Rehabilitating Olive Trees in Aragón to Stem Spain’s Rural Exodus

Apadrina un Oliva has put the area’s abandoned olive trees up for adoption. The result has handed a lifeline to the town and its residents.

Photo: Apadrina un Oliva
Sep. 17, 2021
By Daniel Dawson
Photo: Apadrina un Oliva

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One of the most crit­i­cal issues fac­ing Spain is the ongo­ing rural exo­dus.

About 95 per­cent of the country’s pop­u­la­tion lives on just 30 per­cent of the land, with most peo­ple liv­ing in Madrid and along the coast.

We are com­pletely con­vinced that it is an idea that can be taken to other ter­ri­to­ries. It does not even have to be with aban­doned olive trees.- José Alfredo Martín Piñas, co-founder, Apadrina un Oliva

A 2019 gov­ern­ment report said 48 per­cent of all munic­i­pal­i­ties have fewer than 12.5 inhab­i­tants per square kilo­me­ter. Parts of Aragón and Extremadura, the fourth and fifth largest regions in Spain by land area, have pop­u­la­tion den­si­ties on par with those of Siberia – just two peo­ple per square kilo­me­ter.

See Also: In Italy, Abandoned Olive Groves Find New Life

In the town of Oliete, located in the cen­ter of Aragón, one orga­ni­za­tion is work­ing to revi­tal­ize the region by recov­er­ing 100,000 aban­doned olive trees, some of which have been part of the land­scape for hun­dreds of years.

Apadrina un Oliva, which trans­lates into spon­sor an olive tree,’ finds peo­ple to pay an annual fee of €50 to adopt a tree.

In return, patrons – also known as god­par­ents’ due to sim­i­lar­i­ties with the term spon­sor in Spanish – receive two liters of extra vir­gin olive oil that is pro­duced from the trees each year and pho­tos to show the recov­ery oper­a­tions.

The idea came from recov­er­ing a sin­gle tree,” co-founder José Alfredo Martín Piñas told Olive Oil Times.

Alberto Alfonso, the group’s founder, had an epiphany while hand­pick­ing olives from his family’s grove in Oliete on an autumn day seven years ago. He noticed that he was alone in har­vest­ing the trees. The neigh­bors’ fruit was falling to the ground and rot­ting.

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All photos courtesy of Apadrina un Oliva

Through hap­pen­stance, he met Martín’s brother, Adrían Martín, and friend, Pablo García-Nieto Rodríguez, who helped him found the orga­ni­za­tion. Martín and Sira Plana Marín, the fifth co-founder, joined later.

Historically, Oliete’s cen­te­nary olive trees were planted and har­vested by local farm­ers for self-con­sump­tion. However, as the country’s rural exo­dus accel­er­ated in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the trees were aban­doned and no longer pro­duce olives.

According to data from Spain’s National Institute of Statistics, Oliete was home to 2,500 peo­ple at its peak in 1910. However, this fig­ure fell to just 450 by 2011, the last year for which data are avail­able. Unofficial esti­mates put the cur­rent pop­u­la­tion at about 365 as of 2020.

People began to move from the towns to the cities look­ing for oppor­tu­ni­ties and began to aban­don the rural envi­ron­ment,” Martín said. When that hap­pened, peo­ple found it much more prof­itable and eas­ier to buy the oil in the super­mar­ket than to go to the town and work the trees.”

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A local farmer working with Apadrina un Oliva recovers an olive tree.

As a result, 70 per­cent of the municipality’s trees remain aban­doned and unpro­duc­tive. It takes two to three years for the trees to be restored and begin to pro­duce olives, but no farm­ers in the region can afford to wait that long. By find­ing spon­sors for the trees, Martín and the co-founders pro­vide a steady flow of income to the farm­ers before the tree yields any olives.

Since Apadrina un Oliva was founded in 2014, the group has recruited 6,000 spon­sors, recov­ered 15,000 trees, brought 12 new fam­i­lies to Oliete and attracts roughly 3,000 tourists to the vil­lage each year.

We started by giv­ing work to the peo­ple of the town, to the young peo­ple who want to stay in the town,” Martín said. Soon we had hired all the young peo­ple there, which were basi­cally two, and we had to start bring­ing in new fam­i­lies, new set­tlers to work in the olive groves.”

These fam­i­lies brought their chil­dren with them when they moved to the munic­i­pal­ity, which Martín said saved the local school sys­tem.

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One of Oliete’s centenary trees.

The process of adopt­ing an olive tree through Apadrina un Oliva begins online. Potential patrons can scroll through the offer­ing of avail­able trees to be spon­sored, select the ones they like the most, enter some per­sonal infor­ma­tion and make the pay­ment.

After that, the tree is bap­tized’ and the name of the spon­sor is attached to its trunk.

The bap­tism is a very impor­tant moment because the per­son is cre­at­ing his­tory and attach­ing sym­bolic value to the tree,” Martín said. This will gen­er­ate an emo­tional link between the per­son and the tree.”

Afterward, Apadrina un Oliva sends reg­u­lar updates to show spon­sors how the trees are pro­gress­ing. These usu­ally come in the form of e‑mails, but there is also a mobile appli­ca­tion that spon­sors can down­load.

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A sponsor visits an adopted tree.

At the end of the crop year, spon­sors will receive two liters of either Empeltre, Arbequina or coupage extra vir­gin olive oil, all of which are cer­ti­fied with the Bajo Aragón PDO.

Martín said that Apadrina un Oliva pro­duces about 45,000 liters each year and that num­ber is expected to grow as more trees are recov­ered.

In 2016, the co-founders installed their own mill in the town. Along with har­vest­ing the recov­ered trees, they also buy olives from about 200 small farm­ers, many of whom were in the process of aban­don­ing their trees due to the lack of a local mill.

Our idea was to build that oil mill and pro­pose to the farmer that if they brought us the olives with a cer­tain qual­ity, we would remu­ner­ate them fairly,” Martín said. This has meant that the mar­ket this year has paid €0.30 to €0.40 per kilo­gram of olives and we have paid €0.60.”

It is much more than what the mar­ket pays, but it is what we under­stand as a fair price for the farmer can work and dig­nify their work and not aban­don the farms,” he added.

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Along with pro­duc­ing extra vir­gin olive oil, which has gone on to 27 awards at var­i­ous local and inter­na­tional olive oil qual­ity com­pe­ti­tions, Apadrina un Oliva has also bol­stered the local tourism indus­try.

Some 3,000 peo­ple come to visit Oliete every year to see their olive trees, which is some­thing very sig­nif­i­cant for a town of 300 peo­ple,” Martín said. Tourism is super impor­tant for us and also con­tin­ues to pro­vide a life­line to the rural houses, restau­rants and the gas sta­tion. It makes all that part of the econ­omy work.”

He added that this is why the ini­tial bap­tism of the olive tree is so impor­tant. People cre­ate an intan­gi­ble con­nec­tion with the tree, but bring tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits to the town and its peo­ple.

Based on the eco­nomic and social indi­ca­tors, Apadrina un Oliva has been a suc­cess in stem­ming the rural exo­dus from Oliete. Martín believes that these types of projects can be a solu­tion for aban­doned olive groves across the Mediterranean basin.

We are com­pletely con­vinced that it is an idea that can be taken to other ter­ri­to­ries, it does not even have to be with aban­doned olive trees,” Martín said. What is needed is for more peo­ple to be encour­aged to take up these types of projects in their own regions.”





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