Arrieros: Manolo “Donato”

Manolo "Donato" with Curro, Galaroza. Drawing by Jan Nimmo ©

Manolo “Donato” with Curro, Galaroza. Drawing by Jan Nimmo ©

I often meet Manolo when I’m either leaving or when I coming home to the village with Chaparro. There are two possible locations where our meetings might occur; at Manolo’s “huerta” or kitchen garden on the Las Chinas path, just at the entrance to the village or out at his son-in-law’s smallholding where the path forks for Valdelarco or El Roblecillo. Either way we usually stop for a chat and if I’m lucky then I may come home with a bag of chard or a watermelon hanging from the pommel of the saddle. Like all “Cachoneros” (the people of Galaroza) Manolo is generous to a fault. I have grown broad beans here at my allotment in Glasgow which were one of his presents to me. One day he shouted to me from his huerta and came down to give me a box with bags of seeds, all with beautifully handwritten descriptions of the contents; coriander, dried lime tree leaves, which are apparently good for calming the nerves, arnica for aches and pains… Manolo knows a lot about plants and herbal remedies and I often bump into him carrying a bunch of mint or oregano, depending on the time of year.


Manolo gathering acelgas (chard). Photo Jan Nimmo ©


Manolo and his broad beans. Photo Jan Nimmo ©

Manolo is retired now but worked as an “arriero” or muleteer. He’s travelled all over the Sierra with his mules, carrying cork, saplings and anything that needed moved across county and from one village to another. He would have done a lot of ploughing in his time too. He still has one mule, Curro, but his partner died a few years back. I remember leaving for a ride to Valderarco, one frosty morning, and seeing the cadaver of Curro’s companion lying at the gate of the holding, waiting for collection. The emotional part of a horse’s brain is the same as ours and so I wondered how Curro would feel about the absence of the other mule – after all those years spent working and grazing together with that spooky, nonverbal communication that they have with us and one another.

Often, in the early evening, I’ll go out for a stroll and if I pass by Manolo’s huerta we’ll stop for a chat. I’ll have a look at his produce and marvel, as I can’t match his success at the allotment in Glasgow. He grows all the usual vegetables and he has a particularly lovely pink rose bush as well as a few fig trees. Nearby, Manolo has a wee stone shed with a great big fireplace and this is where he makes miniature ploughs out of wood and which are exact working replicas of the real thing.


Manolo “Donato” with a handmade miniature plough, Galaroza. Photo by Jan Nimmo ©

Curro has a corral and shelter just along from the huerta and he always has plenty to eat; lots of hay and holm oak acorns which Manolo gathers for him. In spite of being well fed, Curro is a bit skinny – it’s the leanness of old age. Each time I return to Galaroza I wonder if he will still be there. He can be a bit grumpy at times but he’s part of the furniture and Chaparro and I would miss him if he wasn’t there.

Curro. Galaroza. Photo Jan Nimmo ©

Curro. Galaroza. Photo Jan Nimmo ©

© Jan Nimmo 2014


Agricultural portraits from the Sierra de Huelva – Getting started.

I’ve started drawing again… it’s long overdue and whilst I feel a bit rusty I’m enjoying making portraits of some old friends from the Sierra de Huelva… For a long time now I have concentrated on film work but it’s such a slow process…. so it feels utterly brilliant to produce a portrait of someone in a morning or an afternoon… images of people who have worked the soil, pollarded chestnut trees, stripped cork oaks, milked goats and cows, herded pigs across the drove roads of the Sierra and hidden bags of contraband flour below their shawls in times of post-war hunger. These are portraits of people who have given me an insight into this part of Andalusia and who have helped bring to life that landscape of forests and abandoned “cortijos” that I pass through when I’m out riding with Chaparro. This collection of drawings will be my homage to them…


Felicita, Galaroza. Drawing by Jan Nimmo ©

Felicita, Galaroza. Drawing by Jan Nimmo ©

Felicita is the mother of Iluminado, the lovely man who looks after my horse, Chaparro. Felicita is now 91 and has worked since she was a child. She and the family had a large herd of goats and cows which produced milk for the towns and villages. The family rented a beautiful farm called La Ribera near the road that winds to Encinasola. Paul and I have ridden through the farm a couple of times on our way to Cumbres or to Portugal and the horses have enjoyed the water from the river there… Felicita has beautiful hands which have must have milked thousands of udders… She now suffers the aches and pains of age but she has an incredible memory.


