The Spanish dehesa landscape, characterized by lush green pastures interspersed with oak and cork trees, has been sustained for centuries by extensive grazing, mostly by sheep and goats, and transhumance, which is the seasonal movement of herds to different pastures. These practices are the main driving force behind the unique ecosystem and its biodiversity. Historically, wool from Merino sheep of the dehesas was one of Spain’s most prominent export products, sustaining both livelihoods of pastoralist communities as well as the biodiversity of the landscape. Due to competition with high quality wool produced in countries such as Australia and New Zealand, as well as the rise in the use of synthetic fabrics, Spanish farmers started losing interest in wool production during the second half of the twentieth century. Currently, the dehesa landscape is threatened by a complex set of drivers, which includes intensification of livestock, lack of natural generation and depopulation of rural areas, contributing to the erosion of cultural landscapes and practices.

A project on cultural landscapes in the Mediterranean, funded by the MAVA Foundation, aims to reconstruct, revitalize and sustain cultural landscapes and associated practices, which requires an understanding of the different driving forces behind the changing conditions. One aspect that has not received a lot of attention to date is the role of gender inequality and the entrenched social and cultural marginalization of women within these landscapes. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) implements a project to enhance the economic sustainability of cultural practices that support biodiversity in the Mediterranean. IUCN, in collaboration with Trashumancia y Naturaleza (TyN), commissioned a gender study to understand and strengthen the role of women pastoralists and wool workers in Spain to ensure that gender dynamics that shape the local economy can be addressed in land-use planning and policy. The findings of the study demonstrate that women in the dehesas of Extremadura are agents of change in moving towards sustainable and ecologically sound agriculture and can play an important role in reviving and maintaining cultural practices that benefit biodiversity, regional identity, as well as the local economy.

Bibi, a female pastoralist and dehesa landowner in Extremadura. Credit: Marta Torres Herrero

Merino wool from the dehesas. Credit: Marta Torres Herrero

Traditionally, women have been a part of the traditional dehesa landscape and provided crucial support to the economic activities sustaining the landscape and its communities. While the men were out on the land taking care of livestock and carrying out other farming activities, women were mainly confined to domestic and care duties. Often, women would accompany their husbands who found jobs on the larger farming estates. While men would receive formal employment contracts and were entitled to benefits in return for their work on the farm, the women were expected to work as domestic servants, typically working long hours without contracts and monetary compensation. The ability of men to sustain their work was anchored in the security that women provided at home, subsidizing the household production system. For centuries, women and their contributions to the dehesas have been undervalued and invisible.

Today, there are multiple initiatives to restore and maintain the traditional cultural practices and the landscapes of the dehesa. Women play a key role in these efforts, as entrepreneurs, wool workers and even as pastoralists. Our study found that women from Extremadura are working together to revitalize the production and market of Merino wool. Women are actively involved in pastoralism and wool production activities, and are deeply committed to their communities and landscapes. IUCN’s work helps to better understand women’s roles and contributions to market chains and rural economies, which contributes to the development of gender-responsive recommendations for economic solutions to preserve cultural practices and landscapes.

By Seline Meijer, IUCN

This research is conducted by Marta Torres Herrero in the context of the Economics Overarching Initiative and is a collaborative effort of IUCN and TyN, funded by the MAVA Foundation.

Eating an Organic Mediterranean Diet Helps Fight Disease

For years nutritionists have extolled the virtues of a Mediterranean diet, now environmental NGOs like WWF are calling for us to improve our health and the environment by following the Med. The #MedFoodHeroes campaign from 15-27 June coordinated by @RootedEveryday celebrates the rich cuisine the Mediterranean has to offer and the benefits to people and planet when we buy from small sustainable producers.

Meet #MedFoodHero Ambassador: Renato Álvarez

Renato Álvarez was born into a “neo-rural” family who were trailblazers of organic farming in Andalusia. They were also members of the first social movements and associations dedicated to the production and organic food. Since he was little he was involved in agriculture until he decided to study Environmental Sciences at the Pablo de Olavide University (Seville).

Meet #MedFoodHero Ambassador: Fábio Bernadino

Fábio Bernardino is a Chef, the CEO of Travel & Flavours, a teacher, gastronomic consultant, trainer and event organizer; a young Chef whose excellence opened the doors to major Portuguese hotels and restaurants, like the Pestana Hotéis & Resorts group or the Heritage Lisboa Hotels, where he left his mark of professionalism and rigour. With a great passion for cooking, and especially for pastry, he started his career at the age of 14, when he attended the Professional Cooking and Pastry Course of the Lisbon Hotel and Tourism School.

Meet #MedFoodHero Ambassador: Alfredo Sendim

Alfredo Cunhal Sendim was born in Porto and spent his childhood between Lisbon (the city), Montemor-o-Novo (the countryside) and Ferragudo (the sea). Studied veterinary and zoo technical. In 1990 he moved to the Monte of Herdade do Freixo do Meio, a territory where, step by step, he has been developing a structural project in the agricultural and social field.

Meet #MedFoodHeroes Ambassador: Sahar Elhallak

Nine years ago, Sahar left her home in California and landed in Morocco in a quest to find herself. While she started a new life in Marrakech, she found some challenges to find restaurants that catered to vegetarians like herself. Since she always enjoyed hosting dinner parties and food-related fundraising events, she started cooking for friends which grew into welcoming people into her beautifully restored hundred-year-old house, for unique culinary experiences.

Meet #MedFoodHeroes Ambassador: Najat Kaanache

Born to Moroccan parents in a small town near San Sebastian in Spain, Najat Kaanache has been cooking at home since childhood. Now based between the US, Mexico and Morocco. She now creates magic in the kitchen as the owner and chef of the beautiful restaurant Nur in the ancient medina of Fez, named World’s Best Moroccan Restaurant in 2017, 2018 and 2019. She also opened CÚS (a Moroccan bistro in the heart of Mexico City) and Nacho Mama (a funky Mexican cantina in the medina of Fez).

Meet #MedFoodHeroes Ambassador: Driss Mellal

Driss Mellal was born in a small town in the south of Morocco, near the beautiful Dades valley. His love for cooking started at the age of 20, when he was in art school in southern France. He missed Moroccan food and flavours and so started cooking and experimenting himself. After graduating from art school, he didn’t work in the arts as planned, but instead went to culinary school. “I finally got to combine my art background with new cooking skills, and it became the start of a new life for me,” Driss says.

Sheep to Combat Climate Change

Asociación Trashumancia y Naturaleza collaborated with the city council of Madrid to organise the annual Fiesta de la Trashumancia Madrid 2019 (Transhumance Festival)—which saw 1800 sheep and 200 goats pass through the centre of Spain’s capital city. The event, now in its 26th year, was successful in creating awareness on the importance of maintaining this ancestral practice of which Spain is a global example and that is a very valuable tool in the fight against climate change and rural depopulation, among other benefits.