Zaida Ruiz Bonet, Social Sciences student and creator of the project "Restauración del Bosque Mediterráneo en el PN. Sierra Nevada - Almócita"

"We have to save forests to save villages"

Zaida Ruiz Bonet:

Zaida Ruiz Bonet: "Water scarcity in Almería is becoming a serious problem and is already creating conflicts of interests"

While she pursues her bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences, Zaida Ruiz has set up an environmental project to fight against the desertification of Almería and halt rural depopulation through forest conservation.  

By Marian Antón 

“My training has instilled my project with a sense of rigour” 

How is the desert advancing in the area of Almería?

At a startling fast rate, reaching the Sierra Nevada mountain range and seriously affecting the areas closest to the Tabernas Desert, where vegetation is disappearing. It’s most noticeable in the gullies, where the springs and natural fluvial water courses are drying up, changing relatively leafy areas into wastelands in just a few years. It directly affects the rural and industrial crops on our coast, to say nothing of the profound loss of biodiversity. Water scarcity is becoming a serious problem and is already creating conflicts of interests.

What problems are caused by the big greenhouses known as a “plastic sea”?

It’s difficult to assess the damage. First, there is the effect on human health through continued exposure to chemical substances. Several scientific studies are already available: the occurrence of some diseases in our region is so high that both Spanish and European institutions should be alarmed. Secondly, industrial agriculture has contaminated one of the two enormous aquifers. This is an area of great environmental value but where the thousands of species of birds, fauna and endemic and indigenous flora that live there no longer have the space to grow. The creek beds are taken up by these structures that overuse water and leave areas littered with plastic materials, which are then blown to the sea by storms.

How can this situation be reversed? Can desertification become an employment opportunity for rural areas threatened by depopulation?

First we have to recognize that industrial agriculture is a reality. Thanks to Almería’s climate, the whole of Europe is supplied with vegetables in winter. How do we continue with an industrial model and turn it into an opportunity? Some of these industrial farms’ profits should be used for biodiversity recovery in protected areas threatened by desertification. This can also help create employment in rural areas. So we are not only restoring Almería’s original biodiversity, the environmental value of which is high, but also creating different job opportunities and fighting against climate change and desertification. 

Was this the idea behind the project “Restauración del Bosque Mediterráneo en el PN. Sierra Nevada - Almócita” (Restoration of the Mediterranean Forest in the Sierra Nevada Nature Park – Almócita)?

Yes, when I was a councillor in my town, I became aware of how land in our province had been managed for decades. I started thinking about how to turn a conflict over environmental management into an opportunity. I realized that I couldn’t do it alone and sought alliances for the project: experienced people to form a team to make it happen.

Who is involved?

Margarita López Rivas, doctoral degree holder in Biology from the University of Granada; the Universidad Central “Marta Abreu” de Las Villas in Cuba; Francisco García García, Mayor of Almócita and member of the Provincial Council; and myself as coordinator, dealing with corporate social responsibility.

How does it work on a practical level? 

We receive public subsidies and private contributions and donations to plant trees. Through different channels, we generate scientific information on biodiversity and strategies against climate change, while providing an opportunity for local companies interested in meeting the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals on corporate social responsibility and reducing their carbon footprint. We set aside part of the forest for silviculture as a source of employment and are setting up a tree nursery. 

Has your UOC training helped?

Very much so. For example, it’s helped me to be methodical and organized in ICT tool-based team management, to assess the utility of the ideas proposed from a sociological perspective and to be able to create an effective profile and methodology for our project, which will help us achieve our goals. It’s also shown me how to use academic and practical language, free from preconceived notions and ideas that cannot be proven. In other words, to be rigorous.

Which institutions and organizations have you worked with?

With Almócita Town Council and Almería Provincial Council, which have paid for the first trees; the University of Almería; the Universidad Central “Marta Abreu” de Las Villas; the NGO Nature & Oceans of the Americas in Costa Rica; Ecologistas en Acción El Ejido; Ecologistas en Acción Almería; Grupo Ecologista Mediterráneo; CADE Laujar de Andarax (Andalucía Emprende) and other associations in the province. We are also in talks with other universities to establish possible collaborations and are currently working with private companies.

Could this project be applied to other areas? 

Of course. It’s a pilot project designed to be exported to the region of Laujar de Andarax and, from there, to the Mediterranean basin. 

What would you say to other town councils about this idea?

That there is no need for “desperate” public policies to stop rural depopulation. If we make creating forests through corporate social responsibility and scientific research the norm, this project could open the door to many people maintaining their livelihood and life in towns and villages. Tourism is an option but is not the only policy applicable to rural depopulation. We have to save forests to save villages.

How are you getting on with your studies at the UOC? 

This is my third year. I’ve completed just under a third of the course. My studies are a luxury that I can only afford with a great deal of effort. I couldn’t study another degree or in another university, and I really enjoy the UOC’s human approach.

What are your future plans?

I don’t know, and that’s the wonderful thing. I’m really enjoying my studies, acquiring and applying skills in situ, while passing courses. I submitted a project about ethnography and the recovery of Muslim Spanish cultural heritage in the villages of La Alpujarra through how women decorate their balconies with potted plants, for which a subsidy is pending. Next semester I’ll enrol on an ethnography course: my degree is a gift to my restless brain.

“My degree at the UOC is a gift to my restless brain”