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Guadalhorce and Sierra de las Nieves: The ‘black legs’ of the olives stop depopulation in the Sierra de Málaga | Business

Olive trees of the Aloreña olive variety from Malaga.
Olive trees of the Aloreña olive variety from Malaga.

It has porous skin, floating bone and is so fragile that it has to be picked by hand. It weighs just a few grams, but the Aloreña olive has managed to sustain the economy of twenty municipalities in the interior of the province of Malaga. They are small towns, located in a mountainous area and have found in this fruit a remedy against depopulation. Up to 4,000 families in the regions of Guadalhorce and Sierra de las Nieves have as a complement to their economies a treasure in the form of an olive, one of the two that exist with a protected designation of origin in Spain. It generates an industry that moves between 5 and 10 million euros a year and employs more than 100 people, to which must be added those who every autumn milk the olive trees with care and precision to take care of what in this land they consider the black leg of all olives.

20 years ago, producers and local administrations began a long journey together with the goal that this table olive, of the Manzanilla Aloreña variety, obtain recognition for its uniqueness and qualities. It was also a way of revitalizing a product that at the beginning of the century was mostly sold in bulk. The low economic performance endangered the future of many olive groves, one step away from being abandoned, but that movement had an effect and it was crossing goals. The first, in 2009, when the Junta de Andalucía published the regulations for the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) for this olive. The second, two years later, when it was reflected in the Official State Gazette (BOE). In 2012 they passed the definitive one when the text was included in the Official Journal of the European Union (DOUE). The document regulates issues such as manual harvesting, the traditional process for dressing or the production area, which extends over 17,800 hectares in 19 municipalities. From then on, the added value of the olive increased and revitalized the olive grove: now the demand exceeds the supply.

small producers

Juan Miguel Gómez is one of the producers. He owns 11 hectares of olive trees in a small town west of the capital, Alozaina (2,051 inhabitants). His land would be “ridiculous” in any other corner of Andalusia, but in this town it is one of the largest estates. The average is between one and two hectares. “The land is very distributed,” indicates who also acts as secretary of the Copusan cooperative, based in the same town since the sixties. It has 25 workers and 850 partners, “almost all the neighbors,” says Gómez.

Small producers from Casarabonela, Tolox or Álora also bring their production to their facilities. The latter took their trucks at the end of October to add up to 1,500 tons of Alorean olives, more than a third of the global harvest of the fruit in the twenty municipalities, of 3,500 tons. They are all hand picked. This olive is so sensitive that any contact with the branches or blow during its transfer is damaged. The diameter of the trunk of centennial olive trees does not allow mechanization either. “That raises the costs of greening a lot,” says Gómez. Up to triple compared to other olive groves.

In 2021, half that of the previous year was collected, when it exceeded seven million kilos. The fall is due, in large part, to the lack of rain. From spring to autumn, only a little over 40 liters per square meter fell in the area — all in September — and production suffered. But the main reason is that the Aloreña chamomile olive tree is vecero. That is to say, that it alternates a year with a lot of fruit and another with little. The oscillation generates problems in the market, making it impossible to satisfy all the demand. “You create a network of customers one year and the next year you can’t supply them. We suffer from this instability”, reflects Antonia Bravo, who together with her three sisters leads the family business Aceitunas Bravo, whose workforce reaches 30 people. Like the rest of the sector, its main buyer is national, especially the horeca channel (hotels, restaurants and cafeterias), but also supermarkets and large stores such as Mercadona, Carrefour, Lidl or El Corte Inglés. Recently, other countries have increased their demand. “They ask for it more and more: from Canada to the Dominican Republic, France, Germany or the United Kingdom,” says Bravo.

He knows in depth all the sides of the coin.

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The promotion of the DOP and the recognition of the Aloreña olive have allowed the handful of companies in the area that dress —with garlic, thyme, fennel and pepper— and market the Aloreña olive to know that they will sell all their production each year. The work of all of them is audited by a regulatory council that monitors calibers, qualities and that all required standards are met. It also encourages training, promotion —aimed at including the product in the kitchens of high-end restaurants— and research. One of them has shown that these olive trees are specially adapted to the soil, altitude and climate of these two regions of Malaga. “When it is planted in other areas, the characteristics of the olive change,” says Margarita Jiménez, president of the council, who says that this is the reason why the Aloreña only grows in these two regions. She is optimistic about the situation of a product that has changed the present and, perhaps, the future of a good part of the population of twenty small municipalities.

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