Thursday, August 31, 2006

I had one of those Spanish shopping expeditions today. I bought a ping pong table from a sports shop but it came without bats and balls. Inevitably, the place that sold me the table was out of these, as was the sister shop they sent me to. But they did deliver the table on time this evening and I was able to find the 3 hours and mechanical skills required to assemble it. This, of course, left me no time to play on it, with or without bats and balls. But tomorrow is another day.

It’s also the day on which the Xunta will, they say, start fining the owners of large bars, cafés and restaurants which don’t comply with the anti-smoking laws. Unless, of course, they convert themselves to no-smoking establishments overnight. I will make a few spot checks and report.

Barking dogs are a feature of this part of Spain but none are as vociferous as the young Dalmatian recently acquired by some neighbours who clearly don’t regard a huge mastiff as sufficient protection. Or adornment. Having read that some dogs here have their vocal chords cut to avoid upsetting the neighbours, I briefly pondered slipping a copy of the article into their mail box but thought better of it. Now I’m considering just mailing them details of an anti-barking collar. What’s stopping me is the risk that their reaction will be to get a third dog.

Galicia Facts

Do the Galicians have a death wish? For in the case of both road deaths and smoking levels, this region has seen the lowest reductions of all Spain in the wake of recent legislation.

And water usage has increased a massive 8% in the last year. Perhaps they are trying to drown themselves.


Finally, my commiserations to Portorosa for the failure on the part of [I guess] a native English speaker to get his attempt at irony. Rather ironic, really.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A columnist in yesterday’s El Mundo called for “A plural nation” in preference to “A plurality of nations”. At the moment, Spain seems to be located somewhere between these but edging towards the latter. One wonders whether the government has any particular model in mind [The German? The American?]. If it does, it’s clearly unwilling to share it with the electorate. This naturally leaves the impression it is the victim of events. And, of course, regional pressures.

Which reminds me - The Galician government has announced it will shortly inaugurate schools in which all lessons are in Gallego, compared with 40% at the moment. This, I think we can safely say, is the Catalunian model. And one which will do little for the employment prospects of the pupils. Not that this would be a concern of doctrinaire nationalists.

An article in one of the local paper’s today raised what it said was a long-standing issue – that of whether Galicia should be on the same time as Portugal and Morocco below it and Ireland and the UK above it. An interesting point made was that most of Spain is actually west of the Greenwich meridian and so should be on this time. But, as this would leave Catalunia with its own ‘independent’ clock, I guess hell will freeze over before the Spanish government moves in this direction.

It seems the 17 Spanish regions [Autonomous Communities] have taken different approaches to the implementation of January’s ant-smoking laws. Only 3 have ratified the law as it came down – Andalucia, Castile y Léon and Valencia. The rest have applied various degrees of dilution, with Catalunia being the hardest, Madrid the softest and the Basque Country ‘somewhere in the middle’. Depending on where you‘re standing, this is either a pig’s ear or a marvellous example of local democracy in action. Or both, of course. Not that it matters much when the bar, café and restaurant owners take no notice of whatever the law might be, on the usual Spanish grounds that it is personally inconvenient.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Asked for help by a Spanish government struggling with waves of illegal immigrants, the EU has said it has neither additional money nor resources to allocate. One can’t help wondering whether this rebuff reflects lingering irritation at Spain’s unilateral move last year to regulate the presence of hundreds of thousands of ‘paperless’ residents who can now move northwards to other EU member countries. Or maybe it's because Spain already gets 80% of the relevant budget.

Coincidentally, a report today suggests that Spain’s high level of economic growth over the last decade owes a great deal to the influx of immigrants. In fact, it goes so far as to say the numbers would have been negative without this boost. In retrospect, perhaps it’s only fair they were allowed to stay.

And still on this subject . . . As you'd expect, illegal immigrants use a thousand pretexts to justify entry into Spanish territory. But none as surreal, say the police, as a group of Algerians who landed from a raft in one of the north African enclaves and claimed they were British citizens who’d left their papers in their hotel. In Gibraltar, presumably.

Finally, a headline from one of the UK’s serious broadsheet newspapers, which only last week was bemoaning the falling levels of literacy in the country - Patients go hungary as busy nurses have no time to feed them.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Under the anti-smoking law introduced in January, all cafés, bars, and restaurants with an area of more 100 square metres have to close off a separate area for smokers. Today’s Voz de Galicia reports that, here in Galicia, not a single one of these has complied with the provisions. In fact, in the Pontevedra province only one place has even bothered to apply for planning permission. As the period of grace ends in three days’ time, things are rather unlikely to change. The Galician government insists it will fine everyone, starting Thursday, but we'll see. It’s called a meeting today with representatives of affected [disaffected?] owners and this is seen by some as a sign it’s willing to negotiate a compromise. En passant, given this disregard for laws coming from Madrid, it’s pretty easy to guess at the response to those emanating from Brussels. Though the huge subventions coming in this direction are always given a hearty welcome.

Following the recent fatal crash of a train en route from Vigo to France, Galicia’s network has come under a good deal of scrutiny from the local press. And it doesn’t make great reading. Generally, trains lose 20% of their speed once they get here. Specifically, it still takes the same time it took to get to Madrid 25 years ago and the train from Vigo to Oporto down the west coast takes more than 3 hours to cover about 100km. No wonder Galicians feel hard done by, given the improvements made in other parts of the country.

But it’s not all bad news for Galicia today – it has apparently slipped down to number 3 in the list of the main routes of cocaine into Europe. And sales of our Albariño wine in Spain rose 32% in the last year.

On wider front, they tell us the summer in Spain has grown by 23 days – 14 in spring and 9 in autumn. Down on the south coast, things are certainly getting tougher for those Brits living in illegally authorised buildings. If the bulldozers don’t get you, the heat will.

I was apparently wrong to assume it’s compulsory to wear a crash helmet on a quad bike in Spain. It’s not. Sadly, I learned this from a report of yet another 2 deaths and 2 serious injuries this week.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

So far this year, 11,000 ‘Subsaharians’ [as they are called here] have arrived on the coastlines of Spain. I suspect this is merely the ones who are still alive but, even so, the total is three times up on the whole of last year. Most, I think, are sent back but some are absorbed . The negotiation of quotas for these is another battleground between Madrid and the regional governments, especially the more autonomous ones. None of them want problems dumped on them and some of them have the clout to stop it. It’s not easy being a powerful politician in Madrid. Unless you are the President of the Madrid Autonomous community, of course.

Another big spat involving the Spanish government is that with the EU over the German takeover of a major Spanish energy company. So far, Madrid has had to make a couple of embarrassing climb-downs and it rather looks like another is imminent. This is over the conditions of the purchase which the Spanish government has tried to impose in order to save face. Spain has played the EU game extremely well over the last 20 years or so but it obviously hasn’t yet developed the skill and chutzpah of the French government.

The Spanish government would like the police to have the power to confiscate cars being driven by people with no insurance. If so, the estimate is that 2 million cars a year would be impounded. Or 7% of the total. A few years of this and the roads really would be safe.

Cachondo is one of those Spanish words which, in the masculine form, has several fine nuances – horny/randy, funny/jokey or fun-loving/riotous. Things, as so often, are far easier with the feminine form. This just means whore. Like the feminine form of most animals.

Adjacent to the building site at the rear of my house there’s an Enquiries hut, staffed by a young woman who sits outside it all day. The ability to get as brown and as wrinkled as a walnut appears to be the main requirement for this less-than-taxing job. And yet she must be well qualified and earning quite a lot as her car is a BMW. Unless she’s someone’s relative, of course. Denying a job to someone who really needs it.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

As it’s Saturday, I’m doing what I’ve been considering for some time now – I’m posting what I think is a fairly typical example of Spanish humour. Or at least that to which I am exposed . . . .

A man is driving along the motorway and is stopped by a traffic cop, who tells him that he faces a large penalty for various offences. However, the cop adds that it’s his last night before he retires and so he’s going to be lenient. Provided the driver can answer two questions, he’ll let him off. The man agrees and the first question is “If you see two lights coming towards you on the road at night, what do you think they are?”. The driver says “A car?” and the cop replies “Yes, but what model of car?”. The driver concedes he doesn’t know. So the cop asks him the second question. “If you see a single light, what do you think it would be?”. The driver offers “A motor bike” and the cop again seeks details of the make. After the driver has again admitted he doesn’t know, the cop confirms that he will be hit by the full force of law. The downcast driver then politely asks if he can put a question to the cop, who readily agrees to this. “If you see a young woman in a short skirt and a skimpy top standing by the side of the road, what do you think she might be?”. The cop immediately says “A whore?”, to which the driver quickly replies, “Yes but what kind of whore? Your mother, your wife or your daughter?”.

