26 August 2019

Homage to the Muleteers of Alcalá

The Alcornocales Natural Park is one of the last places in Europe where mules still work for a living.  During the cork harvest, which takes place in the summer months, they are used to carry the strips of cork down steep narrow tracks through dense woodland to a clearing where it can be loaded onto lorries.  The rest of the year they graze peacefully on patches of open space in and around the town.  They are cared for year-round by a dedicated team of arrieros (the dictionary translation of that word is muleteer, but as you will see, the are more than just drovers). 

Last weekend during the feria, the arrieros of Alcalá were honoured at a special event in the caseta la Gloria.  Here are some extracts from the tribute speech, written and presented by local anthropologist Agustin Coca.

"Today ... we acknowledge the professionalism and wisdom of a handful of people who weave their lives in with those of their animals, through good times and bad, through rain, wind and heat ...  We are a rarity in Europe, or to put it another way you, the arrieros, maintain a reservoir of wisdom that is transmitted down through the generations.

Behind a beast of burden such as a mule, there is an entire lifetime of learning ... The dialogue with the animal starts from childhood and will never end.  The job involves pampering and caring for the animal.  It eats before you do, you love it as if it were part of the family, you must care for it whether it is working or not, and be as attentive to it as if it were a child ...  Inside every arriero is a surgeon, a vet, one who knows about remedies, herbs and potions. He is also a blacksmith and a saddler, always ready out in the forest to do a repair job.  He is an expert at finding his way around the densest woodland, by day or night, with our without moonlight.  He knows about knots and packing, and a thousand ways to load up the cargo ...  He knows about contracts and business deals, reaching agreements in good times and bad, and has a family which extends beyond the home among comrades, forming a network of solidarity and mutual help ...

The women also carry this knowledge, the mothers, wives and daughters of the arrieros who used to carry bundles from farm to farm, looking after the men, the children and the animals, taking care of their food, clothes and other needs, quietly working alongside the men as they do today ...  And now is the time to acknowledge their value.

The arrieros are the professors in the world of beasts of burden; their knowledge is becoming extinct, and we are fighting to preserve it in Andalucía ... This is why we are here today, with the local authorities and representatives of ACOAN [Asociación de Corcheros y Arrieros de Andalucía]. We must demand that everything possible is done to defend this profession ... a mule is more eco-friendly than a tractor and ideally suited for any kind of work in the forest.  To defend this collective means that the sector must be professionalised, the breeding of mules must be supported, and ways must be found to make the job of arriero attractive to future generations, a job which although difficult and labourious must be treasured by Andalucian society and protected by its institutions.

Today the Alcornocales Natural Park has many problems.  But to resolve them we must depend on these experts amongst us ... Your knowledge must be passed on via dialogue with those who learn about the forest from books, not on a daily basis since childhood.

Now is the time to act, for if not, tomorrow there will be neither cork-oak forest nor people to work in it."

Returning to town after the cork harvest

Watch the corcheros and arrieros in action in this video clip:

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