In front of the Barazón parish church, in the Coruña municipality of Santiso, a panel reports the presence of some unusual neighbors in the area: rare and endangered flowers that forced to modify the construction project of a highway. It was installed by the members of the Galician Association for Territory Custody (AGCT) within the tasks they carry out to prevent these plants from disappearing, which can only be found in this corner of the world. The AGCT is one of the dozen entities that are dedicated to the custody of the territory in Galicia. Usually constituted as associations, they concentrate on locating parcels with environmental value that the administrations do not take care of and they look for a way to be able to manage them to protect them: they sign agreements with the owners, they buy the farms directly or they rent them.
Flowers against a highway: three threatened plant species force a change in the infrastructure that will link Santiago and Lugo
This model of intervention in the territory has more roots in the United States, where it arose, and in northern European countries such as the United Kingdom, where the nobility and even the monarchy were involved in these nature conservation initiatives. those responsible for the AGTC, Martiño Cabana, a biologist specializing in amphibians. In Galicia, even so, hundreds of hectares are currently in the hands of custodial entities in areas such as Fragas do Eume and Fragas do Mandeo, in the province of A Coruña; the Sierra de O Careón, between A Coruña and Lugo; or the Antela lagoon, a wetland dried up by the Franco dictatorship in the 1950s in the A Limia region, in Ourense. The pioneering experience is that of the Ridimoas forest. The money from an environmental award in 1988 led the Ridimoas Cultural-Ecological Association to purchase the first plots of what today are almost 300 hectares of wooded land owned.
Among the difficulties encountered by the territorial custody entities in Galicia, Cabana refers to the lack of knowledge and social support, which results in a great dependence on public subsidies. Around 95% of the income comes from this source in the associations dedicated specifically to custody, he says. Another obstacle is a surprising “bottleneck” in the state and regional administrations. The conservation and protection of the natural heritage is an “obligation” for the central and Galician governments, but reaching agreements with them “is impossible,” he protests. Within the maritime-terrestrial public domain, he relates, there were attempts at negotiation, but they did not bear fruit. “They treat you as if you were going to put a beach bar. There has to be a use and they ask you to pay a fee. And we don’t go through there,” he explains.
He sees municipalities and councils as more receptive. Cabana cites two examples. One is the Ollos de Begonte, round lagoons in the province of Lugo. The land, 111 hectares, was bought by the Provincial Council in 2000 and is now managed by the Galician Association for Territory Custody after signing an agreement. The other case is that of the rare flowers of Santiso – also present in the neighboring municipalities of Melide and Palas de Rei. A grant from the Provincial Council of A Coruña and an initiative of crowdfunding They allowed the association to buy 4.5 hectares of land. However, they manage another 18.5 hectares, rented to the Xunta, which not only is not responsible for the protection of these species, but also charges in exchange for this entity having access to various farms to carry out conservation work. Cabana highlights that this is also an “easy” case, since it did not require the Galician Government to establish prohibitions, but simply “clearing and doing maintenance.”
The rent they pay, he thinks, is “too much”: about 600 euros a year for a dozen plots of the Banco de Terras. This instrument, which was created to try to recover unused land for agriculture and livestock, also accumulates uninteresting plots for economic activities that no one requests. This is the case of the Santiso plots and others rented by the Galician Society of Natural History (SGHN) in the A Limia region. Its president, Serafín González, explains that what led them to undertake custody initiatives was the conviction that the administrations “were not protecting what they had to protect or acting in defense of the natural heritage.” “When we went to see the plots that interested us, 27% were either invaded by unauthorized third parties or turned into landfills,” he emphasizes.
The SGHN has rented a total of 85 land from the Xunta, for which it pays 2,237 euros per year. In the case of this entity, the plots have “godfathers and godmothers” who assume the cost of renting them. The company also owns a wetland area, which they have recovered and named after the honorary president, Antonio Villarino.
Martiño Cabana also charges against the “neglect” of the Xunta and declares himself “pessimistic” about the conservation of nature. “Not a euro is spent on endangered species,” he laments. The Rozas aerodrome, in Terra Chá de Lugo, receives frequent visits from Xunta officials, but not because of its natural value, but because the Galician aerospace center is installed there. Sharing the same land, in a scrub area, are the last breeding pairs of mazaric royal (curlew, Numenius arquata) that remain throughout the Iberian Peninsula. There are six specimens of a species that is in critical danger of extinction, highlights Cabana, who explains that in northern Europe the population is higher. Protecting this environment would benefit another endangered species, the cincenta pie (Circus pygargus). The association tried to negotiate a management agreement, but “it was impossible.” He compares the situation with that of Catalonia, where he assures that the Generalitat “helped a lot”.
The biologist still mentions another obstacle that has caused the association to renounce some of its projects: conflict. It refers mainly to cases in which the owners of the lands they aspire to manage view environmental activities with suspicion: “Sometimes things are not interpreted well.” However, projects in communal forests and woodlands are not uncommon, a property formula inherited from confiscations, especially from the early twentieth century, which survives in the mountains of Lugo. Owners can buy and sell shares, so each can control a different percentage. Nor is it necessary to live in the area to be an owner, which facilitates the entry of custodial entities of the territory, explains the biologist.
Although the economic end is not the one that guides the activities, Cabana defends that there is a rural development approach and that the interventions end up favoring in some cases the increase of tourism and the generation of income. The Asociación Galega de Custodia do Territorio collaborated in the Life of the Bear program in O Courel, on the Lugo mountain, managed by the Brown Bear Foundation. In Cerceda, hiking trails were set up in an area that had not previously been signposted, which “favors tourism and also its dispersion”, so that the animals are prevented from “being stressed” and the plants from being “trampled”, he emphasizes.