On a more serious note, here’s the translation of an article from yesterday’s Voz de Galicia. It is by Javier Montalvo who is, I believe, Professor of The Environment at the University of Vigo. It brings together several of the threads of the last few weeks and it also helps to explain why the reader who wrote today saw little evidence of devastation in the Lugo, Santiago, La Coruña triangle:-

The Fires are not the Problem

The wave of fires is exactly that, a cyclical and irregular phenomenon, just like waves, although its geographic and seasonal location varies. In the Rias Baixas the probability of fires and burnt wooded areas is ten times greater than in parts of Lugo province with a lower incidence. The arsonists are not the main cause of the annual burning of such an important surface area of Galicia. If all the Tuaregs in the Saharan desert were arsonists, the desert still couldn’t burn; there’s hardly any combustible material there, i. e. a vegetal biomass [leaves and woody material from trees and other plants, plus dead fallen leaves], dry branches and other vegetal residue on the soil. The amount of such combustible material is an important factor, although its quality and distribution are also relevant.

In the middle of the last century, the fires in Galicia were not a problem of today’s catastrophic dimensions. In 1940 the General Plan for Reafforestation was put into effect throughout the state. Since then, Galicia has seen the reafforestation of more than a million hectares, equivalent to more than a third of its surface area. The traditional and diversified use of the mountains [basically pastoral and agricultural]was replaced by a use which was uniform and industrial – wood cultivated for board makers, cellulose manufacturers and saw mills. The mountains were filled with millions of cubic metres of highly inflammable combustible material capable of rapid combustion and propagation. This has been particularly true on the ridges of the western coastlines of the Pontevedra and La Coruña provinces, where there is the greatest production of biomass. A million cubic metres of eucalyptus are left on the mountains every year [in part because in the last 10 years it has depreciated 40%].

The high quantity of combustible material is one of the structural causes of the fires; the pyromaniacs or other immediate causes merely light the match. The abandonment of the mountains contributes to this dangerous scenario but to consider it the only factor is simplistic. The fires also affect those mountains which benefit from planning and management, for example in Amoedo and Domaio.

The cultivated areas of foreign species [eucalyptus and pine] have a higher probability of burning than the Atlantic forests and the areas with deciduous native trees. 25 yeas ago, the area given over to eucalyptus was already burning 40 times more and the pines 10 times more than the oak or chestnut respectively. Pine and eucalyptus are pyrophorus species. That’s to say, more inflammable because of their resin, their bark and their volatile oily content. They favour fires because their populations persist and they extend their territory after the fires. The extensive areas repopulated by single species facilitate propagation of the fires. Additionally, the higher the trees the greater the speed and spread of the fires via their crowns. For this reason the mountains of Pontevedra and La Coruña are more predisposed to burn, where the fires spread through extensive areas of eucalyptus such as the mountains of Morrazo and those of Cerdedo and another four neighbouring townships in which 8,000 contiguous hectares burned.

What is the solution for ridding ourselves of the fires? Eliminate eucalyptus, convert pine woods into areas mixed with deciduous trees and break up those extensive areas with a propensity to burn by surrounding them with vegetation more resistant to fire. These are the strategic options on which to base a sustainable policy for Galicia.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Although most Spanish regard themselves as at least nominally Catholic, the Church is not the most popular institution in the country. In fact, it usually comes off even worse than banks in the regular surveys of popular attitudes. Today El Mundo advised us that 47% of the population believe the Church assisted Franco right up to the end. Which explains a few things.

The latest example of language fascism to come out of Catalunia is a proposal that immigrants [meaning people like me] should not be allowed to vote in local elections unless they can show capability in the language [meaning Catalan, of course. Not the national language]. This has been summarily rejected by Madrid but I feel safe in forecasting it won’t be long before something just as asinine comes along.

A reader has asked what I think of British trains, pointing out that, in the last 20 years, 90 people have been killed in crashes in the UK, against only 59 in Spain. Well, the first thing to note is that grossing up for population differences, the totals are virtually identical. That aside, I’m not sure my comments can be anything but a limited personal view. The local trains between Pontevedra and Santiago are excellent but slow, while the Liverpool underground trains are old and dirty. The day and night trains from Pontevedra to Madrid are fine but slow, while the Virgin trains from Liverpool to London are fine and fast. I’ve never experienced the AVE but it looks excellent, while the UK is still waiting for high speed trains of this calibre. Except, of course, for the excellent London-Paris Eurostar, which can go very fast but only does so when it gets to France. Basically, I’d say it’s quicker by train in the UK but just as dangerous. Or, if you prefer, just as safe.

Fire Facts

The Xunta has earmarked 100m euros to compensate those hit by the recent fires. Of this total, 13m will be spent ‘quickly’ on those most adversely affected. I hope they’ve got their multiple photocopies of everything ready.

5 townships in the Pontevedra province had over 40% of their surface area burnt.

The 1230 hectares destroyed by fire in August represent 97% of the 2006 total todate.

On some days, as many as 300 fires were burning.


Finally - I’ve mentioned fly-tipping before. As I live in a pijo [snob] area, you’d expect our local activity to be rather upmarket. And so it is. Here’s a photo of the new wall being built opposite my house. As you can see, someone has decided to contribute a white plastic table as part of the in-fill behind it.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Spanish love to chat. In fact, some of us foreigners have been unkind enough to suggest they sometimes favour it over thinking. This is probably unfair but sometimes you can hardly blame us. Today I had to wait 15-20 minutes to pay the toll on the motorway south to Vigo. The last 4 or 5 of these were in sight of the booths but our arrival at these clearly came as a huge surprise to the people in the car in front of me. Or this is what I surmised after watching all 3 of them spend at least a minute searching for small change in their pockets.

The driver of the train which crashed near Palencia on Monday evening has said he was obeying all the rules. The government, on the other hand, says he was doing more than 125 on a 30km stretch and had ignored warnings to slow down. Little room for compromise there.

There were two news items in the UK press this morning that would shock the Spanish. The first was that a man had been shot dead by a gang he was remonstrating with in his street - the same gang that had stabbed him earlier in the year. The second was that a woman head teacher who had successfully transformed a failing secondary school had been sacked for giving her sister a job.

Rather more interesting reading for Brits is the sight of UK government ministers falling over themselves to stress it’s no longer considered racist or politically incorrect to question whether unlimited immigration and blind multiculturalism have been an unqualified success for the country. These are the same people, of course, who screamed ‘Racist!’, whenever the last government tried to question liberal orthodoxy. The implausible excuse given for this massive change of heart is that something must be done to take the wind out of the sails of the far right extremists. Nothing, then, to do with public concern at immigrant numbers in the last 2 years being more than 20 times in excess of government forecasts.

I bought a ladder today and found it an unusually pleasant experience. Reason? it wasn’t festooned with notices advising me, for example, not to use it above a pit of crocodiles.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

By Anglo Saxon standards, not much moves fast in Spain. And certainly not in August. The obvious exception is anything on wheels with a motor attached. In contrast, apart from the AVE to and from Madrid, few Spanish trains proceed at much above a snail’s pace - thanks mainly to antiquated track systems. So it’s all the more surprising that the reason given for a fatal crash near Palencia on Monday was ‘excessive speed’. The driver, it was quickly announced, had been doing more than twice the maximum permitted. Just as in the case of an even more fatal accident on the Valencia metro last month. In this case, the city council has pronounced the disaster ‘unavoidable’. One wonders just how and why but, as they say a commission of enquiry is unnecessary, we will probably never know.

When my elder daughter was living here with me, she had a pupil from Madrid who insisted Pontevedra was the noisiest city in a very noisy country. Neither of us really believed this. But she now lives in the centre of the capital city and, when she was here recently, said she now accepted this. But this may be because her room here is closest to the endlessly barking dogs, the pile-driving on the building site in front of the house and, last but not least, the inconsiderate Catalans who prattle loudly into the very small hours of every summer night. And then, of course, on the other side there’s nice-but-noisy Tony, his eternally-crying 4 year old and his father-emulating 9 year old. When I list all these, I do wonder how I stand it. I guess the nocturnal ear-plugs are part of the answer. Plus loud music. Which then contributes to the noise pollution.

Language Promotion: Yes, I agree that attitudes in the 3 Spanish ‘nationalist’ regions are a reaction to oppression under Franco. But, even if understandable, I feel it’s a great shame things are now being taken to the opposite extreme. Denying the existence of Spanish is not the way to go. The ‘co-official’ languages surely both have their place in each of the regions. Especially for those who want to communicate with the rest of the world. Or even – in the case of Galicia - with tourists who don’t come from, say, Ourense or Lugo. Everyone speaking only Gallego in Galicia would be economic madness for a poor region. And not too clever from a cultural point of view either.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

My friend Fernando has written to say my Danelaw spoof is a bit unfair on the issue of language. This is rather ironic as I’m a ardent supporter of those who want to preserve and extend their language. I’ve learned, in my time, 2 or 3 of the world’s less useful languages and I like to believe that, if I was as Welsh as my full name suggests, I’d be fluent in both English and Welsh. So I have no problem with the Catalans, Basques or Galicians doing what they can to protect and further their respective languages. What I do object to, though, is this being done in a doctrinaire way at the expense of Spanish. When I first came to Galicia only 5 years ago, everything was in both Gallego and Spanish. Now it’s only the former and I’m not comfortable with this. Nor, I suspect, are many Galicians.

