The needle in the haystack: finding climate-driven changes among the multiple interlinked changes affecting mountain agroecosystem in Spain

This summer, taking advantage of a small window of improvement in the COVID-19 crisis, LICCI collaborators Laura Levy and Joana Blanch, as well as LICCI core team member Petra Benyei, have been conducting their fieldwork in three mountain agroecosystems in Spain: Alpujarra Alta, Vall de Cardós and Cabrales, in the Sierra Nevada, Pyrenees and Picos de Europa mountain ranges.

These areas, although ecologically and climatically distinct, hold certain similarities in terms of their isolation and average altitude (with some villages above 2000 m.a.s.l). Moreover, some of these areas are still home to abundant crop diversity. The study sites also have suffered similar processes of progressive rural depopulation, agricultural industrialization and integration in the EU regulatory and budgetary frameworks that, in less than 60 years, have severely transformed the local environment.

While keeping social distancing and using masks, the researchers were able to talk with about 60 elderly informants that have been active in the local agroecosystems (as professional farmers or as home gardeners) for more than three decades and that have a profound knowledge about the changes in the systems and in the crop and livestock diversity in the area.

Preliminary results point out to the fact that most cropping systems have been abandoned in these areas since farmers have retired and/or agriculture has been substituted by cattle grazing, tourism and construction activities. Informants also pointed out the increasing diversity of plants grown for food in the local home gardens in parallel to the loss of traditional landraces.

However, the drastic changes in lifestyles and the prioritization of less labor intensive farming activities to fit an increasing depopulation and farmer ageing are highlighted as the main drivers behind these changes.

Homegarden in Cabrales

Thus, it is now the task of these researchers to pull the thread and find the needle in the haystack: those changes in crop diversity and farming systems that are also driven by the reported climate change impacts such as the decrease in snowfall, the increasing precipitation variability, the increasing temperatures and seasonal droughts or the disappearance of seasons.

Village in Alpujarra Alta
Homegarden in Vall de Cardòs