A strategy for mountain olive groves

by | Aug 21, 2023 | MOVING

Authors: Antonio Zafra and Raquel Moreno (ADEGUA)

Editor: Miranda García (AEIDL)

The mountain olive grove is, first and foremost, a feeling. If we were to give it a name, it would be the attachment different generations have had to the mountains, shaped by olive trees. Thanks to the peasant hands that have planted several varieties of olive trees, the mountain olive grove has provided sustenance for families and livestock in addition to the essential economic resources in the region.

For over two years, the European MOVING project has deepened our understanding forces dynamics, values, relationships, actors and practices that sustain this surviving agro-system.

MOVING strives to generate knowledge and instruments to make mountain areas in the European Union more sustainable and resilient in the coming decades. To this end, the project analysed different value chains that impact these ecosystems socially, culturally, environmentally, and economically. A total of 23 partners, led by the University of Cordoba, forms the consortium.

As a member of the consortium, the Association for the Development of Guadajoz and Campiña Este (ADEGUA), is responsible for a case study focused on the mountain olive groves of the Betic Mountains, paying special attention to the impact of organic production. Operationally, this study has focused on three municipalities in the Sierras Subbéticas Cordobesas (Carcabuey, Priego de Córdoba and Zuheros), using a participatory approach to understand the vulnerability and resilience conditions and conduct a comprehensive analysis of the value chain.  To this end, a platform has been set up and through different channels, such as interviews, meetings, reading and exchanging key documents, and field visits, a body of knowledge has been built up, partially presented in this article. This research is framed within a general context of the current state of the Andalusian Mountain olive grove, future scenarios and some preliminary recommendations for a regional resilience strategy. The Andalusian Mountain olive grove covers about 25% of the total surface area of the Andalusian olive grove and plays a crucial role in the identity and economy of many villages in the region.

Mountain olive groves in Subbética Cordobesa

Since 1975, the European Commission has referred to mountain areas based on characteristics like altitude above sea level, steep slopes and other demographic and environmental criteria.

However, there is no consensus when it comes to defining mountain areas or olive groves in these areas. In general, the criterion of a slope greater than 20-25% is considered, although participants in the MOVING workshops argue it should always be above 25-30%. At this slope, olive groves have critical elements that make mechanisation difficult leading to what can be called a “traditional olive grove that cannot be mechanised”.

Furthermore, in the three municipalities analysed, a close relationship between organic production and mountain olive groves has been observed. Over 76.2% of organic olive groves are located on slopes of more than 20%, with 34.7% on slopes exceeding 30%.

These olive groves are generally old plantations, well adapted to mountain conditions, not very intensive in terms of resource consumption and pollutant gas emissions. They contribute to landscape diversity and reduce the risk of forest fires. It has been characterised by multifunctionality and a diversified biomass production that generates a balanced energy ratio. Over the last few decades, the area under olive groves in the region has remained stable (61.6% in the municipality of Priego de Córdoba and 52% in Carcabuey), with highly fragmented land ownership.

The management system associated with mountain olive groves is characterised by low mechanisation, difficult accessibility, old trees planted irregularly, and differentiated practices, also shaped by the specific requirements of organic production and, in some cases, by the criteria of public aid. Family management is very common in small mountain farms, while in the processing phase, various business forms coexist, including large cooperatives, some small family-owned mills, medium-sized private mills, and large industries involved in milling, packing, distribution and marketing. Although the Spanish organic olive oil market is mainly export-oriented, with a preference for bulk sales, domestic and packaged sales are gaining weight in the municipalities studied, thanks to the existence of this varied group of companies. The production and consumption of organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) is growing, and more conscious consumers may lead to the emergence of organic mountain EVOO as a differentiated category.

The production phase requires a significant human capital mobilisation, income generation, and the provision of ecosystem services. However, the main difficulty lies in making the production phase sustainable, as costs often surpass market prices, even with organic certification and public subsidies.

The transformation and packaging phase has witnessed remarkable development in the area, with specialisation and complementarity between actors, along with auxiliary industries. Greater efficiency and environmental sustainability of the processes is key to sustaining the future. However, in the distribution, marketing and consumption phases, the added value often leaves the area, sometimes favouring specialised companies and, in particular, large-scale agri-food distribution in a hierarchical and asymmetrical system of price fixing and profit sharing.

The organic production system in mountain olive groves has proven to be a successful alternative. It contributed to the protection, conservation and regeneration of soils, preservation of natural biodiversity, it enables a mosaic effect in the landscape and prevents forest fires. It also conserves water resources and allows the recovery of autochthonous seed banks and significantly reduces the contribution of pollutants to soil and water. Last but not least, this production system is closely linked to a socio-cultural system centred around small farms, adding value as a tourist attraction. ts coexistence with a protected space like a Natural Park provides opportunities for promoting common objectives.

The higher price of organic olive oil offers the potential to ensure the economic viability of traditional non-mechanisable olive groves, as long as there is an appreciable price difference compared to conventional EVOO.

Technological innovations, marketing clusters, differentiated value initiatives, new regulations, support mechanisms, balanced governance models, and interactions between actors and other value chains and socio-ecological systems, can enhance the robustness of this agro-system. There is a positive attitude towards exploring alternatives among producers and other facilitators, though linkages with other value chains (energy, tourism, food) are still somewhat weak.