My other defence is that my tilt at language aspects of ‘nationalism’ stems from a very British disregard for august language Academies, whether they be French, Spanish or Galician. We just find them funny. A year or two ago, the Galician Academy announced that, henceforth, the Galician word for ‘Thanks’ would be ‘Graza’. Since then, I’ve heard this word only once and this was from the mouth of a character in a Galician TV soap opera, Pratos Combinados. All of which gives me the opportunity to say I had dinner with Maria Castro the other week. Not that this will mean much to most of you.

Another reader has advised that the stories of driving licence points being sold is an urban myth. This was also reported in today’s press. I certainly hope so.

Within only weeks of the ratification of their new Constitution, the Catalan president says he’s taking the Spanish president to the Constitutional Tribunal for exceeding his powers in seeking information on the distribution of subventions. The first of many such battles, I suspect. And it’s not as if Mr Zapatero wasn’t warned You makes your bed . . .

Monday, August 21, 2006

In modern Spain, it’s hard to remain unaware of the aspirations of the three ‘nationalist’ regions of Catalunia, Pais Vasco and Galicia. Especially if, like me, you live in one. I’ve been thinking about this and have decided that the example is worth following. So, if you click on the link on the right entitled The Kingdom of Danelaw, this will take you to some breaking news of international importance. Or just click here.

The UK is famous for implementing EU regulations in full, even if this leads to nonsensical situations such as the treatment of clean soil as ‘waste’. Today, I read this legalistic practice is called ‘gold-plating’. I wonder what the Spanish practice is called. ‘Lead-plating’? ‘Tin foil plating’?

Spain grants nationality on an accelerated basis to a select group of people. These are citizens of ex-colonies in South America, Guineans, Filipinos, Andorrans, the Portuguese and – most surprising of all – Sephardic Jews. The rest to us have to wait 10 years. This rather upsets the Moroccans, who see themselves both as people of an ex-colony and as members of a group also expelled from the country in the 15th century. Or, as one aggrieved Moroccan undiplomatically put it, “Why does it take me 10 years when a Jew can do it in 2”.

The soft porn soap opera I cited the other day is called ‘Rebeldes’ and comes from Mexico, I read today.

Fire News

Today’s Voz de Galicia reports that the Galician governmen [the Xunta] has prepared a Bill which provides for charging landowners for the extinction of fires on their property. The minute you pick up the phone, they say, you will become liable for the cost of whatever services are provided. Or 3,000 euros for 100 hectares. On the face of it, this seems an excellent way to ensure future fires spread quickly.

Some 700,000 Galicians in 3,000 communities are said to own 650,000 hectares of forested land. According to the University of Santiago, only a quarter of these manage their land properly and don’t leave it in an abandoned state. A poor cost/benefit ratio is said to be the main reason.

Paradoxically, the better managed communities are said to have been worst hit by the recent fires. And, since these are areas where income is high enough to bear the cost of maintenance, the losses from the fires will be higher than if the damage had been further inland.

Finally, here are the promised pictures of some 5 year old oaks and eucalyptus trees of a similar vintage. They are taken from the same distance away, to give perspective. As you can see - No contest!

These are the oaks, about 1.5 metres tall in the foreground, on the edge of the track . .
















And these are the eucalyptus trees, about 10 metres tall . .

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Spain recently introduced a points-based driving licence system. Usually this means offences lead to negative points on your licence but the Spanish version is the other way round. You start with 12 positive points and progressively lose them until your licence is suspended. You can ‘earn’ them back but now comes news that, if you don’t want to do this, you can do a swap to get them back. Though not legally of course. This works best, I’m told, when you have a family member who has a licence but doesn’t do much driving. You get them to appear in court and claim they, not you, were driving the offending car. Thus, you preserve your points and they lose some of theirs. Another option is to do business with an obliging stranger, at 400 euros a point. If you want to see how this works, Google carnet puntos comprar. Initially, I wondered whether this could only done with a positive-points-based system but I guess you could arrange the same perjury and perversion of justice under the usual system as well. Nice to think people are happy to profit from allowing some maniac to stay on the road.

I have my own noise-related vignette today . . . Despite the fact I was wearing my customary earplugs, I was woken at 5am this morning by a persistent, machine-based beat arising from the town centre, at least a kilometre away. Possibly something related to garage, house or hip-hop music. Whatever they are. Mercifully, it stopped at 5.15. What fun this must have been for anyone over 25 in the town trying to get to sleep. Perhaps they all go away for the weekend.

But the fiesta brought compensations tonight on the streets of Pontevedra’s wonderful old quarter. These included a delightful dancing troupe from Russia and, before that, the world’s loudest peripatetic drum band and a frenetic, trilby-hatted octet that was possibly a gypsy combo. But not from Andalucia.

Fire facts

The secretary of the Galician Community of the Mountains has voiced what we all have long thought – there are too many bloody eucalyptus trees here

In sympathy with this view, the Xunta has announced no more will be planted and subsidies will no longer be given for their cultivation

80 per cent of Pontevedra’s pastoral farms are believed to have been hit by the fires

5,000 people have said to have volunteered to assist in reparation work

Regeneration:-
After 12m the shoots are 12in/30cm tall but still black
After 5 years the bushes and small trees begin to lose their blackness
Between 10 and 25 years the burnt wood disappears and the forests retrieve their original colour

Tune in tomorrow for pictures of what an oak and a eucalyptus each look like after 5 years’ growth.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Daytime TV in Spain is frankly dire. Possibly the worst items are the high-on-music, low-on-dialogue soaps imported from South America. One of the latest is set in an ‘elite’ school and features adolescent girls whose uniform consists of tight white shirts, black mini-skirts and high-heeled leather boots studded up the side. A paedophile’s dream.

At 4%, inflation in Spain is the highest in the Euro Zone. It compares with an EU average of 2.4% and 1.4% in the UK. In the latter you can get 5% on even a current account, whereas in Spain you’d be lucky to get 3% on a deposit account. Is it any wonder people invest in property?

But the good news is that, not only is the Spanish economy still booming away at 3.6% a year, there are also signs this growth is starting to owe more to exports than domestic consumption. But with inflation so high relative to international competitors, can this continue?

I’m indebted to my friend Andrew for another vignette of Spanish life. He and his wife were woken last night by a fireworks display taking place at 3.30am. It’s against the law, I believe, to have these after 12.30. The wrinkle here is that it was the local council giving the display. Will they now prosecute themselves?

My daughter holidaying in Cuba has finally assured me she’s still alive, in an SMS which said she was about to have ‘lobster and coconut ice-cream’. Enterprising, these Cubans. Her message ended ‘Viva Castro’ but maybe this is compulsory.

Finally, you can all stop looking for the 20 kilos of cocaine that went missing from a police station in Valencia last week. Two light-fingered cops have been arrested, one in Madrid and one closer to home in Lugo.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The ETA terrorist group says it’s unhappy with the way things have gone since it declared its latest ceasefire. And it’s threatened to ‘respond’ to what it sees as failures on the part of the leading national and local political parties. One of ETA's disappointments appears to be that France has not acceded to its demand that it includes itself in the ‘peace process’. Since it never will, the latter seems rather doomed.

A Hezbollah spokesman has said that, as President Zapatero has called them ‘resisters’ and not ‘terrorists’, Spanish troops will be welcome in Lebanon. Hmm.

A couple of readers have responded to my comment on water management in Spain with examples of the profligate way it’s wasted by their neighbours. So perhaps it’s not too surprising that consumption in Spain of 171 litres per capita per day is 16% more than in the UK. But today there were reports of a price increase of 12% so maybe things will change. Though I rather doubt it short term, the two main barriers being a lack of awareness and the [in]famous ‘individualism’ of the Spanish. Not to mention the divisive regional antipathies which the current government seems bent on increasing in its political interest.

It’s official – we’re having a brief winter moment. The cause is a storm which brewed off Iceland, headed [naturally] for the UK but got lost and meandered south. Or possibly decided to have a vacation at our expense. Warmer temperatures are forecast to return pretty soon, when I will be able to put my pyjamas back in the drawer for a few more weeks.

Today’s Fire Facts

We have a new figure for the total area burned during the recent fires in Galicia – 92,000 hectares. This is from the Central Scientific Institute and is nearly 20% more than the Xunta’s earlier figure.

The environmental organisations have given the following advice:-
- Don’t cut down the trees
- Don’t remove the ashes; they form a vital organic layer
- Cover them with vegetal blanket or herbaceous layer prior to replantation.

The Galician Xunta has promised to spend 3m euros on promoting rural tourism in the areas most affected. “Come see a burned tree”??

Unsurprisingly, the Spanish government has said it’ll be seeking substantial funds from the EU Catastrophe Fund. Thank God the central state exists for this sort of begging activity.

