When travelling about you will notice that Fuerteventura does not have many trees. Many people assume this is due to the arid climate but in fact, the reason there are so few, is actually down to man.
An Article By Bernie Power with The Voice Fuerteventura
One of the strangest constructions you will see scattered around the island, are what appears to be small towers with openings at the base. These little towers played a very important part in Fuerteventura’s economy. They are in fact ovens and were used for creating two distinct products. The first, which was burned in the larger kilns was “white rock” or limestone. It was burned to produce calcium carbonate, which is used, among other things, as mortar in buildings or as a component for paint. It was exported on a huge scale from Fuerteventura to the other islands and even over to the mainland.
The second product, which was burned in the smaller kilns, was a certain plant that grew here and when burned its ash created a form of sodium carbonate. This discovery was made many centuries ago and sodium carbonate was an important ingredient needed for the manufacture of products such as glass or soap.
The plant is called Barilla; in English we know it as glasswort. The Latin name for Barilla is Salsola Soda, which is where we get the word sodium from. The Arabic word for it is Kali and the word alkaline literally means “from Kali”. We now know it as the cheap soda crystals we use for washing clothes but back then it was a sought after commodity. The soap that was produced here, was of such a fine quality, that it demanded a high price and was dedicated to the Royal house of Castile. Even today there is still a soap you can buy in the UK called Knight’s Castile, although it is now much cheaper than it was back then.
The Barilla Plant
Barilla is able to survive with little water and is tolerant of the sea air and the salt it contains. It can still be seen growing by the side of most roads today, but back then, the plant was so highly prized it was illegal to export the seed and anyone caught doing, so would find themselves facing a possible death sentence! Until the mid-1800s, there were many plantations, managed by Barilleros who became quite wealthy. It was an expensive investment to build an oven but it brought employment for many local people.
Sometimes you will see the ovens attached to houses, but more often they are located in isolated places because of the fumes they produce and close proximity to the crops made working easier. You will also find them near a water source or well as water was needed to crystallise the ash.
Trees, and lots of them, were also need to fuel the ovens hungry fires. This was big business and even today, when driving about you will come across around thirty or so. They can be found all over from El Cotillo in the north, right down to Ajuy in the south and most villages still have one or two. One of the finest, was in Tindaya, but it was recently destroyed for its rocks by the landowners and now sadly remains as just a scar. In Esquinzo, there is a whole complex which is very well preserved and shows what the process was like.
However, when driving around looking for them, you will also notice that big business always comes with a price and in this case it was the islands greenery and in particular its woody trees. When you see an oven, stand by it as it is quite an eerie experience, especially when you allow your mind to wander and imagine all the workers bringing in the crops and preparing the ashes. Unfortunately, by the late 1800’s, the trade collapsed and all that is left of this once thriving industry are memories and these fabulous piles of rocks.