Spain’s Ancient Practice of Resin Harvesting May Hold Key to Energy Future

Guillermo Arránz spends his days in a forest hacking into pine trees to extract what is to him, liquid gold.

Some might see it as lonely and backbreaking work, but to Arránz it brings great satisfaction. He is his own boss and spends his days enjoying nature.

Arranz is one of Spain’s resineros, or resin extractors, whose centuries-old practice involves bleeding trees of their milky sap.

This simple practice has taken on fresh importance as Spain struggles to cope without any natural source of energy. Energy analysts say pine resin might be the new petroleum.

Resin can be used to create plastics, varnishes, glues, tires, rubber, turpentine and food additives – much like petroleum.

With an estimated 18 million hectares of woodland, Spain has the largest amount of forested area in Europe after Sweden and Finland. Along with Portugal, it is the world’s third biggest producer of pine resin after China and Brazil.

Spain has been scrambling to explore alternative energy sources especially after Algeria – Spain’s main gas supplier – shut off natural gas deliveries last month through one of two undersea pipelines because of Algeria’s escalating dispute with Morocco.

The Maghreb-Europe pipeline passes through Morocco on its way to Spain. Flows through a second pipeline, the Medgaz pipeline that travels directly from Algeria to Spain, remained uninterrupted. Spanish officials, however, worried they were insufficient to stave off an energy shortage at a time when Spain is already struggling with skyrocketing fuel costs.

To find other sources of energy for the future, Spain’s government has made promoting renewable energies like solar and wind power a pillar of its policy as the world moves away from fossil fuels.

As part of this scheme, Madrid launched a plan in March to restore the economic potential of its forests.

“We must encourage forests to be well cared for and managed because they are a source of job creation and the livelihoods of millions of people around the the world depends on them,” Teresa Ribera, the third vice-president and Environment minister, said recently.

Blanca Rodriguez-Chaves Mimbrero, a law professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid specializing in the protection of natural resources, especially mountains, waters and coasts, believes Spain is well placed to make most of its pine resin which, she says, is of the highest quality in the world.

“Petroleum of the future”

“The world is looking for ways to replace petroleum which will run out probably by the middle of the century. Resin is one way,” she told VOA. “These living forests which consume emissions can provide renewable resources to substitute petroleum products.”

She notes the sticky, fragrant substance is an ingredient in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, glues, varnishes and is also used in construction.

Rodriguez-Chavez also said the pine resin industry, which only provides work for about 1,000 people at present, could help combat rural depopulation, an issue that has taken center stage in Spanish politics.

The work is intrinsically tied to villages in Castilla y Leon in northern Spain and to a lesser extent in Extremadura in the west of the country.

In the past 50 years, Spain’s countryside has lost 28% of its population, according to the National Statistics Office. Only 15% of its inhabitants live in more than half of the Spanish land area.

The Spanish government pledged $11.9 billion in March for measures to improve rural business infrastructure to reverse a trend known as España Vaciada – or “Emptied Spain,” which is also the name of a new political party.

The España Vaciada party, could command 15 seats in the 350-seat lower parliamentary chamber at the next general election in 2023, according to a recent poll for El Español, an online newspaper, possibly making its members kingmakers in a highly divided parliament.

Arránz comes from a family of resineros, who passed the knowledge of how to extract the sap down four generations from his great-grandfather.

“The job is hard work. I work eight hours a day from Monday to Friday. But it gives me a sense of freedom and I can be among nature,” he told VOA.

“The beauty of pine resin is it can be used to make many different things but it is renewable. All these trees will grow back.”

Arránz, who is vice-president of the National Resin Collectors Association, works from February to November, collecting the milky white liquid from the pine trees near his village Navas de Oro in Segovia, north of Madrid.

He collects 20,000 kilograms of resin per year but, realizing he is never going to make his fortune at this job, he supplements his income as a forest engineer.

Each kilogram sells for only $1.14 to the local companies that distill it into material usable for commercial use.

Arránz strips away the outer layer of tree bark, before nailing a plate to the trunk and a collection pot is hooked on it.

He then makes diagonal incisions into the bark and “bleeds” the trees before the resin seeps into the pot.

“It is nice to know that I am kind of farming something which is healthy and can also provide an alternative for the future,” Arránz said.

Some information in this report comes from Reuters.

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