Ecologists forecast that the following animals will prosper in the new spaces created by the fires:-
- ‘Running toads’
- ‘Midwife toads’
- Lion ants
- Janitor lizards[?]
- ‘Ladder’ and [as you would expect] ‘bastard’ snakes

And these will be the losers:-
- Rabbits
- Rats
- Moles
- Wolves
- Foxes
- Wild boars
- Lizard snakes

Not to mention the rural population.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The national police say the new penalties have reduced the average speed on Spain’s roads by 4%. By my reckoning, this means that people will now be flashing past me on the autopistas at a sedate 173kph [108mph], compared with the previous insane 180kph [113mph].

Given Spain’s temperatures and shortage of rain – at least in bits of the country south of here – you’d think care would be taken with water here. In fact, the NWF claim management of this precious commodity is poorer in Spain than anywhere else in the developed world. Coincidentally, figures issued yesterday suggest the country’s reservoirs are at only 44% of capacity, the lowest level in 10 years. I seem to recall reading water is considerably cheaper here than elsewhere in Europe, which would explain a lot. So I guess it’s not hard to predict price rises.

Another thing I remember reading was that the EU authorities were going to crack down on spam emails. I guess this must be why I received a mere 30 today.

Today’s Fire Facts

According to whom you believe, the provisional total of Galician land burned is 77,000 hectares [the regional government], 86,000 hectares [the EU] or 175,500 hectares [the opposition party]. The smallest figure is equivalent to the whole of Madrid and a few of its outlying townships. And also represents 2.6% of Galicia’s land mass.

The worst effected province was Pontevedra, which lost 50% of its trees.

Dealing with the fires consumed 6% of Galicia’s water, at a time when[see above] reservoir levels are worryingly low.

12 of the 28 people arrested have been jailed, awaiting trial. None of these are accused of taking part in a criminal conspiracy. Or of being ‘forestal terrorists’.

10,000 wild animals [mostly horses] have had their habitat destroyed.

Local hotels have received 650 cancellations.

If the recommendations of ecologists are implemented, 14 million plants will be needed to prevent soil erosion.

And a final fact that’s got nothing to do with the fire but which has a Galician connection – the mini submarine found in the Bay of Vigo would have been capable of bringing 3,000 kilos of cocaine close to the shore. No one seems to know why it was abandoned. Perhaps it leaked over the produce.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

18.50: Second post of the day.

Well, it was good of God to send the rain but He didn’t have to turn August into October. If there’s no post tomorrow, it’s because I’ve got pneumonia.

One of the odder consequences of the fires is the graphical confirmation of just how much fly-tipping goes on in the mountains. One report noted the piles of rubbish and rubble nearly always have a bidet on the top.

The Rolling Stones have cancelled all their imminent concerts in Spain because of Mick Jagger’s laryngitis. Picking up on the suggestion that this week’s photos from Havana have been rather doctored, a nice cartoon in one of today’s national papers suggests a sprightly Fidel Castro will be taking his place.

And talking of entertainment, I see the BBC program Little Britain in coming to Spain. God knows what they’ll make of it, especially as it will certainly be dubbed. I fear a significant percentage of the population will think it’s a documentary.
Well, in one of his little cosmic jokes, God sent us the rain just after the last fire had been put out. And a few hours after the fireworks display which inaugurates the lengthy fiesta period here in Pontevedra. Happily, the rain is of the gentler kind required by the ecologists to minimise the risk of soil erosion and pollution of the rivers and estuaries. This, of course, would bring another disaster in its wake – the contamination of Galicia’s shellfish.

Today's rain will nturally initiate the slow process of regeneration but, as local ecologists have warned, this can’t be left to itself. Foreign tree varieties such as the awful eucalyptus are much more aggressive and quicker growing than the native oaks, chestnuts and pines. If this is not stopped, the risk of another [even greater] disaster will simply increase as a result of further changes in the character of Galicia’s forests.

Meanwhile, of course, life is returning to normal and I can comment again on such bizarre happenings as the discovery of a miniature submarine in Vigo Bay. This is suspected of being the latest hi-tech way of landing Europe’s cocaine along the Galician coast but the jury is still out.

I read last night that Sunday’s corrida in Pontevedra was so successful 4 of the 6 [always ‘brave’] bulls were given the honour of a celebratory circuit of the ring. This would, I believe, have been prostrate and at the end of a rope being pulled by two horses. In other words, post mortem. In truth, the tribute must be directed at the breeder; the bulls themselves being long past caring.

To return to the fires – can we be a bit more optimistic now that the President of the Xunta has finally admitted the fundamental cause of the disaster was poor organisation and planning?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

22.15: Third and final post of the day

The Voz de Galicia had an on-line survey about whether this week’s fiestas should be suspended in view of the fires. As I recall, there was a slight majority in favour of calling them off but it takes more than a few devastating conflagrations to quench the Spanish appetite for fun so it’s business as usual. In Pontevedra at least.

The local council has managed to combine its support for the fiesta with its motherhood statements of ‘Against Fire’ and ‘The Living Mountain’, and all this on a banner which features a natty green colour. Here it is, followed by a picture of one of the more unusual acts on the town’s streets tonight:-

19.15: Second post of the day

Hits to my blog rose significantly during Galicia's 10 days of torment by fire. But nowhere near as much as when I commented on the nude pictures of a dying Princess Diana in a Spanish magazine. So, perhaps I should invent a story about her naked corpse being found in the ash-filled ruins of a house somewhere in the wilds of Galicia. One thing’s for sure – the Daily Express in Britain would certainly run with it. And Mr Fayed would probably become my best friend. So, on second thoughts . . .

As the fire menace finally recedes and we await the rains which are at least 9 days late, more and more space is naturally being given to more sober analysis than has been the norm [except here, of course!] over the last ten days. What is really surprising is to read that the fires were as bad, or even worse, in 1978, 1981 and 1989 And what is depressing to read is that nothing was done to improve land management after these disasters. Can anyone be confident that things will be different this time?

On a lighter note - It’s been a while since I reported any Spanglish. So here’s something that foxed me for a few seconds:- Estripitís - Striptease

And at last some good news about road deaths in Galicia! So far this August, they’ve fallen by 43% over last year.

And, while, I’m being positive – Another of my informal surveys on the bridge into town suggests only a small percentage of Spanish drivers still decline to wear safety belts in the car. At least in the front seats. It’s as if the increased penalties have given them a legitimate excuse to stop being ‘individualistic’. I guess everything has its price.
National politicians continue to distance themselves from their initial thesis that the Galician fires were the result of a criminal conspiracy. The new bogeymen are disaffected members [or ex-members] of the fire-fighting forces. Needless to say, this has not gone down terribly well with the men from all over Spain and elsewhere who’ve been putting their lives on the line over the past ten days.

At a more local level, a placard war has broken out between the two main parties. Each of these has commissioned a colourful banner bearing some motherhood statement akin to ‘No more fires’ or ‘Against fires’. In fact, a large one of these is draped over the front of the Pontevedra town hall. This should do the trick.

I guess it happens in rural villages everywhere but it’s still more than a little disturbing to hear of lack of communal effort in villages threatened by fire. The alleged reason is disputes, jealousies and resentments which predate the fires and the worst instance was of one villager driven by such emotions to cut off the water supply to his neighbours fighting a blaze close to their house.

The good news is that the wind has finally dropped and rain is forecast for tomorrow. Let’s hope it’s the sort that the ecologists want. And that it droppeth gently like mercy from heaven.

Monday, August 14, 2006

20.50: Second post of the day.

It’s an ill wind, they say, that blows absolutely no good. A slightly bizarre consequence of the fires is that their heat can accelerate the maturation of grapes and so bring forward the harvest by a week or two. So far, this is the only positive aspect I’ve read about.

Those who’ve been following my thoughts since the start of this tragedy won’t be surprised at me posting this translation of an article from today’s Voz de Galicia:-

We have a right to the truth

There are things which no one knows and so we must be patient with the investigators. But there are things which are known but not said and for this reason a crude and erroneous debate is developing which treats the fires as if they were one of the plagues of Egypt, without pointing the way towards operational conclusions relevant for next summer. The President of the Xunta, for example, stresses that the fires are on the edge of the cities, as if this simplistic insight supported the theory of an exceptional catastrophe, caused by Machiavellian plots. But what he doesn’t say is that 80% of the region’s eucalyptus trees – covering hundreds of thousands of hectares – are to be found along the coast, sharing the same space with 70% of the population, the most well-developed and supplied townships, the busiest communication networks and the largest industrial complexes and hotels. Need I say more?

They say that in Galicia - where ecological attitudes are not widespread – we have deep atavistic tendencies stemming from the rural and dispersed nature of the population. And that, for this reason, we live in a society interspersed with fires. But what they don’t say is that in those countries where they artificially expand woods – as we have done – and in those where they place their houses on the edge of forested areas, they suffer catastrophes worse than ours, without anyone managing to control them. The incendiary cycles in California carry away a million hectares and a thousand houses before they can be stopped and we’ve all seen on the TV enormous fire-fighting and police forces who only achieve success once it starts to rain.

