Ibiza History & Culture

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Anthropological View

An Anthropological View
by Kirk W Huffman

Aïgu y Agua and Water
Water and Water and Water

Part Three


In spite of popular and New Age mythology to the contrary, Eivissa has never really been a ‘haven of peace and tranquillity'. The island has been perpetually invaded over millennia and internal disputes were common up until at least the 1950s (although kept hidden as much as possible from the authorities). In traditional pagès Eivissenc (Ibicencan peasant) society the sources of minor and major disputes were often women, land , pigs and water. More about pigs in a later article (if you are an English ‘frequent visitor to Eivissa' now back in England recovering from a couple of weeks in the bars and discotheques here and are reading this, you might say "What do pigs have to do with Ibiza?" - which just goes to show that you haven't yet touched the real Eivissa). The traditional Eivissenc courting ritual, Sa Festeig (more about these in a later article), still practised in isolated rural areas until the 1950s, was strictly organized, but often created tensions and disputes between young unmarried Eivissenc males vying for the attention and acceptance of an eligible female. The Eivissenc preference for marrying one's cousin (usually a second cousin), a practice widespread in Mediterranean societies, had/has land and inheritance benefits, but the ‘build-up' to it could possibly create tensions within the extended family. Preferred settlement patterns were dispersion verging on isolation - since Carthaginian times - and the present distribution of villages on the island is a relatively recent innovation dating mostly (but not entirely) from the Catalan ‘take-over' of the island in the 13th century AD. But most pagès Eivissencs preferred to live in their isolated family homesteads as far away - an as independent from - any form of authority whatsoever. Rural life was/is hard but pure, the agricultural cycle demanding fitness, hard labour and a minute attention to the soil and to water resources. The only permanent river on the island, that running through Santa Eularia, crossed there by the famous Roman bridge, has now dried up. The earliest surviving documentary film, shot on the island in 1934, shows a brief shot of the river in full - but rather weak - flow. By the 1970s its flow had been reduced to a meandering dribble, but even that now seems to be a fading memory.

Each isolated casa pagès (traditional peasant house) would have its own particular water supply/storage solution. Some of the oldest would have an aljub (deriving from the Arabic term for ‘water'- most of these were made pre-13th century during the time the Moors ruled the island), an area of sloping ground cleared down to the base rock and then layered with a Moorish form of conglomerate ‘cement' to channel the water run-off into an underground storage chamber (the term aljub covers both the water catchment area and this chamber). The latter, dug deeply into the ground or rock and sometimes containing a vast terracotta water pot, was covered with a small stone structure so that it looked like the opening of a pou (well). The difference between an aljub and a pou, though, was that the former contained ‘dead' water (not from a living source in the ground) and the latter contained ‘live water', direct from an underground source. Some houses would have both types of water system, plus a special cistern to take rainwater runoff from the roof. Sometimes out in the fields would be a stone water tank, a bossa (‘balsa de irrigacion' in Spanish) containing water channelled in from a spring or brought up from a well by ancient hydraulic methods. The bossa as well therefore contained ‘live' water.

For most English readers, water is just water: not so for the pagès Eivissencs, who traditionally distinguish between different types of water. In general, water from an aljub was used for animals, roof water in the cistern used for household cooking, washing and drinking and the water from a bossa used for plant and crop irrigation. Each type of water was used sparingly and for its particular purpose. The few foreigners who have had the privilege to rent a casa pagès from its real pagès owners may now understand why they might possibly at one time have been soundly berated by the latter if any water was seen to be wasted. It is not just a question of wasting precious water, but also one of using a particular type of water for the wrong purpose.

In the old days, during times of extended drought and possible ensuing famine, disputes - sometimes minor ‘water wars' - could arise, as water supplies of various types became scarce. If famine was intense - as happened in some areas of the island during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) - the rural population could be reduced to eating garrovas (‘algarrovas' in Spanish, the carob bean), normally reserved for animals, but accepted on the island as a famine food for humans. High in proteins and good for animals, it sometimes has the unfortunate side effect of hair loss if eaten extensively by people. During these hard times the younger sons of the extended families sometimes had to leave the island to live and work overseas. A drastic measure, but also one that lowered population pressure on water and food resources. Memories of such hard times are part of pagès Eivissenc cultural background.

There is no doubt that tourism has brought development and money to this island that had been relatively isolated for centuries, but it is not surprising that many elderly pagès from rural areas may not necessarily be overjoyed to see the proliferation of swimming pools near the houses of wealthy foreigners or hear of the massive use of water in the tourism enclaves on the coast or on the island's one (some say ‘rather parched') golf course (? on an island where no-one plays golf). Well, unless of course the water is coming from their source and they are getting paid for it, but that's another matter. Many feel though that traditional respect for water has been lost and a few think that some sort of ‘punishment' is in the pipeline. By 1996 with the gradual drying out of the island (less rains in the winter and increasing pressure on the water table from a growing population plus the annual summer tourism explosion) some elderly pagès were worried to note that the texture of the soil in particular areas had begun to change. They said it was becoming like sand. One old pagès began that year to gather in extra stocks of garrovas, saying that he suspected another famine might be coming in five years - he might have been wrong, but he wasn't far off. If the island were still like it was when he was young (with no imported food nor bottled water from the mainland) then he would be seen as a visionary or as a normal well-prepared household head.

