4 Nov 2019

52. Wait-and-See


Most of the islanders have been kind, helpful and hospitable towards us over the years, but the “wait-and-see” opportunistic streak in their makeup is definitely just as characteristic.

El Hierro is not Hawaii. Drinking water does not flow from pristine springs and bread does not fall from trees. Before the 1970’s, El Hierro was not the romantic quaint backwater some would have us believe but a relatively hostile environment for many of its inhabitants. Their survival strategy was to respond to the dictates their world because trying to adapt it to themselves ususally ended in disaster. Their traditional architecture shows us just this, as did their reliance on livestock rather than cultivation.

Even today, the islanders show a surprising unwillingness to experiment, offset by an ingenious capacity to exploit existing circumstances. Many, for example, show their doubts about having optical fibre communications installed (although they know sooner or later they will have to) until it is running smoothly for others. “Mercahierro” was set up by the Cabildo (Island Government) to channel local small-scale agricultural production and facilitate export to the other islands. It failed. Market gardeners signed a contract of exclusivity under which they would receive a fixed year-round price for their produce. But as soon as the market price went above the fixed price, MercaHierro discovered the gardeners had arranged their own distribution.

The wait-and-see philosophy is often adopted even by local institutions. Many private initiatives are frowned upon or even actively discouraged. If this is not possible, the strategy is to sit back and wait for failure but, if the private project succeeds, officialdom joins in and supports it, or sets one up with public money to compete with it. Some years ago a few enthusiastic young divers started diving schools in La Restinga. ‘That won’t work here!’ they were told. But it did. And now the Cabildo fully supports the activity. A young woman in Frontera started up a holiday guest house and one of her activities was the Bimbache Open Arts Festival. She worked hard for a very long time at promoting it outside the island. I saw official local recognition of the festival for the first time only last year.

Most likely the visitor and the foreign resident will not be affected at all by such adverse effects of the wait-and-see philosophy. I’ve written about it only to suggest a reason, one of many perhaps, for the slow pace of change – something which we appreciate so much – and the dearth of small-scale initiatives that could make the island even more attractive than it already is.


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