They say the first priority is to replace what has been burnt. But they don’t say the Galician forests only replace themselves chaotically, on the basis of eucalyptus and undergrowth which fight for space with farmers, factories and houses. The fires function in Galicia like the sea in the [large bay] of La Lanzada – cycles of one large wave followed by six small ones. And one gigantic wave in every five cycles. And, nuances aside, this has never changed because of the unsustainable policy of favouring extinction over planning, which gives us false data to compute as successes in rainy years or at the start of the cycle.

Everyone knows things like this. And it does no good to hide them so as to construct a dialogue which, on the basis of terrorist sightings everywhere, tries to get us to the end of summer without recognising even an iota of bad management. Neither is it valid for the opposition, as they are clearly doing, to try to twist 180 degrees everything the Xunta says, as if the PP party had nothing at all to do with the chaotic forestry from which we suffer. What is needed is the complex truth of a region which for half a century has done things very badly. Only in this way can we make a beginning.
08.45: The north east wind is still blowing and Galicia is still burning. The number of people arrested has now risen to 27. One of these is a Venezuelan accused of starting a huge blaze around the village of Avión, up in the mountains east of Pontevedra [See Otras galerías in today’s Voz de Galicia]. This is a village of large, if style-less, mansions infamously financed by the proceeds of prostitution in one of the South American countries. Possibly Venezuela.

The Xunta of Galicia has now found someone else to blame – the company which owns the A9 motorway running along the coast from Portugal up to to La Coruña. It stands accused of failing to clear the undergrowth on either side of the road and thus facilitating the rapid spread of the flames, up to and across the tarmac. Electricity and railway companies also appear to be in their sights. But not negligent farmers so far.

It’s a sobering thought that, while 4 people have died as a result of the fires, more than 10 times this number of Africans starved to death last week, trying to get to the Canary islands in open canoes. But I’d guess they haven’t been mentioned on your News broadcasts.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

22.15: Fourth post of the day

This last week has not been entirely devoid of good news. At least not for me. Thanks to a little bit of serendipity, I’ve solved the problem of my grossly underperforming ADSL line. The saga is recorded in the following paragraphs. Telefonica has never been a popular company with me and they emerge from this tale with even less credit than I expected. If, by some miracle, they have someone in something like a Customer Relations Department trawling the web for badwill stories, I’d be delighted to hear their response.

So, this is exclusively for anyone in Spain who’s got an ADSL line from someone other than Telefonica and who’s having problems because, according to Telefonica, there’s a malfunctioning bucle in the centralita. Or for any other reason they’ve been given by Telefonica, for that matter. . . .

I’ve had weeks of hassle with Telefonica over an ADSL line giving me only 10% of the speed I’m paying Ya.com for. Telefonica visited my house, confirmed the line was very poor, cut the line, pretended to work on it for 5 hours outside and finally identified the problem as a ‘bad loop [bucle] in the central exchange [centralita]’. They said they would fix this if I changed to their ADSL service. Otherwise, basically, I could go to hell, even though both I and Ya.com were paying them for a good line.

I have discovered the malfunctioning bucle is not in the central exchange but in the principal phone socket in my garage. Technically – and briefly – older lines have a PCR and what is needed is a PTR. You can find these terms on Wikipedia in Spanish. The PCR has in it a diagnostic tool which feeds back data to Telefonica. This interferes with an ADSL line and so PCRs are no longer installed. If you have a PCR, you have to change it for a PTR, which looks exactly the same. Since the box is the property of Telefonica, theoretically only they should do this. But they clearly won’t move a muscle unless you switch your ADSL line to them. This is certainly immoral and possibly illegal, as being in breach of their contract with you. So you might want to consider using someone else.

Here is a photo of the circuit board of my obsolete PCR. The bucle is the thin black box. I think. This is where the diagnostic tool is.

14.40: Third post of the day.

One of the main features of the Galician weather – apart from its predictable unpredictability – is that it tends to set in for days on end – whether it’s glorious sun, heavy rains or the miserable blankets of grey cloud which mar our winters. So it has been for over a week now with the strong, dry wind gusting day and night from the north east. No wonder the fires spread from the interior towards the western coast. And how lucky of Portugal to have the river Miño as its northern border with Galicia.

Local friends tell me it’s already illegal here not to clear your land of undergrowth. But no one is ever fined for not doing so and the law is naturally observed far more in the breach than in the observance. A not uncommon tale in Spain.

I guess it was inevitable – and possibly intended – but the soundbite about a criminal conspiracy seems to have been taken up with alacrity by every news agency and media outlet around the world. Most recently, though, the Galician President seems to have been modifying his tune a little. ‘Those arrested’, he insists, ‘knew exactly what they were doing. Sometimes more than once.’ This is a long way from alleging a criminal conspiracy. And neither is it true. Mental defectives might not be too aware of the consequences of their actions. Likewise the various alcoholics detained and the old chap in his 90s. But, hell, what is truth when you’ve got your power base to defend?
12.00: Second post of the day.

I’ve had another of those emails from a Galician interpendista which manages – in one fell swoop – to display a woeful ignorance of not just history but also politics and economics as well. This one claims Galicia is a real country because it became a kingdom after the fall of the Roman empire and that, once it shakes off the yoke of the Spanish colonisers, it will once again be a rich and powerful country.

As ever, I imagine this is from a young male who lives with his parents and so knows less than zilch about even personal independence. I wouldn’t normally mention his existence but I feel compelled to ask both him and all his colleagues who torture themselves reading this blog if they feel it was right for Galician politicians to have spent far more time over the last 12 months discussing whether Galicia is a region, country, national reality or nation than they did in discussing the prevention of the regular fires which this year threaten to turn Galicia into something best called ‘Wasteland’. Preceded, of course, by whatever irrelevant adjective they prefer.

A simple Yes or No will do. And I wouldn’t bet against the Yeses.
11.00: First post of the day.

The fires in Pontevedra province have abated but smoke still hangs over the city itself, blown from the still-smouldering mountains to the east. The cities of Santiago and Ourense – north and south east of us – are now those which are most threatened by active fires.

I visited this morning the region inland from Pontevedra city and the devastation is immense. God knows how long it will be before it recovers its verdure. The curious thing, as I’ve said before, is that few of the trees have been destroyed completely. As a result, there are now vast stretches of blackened, petrified forest. The open land, however, has been completely laid waste, as the Before and After pictures below show. Most surprising, though, is how little damage has been done to buildings, gardens and adjacent little vineyards. In fact, I could see none at all, even where the flames had encroached up to the garden walls. There was even one small patch of corn entirely surrounded by fields of ashes. Quite how the residents managed to protect their property I don’t know but I suspect they stood defiantly with hose in hand. It must have been terrifying.

All the ecologist groups prefer [like me] to blame poor land management for this disaster, though I guess you wouldn’t expect them to say anything else; they are hard to please. But they do stress this awful year is not unprecedented and suggest a 10 year cycle. And, worryingly, they point to the risk of further damage if the rains forecast for later this week are heavy enough to erode the naked soil and wash silt into the rivers and estuaries which are Galicia's jewel.

Fernando has suggested the Galicians may not deserve their beautiful land but they surely don’t merit their dis-united, mud-slinging politicians. Here’s a few examples of the juvenile comments being bandied about in the midst of the region’s worst crisis in living memory:-
‘These sort of problems always arise when there are incompetent, divided coalition governments in power’
‘These fires are clearly part of a strategy aimed at destabilising the region and bringing down the government’
‘You only have to look at the map of the fires and compare voting patterns to realise what is going on.’

A minor but sad aspect of the fires is the death of dozens of the semi-wild horses that roam the Galician mountains. The panic engendered by the flames may well explain the horse droppings I’ve seen this morning in the forest behind my house. It’s quite a while since I saw evidence of horses this close to the houses.

Of greater concern to the besieged smallholders, though, is the increased incursions of wild boars into the corn fields which have survived. Just what the owners needed.

There is still a lot of talk from national and local politicians of criminal conspiracy. But if the local governments – both this one and the last one – really have not only under-invested in fire prevention but also exacerbated the situation via partisan ‘nationalist’ employment policies, then the real crime committed will not have been one of arson.

So I predict the smokescreen will continue until such time as things have been forgotten and no one appreciates that there have been no arrests and convictions. Not for the first time, apparently.



Saturday, August 12, 2006

20.55: Fourth post of the day.

Here’s the full text of the Voz de Galicia article cited earlier today. . .

The same as ever and something more

What has happened in the last week to turn Galicia into an inferno? When you put this question to the local police once you’ve heard their reasons for throwing out the handy theory of an organised plot, this is the answer you get – “The same as ever only more.”

In the absence of any official data on the fires, attempted fires, area affected, total forest mass burnt, we have to make do with that used by the investigators, which suggested 2006 was going to be a good year: in Galicia, fires recorded were down on last year.

So what happened last week? Well, the temperatures rose and the wind blew from the north east. This, together with the abandoned state of rural areas in general and the mountains in particular, almost on its own explains what is happening. If you add the discontented members of the companies of the [fire-fighting?] sector and the angry ones who have been let go, you don’t need black hands to seed chaos.

