral, thermophilous juniper forest, evergreen woodlands and pine forest, as well as marine and coastal habitats. El Hierro has a great biological diversity, not only at the ecosystem level, but also at the species level. The giant lizard is a species in danger of extinction, and a captive breeding programme underway at the Guinea eco-museum is allowing its reintroduction. One of the three core areas is situated in the south of the island where local fishermen have also cooperated in the establishment of a marine reserve (Reserva Marina de La Restinga - Mar de Las Calmas). It is from this port that recent research on beaked whales has also been conducted.

Since 1997 the flora and vegetation of the island have been the object of a research project supervised by Prof. Dr. Peter Schonfelder, Institute of Botany at the University of Regensburg, Germany which has resulted in many scientific publications. This project worked in the cooperation with the Island Ecology and Biogeography Research Group at University of La Laguna, Tenerife, and focused on a complete floristic database of El Hierro to analyse intra-island patterns of diversity in relation to environmental, historical and geographical factors. They also investigated whether alien species are distributed according to their biogeographical and climatic origin along the most important environmental gradients.

Integrated Development Planning

The programme for the sustainable development of El Hierro involves all economic sectors and has been in place since 1995, well before the designation as a biosphere reserve. There is no doubting the island government's ability to source huge amounts of European funding for major infrastructure projects like the wind-hydro power plant; impressive new harbour at La Restinga and associated tuna canning factory; the Cesar Manrique designed Mirador de la Pena and restaurant; the El Julan interpretation centre, the Guinea ecomuseum and much more besides. However, the actual and perceived problem is that all these developments are either owned /controlled by the Cabildo and have been for many years. The political opposition parties are staunch critics because they maintain the Cabildo has a complete stranglehold over virtually the entire economic sector and all the associated jobs. This has led to government nepotism, complacency and a culture of dependency on EC funding that has resulted in several projects not being followed through or being made non-commercially viable simply because a European grant programme had ended. It also means any dissenting individuals find it extremely difficult to publicly voice their concern for fear of losing or jeopardising a well paid employment opportunity as well as facing an uphill struggle to set up a private enterprise in direct competition to any government backed project.

El Hierro, like the other Canary islands whose exports of bananas and tomatoes gave the name to London's Canary Wharf, are in the grip of economic crisis. They exemplify the fragility of Europe's peripheral economies after nearly two years of slowdown and recession. Unemployment, in particular, has reached a level that would be regarded as catastrophic in other EU countries: 27% of the Canarian workforce is without a job, and the figure is nearly 50% for those under 25. One reason for the high unemployment rate is that migrants from mainland Spain and abroad flocked to the islands to benefit from a building boom fuelled by bank credit and EU funds, pushing the population up by more than a quarter in a decade to more than 2m. Construction has now almost come to a stop. The black economy - where people work for cash out of sight of the tax authorities while claiming social security benefits - has been hit almost as hard as the legitimate one. Canarians, furthermore, know their workforce is under-educated and vulnerable to further falls in tourism, especially from the UK due to the decline of sterling.

The regional government is doing its best to lure foreign investors to the islands with the help of the archipelago's special regime of low taxes, and to promote biotechnology and other new industries to reduce their dependence from 10m tourists who visit each year. That said, El Hierro has never been a destination for the package holidaymaker and opportunities do exist to create more green tourism enterprises like El Sitio on the island. To the chagrin of employers, however, jobless Canarians, like other Spaniards, are more likely to covet safe and well paid jobs in the civil service than to launch their own businesses or to work in the private sector for lower pay.

Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation Measures

In April 2010 El Hierro hosted an international meteorological conference for people from various institutions and agencies around Macaronesia to discuss recent adverse weather events and their influence on the environmental and socio-economic development of the region. The regional climate is characterized by geography and, in general, benign conditions. However, this stability is periodically interrupted by the appearance of severe weather conditions that in some cases have serious implications for individual islands as was experienced on Madeira in February 2010 when at least 32 people were killed in floods and mudslides after torrential rain hit the island.

El Hierro is no stranger to such events with major storms having affected the island several times over the past decade causing extensive damage to several villages. With the increasing number of such storms and records indicating that average rainfall is rising, the Cabildo has since 2002 had an Insular Emergency Plan in place and in April 2007, another major milestone was the creation of the Insular Coordinating Centre of Emergencies and Security (CECOI) on El Hierro. As there are a great many foreigners that live or visit the Canary Islands, this Centre is the only one in Spain that offers the possibility of answering emergency calls in five languages.

The objectives of this conference were to discuss ways to enhance existing mitigation and adaptation measures and to ascertain what further investments in disaster preparedness are required to reduce the vulnerability of the exposed population from climate change impacts.


Samuel Acosta Armas & Vanessa Diaz Concepcion, Ossinissa
Javier Morales, Cabildo Insular de El Hierro
Aurora Murciano, El Hierro Digital
Matias Ayala, General Secretary, Socialist Party of El Hierro
Sabine Willmann, El Sitio