Sénia’s Millenary Olive Trees: Among Gentle Giants

One cannot possibly describe the feelings he experiences when he comes face to face with a living being over 1000 years old…one that has survived a drastic climate change with countless droughts and snowstorms, one that has witnessed the succession of forgotten dynasties and kingdoms, as well as the rise (and fall) of Man. Such is the case with millenary olive trees.

I. Among Millenary Olive Trees
Yesterday, I visited (or better said, paid homage) to the world’s largest concentration of millenary olive trees: over 4000 millenary trees have been catalogued in the Sénia Territory stretching between Catalonia, the Community of Valencia, and part of Aragón (Spain). One area, called L’Arión (in Ulldecona), offers a unique experience with excellent signposts, namely the Natural Museum of the Millenary Olive Trees…an excellent example on natural heritage management (if –somewhat- difficult to reach) with a wonderful itinerary and almost 140 millenary trees. This area lies quite close to the Roman Road known as Via Augusta, and some trees date back to the Roman era.

The Mediterranean ‘liquid gold’ (i.e. olive oil) is still produced from many of these trees…an icon of the Mediterranean culture and the cornerstone of the Mediterranean cuisine, declared Intangible World Heritage by the UNESCO. Most of the olive trees here (some 98%) are of the Farga variety, a true ‘survivor’. Others varieties include the Morruda and the Sevillenca.

The ‘Farga of Arion’ is Spain’s best monumental olive tree, and the star attraction of the Natural Museum at L’Arión. This gentle giant, standing 6.5 meters high, has a huge trunk with a perimeter of 18 meters at the base and over 8 meters at a height of 1.3 meters (millenary olive trees are identified as those with a trunk perimeter of 3.5+ meters at the height of 1.3 meters above ground).

There is something magical about this tree, a presence of some sort: To think that this tree has survived like a sphinx challenging the sands of time…to think that its olives and its oil might have fed Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, Berbers, Franks, to the end of the long list…to think that man can destroy (or preserve) what Mother Nature has shied away from destroying…it all sends shivers down my spine, especially when I recall what happened and still happens! The story is a sad one.

II. The Market Forces
It was in the news. A millenary olive tree from Portugal was auctioned to a French collector for 64,000 euros in 2011. He wanted it for his garden. He is not the only collector willing to pay a fortune for his private garden or…his business!

In Spain, Emilio Botín (Santander Bank) bought hundreds of centenary olive trees from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and Morocco for the garden of the Bank’s Financial City in…Madrid! Moreover, he acquired 11 (or 12) millenary olive trees from the Sénia Territory. A passion for ancient olive trees? Wait a minute. He used the trees to make exceptional gifts to VIP clients, personalities and powers-that-be: how about a fancy bottle of unique olive oil from a millenary tree? One for the Pope? Another for the Director of the World Bank? Got the idea?

Here are some sad facts: 50% of the ancient olive trees that are uprooted and planted elsewhere cannot survive for over 2 years. It is estimated that 80% never survive beyond 12-15 years. It’s not just a question of climate and care, but also a question of the ‘shock’ that ‘removing’ a tree from its habitat entails, after hundreds and hundreds of years ‘living’ there. It’s probably as bad as forcing a wild animal into a cage in some zoo. These trees live in captivity.

Moreover, collectors, speculators and businessmen have all contributed to ‘putting a price’ and ‘creating a market’ for ancient olive trees. There came a time when farmers would cut old trees that were not very productive (like the Farga), selling the trunk for peanuts (thinking it would be used for its wood). Now, collectors and businessmen drove the prices up to some 24,000 euros for some trees, but in an auction, things can get even crazier.

On the positive side, in the Sénia Territory, the efforts of different stakeholders have finally yielded the creation of associations and other bodies involved in cataloging, protecting and promoting the unique natural heritage represented by the millenary olive trees, and the Law now protects certain area. This –Mediterranean- heritage is diffused through centers of interpretations and natural museums, and a good way to support this cause is to pay a visit!

I leave you with the photos, with a focus on the incredible texture of the trunks and roots.