“If you’re planning to take the Los Santos road, part of it’s down to one-way traffic. They’re resurfacing.”
Our host has already lived here in Extremadura for a few years. As novices, we’re glad of his advice.
“Are there temporary traffic lights?”
He snorts at me. “Out here? Nah, they’ll be using the stick.”
From our blank stares it’s clear we have no idea what he’s talking about.
“When you’re waiting at the roadworks because of oncoming traffic, eventually you’ll see someone coming through holding a stick out of the driver’s window. He was the last one waiting – after he passes, your queue is free to start going through. He’ll then slow down and give the stick to the driver of the last car in your queue, so it can all be done again at the other side.”
How brilliantly simple and elegant. “But how on Earth did you figure out how it works?” I ask him as we say our goodbyes and climb into the car.
“They were happy to come and explain it to me,” he explains through the driver’s window, “after the first time, when I drove off with the stick.”
* * *
Ever since that day, some six or seven years ago, wherever I look in Extremadura I see similar examples of appropriate technology.
It’s not at all unusual for a campesino to own a mule, for ploughing and/or as his personal transport. It’s legal on- and off-road, full-time 4×4, and no insurance or licence is required. Fuel is plentiful and cheap. The emissions, rather than incurring him a tax bill, improve his vegetable plot or rose garden. His little grandchildren can ride up there with him, but there’s no room on board for his in-laws. When he’s had a little too much vino tinto, the mule always knows the way home.
Many a smallholder will hand-winch water every day from the same well that was hand-dug by his grandfather (or possibly his grandfather). Hole-boring rigs and submersible electric pumps are readily available, but since he only has half a dozen goats or a few olive trees, and this way has always worked, why bother?
Where the well is too deep, or a more continuous supply of water is needed, wind pumps work tirelessly and virtually without need for maintenance, just as they have on the American prairies since the 1800s. You can still buy them brand new from Spanish companies. Check them out at the Zafra Fair if you’re in the neighbourhood.
The olive and almond harvests are generally done by laying tarpaulins or sheets of netting on the ground and beating the trees with long poles. The youngsters of the family are engaged to pick up the fallen fruit from the sheets and pack it into boxes. Good fun. Good exercise. No diesel fumes. No cost.
With more than 300 days of dry weather annually, it makes total sense to heat water and generate electricity using solar installations. The energy would otherwise be wasted heating a roof, maybe even wasting yet more energy by necessitating greater use of air conditioning inside the building.
All of these technologies are reliable, well tested, low on maintenance and training, clean and cost efficient. Their long-term impact on the environment is minimal. Because they mostly operate with local scope, they create local employment and reduce both transport costs and the associated pollution. Because they are distributed, rather than centralised, they are less vulnerable to minor failures causing major problems.
All of this makes it all the more exasperating when ill-considered, one-size-fits-all national or European law destroys such industries.
We already see locals trading home-produced eggs, cheeses, wines or preserves as though they were fencing stolen gems. The latest blow is that the government is considering taxing individuals for generating electricity using solar panels installed at the individuals’ own expense on their own properties. The taxes imposed are threatened to be so punitive that users will have no choice but to go instead to the grid for their power. The effect on the solar installation industry would be immediate and catastrophic.
Is this the thin end of the wedge? Can we expect to see similar measures forcing the end of the mule in favour of an expensive and unnecessary tractor? An electric well pump in place of a bucket and a rope? A levy to pay on each apple, fig or pepper we pick from our own garden to eat at our own table?
Appropriate Technology is right because it works simply and simply works.
Works, that is, until some ignorant, self-serving suit from Brussels or Madrid drives off with the stick.