Ten miles north of Madrid, Jaime del Val's hometown once felt as if it was in the wilderness. "There was a lot of open land," he recalls. "It felt like you were far away from the rest of the world."
Now, shopping centers occupy the areas that Mr. del Val hiked through as a boy. Las Rozas, with 75,000 homes, is slated for 75,000 more in the next few years – mirroring a nationwide trend in Spain, which now has more second homes than any other European Union country.
That's why del Val – president of the environmental group Let's Save Las Rozas – spent Saturday afternoon, along with thousands of others across Spain, marching in protests against Spain's pervasive urban development.
In a country where economic prosperity has long rested on the construction industry, Spaniards have for decades watched as their once pristine beaches and mountains have been dotted with mega resorts and vacation homes. But spurred in part by a massive crackdown on real estate corruption last year – one that is still playing out – a growing number of citizens are concerned by Spain's urbanization. And with local elections just three weeks away, the ranks of environmentalists are swelling.
"The surprising thing isn't that the environmental movement is growing," says Jesús García, the Green Party mayoral candidate in Granada. "What's surprising is how much we're spreading into sectors that aren't normally ecology-minded."
In March, 50,000 people took to the streets of Mallorca to protest the island's "unsustainable" development. In April, courts in the province of Cantabria ordered construction stopped on a housing development after a citizens' group complained that the developer had illegally defaced a rural area. And tens of thousands protested Saturday in nearly a dozen cities.
Building boom: cure for a slump
Begun in the 1960s, Spain's building boom was spurred by a dictatorship eager for new sources of income. Mediterranean coastal towns began developing high-rise hotels and massive housing complexes that would attract foreign tourism. They were successful; today, roughly a third of the properties on the Mediterranean coast are foreign-owned.
Urban development has since spread to the interior, driven largely by an appetite for second homes. Among EU countries, Spain has the most homes per inhabitants. "Spain's population has grown 5 percent in the last decade, but housing has grown 26.3 percent," says Theo Oberhuber, coordinator for the group Ecologists in Action.
That development has created a lot of jobs and made a lot of money for some Spaniards, but it has also endangered plant and animal species, increased pollution, and reduced water supplies. A commission from the European Parliament that visited Madrid, Andalusia, and Valencia in early March, was blunt about its findings: "Too often, construction in Spain represents the plundering of a community and a culture."
Crackdown on corruption
Corruption has long accompanied the real estate business in Spain, with developers and promoters giving municipal officials benefits – or outright cash – in exchange for building permits and the rezoning of rural areas for urban construction. But one case last year stunned the country with its scope. In March 2006, police arrested the mayor and dozens of city officials in the ritzy resort town of Marbella, where some 30,000 of the city's 80,000 homes had been illegally built. The investigation, called Operation Malaya, is still going on; last Thursday police arrested the nationally famous singer Isabel Pantoja, charging her with laundering money for her boyfriend, former Marbella mayor Julián Muñoz.
Since Operation Malaya began, corruption cases have regularly made news. The media attention has been a boon for environmental groups, who find that their issues dovetail neatly with citizens' disgust with corruption. "Without a doubt, they're related," says Pedro Costa, United Left candidate for the Murcia city government. "Spaniards are beginning to realize that they're losing the landscapes of their childhood to these crimes of urbanization."
Environmental concerns have already had a modest political impact in some places. In the Asturias town of Cudillero, Mayor Francisco González sees his reelection threatened – for the first time in five terms – by judicial charges against him for granting a permit for an apartment building in a rurally-zoned area.
The ruling Socialist party has taken to promoting its pro-environment, anticorruption policies. On Wednesday, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero told an audience of supporters in Marbella that he represented "the political will to clean up" corruption and "to prosecute those who fail to respect the public good."
Still, many environmentalists are skeptical. For one thing, both the Socialists and the opposition Popular Party are running candidates implicated in urban scandals. Mr. García, the mayoral candidate, is adamant in his criticism. "Politicians from the main parties are talking up environmentalism, but they're still intimately involved in real estate speculation and corruption," he says. "You can't just put on a green jacket and declare you're an environmentalist."
That's why people like Pedro Costa think other political groups have a chance this election. A long-time environmental activist, Mr. Costa was recruited by the United Left (IU) party to run for office in coastal Murcia. "I've always been an independent, but the IU asked me to run because I'm known for my environmental work," says Costa. He thinks he can win. "In this region at least, the environment is going to be the fundamental theme."