The first thing the experts did was to examine the profiles of the 20 people detained and what they found was the same as ever. The majority are mentally disturbed - commonly called ‘nutters - followed by those careless in the burning of stubble or in risky agricultural work. A woman accused of 30 fires since 2004 is a paradigm case. When interrogated, she spoke only about her cattle and sheep. She has been admitted to a health centre in Vigo.

In respect of the fire in Cotobade – which cost the life of two people and which could have caused the third level conflagration – the Guardia Civil received a denunciation which, once investigated, turned out to be false. The denouncer and the denounced both hated each other to death; each, it seems, had threatened to burn down the house of the other at one time or another.

The most disturbing case is of a young man of 23 who worked for 2 years for the Xunta. He is suspected of starting a huge number of fires during the last 3 months of unemployment. From the first day he worked for a public company dedicated to extinguishing fires. Once he was detained, his father presented a Habeas Corpus petition but the judge returned him to the Guardia Civil so that his case would be investigated. This is how things are.
08.55: Third post of the day.

Here’s a turn up for the books – the headline report of today’s Voz de Galicia is that, although national and local politicians continue to stress a belief in a criminal plot, the local police discount it. But, undaunted by the failure of the local police to find any evidence for a criminal conspiracy, the Attorney General [one Cándido Pompe-Pumpido] has commissioned a major investigation. Stand by for at least a popular extension of the theory – viz. that the local bobbies have been bribed by the criminals to suppress the evidence.

By last night, the number of active fires had reduced to 143. Pontevedra continues to be the province most badly affected but, generally, there has finally been a slight improvement and prospects are beginning to look a little better. In part, this reflects the increase in resources arising from the arrival of assistance from other parts of Spain and from neighbouring Portugal. And quite possibly from the suspension of the rule that all fire fighters must communicate only in Gallego.

I will post later today an article from the Voz de Galicia which begins as follows:-
What has happened in the last week to turn Galicia into an inferno? When you put this question to the local police once you’ve heard their reasons for throwing out the handy theory of an organised plot, this is the answer you get – “The same as ever only more.”

Meanwhile, for the latest pictures, see the Sin tregua section of Últimos Álbumes of the Voz de Galicia
0815: Second post of the day.

Continuing the theme of my last post . . .

The second reason why I suspect the smallness of the land plots in Galicia may assist the rapid spread of fire is that it must work against the creation of fire breaks. It’s hard to imagine effective collective action when the firebreak would consume most or even all the surface area of the plots of numerous owners. In fact, I guess it would only take one unwilling owner to kibosh the whole scheme.

If this is true, then the answer must be compulsory purchase and the creation of effective fire breaks by the local government. Hardly a vote winner so it may not lie in the realm of practical politics.
So what is the significance of the 3 photos I posted yesterday?

Well, I think it was Gerard Brenan who wrote [in The Spanish Labyrinth c.1940] that a history of its people is the history of its land development. Galicia is famous for its tiny plots of land, its minifundios. For one reason and another, Galicia’s landmass – to which the people are reputed to have a mythical attachment – is divided into small [often tiny] plots. And many of these have multiple owners. The scope for jealousy and dispute is enormous and family feuds are not uncommon. Equally large is the scope for different land management. The 3 pictures I posted earlier show this clearly and I assume they’re owned by different people. One of them has invested in clearance but his/her neighbours on either side haven’t.

The relevant ones are those covered with undergrowth [the copse] or scrub [the open land]. Imagine thousands of these – possibly millions – all over Galicia. And you’ll see what I meant a few days ago when I said Galicia was a tinderbox just waiting for a flame and a strong, dry wind. And oddly enough, when I visited the scene of one of the big fires two days ago, it was noticeable that the eucalyptus trees had only burned half way up. It was as if the fire had travelled very swiftly but horizontally in the strong wind, feeding primarily on the thick, dry undergrowth.

This point was picked up by a neighbour of mine yesterday, as we discussed the causes of the conflagrations. He, too, was of the opinion that mismanagement of the land was a fundamental factor at work. He contrasted Galicia – as Fernando had done earlier – with Asturias and Cantabria. There, he insisted, people still worked the land properly and took better care of it.

So, if these vast expanses of undergrowth and scrub really are the major factor I suspect them to be, and if the farmers can’t be relied on to clear the land [either because they can’t or won’t or because they’ve left the land for the richer pickings of the coast], can we expect to see some initiative on the part of the Galician Xunta? Or will they continue to hunt the elusive criminal gangs?

Of course, the existence of the undergrowth doesn’t rule out the work of pyromaniacs but it does help to explain why ‘normal’ fires can do so much damage so quickly when they get out of hand. Or are sparked by a bottle left in the sun. In the last case, of course, there is no human agency at all, criminal or otherwise. All that’s required is stupidity and negligence.

Friday, August 11, 2006

20.30: Fourth post of the day.

A second article from today’s Voz de Galicia:-

For when the rains arrive

The enormity of the disaster is unimaginable. But even while the pall of smoke, the noise of the planes and helicopters and the smell of scorching all continue to grow, so does the temptation on the part of trade unionists and politicians to go for a share of the big cake of responsibilities demanded by all those with an eye on the near horizon. Yesterday in the HQ of the Xunta [Galician government] there were piles of leaflets in which the CIG* heaps all the blame for what we’ve been going through for more than a week on the Xunta. But not this Xunta. The one which governed until 2004!

A terrific business, of course; according to the CIG, the government is responsible for management of a crisis, right or wrong, but only if it’s their political opponents who form the government. If it’s their friends who form the government, then the crisis must be openly laid at the door of the opposition.

This, of course, is a bad route to take. In fact, it’s the worst imaginable in the circumstances. For it can and should be asked of the opposition that it doesn’t take out its knife and slit the government’s throat while Galicia is burning like it‘s never burned before in its history. In return, it’s clear that neither the government nor its supporters should pillory the opposition.
There will be a time to determine who should pay for this cataclysm, if there is to be anyone – most of all the heartless creatures starting fires in the mountains – who finally has to pay. For now, it’s appropriate to give an image of unity even if there isn’t any - more than anything to avoid adding the bloody spectacle of party bickering to the suffering of thousands of Galicians who are facing the flames with nothing to help them but their pans, the hoses and their determination to win the war against the fires.

So, unity; because the victims of this horror deserve it. And unity, too, in seeking the help of the [Spanish] state, without which we won’t be able to recover when – after the fires are out – calm returns and we can begin to evaluate what has been burned. For all of us think the state has to come to our aid. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to take into account that, as soon as it rains, we will once again be pestering about the national rights of Galicia and all those marvels which no one now remembers, when we have to sound the alarm so that those have helped us in the past can help us again and will surely do so again in the future – that Spanish state that some always insist on speaking about with contempt.

*The Confederation of Galician Trade Unionists.
20.00: Third post of the day.

Translation of an article in today's Voz de Galicia.

Second article shortly.

Once again something has failed

They have belatedly appeared again, with their small recruitment banners to which every good person would subscribe –‘No More Fires’. Actors who are using their media influence to make a call to the citizenry to act in a civilised manner both during the fires and in their aftermath. What they and the promoters of these mini-demonstrations fail to show is a even a little criticism of the management of the crisis. For, up to now, the performance of the politicians has left no one completely satisfied. Occasionally late and frequently insufficient responses on the part of the rescue teams, closure of roads as important as the A9 without determining the alternative routes so often sought in the past, inadequate health advice on the dangers of smoke, and a thousand other things.

If, years ago, in the face of a catastrophe, we Galicians asked ourselves “In whose hands are we?”, the question is the same now. Yes, the fingerprints have changed. But, a week on, the problem of the fires has not been resolved with the speed claimed by those who once presented themselves as capable of dealing with such matters. Señor Jorquera calls members of the PP party ‘vultures’ and Señor Rego says of those who are seeking to make political capital that this is how PP party members used to refer to others. Even the opposition doesn’t improve. To me it’s ridiculous to see the President of the PP party using a hose on a real fire as if it were a back garden.

Neither prevention nor extinction of the flames. The two pillars of the struggle against fire have again failed. We may wish it will never happen again but I fear that – thanks to political ineffectiveness – reality will prove stubborn. The bases from which the pyromaniacs can do us so much damage are unscathed.
19.10: Second post of the day.

I will be posting shortly the translation of two articles from today’s Voz de Galicia but, for now, I just want to initiate a short dissertation on land and its management in Galicia.

Take a look at the 3 photos below of:-

1. Forested land with the undergrowth not cleared,















2. Forested land with the undergrowth cleared, and















3. Un-cleared scrub land.















And then ponder on the fact that all 3 of these are contained in one stretch of land less than 200m long.

I will explain later tonight. . .
9.55: President Zapatero visited Galicia yesterday, his helicopter landing a few yards from my friends’ house on top of the charcoaled mountain south of Pontevedra city, now almost visible from my window. The only warmth in his welcome was from the ground he walked on, the exhausted locals not being in a mood to cheer his arrival. A few of them were uncharitable enough to note it would have been nice to see the diggers brought in to make fire-breaks before they provided a good photo opportunity.

