As the climate crisis accelerates, Ibiza is taking centre stage in the battle to clean up our planet. We meet the innovative individuals and enterprises who are collaborating for a greener future.
Subsistence living is hard-wired into the soul of Ibiza. From the wintertime matanza to the sun-drenched almond harvest, traditional life on this Mediterranean island is fundamentally linked to the lilting rhythm of the seasons. Historically, an island of stoic self-sufficiency, for thousands of years Ibiza, has looked inward in times of discord, turning to its own to restore equilibrium. In the wake of conquests by the Moors, the Romans, the Vandals and Visigoths and in the face of piracy, drought and famine, Ibiza’s people have remained resourceful and its land fruitful. Now, as the planet careers towards climate crisis, the island is once more turning to a collective ideology for the solutions.
Historically, the Ibicenco people worked collaboratively to sustain a way of life that had existed in one way or another for millennia. Now, in the face of dwindling resources and environmental damage, it is clear that the sustainability paradigm needs to be replaced with regeneration. According to author, environmentalist and Re:Generation founder Rory Spowers, educating people about the inherent difference between the two concepts is key. “Sustainability is trying to sustain something that is fundamentally degenerative and linear by design,” he explains. “Communities need to focus on regeneration. People are waking up to the fact that top-down environmental policy reforms simply aren’t happening, and now it’s about mitigation and adaptation to what is coming.” Ibiza is currently riding a wave of eco-innovation, with marine conservation, regenerative farming and renewables top of the agenda, but the solutions need to come from a grassroots level, says Spowers. “We’re currently relying on the same mindset that created the problems to solve them. We need a systemic shift to a new way of thinking, and that starts with education.”
In 1985, when Chris Dews first tried to educate people about Ibiza’s fragile eco-system, he was met with derision. “Nobody cared.” Dews laughs wryly. “All they wanted to talk about was football and Sharon Stone. They told me to mind my own business.” Fast-forward to 2020, and Dews’ message couldn’t be more right-on. Thirty-five years after the Yorkshire-born Merchant Navy radio officer arrived on the island, his crusading activism sees him at the forefront of the current wave of eco-collaboration in Ibiza. Casita Verde – the radical eco-community and model ecological centre that he founded in the hills of San José – has spearheaded the drive for environmentally sensitive living across the island since its inception in 1993. It is now the de-facto base of Ibiza Fènix, a newly formed association of 14 interconnected non-government organizations (NGOs) that simultaneously address different facets of community life, from waste management and eco-construction to renewable energy and even ethical finance. Crucially, each branch is headed by an expert in that field who has the final say. This plays into Dews’ belief that, where climate change is concerned, democracy has run its course. “We are at the end of the line,” he declares. “Populism has taken over, and with Trump and Johnson at the helm, we are about to be driven over the edge of a cliff. I’ve been involved in politics for twenty years,” he continues, “and in that time I have noticed that sadly the system simply does not work. We have too many people voting who simply do not understand what the issues are. We need to listen to small groups and respect their decisions.”
Sharing skills and expertise are at the heart of Dews’ enterprise. Over 1300 volunteers from across the world have devoted their time to Casita Verde, and Dews is currently working on an app that will allow both residents and visitors on Ibiza to access real-time information pertaining to the environment. The app will offer information on where to shop consciously, how to become involved with environmental initiatives such as beach clean-ups and – crucially – how to improve our environmental footprint while on the island. “It’s not about not enjoying yourself,” Dews insists. “It’s about doing things right. Have your golf course, if that makes you happy – but water it with recycled kitchen water. Go to the beach party but clean up after yourselves.”
Dews’ current project is the ultimate merging of entertainment and environmentalism – he’s working with London-based environmental visionaries Orca Sound Project and Ibiza’s International Music Summit (IMS), to collect four tonnes of mixed plastic waste from the beaches and communities of Ibiza, which in turn will be processed and turned into bars, exhibition stands and other useable building materials for the IMS event in May. Orca Sound Project made their name at Glastonbury in 2019, where they fabricated an entire dance arena for Shangri-La from discarded plastics gathered in the local area. Danny Whittle of the IMS calls their collaboration “innovative” and “forward-thinking”, adding that “everyone in the music industry should be playing their part in improving our environmental impact. IMS hopes to lead by example and hopes to inspire others to make sustainable business decisions.”