Pagès Eivissencs concern for water - both saltwater and freshwater - and land are the norm in rural agricultural societies still close to their roots. It is unfortunate that highly educated people who should know better often deride these kinds of concerns. Traditionally oriented societies tend to have a more advanced attitude to protection of natural resources than do industrialized societies. Our ‘modern' societies now have to employ (or avoid trying to employ) scientists to advise governments and ourselves what we should do to protect our endangered natural resources from our own activities for future generations. Numerous NGOs are thorns in the sides of governments in our ‘developed' world, but such should not be the case. Modern governments in general are too short-sighted and concerned mainly with staying in office to really seriously be concerned about long-term environmental issues except as publicity to indicate to potential voters that they ‘are' concerned. As our ‘modern' societies live largely divorced from reality - cut off by technology from the real issues of life - the general public often only gets glimpses of reality (and usually distorted at that) through the media. Unfortunately, the quality of the media available to the general public in the ‘developed' world today has gradually deteriorated. Any discerning visitor to the United States soon realizes that one is there rather out of contact with the rest of the world .As one respected U.S. journalist acknowledged in a BBC World Service radio interview broadcast on 28th January 1996, "Americans have the news and media service they deserve…. meanwhile, thank God for the BBC". Yes, the BBC is still about as good as it gets for most people - but for those who really want to get access to a TV channel that portrays the whole world as it really is, without certain Euro-American forms of inherent bias or ‘unconscious' censorship, I can do no better than advise readers to try and access the Australian SBS channel. It will be an eye-opener for most people (but not for those who do live in the real world).

Many of the foreigners who were fortunate enough to visit Eivissa 40 or 50 years ago - when much of the island was still basically as it had been for hundreds of years - went back feeling as if they had been privileged to peek into an island that was like a giant Mediterranean agricultural garden. In those days the island was still relatively lush, the ancient stone walls and terraces kept repaired, the fields of almond trees, fig trees, carob trees, ancient olive trees meticulously spic and span. There was almost no money but, in a way, except in times of extreme drought and famine, almost no ‘poverty' as most rural pagès Eivissencs were self-sufficient to the extreme. Most large Euro-American-International organizations (e.g., the World Bank, IMF, WTO, UN, EU etc) confuse ‘poverty' with ‘lack of money'. If one has one's own house and land and is almost completely self-sufficient in food and other necessities (e.g. even making ones clothes) then one is a King or Queen in one's own kingdom, even without money. Most pagès Eivissencs were like that. Most could not read or write and many could not speak Spanish (and many elderly Eivissenc cannot to this day), but that was not necessarily a handicap in a society where basically only the priests and a small number of other islanders were literate. Water and the land were respected. People, in general, were relatively content. They had almost everything they needed and wanted. Cultural life was ancient, rich and deep. Of course there were some problems, but every society has problems (look at the U.S.A., which is the country that has the world's highest proportion of its population in prison). But the problems here were smaller and in general more easily solvable.

Then comes tourism. In just under two generations it has brought undreamed-of wealth to the island, and in its wake has brought ‘development', modern education, modern medical care and has opened the island to the world - or at least parts of the island. It has also brought environmental damage, almost destroyed the traditional culture of the island, and has brought the islands water and agricultural situation to a crisis point. Interestingly enough, one could also say that it has brought poverty too: in an island where two generations ago differences in wealth were not necessarily that great for the majority of the population, it introduced a ‘wealth gap' between the 'haves and have-nots' of the new island industry. Although wealthy Eivissenc are traditionally rather slyly admired (‘beating the foreigners' at their own game'), and a money fever has spread over much of the population, most elderly pagès would now admit that extra money has not necessarily brought extra happiness or contentment. It has, they say, brought ‘better' lives for their children and grandchildren, but some wonder what life for their grandchildren will really be like: the youngest cannot feel that gripping sense of semi-shock, shame or horror that some old pagès may feel when they see large areas of formerly beautifully cared-for agricultural land no longer being productive or looked after. Of course, large well-kept rural areas still exist, but they are getting more fragile. Rumours circulate of a European woman with a large, as yet non-productive, garden inland from the central northern coast who is supposedly at the moment using 70 tons of precious water per day. This vast overuse of water is said to be drying out the wells belonging to local inhabitants in a large surrounding area. If the water goes so does life. What would old pagès think - if they knew of them - about the ‘water parties' every Tuesday and Saturday night during the summer at the Es Paradis Terrenal nightclub in Portmany (San Antonio)?? Will water on Eivissa eventually become something only useable in large quantities by the tourism and entertainment industries, the growing towns and urbanizations, the modern agricultural projects and by wealthy expatriates? Will the traditional pagès use of water for home agriculture eventually be forced to dry up?

The United Nations 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists access to water as one of these basic rights. Next week we will look at how certain international treaties (e.g. WTO), combined with certain international organizations (e.g. the World Bank) and certain multinational companies (e.g. Monsanto) seem to be going through the early stages of steps that might possibly wrest control of water resources in many areas of the world from its traditional indigenous owners to ‘more business-oriented institutions'.

* Foraster- ‘foreigner': at a pinch this term can cover, from the pagès point of view, not just, say, English or Germans, but also people from the neighbouring island of Mallorca and the mainland of Spain.

Kirk W Huffman