Obdulio, Galaroza. Drawing by Jan Nimmo ©

Obdulio, Galaroza. Drawing by Jan Nimmo ©

I got to know Obdulio on the old path that crosses the hills between Galaroza and Valdelarco. He rides his donkey, Morena, to his farm on the Roblecillo path, everyday. He gets up at the crack of dawn so I usually meet him when I’m heading out for a ride and he’s coming home. He jokes all the time, “Hacemos una carrera!”, “Let’s have a race!”…

Obdulio and Morena - Let's have a race! Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Obdulio and Morena – Let’s have a race! Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

It would be easy to think that at 84, Obdulio has always worked on the land but on my visits to the farm he tells me about how, for four years, he worked down a German coal mine (so a shared heritage!) and learned to speak a bit of German. He worked as a miner for twenty odd years in La Mina María Luisa, an iron pyrites and copper mine, just near La Nava, a village to the west of Galaroza.

Obdulio still ploughs his land with two, snowy powed, elderly mules, Castaño and Gitano (Chestnut, who is no longer chestnut but grey and Gypsy). He grows all the usual local crops; tomatoes, lettuce, onion, green peppers for frying, cabbage and impressive squashes and pumpkins to feed his black Iberian pigs. His orchard is populated by the old varieties of apples that were once so typical of Galaroza; Reyneta, Rufino, Belleza de Roma (Chaparro always enjoys autumn visits there)… and there is also a great big caqui tree (persimmon), a glorious sight when in fruit in the dead of winter.

Obdulio ploughing with Castaño and Gitano. Drawing:  Jan Nimmo ©

Obdulio ploughing with Castaño and Gitano. Drawing: Jan Nimmo ©


Manuel, Cumbres de San Bartolome. Drawing by Jan Nimmo ©

Manuel, Cumbres de San Bartolome. Drawing by Jan Nimmo ©

Paul and I met Manuel when we were searching for somewhere to leave our horses in Cumbres de San Bartolomé. We drove up to Cumbres with our late friend, Tobias, and asked in the bar if there was anyone who could lend us a field for a couple of nights. A slightly inebriated chap there said we should look for someone called Gregorio so we did. Gregorio is Manuel’s son, a genial man of few words, who is habitually shadowed by his marly, brown and white mastín (sheepdog). In contrast Manuel is someone who likes to converse and whose voice, when necessary, can carry right a cross the valleys, which can be an advantage in the Sierra, especially when Maunel was organising people further down the valley, to show us the path to Higuera La Real. Like most people of his generation he knows all about the “Serrano” paths. Before he retired he worked inspecting pig herds. He still keeps livestock; sheep, goats and a donkey. He and Gregorio have been kind to us when we’ve passed through with the horses and Manuel has kept an eye on Chaparro, Gitanillo and Nerón, slipping them extra hay, when they’ve had overnighters in Cumbres Bajas.

María and Emilio

Maria and Emilio, Galaroza. Drawing: Jan Nimmo ©

Maria and Emilio, Galaroza. Drawing: Jan Nimmo ©

I was interested in filming the chestnut pollarding, which takes place over the winter months, so Iluminado suggested I talk to Emilio “de La Huerta Grande” (everyone has family nicknames in the Sierra). Emilio had worked with Iluminado’s late father, pollarding chestnuts and stripping cork oaks. I went with Chaparro to meet him, and Paul, my husband came too. We arranged to film him and the family. He was 74 at the time. It really was quite a magical sight to see three generations at work; Emilio 40 feet up a chestnut tree with his axe, then his son, José and his grandson, Isaac, working on the lower branches, whilst Emilio’s daughter, Emilia, was gathering up the branches and burning them on the bonfire. A couple of years later Emilio fell from a high branch of a chestnut tree and injured his arm and whist he doesn’t pollard chestnut anymore he still cultivates both his farm, La Viriñuela, and a substantial kitchen garden.