Luckily for Ibiza, it seems that the entertainment industry is indeed heeding the call of the wild. Ibiza’s homegrown Mambo Group banished straws and single-use plastics in 2019 and have now installed a KM0 water filtration system. They are striving to recycle 100% of waste. Entertainment behemoth Pacha Group has followed suit and aims to be entirely plastic-free by 2023, while boutique heritage hotel Pikes has banned straws and fitted bespoke water filtration systems in communal areas. Former music PR Kim Booth runs her wellness-themed Cosmic Pineapple events at the hotel and is positive about their shared values. “Pikes is perfect for Cosmic Pineapple – low waste, low impact and somewhere that everyone feels welcome. I think in the dance music industry it’s still okay to go out and have fun provided you’re not harming yourself or the planet.” And it’s not just the independent outfits who are on board – mega-brands are cleaning up their act too. On Talamanca beach, the five-star Nobu hotel has partnered with London fashion label Love Brand & Co to support Ibiza Preservation’s posidonia project. With the design and sale of a limited-edition shirt and swim shorts, they aim to raise awareness of the destruction of Ibiza’s fragile posidonia seagrass meadows. Posidonia is a key issue over on Formentera, an island whose fragile ecosystem is even more at risk than Ibiza’s. Beachfront bolthole Gecko Beach Club has partnered with the Save Posidonia Project and has commissioned staff uniforms by ECOALF, a pioneering fashion brand that uses natural resources and marine wastage such as discarded fishing nets.
Ibiza’s seas are arguably most at-risk. According to figures from IbizaPreservation, Ibiza produced half a ton of waste per person last year – 14 per cent higher than the rest of Europe. Per person, Ibiza’s waste is double the average amount produced in mainland Spain. Single use plastics are the biggest offenders, with 30 times more plastic floating off the coast of Ibiza than elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Launched in 2018, the Plastic Free Ibiza and Formentera initiative is backed by IbizaPreservation and has united multiple local non-profit organizations with the shared aim of eliminating single-use plastics in the Pitiuses by 2023.
As plastic becomes the number-one threat to Ibiza’s marine environment, Plastic Free’s strategy is to work within the HORECA (hotels, restaurants and catering) sector to reduce waste from the ground up. Businesses that sign up are awarded a star rating dependent upon their commitment to reducing SUPs. One star is awarded for eliminating three types of SUP, two for eliminating 50 per cent of SUPs and three stars for 100 per cent. This year’s inaugural five-star rating will be reserved for those trailblazing companies who are devising and deploying creative solutions to achieve a zero-waste scenario.
With the support of sponsors and the local authorities, Plastic Free have been able to host two free workshops during which companies can learn more about certification and about how to comply with the newly implemented Balearic Law on Waste Management. “We need to shift the focus from recycling towards a reusable culture,” says spokesperson Giada Forneris. “Sadly, it has been proven time and again that the current systems in place for recycling, both here and elsewhere, are ineffective. A very small percentage of plastic get recycled effectively, while most is burned, downcycled or sent to other countries, such as Southeast Asia. The whole process of recycling also involves a significant carbon footprint that needs to be taken into account.” Over 110 businesses are now signed up to the Plastic Free initiative, a figure that Forneris finds encouraging. “Islands are key areas in sustainable development because we can easily see the effects of pollution in our land, air and waters. But islands can also be laboratories for sustainability – collaborative initiatives in limited areas see results much faster than on the mainland because it’s easier to get the movement going. Ibiza is lucky in that we have a conscious global community – people who have a real affection for the island and who are willing to go the extra mile to safeguard its future.”
While no individual is able to eliminate their pollution footprint entirely, Forneris believes there is plenty we can do at home. “I shop local and buy organic. I take a basket every time I go out and I visit stores where I can have products refilled. It feels good. It’s slower, more romantic. It feels like a return to another time. My message is to stop, breathe, and rethink. We need to look to the past to see how we did it before and then take those ideals forward. Less is better. Slower is better.”
Slow is certainly the buzzword in Ibiza’s travel industry, with both visitors and businesses stepping up awareness of their social and environmental footprint and prioritising a connection to local people, culture and food. Travel industry entrepreneur Alexea Grech says that the industry has seen a conscious shift in values. “Discerning travellers are shunning the traditional luxury hotel structure. They are looking for different ways to spend their money, with a focus on immersion in the local community and finding ways to give back. It’s all about experiential and purpose-driven travel, whether that’s visiting small places in the campo that are upholding local traditions or going on a retreat that offers a personal awakening.” In terms of the environment, this change in perspective bodes well for Ibiza. Grech is seeing more and more clients shun superyachts, for example, in favour of eco-boating outfits such as La Bella Verde, the solar powered catamaran company whose zero-impact boat days tend to see clients preferring to picnic in the sand on Es Palmador rather than eat imported Kobe beef at a chi-chi chiringuito.
“Ibiza is an interesting place right now,” says Grech. “It has two opposing sides. On one hand it could be considered quite behind in terms of resources and outdated business practices, but yet it is super-advanced in terms of community consciousness and a desire for sustainability. Ibiza is full of people with different outlooks, people who haven’t quite fitted in elsewhere or who have shunned the accepted structures of life. In general, these people are very awake and conscious. There’s a real communal focus here. I think you could say that Ibiza is becoming a showcase example of how people and ideals can coexist.”
