26 Oct 2017

46. White Elephants

White elephants are endemic, though not exclusive, to Spain, including our island. Whereas the public works described in my last post are largely attributable to the vision and negotiating skills of a particular person, our white elephants seem to be of more diffuse parentage and are most likely the well-intentioned but unquestioned brain-children of technocrats in our institutions. A few quite visible examples:

At the La Peña vantage point, next to the restaurant, a Congress Centre was planned. On first sight, it seemed a brilliant idea. The site was perfect, with beautiful views over the ocean and El Golfo, with good roads to Valverde and the airport as well as the rest of the island … An excellent venue for serious congresses and other events, far away from big cities and their distractions, and with excellent IT connectivity. But perhaps no-one considered accommodation for 100 or 200 participants and their spouses. Besides, there is not much for the spouses to do on the island. Or perhaps the money ran out. In any case the project was abandoned and the half-built shell has been sitting there for three or four years, its expensive floorboards warping and its ceilings falling in. Officially another victim of the financial crisis. I recommend you visit the La Peña restaurant for lunch, and when you do, have a look at this still-born pachyderm.

The view of El Golfo from the La Peña vantage point where the Congress Centre was to be. The colourful swimming pool is in the centre of the photo about a sixth of the way up, an oval enclosure between some houses and the rocky coastline.
At the same time you might like to look almost vertically down from the La Peña vantage point at a curious sprawling construction near the mini-hotel at Las Puntas. From nearby you’ll see it is a sort of Gaudiesque swimming-pool with colourful tiling, in fact wonderfully exotic. Years ago when they were building it I thought it was going to be a discotheque to compete with those of Ibiza. Perhaps it was. Since then, however, it has only been filled with water a few times and opened to the public in summer. I suspect the problem is that without a buoyant tourist industry there is not a big enough market to make it profitable.

The industrial estate, El Majano, with the cheese factory in the centre. The
proposed factory to transform local produce is the grey building on the
other side of the cheese factory.
Near San Andrés our industrial estate is home to our slaughterhouse, cheese factory, animal feed factory and Mercahierro, mentioned in another post, all public enterprises. As far as I know, no private enterprise has ever started up there, despite certain incentives. About fifteen years ago the Cabildo built a factory on the estate to transform local produce. The idea was to produce jam and other conserves from the island’s excellent fruit as well as processed and packaged vegetables. Another part of the factory would be devoted to packaging and processing meat. Theoretically all of this would be certified organic and there was even talk of making the whole island's agriculture organic. Courses were organized to qualify local workers specifically for the project. On the face of it, it was a winner: it would create jobs directly and indirectly; it would revitalize the island’s primary sector, especially in the foothills; the added value of high-quality organic produce would compensate for the cost of shipping to the other islands, and most importantly it would better the island’s image and bolster pride among the islanders. But something went wrong and the wind is blowing through the open doors of the installation and the unused machinery is wasting away in silence. I think it was not a question of funds. What probably happened was that the visionaries that set it all up were simply incapable of making it work. And private initiative was out of the question.

Just as there are many examples of positive improvements over the years, there are quite a few baby white elephants. But I don’t want to rub it in too much …

23 Oct 2017

45. Into the 21st Century

Over the last 35 years El Hierro has leapt from backwardness into the twenty-first century. At least in public works. The person visibly responsible for this transformation is Tomás Padrón, founder of the insular party, AHI (El Hierro Independent Party – not Independence Party) and President of the Cabildo for most of the time between the late 70’s and the recent crisis. You may not agree with his often apparently marxist policies or you may claim anyone in power during the years of the EU payout bonanza would have done the same or better, but "give credit where credit's due". Here are some of the most salient projects that have made the islanders’ lives so much better.

The Frontera end of the tunnel is hardly noticeable: just a darker semicircle
in the imposing wall surrounding El Golfo.
All in all, the island’s roads are much better than most people would expect for such a small island. The two main towns, Valverde and Frontera, are now connected at sea level by a road which cuts driving time by two thirds and avoids having to motor up more than 1000 metres and down again through the monteverde forest along the ridge of the island’s mountainous backbone. Part of this road is a 2.5 kilometre three-lane tunnel which was drilled from both ends describing an "S" through the mountains. I find it amazing that both bits met up. Another two smaller tunnels have been built between the port and the Parador.

We also have a new highway from Valverde up to San Andrés, making the south of the island more accessible.

Our delightful little airport, more than sufficient for present needs, replaces the scruffy installation we had before. Besides, it’s a perfect example of how well the public responds to a little spoiling from authority. Our new port, greatly enlarged on the old one, caters for large cruisers as well as our daily ferries and includes a pleasure marina. Somehow, though, despite its modern design and efficiency, I miss the charm of the old port and the house with its pretty blue verandah perched on the cliff, the bustle of its popular bar-restaurant, kids diving off the quayside and anglers sitting on the bollards.

Outpatients awaiting their turn for analyses in the foyer
of our hospital.
Depending on who’s estimating the figure, our population is somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 residents. Nevertheless we have a superb little hospital with operating theatres, dialysis, laboratory and imaging, and of course a selection of resident specialists and others that come once a week. Patients who need treatment that cannot be provided here are sent to the main hospitals in Tenerife, if necessary in medical helicopters.

The star of our public works is, of course, the windfarm-come-hydroelectric plant, “La Gorona del Viento”, described in an earlier post. This project is confusingly publicized as providing the island with 100% renewable energy. What is really meant is that one day 100% of the electricity consumed by the island's homes, industries and services will be generated from renewable sources - I don't think electric bulldozers and excavators are very common. The plant was inaugurated in 2015 and at present produces 60% of our electricity. The project obviously favours the island’s environment but otherwise the population, the unconverted whisper, does not seem to benefit from its operation nearly as much as the electrical giant Endesa.

There are many other, less visible projects undertaken during this period of growth. These include the insular domestic water supply ring, day-centres and residences for the elderly, the embellishment and conditioning of urban, rural and seaside facilities, environmental programmes and installations, etc …