Pontevedra was chosen for the focus of Zapatero’s visit because it has suffered disproportionately in the last 10 days. It has now lost almost 10% of its surface area to the fires and the economic damage to the province could well be huge. And it is not over yet; last night 120 fires were still burning in Galicia, 70 of them uncontrolled. One local mayor has called for a meeting on 17 August of all parties affected so that a start can be made on assessing the damage and planning a recovery. Fittingly, this is The Day of Galician Martyrs.

Eight more arrests have been made – bringing the total to 14 - and the official view continues to be there’s an organised band of criminals at work. The arrests include two fire brigade members, one of whom is accused of starting 30 fires near the coastal town of Redondela, close to Vigo. The last time anything as bad as this happened there was when Francis Drake sacked the area. Most astonishingly, a woman of 72 is accused of starting more than 30 fires this year and 50 in previous years. Since she sounds to be rather deranged, was denounced by all her neighbours and has never been caught red-handed, one wonders whether this isn’t something of a witch-hunt. As they say even along the Galician coast, the Gallegos who live in the hills are ‘very odd’. Madrid it isn’t but Salem it may be. If history is anything to go by, very few of those accused will be successfully prosecuted and imprisoned for arson.

For photos of the devastation, go toÚltimos álbumes and Otras galerías of the Voz de Galicia

More anon.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

16.10: 4th blog of the day.

‘Biopolitical’ has written to say he/she doesn’t actually believe there’s a conspiracy to fool the public around the activities of Galician farmers, just a lack of political will and a tame press. I must say the latter factor chimes with a view I’ve long had, viz. that 5 local newspapers couldn’t possibly survive without direct or indirect finance from political parties. Which means an unhealthy relationship, a reluctance to do much investigative journalism and a lack of interest in rocking boats. An insidious form of corruption.
12.40: Third blog of the day.

‘Biolitical’ has written to reject a couple of the contentions in the Voz de Galicia article I posted earlier. This is in line with his/her belief that the major cause of the fires is the weather conditions working in conjunction with the widespread practice of scrub-burning by Galician farmers. As I say, I don’t know but – as I’ve indicated - my gut tells me he/she is more right than those who attribute the fires to a motley crew of criminals, pyromaniacs, timber merchants, property developers and drug dealers. To me, the latter smacks of expedient conspiracy thinking. But, then, the irony is that Biopolitical believes there is a widespread conspiracy to hide the truth from the public. And, by inference, so do I.

If this is true, then the local politicians are massively implicated not only in allowing it to go on happening but in weakening the capability to deal with the situation even when it is normal, never mind when it gets out of hand. No wonder they are doing their utmost to blame it on caricature figures such as ‘forestal terrorists’.

But, then, they couldn’t hope to get away with this if there weren’t a gullible populace and a hoodwinkable media.
10.35: Second post of the day.

This is a translation of an article from La Voz de Galicia, addressing possible causes of the fires ravaging the region. Sadly, many of these don't reflect too well on the local populace. To say the least. Perhaps Fernando is right to say Galicians don't deserve their beautiful land . . .

THE REASONS BEHIND THE FIRES

Experts in the Guardia Civil are looking at a wide range of causes, among which – apart from the usual ones – figure the interests of drug smugglers.

Guardia Civil Experts on environmental matters explained yesterday that, according to the investigations they’re carrying out, the fires in Galicia serve multiple interests and reflect a wide diversity of causes – natural, socio-cultural, economic, technical and even political. Among the leading causes are, inter alia, the drought, the winds and flashes of lightening. In the second rank there’s a wide range, from ownership and use of the land to acts of vengeance. Among the economic interests are those of the wood-pulpers. And among the technical causes are cigarette butts, the burning of rubbish, scrub-burning that gets out of control, and rockets. What seems totally clear is that more than 65% of the fires are deliberate. Below we give some of the possible reasons why:-

Political Issues

This is one of the causes most fingered this summer and one which the investigators themselves don’t discount. The Lugo council is one of the local authorities which has made reference to this hypothetical cause. Other senior politicians [The Minister of the Environment in Madrid] have spoken of possible acts of revenge by those members of fire-fighting squads who didn’t have their contracts removed after Touriño’s team formed the government of Galicia [the Xunta].

Urban Development Interests

No one doubts that behind a good number of the fires, especially along the coast, lie the interests of urban developers. Some investigators believe these fires fit with an intention to force the Xunta to modify the Land Law once vast stretches have been burned. Currently it’s forbidden to build in zones destroyed by fire. The coastal stretch between Vigo and the Coast of Death is where there have been most fires, just as in 2005.

Wood Industry Interests

This is another of the possible leading causes, despite the fact some representatives of the Service for Protection of Nature [Seprona] insist that burnt wood has less value than it would seem. For example, they explain that charred eucalyptus can be bought at a lower price but the buyer then needs to incur greater costs as their bark-stripping machinery doesn’t work on it. This has to be done by hand. They add that burnt pine also has reduced opportunities. Anyway, there have been cases in which mountain communities have had to auction large lots of wood as the buyers have confirmed a lack of interest in it.

Pasture, Clearance and Revenge

Experts group these factors under the heading of socio-cultural. The need for grazing land for farm animals has traditionally been a principal cause but is now seen to be losing weight. There are fewer and fewer animals. Curiously, this year there have been no fires in those areas with the greatest number of herds. The experts also include under this heading possible acts of vengeance between neighbours. In addition, there is a factor which is increasing in relevance – the departure from mountain land of an ageing population.

Hunting

Both the Guardia Civil and Regional Police have discovered people hunting in burnt areas the day after a fire.

Carelessness

The majority of arrests this year in Galicia have been for negligence. The accused started fires without permission and in the absence of the necessary security measures, leading to the fire getting out of hand.

Distraction

The Guardia Civil include something from their training manuals. Some of the fires - above all those along the coast – could serve to distract them. While attention is concentrated in the mountains, drugs can be unloaded from the sea.

Work-related Reasons

Members of fire-fighting squads have be arrested on several occasions. They are presumed to light fires in their economic interests.

Rockets, glassware. . .

There are also accidental causes and to the list must be added the acts of pyromaniacs and various other factors.
09.30: Galicia today starts its 8th day of fire devastation. According to the Voz de Galicia, there were 138 fires still burning last night and the really bad news is that they are now heading north along the Coast of Death towards La Coruña and Ferrol. The paper’s on line edition carries a dramatic photo of the fires threatening Muros, up on this coast. Ironically, the wind is blowing from the south west, whereas it’s strong gusts from the north west which have been a major factor over the last week of destruction. The paper also has three photo galleries [Álbumes] which give some idea of the damage.

These are the first four sad paragraphs of the article entitled Cien kilómetros de humo [A hundred kilometres of smoke] –

Victor Calvo, the pilot, makes a gesture of sadness with his head. It’s hardly been ten minutes since we took off from Alvedro [La Coruña] but, seen from the air, Galicia’s tragedy seems even greater. On the horizon, hundreds of fires - isolated and deliberate - are vomiting smoke into the air.

You get the feeling someone wanted to sow misery throughout this land and that they did it conscientiously, mathematically. Calibrating the right space between each epicentre so as to achieve the task of destroying everything. And you get the feeling they’re still doing it, for during this flight of three and a half hours we witnessed three new fires.

It hurts. It hurts to see life being extinguished in O Pindo or in the Ézaro reservoir. To confirm that Muros is being subjected to a siege, surrounded by flames, or to see the abject surrender to fire of mount Louro, devastated down to its last tree. It’s overwhelming to see a fire engine battling to stop the flames reaching a petrol station between Coristanco and Santa Comba. And the smoke which covers the Vigo estuary chokes you as it rises towards the plane bearing the stench of burning. And of death.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

22.45: Third post of the day.

Well, the noose of fires which last night encircled the city of Pontevedra appears to have loosened somewhat. But there’s still a pall of smoke over the city – albeit slightly higher than this morning – and there are still fires burning on the mountain to the south. My friends in the village up there have had two sleepless nights and are preparing for a third, amidst rumours and fears that the wind is about to bring the flames back again.

Today’s national and local newspapers naturally carry numerous reports and articles on Galicia’s latest tragedy. As one of them says, the only common ground is that most of the fires are not accidental and that tough treatment should be meted out to those responsible. Thereafter, opinion is divided as to what is going on and what should be done about it. Left-wing papers major on the alleged criminal element and right-wing papers on the negligence and stupidity of a coalition government which simply wasn’t ready to deal with the crisis, partly because it had weakened its fire-fighting capabilities for the doctrinaire reasons I cited earlier.

What is clear is that fires are nothing new to Galicia; they visit us every summer, though not usually as extensively and as simultaneously as this year. And it also seems clear that the phenomenon is pretty unique to Galicia and North Portugal, even though [as Fernando has pointed out] there are extensive forests in other parts of northern Spain.

What should have been clear is that Galicia was a tinderbox waiting for the fatal combination of a few sparks and weather conditions propitious for the rapid spread of flames. This is because more and more of the region has been given over to profitable plantations of oily eucalyptus trees which – because of their own demands for water - produce a very dry undergrowth. If this is not cleared – either because the people have left the land or are too old to do this – the result is simply widespread kindling waiting to be lit.