In her former life as co-founder of boutique accommodation agent Hotique, Grech had 300+ hotel clients. Now she deals in experiences, and the select few hotels that she recommends are special indeed. “These days, I only work with people who align with my values. Both myself and my clients are tired of the overdesigned hotels of the past. They want somewhere that is real, organic – a collaboration between the builders and the owners, the farmers and gardeners. Places like La Granja, with only a handful of rooms, no TV and no air conditioning. Where it’s about the people and the energy and the land.” Founded by Design Hotels guru Claus Sendinger in 2017, La Granja’s star has skyrocketed in a few short years. The members-only property works in collaboration with Friends of a Farmer, an international association devoted to the cultivation of art, crops and ‘inner gardens’, and counts the formidable IbizaPreservation among its advisors. The gardens here are cultivated by master farmer Andy Szymanowicz and are open to the hotel’s community, encouraging discovery and providing a serene space for workshops and gatherings. Biodynamics play a major role in crop cultivation. Harvests are planned around lunar cycles and probiotics are used on the soil. “We are building healthy soils on the farm that feed our plants,” says Szymanowicz. “It is the foundation of what we do.”
Ibiza’s fertile soils were once legendary, and the island enjoyed significant status as an exporter of crops. In the latter part of the twentieth century, a decline in traditional farming methods coupled with a cultural shift from country to town life meant that swathes of Ibiza’s undulating red earth were left to go fallow. Between 1990 and 2012, it is estimated that 31km2 of farmland and virgin landscape was lost to urban development. During this period, the urbanisation of coastal areas increased by 61 per cent. This has impacted some of the island’s most valuable landscapes and ecosystems and contributed to the fact that less than two per cent of the food consumed in Ibiza now comes from the island. In fact, the most recent figures from the Balearic government show that Ibiza’s utilised agricultural area (UAA) has plummeted from 46.6 per cent to just 11 per cent in the last four years. It is the lowest ratio in the Balearics.
“Land use is a huge issue, third only to water and waste,” says IbizaPreservation’s Sandra Benbeniste. “We need to encourage and support farmers in returning to traditional farming in order to regenerate the soil of the island.” In the last few years, an upsurge in interest in permaculture and biodynamics along with a revival of crafts and traditions has meant that local produce is once more in vogue, but farmers still need to know that their craft has longevity and is respected. “We need to restore their self-esteem,” explains Benbeniste. “Farmers need a commitment from businesses that their crops will be purchased, and at rates that make it worthwhile.” Crop diversity is also a key issue. Ibiza’s traditional mosaic of crops – figs, almonds, carob, potatoes – historically created the natural cortafuegos, or firebreaks, upon which the island relied. In the decade prior to 2012, IbizaPreservation estimated that 73.7 km2 of land changed from agricultural use to forest cover, and a scorched island shrouded in pine forests is a firebomb waiting to happen.
Ambitious land-management projects such as the vast organic farm at Terra Masia – home to golden beetroot, purple kohlrabi, rainbow chard and edible flowers – and the newly-planted regenerative almond farm in San Mateo are leading the way, but there is still much to do. IbizaPreservation is currently undertaking a forensic land use study, but even without those figures, it is clear that removing the bottlenecks in crop production and creating a smooth system from farm to table are key.
The irrigation of crops is also a consideration. It is widely agreed that a lack of water is the most significant threat facing the island today. Following years of significantly diminished rainfall, Ibiza’s aquifers are overexploited and cannot cope with the huge demand placed upon them. An exponential increase in the number of visitors to the island, coupled with a sharp rise in ‘luxury’ water usage – for pools, lawns and bathing – has led to an unprecedented water shortage. In a 2015 study co-ordinated by IbizaPreservation it was concluded that eight of Ibiza’s 16 underground aquifers were depleted and 12 were contaminated with seawater. They are currently only 50 per cent full, and despite urgent calls for the aquifers to be rested entirely during the winter season (and water processing moved to the three desalination plants) this isn’t happening.
The IbizaPreservation-backed Water Alliance, launched in 2017, is leading the charge, and now unites more than 30 stakeholders from public administrations, the private sector (tourism, business and water companies), the farming sector and local NGOs. The Water Alliance funded a new water observatory in 2017 and has enjoyed unprecedented success with its Water Pact, recently adopted by all six political parties. So, what next for this tiny, glorious island? Do the twin pillars of eco-innovation and collaboration hold the keys to the future? Rory Spowers thinks so. “There’s something in the DNA of the island, something deep-rooted in the culture of subsistence. Ibiza has amazing people from all over the globe who bring incredible expertise and knowledge. All the skills and know-how are here, and if the community can galvanise itself then I do think that Ibiza is uniquely placed to be an exemplar to the world for regenerative culture.”