Over time I have gotten to know Emilio and his wife María. María is originally from a village to the east of Galaroza, Fuenteheridos. When they were courting, Emilio was working in Cumbres Mayores, and on Sundays he walked all the way to Fuenteheridos to see her… Emilio knows all the paths and is my “go to” person when I want to know if a path is a legitimate “camino” or not.

Emilio, like his brother Obdulio, loves to joke, which threw me a bit a first as he can sound quite fierce but I quickly warmed to his earthy sense of humour. He loves trees and tells me of how his ancestors would throw their arms around the trees that provided them with a livelihood. Emilio says that if he wins the lottery he would buy an “encinar” (a holm oak grove) as he can’t imagine anything more beautiful.  But meantime Emilio has invested in a young donkey, Chica. I love the optimism of a 79 year old buying a beast that will last donkey’s years. Chaparro and I met Emilio and Chica when they made their first outing up to his farm so we rode along together. I’m thinking of asking if one day he and Chica will retrace his steps from his courting days and show me the path from Las Murtiguillas to Cumbres Mayores…

I enjoy visiting María and Emilio at their kitchen garden on the edge of the village. I learn so much from them. In a recent conversation with María she told to me that she loved her husband just as much as the day she married him, or maybe even more now as she knows him so well after all those years spent together.

© Jan Nimmo 2014

Portraits from Cameroon

Chemical Application Workers on a banana plantation inCameroon © Jan Nimmo

Chemical Application Workers on a banana plantation in Fako, Cameroon, Central Africa © Jan Nimmo

I have been working with banana workers since around 2000 on a project called Green Gold where I have collaborated with Latin America Banana workers who labour on the large, extensively farmed plantations of Central and South America. The project is a mixture of portrait, documentary film, installation and testimony.

When the opportunity arose to go and film workers’ testimonies in Cameroon for Banana Link I was keen to see what the differences and similarities where between the two continents…

Portraits from Cameroon is a series of short workers’ testimonies filmed both on the plantations and in workers’ homes. I think they speak for themselves, but in brief, workers earn a third of what they need to survive, are exposed to harmful chemicals and work long hours.

The film was subtitled into Spanish so that workers in Latin America could learn about working conditions in Central Africa.

PfC was premiered at Document 10 International Human Rights Film Festival and will be screened at Workers Unite Film Festival in New York, May 2014.

© Jan Nimmo 2014

Travels with Chaparro – a letter from the Sierra de Huelva

The Sierra

An uncharacteristically green part of Andalusia, the Sierra de Huelva forms the western end of the Sierra Morena, the line of hills running from Portugal in the west through the northern provinces of Andalusia and marking the boundary between this region and the vast open landscapes of Extremadura. Most of the Sierra (apart from the areas still exploited for the region’s rich mineral wealth) now forms part of the Natural Park of the Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche.

Jan with Chaparro, La Ribera (Cumbres)

Jan with Chaparro, La Ribera (Cumbres)

You can take a white horse anywhere…..

How I got there is a long story – let’s just say that after a close shave filming on the picket lines of Ecuador I decided life was too short, and when I got the chance to buy a beautiful Andalusian gelding there was no way I would say no – I’d waited 40 years to have horse of my own (after all, miner’s daughters didn’t have horses).

For the last ten years I’ve been lucky enough to spend chunks of time exploring the drove roads and bridle paths of the Sierra Morena on horseback. Rides can last anything from three hours to five days and the countless kilometres covered with Chaparro have given me the opportunity to meet and make friends with people who have shared with me something of their intimate understanding of the landscape and local history.

Cork oaks have been in the picture throughout our travels, from San Calixto in Cordoba to the Sierra Norte de Sevilla, into Extremadura and as far as Barrancos in Portugal. Cork is part of the culture – even in Chaparro’s name, which means wild cork oak.

