THE outcry has been huge. Environmental groups, political parties from both sides of the spectrum and the local population have reacted angrily to the government’s plans to sell off one of Andalucia’s most valuable public estates and create an ‘elite tourism’ resort.
Now, a group of leading expat writers has joined forces to oppose it too.
The estate at La Almoraima, close to Castellar de la Frontera, is estimated to sell for between €180 and €250 million. Interested developers an adapt outline plans to build a ‘playground for the rich’ which would include a 5-star hotel, two golf courses, equestrian centre, polo fields and even a private airport. There will also be luxury lodges for hunting the deer and wild boar prevalent in the estate.
Resort manager Isabel Ugalde proclaimed: “Here I see a Ritz, a Four Seasons, or a Mandarin Oriental. There will be no resort in Europe as big as this.”
But locals say it is impossible to put a price on such a stunning place and have vowed to fight tooth and nail to keep it their environmental jewel.
La Almoraima estate makes up 10% of the Alcornocales Natural Park, renowned for its wildlife, scenery and virgin cork forests. Formally the private estate of disgraced tycoon Jose Maria Ruiz Mateos, the estate was expropriated from him by the government of Felipe Gonzalez in 1983.
The estate generates money through its cork trees (it is home to the Mediterranean’s largest cork forest), orchards and crop production, and there is a 23-room hotel and a restaurant that employs around 100 people.
However, it is proving to be a drain on resources and last year it lost the government €1.2 million, after making just €66,000 in 2011. It is estimated that around €10 million of public money has been invested in the estate over the past decade.
Speaking just after the announcement of the sale, Isabel Ugalde said: “I would be very sad to have to sell it, and if it were my decision I wouldn’t let it go. But we have to ask ourselves whether the state is really able to manage something on this scale.
“We are raising lamb and beef, planting wheat, sunflowers, corn and maintaining grazing land, so if we were able to find a buyer, it would be a big help to the local community.”
The plans, however have been met with opposition from the town’s mayor, Juan Casanova Correa, while locals and environmentalist groups have have expressed their fury at the proposal via an online petition against the sale. A Facebook group – Almoraima Publica –has quickly gained widespread support.
At a public demonstration held on November 15 in Castellar, over 600 people, including environmentalists, mountaineers and ramblers from across Andalucia heard speakers denounce the plans saying the project that would bring little real benefit to the region.
Correa outlined the town hall’s plans for a more sustainable project for the estate, one that would, he claimed, harness La Almoraima’s potential for generating wealth and employment in the area. He also attacked central government, saying that they were letting the estate fall into disrepair to justify the sale.
Driving into Castellar de la Frontera, you sense the level of support that the town hall enjoys. Banners against the sale of La Almoraima are everywhere.
“We consider this sale of public land a strategic error by central government,” Correa told us at a meeting in his office. “The public don’t want this land to sold, they are against this decision and want to protect the estate as it sits in the environmental jewel that is the Alcornocales Natural Park.”
The IU mayor has little time for those who argue that such a large scale luxury project will bring wealth and employment to the area, where unemployment rates are currently 30%. “Just because you build hotels and golf courses, there is no guarantee of employment” argues Correa. “The Costa del Sol has hotels and golf courses, but there is unemployment on the coast as well.”
However, this is not just a case of a communist mayor opposing a macro project that will cater exclusively for the most wealthy people on the planet. The town hall has put forward its own plan for La Almoraima. It includes a green industrial park that will feature a biometric energy plant. “This will create jobs, help the environment and produce green energy,” he explains.
There are also plans for the forestry in the estate. This includes the cork trees and the town hall wants to include a plant that will process the cork, so that it can be used in the construction and sound-proofing industries.
In addition, the town hall wants to continue with the environmental-friendly farming techniques that already exist, as well as expanding research promoting farming that doesn’t affect climate change or subterranean water reserves.
Correa is also against the whole concept of ‘Elite Tourism’. “The plan is an aggressive one,” he said.
“It contains plans for a 5-star hotel and two golf courses, as well as an aerodrome. They want the global elite to come here and play golf as well as organising hunting trips as there are deer and wild boar in the grounds.
“Rather than Elite Tourism, we want to focus on rural tourism. We plan to restore the abandoned buildings that are already on the land – cortijos and fincas – that would help promote rural tourism in the Parque de los Alcornocales. “
While there is significant opposition to the sale, a small minority believe it will be a solution to the area’s widespread unemployment.
Around 30% of locals are out of work, and the development plans would create jobs both during the construction process and once the estate is up and running.
“I think it could be good for the area, because it will bring money and jobs here. It is a shame, if the development goes ahead, but there will be benefits.” said one local.
“We are in dire straights here, tourism would provide a significant boost to the area.”
Driving through the Nature Park up to the historic castle of Castellar, gives you a good idea of how unique the location is. The road winds up through the cork trees to the spectacular fortress, that houses a small hotel in the castle walls and there are also quaint casa rurals for rent.
The view across the Guadarrange reservoir to the Alcornocales Natural Park is breathtaking, and an eagle swept imperiously past us as we took it all in. Forget ‘Elite Tourism’ for the global wealthy – it is impossible to put a price on such a stunning place.
Just for once it would be good for Spanish developers to stop their obsession with ‘luxury tourism’ that has gripped the municipalities on the coast and let the people of the area develop La Almoraima in a way that benefits them.