The application of the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) -particularly through eco-schemes- introduces changes which, if extended, could favour this type of olive grove, leading to innovative practices and further expansion. Likewise, public training and research centres such as the Andalusian Institute of Agricultural and Fisheries Research and Training, Food and Organic Production (IFAPA), the Designations of Origin, cooperative companies, local authorities such as the Natural Park and sectoral bodies can promote and lead this support for organic mountain olive groves. There is a general political and social consensus on the importance of preserving this type of olive grove, but decisive support from public policies and an increase in selling prices based on a clear demonstration of its best results in terms of health, sensory quality, environmental conservation and population fixation are still lacking.

Amid multiple interconnected crises, such as scarcity and rising prices of raw materials and energy, prioritising territorialised and sustainable food production and consumption models is crucial. The ecological mountain olive grove agro-system’s integration with other nearby socio-ecological systems offers potential resilience against the impact of these cyclical problems and the added consequences of climate change.

Critically ill?

Some experts on the subject, such as Manuel Pajarón (2023), consider the highland olive grove in the ICU (intensive care unit). However, due to its characteristics, this olive grove is the most suitable for leading a widespread conversion to organic production, contributing to achieving the EU’s objective of having 25% of agricultural surface area as organic by 2030.

Antonio Zafra (ADEGUA)

The hopes for the Andalusian highland olive grove in the Master Plan for Grove (2015-2021) have been frustrated, as the plan that has not been implemented, leaving some strategic lines unexplored to improve its situation. The arrival of a new Olive Grove Strategy, announced by the Andalusian government, has not mentioned these olive groves that hold such significance for the region.

Meanwhile, other initiatives, such as land stewardship and the interaction between mountain olive groves and the management of protected natural areas, have hardly been explored, although some experiences and private and social initiatives have emerged in recent years.

For example, the new publication released by the Mediterranean Rural Association (ARUME) focused on mountain olive groves and the proposal of resilient alternatives for them, or the experience of conservation and biodiversity in mountain olive groves developed by the TRENCA Association in Les Garrigues.

Future scenarios for mountain olive groves

Even considering the existence of this structural crisis, at MOVING we have pondered the possible scenarios that lie ahead for this olive grove in the 2050 horizon. Three potential alternatives emerge.

Firstly, a rare possibility of survival in the current conditions. This is highly challenging as the small, family-run farms’ structure is not profitable, leading to ageing owners cease farming without finding suitable replacements.

Secondly, the option of more or less orderly abandonment of the crop opens the way for a change of use of these abandoned plots. They can be creatively incorporated into forest management and other land uses (livestock, mushrooms, hunting, etc.) within natural areas.

Thirdly, the most promising alternative involves a reconversion of this sub-sector towards sustainable production, leveraging its distinctive characteristics and valuing the ecosystem services it provides. This entails adopting a market positioning strategy focused on local circuits, direct sales, and fostering trusting relationships with consumers.

With nuances and without ignoring the threat of some storm clouds that loom over this resilience scenario, the participants in the various workshops and interviews conducted at MOVING are committed to the implementation of a Strategy for Mountain Olive Oil. This resilience strategy aims to make mountain (organic) olive oil recognised and differentiated, highlighting its unique and complex character. The goal is to integrate it into future mountain conservation and rural development policies.

As an operational instrument, this strategy seeks to promote, above all, a clear definition of what mountain olive groves and EVOOs are, delineating their territorial scope, experimenting with appropriate management, capturing information and data, monitoring and results mechanisms, and fostering associated public aid and integration with other value chains.

Through three workshops, participants (producers, researchers, processors, and representatives from entities like PDOs or rural “dynamisers”) have identified some milestones to achieve the objective of this strategy:

  1. Attain complete political convergence concerning CAP aid, reducing the number of agronomic regions for the calculation of entitlements in our country (Spain).
  2. Establish affirmative action policies in favour of mountain and rural areas, compensating for the resources they contribute to society as a whole, which is mainly urban.
  3. Urgently reactivate the Rural Development Groups (RDGs) and the Territorial Agricultural Offices (OCAs) as instruments that have proven their worth in true rural extension but have experienced a reduction in their role and resources.
  4. Develop a collective organisational structure that empowers, articulates, represents and gives visibility to this specific mountain olive grove sector.
  5. Implement training and educational actions while strengthening short channels and creating synergies between sectors involved in mountain areas.

To achieve these milestones successfully, several pre-conditions have been recommended:

  • Mobilisation of both men and women in mountain areas, advocating for the accurate acknowledgment of the role of mountain regions.
  • Articulation of strong local leadership involving municipalities, PDOs, RDGs, civil society and key actors in the value chain within mountain areas.
  • Expansion of good environmental practices by cooperatives and other relevant actors in the sector.
  • Unification of voices representing the mountain olive grove sector.
  • Support from the managing bodies of the Natural Parks for sustainable production in protected areas.
  • Translation of research programmes to the field, actively involving small-scale farmers, as well as experimenting with small-scale positive actions to assess the quality and effectiveness of the strategy.

In the coming months, until the project’s end in August 2024, MOVING will facilitate exchanges and adjustments of these proposals among the 23 project partners, leading to a roadmap containing these recommendations for presentation and subsequent implementation by the European Commission.

You can read this article in Spanish here.