On horseback you see things differently, and Chaparro has been instrumental to my meeting and getting to know the folk who live and work in the Sierra and who care about the country they live in. This is especially true of some of the older serranos whose recollections span three quarters of a century of changes.

I have found paths described to me by old men in bars who had not walked them for 50 years, paths open but now overgrown and neglected. And I am moved by the accuracy of the description, such recognisable detail after so many years absence. They tell me the paths are the veins of the Sierra – or used to be when transport was on foot or on hoof. Today these same paths are in danger of being closed, either through neglect or the willful self-interest of land-owners.

Rural economy

Emilio "de La Huerta Grande" Antunes Tristancho with Chica.

Emilio “de La Huerta Grande” Antunes Tristancho with Chica.

The beauty of this landscape had always struck me but what I did not understand was how it had come about. It is a partially abandoned landscape, part overgrown and tumbledown – romantic, but to the farmer, an abhorrence. This was not a wild forest but the result of generations of hard work, and a unique pattern of arboriculture suited to the climate, the terrain and the needs of its people.

However, the Sierra has been vulnerable to external pressures – in the past civil war and hunger, then migration to the cities and industrial centres of Europe, and now threatened by changes in land ownership, enclosure, commodity values and the present economic crisis.

As in many parts of southern and western Spain the traditional mode of agricultural practice has been that of the “Dehesa”, which has evolved to sustain a diverse mixed agriculture on poor soils in a climate of hot dry summers, and which has created an open, pastoral woodland which supports both cork oaks (Quercus Suber) and holm oaks (Quercus Ilex). Both trees are evergreens. The trees provide essential shade in summer and food in winter for livestock, and help to stabilise the soil while the livestock improve the fertility of the land.

La Ribera de Hinojales

La Ribera de Hinojales

Low intensity grasslands become wildflower meadows in spring, supporting a wealth of pollenating insects, birds and other fauna.

This is an open forest with a delicate balance between light and shade, plant and animal, and according to local cork expert Miguel Ángel Benítez Benítez this is the most bio-diverse region outside Amazonia. The Sierra is home to genets, otters, deer, wild boar, mongooses, and in the course of the year sees almost 200 bird species including imperial eagles, griffon and black vultures, eagle owls, black storks and bee-eaters. People younger than me remember hearing the wolves at night – the last one was shot in Valdelarco in the late-sixties.

These woodlands are grazed by a variety of livestock, including merino sheep, goats, handsome red retinta cattle, vacas bravas (breeding fighting bulls) and the black Iberian pigs.

The sweet, highly nutritious acorns of the alcornoque (cork oak) and the encina (holm oak) are valued as fodder for livestock, especially the Iberian pigs whose meat and cured ham (jamón serrano) is sold at a premium. The Sierra de Huelva boasts of arguably the best “pata negra de bellota” in the whole of Spain. This free range, slowly produced but luxury product is currently suffering from the effects of the economic downturn and many jobs have been lost locally.

Traditionally crops such as oats, barley, chick peas and broad beans were planted in areas of this open woodland which weren’t being grazed. This surprised me because none of these crops are grown any more.

According to local testimony there has been a long-term change in the climate and the rainfall in the past was much higher than today. My late friend, Tobías López García, described how sixty years ago his father could be rained off for weeks during spring. Ex-director of the Natural Park, Rafael Hernández Mancha believes it is too early to say whether this change is due to human impacts or is part of the natural Mediterranean climatic cycle.

The Antunez Tristancho family polllarding chestnut trees.

The Antunez Tristancho family polllarding chestnut trees.

Another of my friends, Emilio “de la Huerta Grande” Antunes Tristancho worked in the cork harvest and still manages and coppices his own chestnut trees. Emilio is 79 years old but still can be seen in winter time high up in a chestnut tree, axe in hand, no harness, delicately removing this branch or that. His son and grandson are working further down the same tree and his daughter, Emilia, is building a bonfire of the brash.

