Poniente Almeriense: Spain’s Controversial Sea of Plastic

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By Danny Newman

Spain is famous for its pristine Mediterranean waters, but tucked away on its southern coast is an altogether less attractive type of sea.

A sea of plastic.

This is Poniente Almeriense, a 1000 square kilometer, perfectly flat area in Almeria notorious for the vast expanse of plastic greenhouses that have arisen over the last 50+ years. You can literally see them from space.

There’s a twisted irony to it.

On one hand, Poniente Almeriense is an alien landscape submerged under an environmentally damaging artificial product. On the other hand, it’s known as the Vegetable Garden of Europe.

That mass of plastic greenhouses grows a giant chunk of the fresh produce people in Europe buy at their local grocery stores.

Learn more about this paradox and the controversies surrounding it below.

Image credit: kallerna, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Poniente Almeriense – Background

Poniente Almeriense is what’s called a comarca, which is a type of traditional region or local administrative subdivision found in this part of the world. It has ten municipalities and almost 260,000 inhabitants.

It’s famous for two reasons:

  1. The sheer quantity of agricultural products grown here and
  2. The sheer amount of plastic all those fruits and vegetables grow beneath.

You can trace its origins back decades, when small farms started giving way to giant agricultural powerhouses.

Apparently, as early as the 1960s, the site began hosting intensive farming activities. Fast forward 60 years and the entire area has transformed into a “sea of plastic” that serves the European agricultural market.

It’s interesting to compare satellite images of Poniente Almeriense now to how it looked in the past. Google Earth Pro only goes back to 1984, and while the area swam in a sea of plastic even then, it’s nothing compared to what it is today.

And, as you might imagine, it isn’t without its controversies…

Poniente Almeriense as it appears from space today.
Poniente Almeriense as it appeared from space in 1984.

Controversies Surrounding the Sea of Plastic

Those greenhouses serve a purpose, of course. They provide the perfect conditions for growing fruit and vegetables that sustain millions of people across Europe.

But it comes at a price. There are two main issues.

Number one, the environment suffers from insane amounts of plastic pollution. Number two, this ginormous agricultural operation needs workers.

Even though Andalucia (the region of Spain in which Poniente Almeriense sits) is one of Spain’s poorest regions, most people who end up working there are underpaid migrants from Africa who are said to operate in near slave-like conditions.

Anyone who has been in a greenhouse in the heat of the day knows how horrible they are to spend much time in.

Now imagine working in one all day long, in temperatures exceeding 110 degrees Fahrenheit, with pesticides floating through the air, and limited access to water…and being paid a pittance.

Apparently, there are around 100,000 migrants currently doing exactly that. Worse, many are undocumented, without residence permits, looking for a better life. That makes them prime targets for exploitation.

So, next time we sink our teeth into a fresh peach, chop tomatoes into a salad, or slice zucchini into our pasta sauce, we should spare a thought for how it got there and who may have suffered to produce, pick and pack it for us.

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