Cesar Manrique’s name is inextricably linked with that of the Canary island of Lanzarote, off the coast of Morocco. The world-renowned artist was, in fact, born on this volcanic island, managing, through his artistic masterpieces and his advocacy, to ward off the bane of large-scale touristic development on the island.
His masterpieces pepper public places around the island, from roundabouts to key landmarks, and reflect an insightful sensitivity towards the ecological importance of Lanzarote, which was declared in 1993 a Unesco Biosphere Reserve.
Manrique firmly believed that the artist should also assume the role of environmental advocate, as testified through this reflection made in 1987: “I believe that we are witnessing a historical moment, where the huge danger to the environment is so evident that we must concieve a new responsibility with respect to the future.” A compelling statement which is highly relevant to the Maltese Islands, where the human footprint is all-pervasive.
Manrique’s legacy includes the almost complete absence of multi-storey edifices on the island, which is roughly three times the size of Malta, and the confinement of touristic development within well-delineated resorts. The wind-sculpted beaches of Lanzarote, ensconced between volcanoes and backed by extensive dunes, lack the stifling beach furniture which has become a permanent feature of most beaches in the Mediterranean.
The close-knit relationship between nature and art which Manrique discerned was reflected in his transformation of Lanzarote into an all-inclusive piece of art. His flamboyant wind vanes adorn roundabouts, replacing the shallow gentrification of traditional traffic lights, his Monumento al Campesino, situated in the heartland of the island, is a tribute to peasant life hardships. His rendition in metal of the blind albino cave crab (Munidopsis polymorpha), an endemic species of squat lobster endemic to Lanzarote and known only from a subterranean salty lake within a lava tube at Jameos del Agua, also testifies to his absorption with the ecology of the island.
His own living space, now housing the Fundacion Manrique in Tahiche on Lanzarote and open to the public, was largely unassuming above ground, consisting of whitewashed cubes, and adopting a largely subterranean dimension, to incorporate a number of volcanic bubbles within a passing lava stream.
The evocative volcanic landscapes of Lanzarote, sustained by over 30 active volcanoes and largely absent from mainland Europe, have not gone unnoticed. The spike in tourism arrivals over the years has been substantial… the 25,000 annual visitors in 1970 surged to 1.8 million by 1998 and to 3.15 million in 2017, with three-quarters of the island’s economy being intrinsically reliant on the sector.
This has put strains on Manrique’s ecological legacy on the island. Since his tragic and untimely demise in a traffic accident in 1992, the number of hulking unfinished hotels on the island has soared, spoiling the otherwise idyllic coastal landscape, in tourist hubs such as Costa Teguise and Playa Blanca.
Manrique firmly believed that the artist should also assume the role of environmental advocate
His legacy is all but absent on some of the other Canary Islands, notably on the two largest of Tenerife and Gran Canaria, where touristic and urban development has been considerably less sensitive to the ecological fabric of the islands. For instance, coastal areas in the southwest of Tenerife, within the precincts of Los Cristianos and Playa des Americas, have been defaced beyond recognition, hosting large-scale touristic development so reminiscent of Mediterranean rivieras.
Despite the Canary’s Islands’ reliance on energy-hungry desalination plants for a steady supply of freshwater, which can be as high as 100 per cent on some of the islands (e.g. Gran Canaria), a profuse number of golf courses stand out as sore thumbs against the otherwise parched surroundings.
A glaring anomaly which most visitors to the Canary Islands stumble upon is the almost complete absence of photovoltaic (PV) panels on the islands, which seem not interested in harnessing solar power, preferring wind power instead, as testified by the numerous turbines peppered around the land.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The smallest and remotest of the seven Canary Islands – El Hierro – with its 10,000 residents dispersed within an area larger than that of the island of Malta, became, in 2015, the first energy self-sufficient island in the world without a permanent connection to energy grids on the mainland.
This was achieved through the combined installation of five gargantuan wind turbines on land and the harnessing of hydropower generated by pumping water upstream from a reservoir at a lower altitude. The landmark visitor parks of Loro Parque and Siam Park on Tenerife are consistently voted online as Europe’s top-notch visitor attraction, largely due to the environmental credentials of the two parks.
Manrique’s name has become synonymous with sustainable tourism and with living art… the visionary had predicted, ahead of anyone else, the mounting challenges to his home island’s natural fabric and influenced planning policies there to minimise damage to its integrity.
We need such a compelling champion to safeguard the dwindling pockets of nature on the Maltese archipelago, especially as threats to the natural environment become ever more insidious.
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