Sweet chestnut trees are found in ancient plantations, especially on the higher ground in the centre of the Natural Park, and give their name to the Park’s highest hill, Cerro del Castaño, (hill of the chestnut). Some of the trees have been coppiced for centuries for the wood, equalled only by oak in its durability for construction, fencing, gates etc.

Many of the chestnut trees have grafts of up to four different varieties growing on the one tree. This ensures the owners of the castañares that at least one of their varieties will bear fruit. Chestnuts provide food for livestock in autumn and in the past were dried and ground to make flour. Today the produce is marketed in Galaroza through one of only two chestnut co-operatives in Spain (the other one is in Ronda) although now both co-operatives face fierce undercutting from chestnuts from Turkey.

If the dehesa typifies the open landscapes then the outskirts of the towns and villages are marked by the huertas and orchards.

Iluminado and his homegrown organic tomatoes

Iluminado and his homegrown organic tomatoes

Huertas or kitchen gardens, although in decline and often showing signs of neglect or more permanent abandonment, are characteristic of the boundaries between the towns and villages of the Sierra and the surrounding countryside, stretching out into the fields along the ancient lanes. Nothing much happens in the huertas over the winter apart from sowing broad beans. They come to life in the spring with the sowing the typical crops – lettuces, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, beans, courgettes, aubergines, melons and pumpkins (used as feed for livestock in the winter). Growers used to cultivate chickpeas too but this is something that I haven’t seen in the ten years that I have known the Sierra.

Iluminado gathering peppers

Iluminado gathering peppers

Beyond the huertas lie the orchards. Many of these are also neglected, with apples left to rot in the autumn (although this may provide a bonus for the wildlife or the occasional passing horse).

The fruits grown in the orchards are often specific to a particular town or village – peaches in La Nava, apples in Galaroza – where differences in microclimate or the abundance or otherwise of water may favour one fruit or another. Other fruits seen in the summer are early figs (brevas) and cherries, in the autumn figs and walnuts, and in the winter, persimmons.

Settlement in the Sierra is marked by a concentration of large villages and smaller aldeas between the towns of Aracena and Cortegana. Folk are known by the produce that their village was famed for – Los Paperos (potato growers) from Fuenteheridos, Los Cebolleros (onion growers) from Aracena, Los Cachoneros (apple growers) from Galaroza and Los Colmeneros (bee keepers) from Valdelarco. These names show how local produce was integral to the communities’ identity and the importance of local trade between villages before the modern era.

Iluminado using the cantero style of irrigation for his potato crop

Iluminado using the cantero style of irrigation for his potato crop

Families also carry nicknames from generation to generation, often deriving from a particular skill or product (although sometimes the meaning has been lost in the course of time). The friend who looks after Chaparro, Iluminado Tristancho, carries the family nickname, Lechuguino, appropriately enough since he also grows very fine lettuces.

La Cuadrilla

Over the last three years I have been gathering still and moving images of cork and the people who are involved in the nine year cycle of the cork harvest. This is a slow burning project which I plan to make into a documentary and an exhibition. In the course of collecting this information I have got to know Francisco “Kiko” Muñiz and his cuadrilla or team.

Kiko and his team are young men, but they use the traditional tools of the cork forester, the short-handled, wide-bladed axe and long wooden pole for prizing off the cork, la burja. Cutting the cork is a delicate skill but one which still requires physical strength and stamina. You have to know where to cut and not cut too deeply – which could damage the tree and make it susceptible to the various diseases and parasites, which can take advantage of the freshly exposed, flesh-coloured wood below the cork.

Antonio "El Cordobés" stripping cork in Alajar

Antonio “El Cordobés” stripping cork in Alajar

The cork has to be cut in the heat of summer (with the first cut of young cork, the bornizo, being carried out in May). Many of the people who cut cork in summer also pollard chestnuts in winter.