Almost everyone seems to believe most of the fires were deliberate but few seem to understand how such extensive damage could result from the actions of a handful of people whose interests would be served by a small fire. In the circumstances, it hardly matters whether these were madmen or farmers aiming to secure more pastureland for their grazing animals. Or even greedy property developers hoping to get land re-zoned for building. As it happens, one informed observer puts the blame squarely on Galician farmers but, then, everyone local seems to have a favourite and I simply wouldn’t know. Since it’s not going to stop, what really matters is plans for preventing the rapid spread of fires and for dealing with them if these measures fail.

As for the future. . . Well, near term, the weather forecasts are not encouraging – at least another week of sun, high temperatures and dry winds from the north east; a central information number has finally been set up; the regional government is now deploying troops to assist the fire-fighters, though not in any fire-beating capacity as they won’t have been trained in this until next summer; and the leader of the opposition has suggested a national emergency centre that would make a better fist of dealing with large-scale tragedies than the local governments.

Meanwhile, 5 or 6 people have been arrested on suspicion of starting fires. Only one of these has been kept in custody so I suppose the other four will be lucky to escape lynching.
09.30: Second post of the day . . .

The Spanish are said to be prone to conspiracy thinking, though the cock-up school might actually make more sense to those accustomed to higher levels of efficiency.

In the case of the fires currently devastating great swathes of Galicia, responsibility is variously attributed to crazy pyromaniacs, careless tourists, avaricious property developers, pasture-hungry and/or land-abandoning peasants, feuding neighbours, piecework-seeking current fire-fighters and even ‘spiteful’ ex-fire-fighters seeking revenge for not being re-contracted. No one is more assiduous in pointing the finger of blame at conspiring criminals than the regional and local governments. If these are to be believed, there’s a new type of pyromaniac abroad – one willing to work in a group that is starting coordinated and hard-to-deal-with fires on wooded escarpments close to villages and towns, with a view to forcing the fire-fighters to concentrate on dealing with the threat to life and so giving the pyromaniacs a free hand out in the countryside.

I, for one, don’t buy this simple [and convenient] explanation. We’ve had had a couple of very dry years and the winds have been strong for several days now. This, I believe, is a more logical explanation for the fires which have spread rapidly in what the local Mayor prefers to see as “a suspiciously straight line” down from their mountain origin to the city of Pontevedra by the sea.

And now we learn of something which might just explain the smokescreen being erected by the politicians. Or perhaps I, too, am falling prey to conspiracy thinking. The regional government is a coalition between Socialists and ‘Nationalists’. The latter have never had more than a small following and actually lost votes at the last election. However, their support is vital to the ruling Socialist party and, as I have said, the rabid Nationalist tail has been wagging the Socialist dog for some time now. Most relevantly, it seems that earlier this year the regional government dictated that only those fire-fighters who spoke perfect Galician would have their contracts renewed. Inevitably, this led to the loss of experienced firemen and, perhaps even more importantly, of experienced managers.

If this is true, it is a truly appalling example of the madness which follows from the doctrinaire promotion of a regional language over a national language. And it leaves one asking whether the government will give a dispensation to the members of the army and fire-fighting forces now being drafted into Galicia from elsewhere in Spain to help it deal with its latest ecological disaster. A dispensation, of course, which they weren’t willing to give to their own citizens.

If not, I wonder how the team of expert fire analysts being sent from Madrid is going to do its work. Perhaps a layer of dual-language translators will be interposed between two groups which both speak perfect Spanish. Frankly, I wouldn’t put it past them. Though they might not be able to find enough translators in August.

And, if I’d had my house destroyed or lost a family member, I’d be wondering again whether Spain couldn’t do with a few more campaigning [or even greedy] lawyers to lead a class action for negligence against posturing politicians who place more importance on Galicia’s distant history than on its near future.
08.30: I will write more about the fires later today. For now, here is a redder-than-it-should-be sun rising over the shroud of smoke that should be Pontevedra glistening in an otherwise blue and cloudless sky. . .

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

If anything, the fire situation is even worse today in Galicia. Or in the Pontevedra province at least. There are fires in all the surrounding mountains and the city itself lies beneath a shroud of smoke. If this really is the work of pyromaniacs, they certainly have been industrious. My elder daughter and I have just got back from the village of my friends on the other side of the city, where panic was setting in as the revitalised fire again threatened the petrol station. Fortunately, the flames again receded so we returned home down the devastated and still-smouldering mountainside. And now we’re concerned about the plume of black smoke that’s approaching the house from the mountain behind us. So you‘ll forgive me if I leave you with this comment from Fernando in Ferrol, while I go and give some thought to Plan A and Plan B. . .

I guess we have the same ratio of pyromaniacs as in any other part of Spain. We’re not the only ones to have trees; and, even though there aren’t the enormous stretches of eucalyptus in the north of the country, there is almost as much forested land as here in Galicia.

So, what is the difference?

Could it be ignorance and greed? An ignorance that is a bar to understanding of how much is lost, and which for some reason has always underappreciated what can’t be seen, measured or weighed? A greed which is more than mere greed, a stinginess for which nothing is more serious than money, above which is ranked very little.

I know that in every place there are problems, defects and deficiencies. But I often think we Galicians don’t deserve our land.

Monday, August 07, 2006

23.15: Forest fires continue to blaze out of control throughout Galicia. The one most relevant to me has reached the top of the mountain opposite my house, on the other side of Pontevedra. This is where some friends of mine live, a few yards from a petrol station. They’ve just called to say they’re evacuating their house. I feel rather powerless. And not much like writing. So that’s it for today.

08.45: My friends sent me a message at 3.45 saying the fire had been contained - just short of the house - and they were now less concerned because the strong winds had abated. Although it’s a clear, cloudless day, the mountain behind Pontevedra is invisible below a dense layer of smoke from the smouldering ashes. And to think this fire might well have been deliberately started.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

July was blessedly free of the forest fires that plagued Galicia last year but August has come in with a vengeance. Over the past few days terrible conflagrations have surrounded the cities of Santiago, Vigo and Pontevedra and the air is thick with smoke, ash and acrid fumes. Plus the drone of the water-dropping planes and helicopters. It’s no real consolation but the one positive is that it makes for remarkable sunsets, with the sun going down in a blaze of brilliant oranges and reds. The police, as usual, say as many as 90% of these fires are deliberate, attributing them to an ‘outrageous wave of criminal activity’ stemming from a mixture of pyromania, score-settling and pure land-grabbing greed. Hard to believe, especially in view of the deaths caused.

I’m regularly accused of being too negative about a country I claim to love living in. But I doubt anything I’ve written is as critical as an article from the Sunday Times recently sent to me by a friend in the UK. In brief, this majors on the local corruption, drug smuggling, money laundering and prostitution which are said to have increased exponentially in the last 5 years or so. More or less since I arrived in Spain, in fact. The article also makes the point I regularly stress, that Spain’s impressive economic growth is based very largely on a false construction boom that must end one day, very possibly abruptly. Perhaps the writer confined his/her research to my blog. Delusions of grandeur on my part.

Once you’re infected with the illusion your region really is a nation, there’s naturally no stopping you. The Galician ‘nationalist’ party is again seeking – this time under the aegis of the new constitution for the region – the right to set up Galician embassies in real countries such as Portugal. These would then negotiate ‘international treaties’, presumably in Gallego. Even bigger delusions of grandeur.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

God forbid that Spain should ever get the sort of Health and Safety Gestapo that stalks the UK but it’d be nice to see a little more concern for personal safety. And a little less of the cavalier attitude towards personal risk. Very fashionable at the moment are quad bikes - driven at great speed by young men who spurn the theoretically-compulsory crash helmet. So you won’t be surprised to read that, in Galicia alone, 5 of these have been killed just in the last month.

Actually, I was almost hit today by a quad bike emerging from a garden. But this wasn’t the most noteworthy episode of my morning; five minutes later, while crossing the bridge into town, I had to swerve to avoid being run down by a motorised invalid carriage whose driver was engrossed in texting a message on her mobile phone.

The good news of the last week is that the police in Valencia captured 513 kilos of cocaine. The less-good news is that 20 kilos of this has since gone walkabout. If you come across any of this, please call the Valencia police as they claim to be baffled by this development.

I’m indebted to a reader [see the comment on my blog of 2.8] for the explanation of why Spanish drivers stay in the outside lane of the motorway with their indicators on, even when there’s no traffic. They believe [know?] they can drive with impunity way above the maximum of 120 by claiming they were finishing an overtaking manoeuvre they started 20 kilometres back.

Quote of the Weekend

Couldn't we all do with builders who arrive and finish on time? My daughter made the cardinal error of believing the builders when arranging to move to her new home; it'll be at least three weeks from the due date before they can move in.
Terry Wogan, complaining about a piffling 3 weeks delay on the part of his daughter’s builders. How about 3 months? Or 3 years, even?

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