Spain Has a Genius Agriculture and Irrigation System Legacy of Muslims


Valencia -Spain has an ancient irrigation system that is very genius. It turns out to be a relic of Muslims who are 1,200 years old.

Mercado Central’s parent market in Valencia’s old town pulsates from the moment it split. A number of people lined up at the butcher’s stall and the man behind the counter was busy slicing the ham into thin slices. He deftly serves the various requests of buyers while occasionally looking down to avoid the animal’s legs hanging above the window.

At the seafood stall, ice baskets are neatly arranged. Various fish, anchovies, and lobsters are in it, luring passing visitors. It’s also easy to find stalls that specialize in selling snails and saffron. Likewise with fruit. Very fresh.

All the vegetables and fruit come from La Huerta, a 28-square-kilometre area of ​​fields surrounding Valencia.

Encarna Folgado, owner of the Frutas y Verduras Folgado stall, who has traded for more than 45 years at the market, buys all the seasonal vegetables directly from farmers in the La Huerta area. Nuts are sold here to make the traditional Valenciana paella.

“The Ferrraura used (for cooking) should be a bright green, but not too bright,” says Folgado, referring to the peppercorns that fill the basket.

Red and green rochet beans “should be a few centimeters wide and a little thicker”. Butterbeans are “best eaten when they’re turning from yellow to green.”

Apart from beans, Folgada’s stall sells broccoli, red peppers, garlic, and scallions.

Everything is La Huerta’s produce every year, even though the area is so close to Spain’s third largest city.

The key to the La Huerta sip harvest seems to be in the irrigation canals, ditches, and sluice gates created by the Moors who were Muslim and ruled this area 1,200 years ago.

Each of the eight irrigation canals, or acequias, channel water from the Turia River into various branch canals using gravity. The branches then distribute the water to thousands of plots of land across the fields.

The amount of water received by each plot of land is not measured using a volume scale, but by how well the river flows. The unit of measurement is called the fila (which means ‘line’).

The measure represents a person’s right to a portion of water in a certain time; the irrigation cycle usually lasts one week, but if the river flow is low then the cycle is extended.

The irrigation system was genius and incredibly efficient. Each plot of land receives the same access to water over the same period of time—no matter where the land is located. There is no shortage of water in this irrigation system, even in the dry season.

The irrigation system was managed by the social organization that governed La Huerta for more than 1,000 years. The Tribunal de las Aguas de la Vega de la Valencia, or the Court of Water on the Valencia Plain, was created in 960 and is officially the oldest judicial council in the world.

The court consists of eight farmers who are elected representatives from each community that manages each of the main irrigation canals. They meet to settle disputes outside Valencia Cathedral every Thursday noon.

Their way of meeting was quite unique. The eight men wore black robes and sat on wooden benches made of leather in a semi-circle formation.

The irrigation system delivers water from the Turia River to various fields in the La Huerta area. (Photo: BBC)

Water was the only topic on trial. As for the defendants, according to María José Olmos Rodrigo, secretary of the court, they are usually tried for “flooding neighboring lands, taking water that is not their share, or not properly maintaining irrigation canals”.

Courts have indeed become an integral aspect of the irrigation system, but land use has evolved over time.

“This is the history of La Huerta. We adapt to different types of plants over time, we change a lot and often just to survive,” said Miquel Minguet, CEO of Horta Viva.

The company he manages reflects this mentality: from farming small organic fields near Alboraya in the north of the city to now running agrotourism tours around La Huerta.

La Huerta’s cultural adaptation, which not only conserves but also improves contemporary conditions, according to Clelia Maria Puzzo of FAO, has the potential to be a sustainable solution to modern agricultural problems.

Therefore, since July 2019, Valencia has become the World Center for Sustainable Urban Food (CEMAS)-an initiative established with the aim of ensuring sustainable food for future generations.

“Production in La Huerta is primarily aimed at self-consumption and the local market,” said Vicente Domingo, director of CEMAS.

“Thanks to its unique structure, [sistem irigasi La Huerta] was able to survive for centuries with the efforts of generations of farmers who preserved this land despite the pressures of urbanization,” he added.

The farmers Vicente refers to include Tony Montoliu, who has worked on a plot of land in the town of Meliana north of La Huerta since he was 12 years old.

Montoliu had grown plants such as okra and mustard greens long before they became popular there. He also has a reputation for growing special local grains such as cacau del collaret.

“Life as a farmer is all about discovery. I’m learning every day because fields and fields keep talking,” he said.

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