An important member of the cuadrilla is the arriero (muleteer) Francisco. Mules and donkeys are a more effective means of removing the cork from the steep hillsides than any wheeled or tracked vehicle. However, hundreds of mules have disappeared from the Sierra in recent years so it is a happy sight to see these animals so well looked after and doing the work for which they have been trained. A working mule can command a higher price than a good-looking horse.

Francisco is an arriero or muleteer who works with his mules to remove stripped cork from inaccessible hillsides.

Francisco is an arriero or muleteer who works with his mules to remove stripped cork from otherwise inaccessible hillsides.

Much prized by the harvesters are the cucharos – the knobbly burrs measuring up to a metre across which can be cut from the tree in one piece, to serve as receptacles for a variety of uses, depending on their size. Cucharos have been used since time immemorial as drinking cups beside watering troughs and as mortars for making gazpacho. Emilio bathed all his children in a cucharo and Manuel Santos Carvajal, one of Kiko’s cuadrilla, also remembers being washed in a cucharo as an infant. Today the cuadrillas have to deal with the problem of illegal removal of the prized burrs, often before the nine years growth has developed and causing sometimes irreparable damage to the trees. This is of course also theft but in a remote region this is a crime which goes unpunished.

Samuel, Kiko’s son, enjoys being with the cuadrilla during school holidays and seems to be in his element learning the skills from the older men and enjoying the banter and singing of the cuadrilla.

Samuel, gathering up the cork

Samuel, gathering up the cork

While it is great to see this resurgence and the resilience of the cuadrilla, the underlying trend is towards decline and the overwhelming feeling is one of crisis – a crisis facing all of Spain, where no-one can afford rural tourism, jamón serrano or fine wine with corks.

The cork industry is under threat from screw-tops and plastic corks backed by petro-dollars and New World and European wine makers whose corporate lobbyists have even tried to discredit the cork industry on the false premise that it destroys forests.

The Natural Park has a defined role in the protection of the environment but from what I have seen in practice this is marred by ignorance and petty bureaucracy. Commercial developments and publicly funded enterprise initiatives appear out of nowhere in the park – dehesa ripped up to lay out an industrial estate with no industry while smallholders are fined for clearing brushwood and brambles from the paths that lead to their farms – when what they are doing is protecting the park from forest fires. The relationship between the Natural Park and small farmers is not helped by a set of park regulations based on a very different Mediterranean woodland, Los Alcornocales Natural Park, in the province of Cadiz.

Today I can ride for a whole day and hardly see a soul – a beautiful way to enjoy nature but not what the paths were made for. People only a generation older than me recall the paths as being sociable places, where people from different towns and villages greeted one another and exchanged local news and gossip passing through the farms along the way. Long hours talking to Tobías about the abandoned steadings along the paths has brought these places to life for me. Though sometimes now no more than a pile of stones these are places people lived in less than fifty years ago.

In some places the hillsides have been turned into eucalyptus plantations – economic monoculture which effectively closes off large areas of the land. Very recently I experienced a “Get off my land” incident in a eucalyptus plantation – on a path that I’ve ridden at least forty times… I have had to pass through there, as do local farmers, because the legitimate drove road has been padlocked.

Jan and Chaparro: riding from Andalusia to Extremadura

Jan and Chaparro: riding from Andalusia to Extremadura

A handful of people like me pass through the paths on horseback, on foot or on bicycle. Riding the paths keeps these rights of way open but it is an uphill struggle. Here there is no right of access as in Scotland but there are various classes of path and drove road whose statutory definition and protection dates from the days when these were the economic arteries of Spain. Despite such official protection some old paths remain padlocked or fenced across with barbed wire with no willingness from the authorities to put pressure on the land-owners to keep the paths open. There are legitimate arguments that the paths make livestock vulnerable to rustling and poaching now that so many people have quad bikes and 4×4 vehicles but these arguments only hold against a backdrop of an under-populated landscape with no-one employed to guard the livestock. And often the land is closed off purely for the interests of hunters. Does this sound familiar?

(First published in Reforesting Scotland and then published by The Ecologist).

© Jan Nimmo 2014