Central defender Carlos Marchena, who currently plays for Villarreal CF and Spain, has won almost every honour football has to offer. FIFA U-20 World Cup (1999), a silver medal at the 2000 Olympics; the Spanish League (2001-02 and 2003-04), the Copa del Rey (2007-08), the UEFA Cup (2003-04) and the UEFA Super Cup (2004), all with Valencia CF; and the UEFA European Football Championship (2008) and the FIFA World Cup (2010) for Spain. At the end of 2010 he played his 50th consecutive undefeated international match – a record. Earlier this year, he was also named Drylands Ambassador to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). TUNZA managed to catch up with Carlos in between his international duties and pre-season training.
TUNZA: You have been amazingly successful as a footballer, winning almost every honour worldwide, in Europe and in Spain. Have you always also had an interest in the environment?
CM: Being a footballer is a profession that needs full-time dedication, leaving very little free time. But I have appreciated nature since I was a boy and have always been interested in its cycles and the delicate balance that supports the environment.
TUNZA: You come from Andalusia in southern Spain and grew up near the Coto Doñana National Park. Did your early life give you an affinity with the natural world?
CM: I come from Las Cabezas de San Juan, a town near Seville. Spain in general, but Andalusia in particular, is suffering from the effects of desertification. Much of Las Cabezas’ economy is sustained by cotton, vegetables and cereal farming; in fact, my father used to grow cotton and wheat. So the well-being of Andalusian families like mine is closely related to the state of the soil. If the soil is degraded, the economy of the people in my town – like that of all inhabitants of drylands – is at risk. In fact, for some time now, the number of farmers in the area has been falling.
TUNZA: The history of Andalusia is one of great agricultural production thanks to careful water management, initially by the Moors. Did that, too, give you a particular understanding of drylands?
CM: Drylands set the scene for my childhood and adolescence. And it was a wonderful setting. I was with people who worked and lived on the land. I do remember problems with drought and years of poor productivity – we have always suffered from water shortages, especially in the summer. I remember a big tanker coming to deliver water to all the families…
But over the years I have learned that drylands aren’t necessarily negative. They create the most beautiful landscapes and a very pleasant climate. But almost half of Andalusia is arable, so conservation depends on its good management. And thanks to many thousand-year-old soil management techniques – including those introduced by the Moors, now known as traditional knowledge – it is possible for us to enjoy this land and its wonderful ecosystems and work it in a sustainable way, without degrading it.
TUNZA: Could you tell us about your concerns about desertification?
CM: My profession has allowed me to travel all over the globe and visit wonderful places, including very different ones from those of my childhood. I was shocked to find that so many of the countries suffering from poverty also suffer from desertification, but then I learned that this is no coincidence – most of the world’s dryland populations are in developing countries. I also realized that many of these countries are far worse off than we are in Spain. I don’t mean to say that desertification is not a serious problem for us: 35 per cent of Spain is at risk of desertification and this increases to 75 per cent if you consider the characteristics of our climate. However, there are various techniques to combat desertification that also help to reduce poverty. I am firmly convinced that, united, we can transform our concerns into specific action to reverse the processes of soil degradation.
TUNZA: Do you feel that desertification is really about climate change, or have other factors had a major influence?
CM: The effects of climate change on drylands are complex and its impact uncertain. Desertification is a phenomenon involving water shortage and soil degradation. Productivity suffers, reducing people’s capacity to live off the land and increasing the levels of poverty. This leads to overexploitation of resources and the forced migration of at least some of the people. Though it is true that desertification is a response to a combination of natural factors (exacerbated by climate change), it is also a response to human factors, such as forest fires, poor agricultural methods, rural exodus or the unsustainable exploitation of water resources.
And the relationship between climate change and desertification is not just one-way. The soil can act as a powerful instrument to fight climate change. About 20 per cent of the carbon dioxide produced by humans is captured by the soil. Conversely, erosion reduces the soil’s capacity to sequester carbon and actually emits it to the atmosphere.
TUNZA: Do you think that desertification will become a big issue for your homeland and its people?
CM: Economic development and the industrialization of Spain during the second half of the last century happened so fast that the environment has been destabilized. The fight against desertification now requires decisive action by the public sector. If measures such as early warning and monitoring are to be effective, the issue must be prioritized both on the world agenda and as a matter of public awareness, working closely with those who actually use the land. Much has already been achieved, both at institutional and scientific levels, but there is still much to be done. Spain plays a vital role in the UNCCD, for which I am an Ambassador.
TUNZA: How can we all help? Do you have a particular message for our readers, the youth of the world?
CM: I think a good start would be to realize that desertification is a serious problem, a sign of unsustainable land management. People who are aware of the enormous value of the soil, who sustain and nurture it, can promote initiatives to preserve it, and can raise people’s awareness that preserving the soil means preserving their future. Responsible consumption is an important part of this. I would also like to see policy makers take full account of collective opinion. In fact, only if we remain united and are aware of the causes of desertification will we be able to reverse the process.
Desertification has far-reaching consequences; it is a global problem affecting all countries without exception. The young people of the world not only have a vital role to play – they are the key to the future.