news from the island

Thursday February 23, 2012


Farming on Lanzarote is a tough business, requiring enormous reserves of resilience, resourcefulness and ingenuity. Here, local farmers are bugged by a series of seemingly insurmountable, prickly problems. For starters this arid little island actually receives less rainfall than parts of the Sahara desert, some 100 miles to the east and boasts very few natural water sources or springs.

Creative Conejeros

Whilst these climactic conditions have helped to grow tourist numbers in recent times, it has obviously done little to aid the cultivation of conventional crops over the centuries.

No H20

To no H20, add strong winds, a hefty sprinkle of debilitating natural disasters and a generous splash of vulnerability to the vagaries of world markets. Bake gently in blazing sun and voila. You have the perfect recipe for poverty and starvation.Indeed these two bitter dishes have been served up time and time again on Lanzarote. Even during the 20th century hunger forced wave after wave of migration.

As a result, those left behind have been forced to adapt and explore new methods of cultivation and new types of crop simply in order to survive.

Stone Me

One obvious example of the islanders' inventiveness is their unique use of picon, the black volcanic stone that covers fields and gardens across Lanzarote. The picon basically serves as porous mulch, drawing moisture from the air, releasing it into the ground and preventing evaporation, so enabling a method of dry cultivation known as 'enarenado'

Fishy Business

Another is the willingness of local farmers to experiment with relatively unconventional crops in order to make money. Salt production for example was big business until demand dried up as the fishing industry declined.

But without doubt the most unusual type of crop ever cultivated on Lanzarote has to be the cochineal beetle.

Bug Drug

The cochineal beetle is essentially a parasitic insect that feeds on the leaves of the tunera, or prickly pear, cacti. The vegetable juice they extract is like a drug for these bugs, who then blissfully loll around on spiney leaves, reproducing and laying larvae.

Beetles Reunion

These larvae are the pay-off. They are scraped off the cacti and dried in the sun before being pounded into a powder, which can then be used as a natural red dye in all manner of products from clothing and carpets to foodstuff and cosmetics.

Cochineal cultivation is actually quite an ancient industry, dating back some 2,000 years. It was initially pioneered by the Mayan and Aztec Indians and then introduced into Europe by the Spanish in the 16th century, along with a wave of other recently discovered plants, vegetables and animals from the New World.

Prickly Pear

The tunera was as much prized for its fruit as for its ability to attract beetles, but the growth of the European textile industry and the expansion of the British Empire and it's redcoat army started to create massive demand for carmine coloured dyes in the early 1800's.

Initially farmers on Lanzarote were a little skeptical about turning their fields over to the cultivation of cacti, as they erroneously believed that the parasitic beetles could possibly devour other crops.

By the 1840's however large swathes of the island around Mala and Guatiza were under cultivation as cochineal rapidly proved to be worth pretty much it's weight in gold. Exporting to Britain proved especially lucrative and soon the beetles were nearly number one in the Hispanic hit parade of top cash crops, accounting for around 20% of gross domestic product.

Never Say Dye

Sadly though this period of prosperity wasn't going to run, as once William Henry Perkin discovered the first aniline, or synthetic dye stuff, in 1856 the market for natural dyes slowly began to fade.

As a result, cochineal cultivation on Lanzarote declined, although around 300 acres can still be found under cultivation today in and around the Cactus Garden at Guatiza.

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