Deep in the black craters, green foliage and grapes hug the ground. The wind sweeps above them. Hugo Rodríguez trudges through the vineyards of La Geria in central Lanzarote. He talks about the north-eastern Passat, which often blows strongly in the summer, and points to the colours of the landscape: the bright, weathered volcanoes are millions of years old, the darker ones 300.
Together with his colleagues, he is reviving a cultivation technique that is practiced nowhere in the world other than here. More than 10,000 craters characterize the region, some only half a meter deep and one and a half meters in diameter, others up to three meters deep. The green polka dots in the dimples are the vines; Rodriguez and his people grow one or, at most, two plants in each, just as farmers here have been doing for over 200 years.
The technique has proven itself as being the only way to grow grapes on this Cannary Island. Once rooted, the plants are strengthened by the picón - a mass of small black pebbles. It attracts moisture, lets it leach through and holds it in the ground.
The first laborious trials developed into a system, the windbreak walls were added and the landscape received its distinctive appearance. The catastrophe brought about the new horticultural techniques that shaped the lives of the farmers for two centuries. It produces special grapes with highly concentrated aromas. Malvasía Volcánica, for example, are small, sweet fruits, whose wine is reminiscent of sweet sherry.
However, in recent years more and more landowners have ceased the practice – too laborious, not profitable enough. Better paid jobs attract young people from the countryside into the touristic resort areas. Together with local partners, the TUI Care Foundation keeps the tradition alive – and combines it with organic cultivation to protect the natural environment.
The fact that people with learning disabilities find meaningful employment here is the third aspect the Foundation is keen on supporting. Sanchez and her colleagues are employed at Grevislan, the only company on the island that hires people with cognitive impairment. The TUI Care Foundation financed their work and the new plants for one year. The land owners simply had to give their permission. When the vines bear fruit, they will carry on the work.
“Instead of doing the work themselves, they can also employ people through Grevislan. They have mastered the technique perfectly”, says Carmen Batista. TUI’s manager on Lanzarote. Batista and her colleague Krystyna Kowalczyk make sure that the support meets its purpose and get involved with the local activists – this is also part of the foundation’s mission. The two were involved in preserving traditional winegrowing methods before the project began. Many of their island tours lead holidaymakers through La Geria. Part of the proceeds go towards the restoration. “As our guests support the project with their excursions to the vineyards, they feel personally connected”, says Kowalczyk.
The two women found another ally in Klaus Guttenberger. From Germany, he is a pioneer of organic farming on Lanzarote. The TUI Care Foundation is responsible for funding a second branch of the project to make use of his expertise: helping five active winegrowers convert to organic cultivation, together with Ecopalmer, an organic horticultural farm company, and Grevislan. The participants, such as Miguel Angel Robayna, had just begun to make the switch; they were advised for one year and given the necessary equipment.
Wine made from Robayna’s grapes can be sampled and bought at Los Bermejos in La Florida. The bodega processes grapes from the project. It is one of the two major wineries on Lanzarote. From around a quarter of the fruit grown on the island it produces about half a million bottles a year. The yield is small, and not only because of the space-grabbing cultivation method. At Los Bermejos, the grapes are once again carefully selected and then processed very carefully.
Guttenberger finds it only logical to combine traditional and organic methods of cultivation. “The craters are unique in the world,” he says. “But you have to take the wine upmarket to make it financially viable.” Organic grapes, which can be sold at a higher price, are the path that respects the ecosystem of this landscape. Conservation and agriculture both have a part to play in a biosphere reserve. “The goal is to protect the landscape with the people in it”, says Guttenberger, “and not to drive people out.”
Despite the original partnership expiring in 2017, TUI Care Foundation already confirmed that the cooperation will continue throughout the next year.