In 2019, we remembered—and some celebrated—the tenth anniversary of the opening of the Bracons Tunnel through the Vall d’en Bas region of Catalonia. In 2020, we will commemorate the beginning of the opposition movement, a confrontational debate that lasted fifteen years. In Catalonia, few socio-environmental conflicts have lasted so long, and few have, as they say, spilled so much ink.
The tunnel project first saw the light at the end of 1994. The local conservative political party and the main economic sectors of the county seat of Olot congratulated themselves when they presented the project to the public. However, there were numerous concerns from residents: the effects on the natural surroundings, increased traffic, loss of farmland, other changes in land use, an eyesore in an otherwise pristine area, and the cultural impacts of dividing the valley by an elevated viaduct. These concerns anticipated unwelcome industrial and urban growth in their historically rural, agricultural community. With the valley split in two, their sense of belonging would disappear.
The opposition to the Bracons Tunnel constituted an innovation in the country. The people of Garrotxa County were hardly used to social conflict since the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. When the Salvem les Valls (“Let’s Save the Valleys”) movement emerged in response to the tunnel in 1995, it was a surprise to politicians and business managers accustomed to governing without obstruction.
At the beginning, the movement did not have a clearly ecological perspective. Locals began to realize the environmental impacts of this new infrastructure when organizations like the Naturalist and Ecological Association of Garrotxa and the Association of Naturalists of Girona offered their support. Little by little, their arguments pivoted from quality of life to the impact on the environment. While Salvem les Valls maintained a strong presence within the Vall d’en Bas, it also built a network of allies who reinforced its mission and social influence far beyond the municipal boundaries. A wave of mobilizations against the tunnel surged throughout the country.
In the 1990s, several environmental battles were taking place across Catalonia: the defense of the Ebro Delta, the installation of very high voltage power lines, increasing urbanization, and a new expressway around the city of Barcelona. The opposition to the Bracons Tunnel became an example of a new type of movement. Organizers widened their reach by raising the ecological awareness of the affected population.
The majority of those who initiated the movement did not come directly from environmental organizations. Rather, they were citizens genuinely concerned about their environment. This paradigm shift indicated a new kind of social consciousness. The movement slowly acquired an ecological focus that reinforced the local arguments, validating their intuitions and initial motivations. In a process of extraordinarily rich social and scientific learning, the profoundly fruitful relationship between social activists and experts and scientists became unstoppable—regardless of the eventual construction of the Bracons Tunnel.
During the fifteen years of mobilization, Salvem les Valls organizers carried out actions of great variety and intensity both in the Vall d’en Bas and beyond: informative events, mass demonstrations, artistic performances, studies of alternatives, manifestos by experts and scientists, administrative disputes, and environmental impact studies. They established political and social contacts, including in the European Parliament. Their actions attracted the media, which in turn amplified their concerns.
Their arguments came not from repeated atavisms but rather scientific research that directly called into question the need for the roadway and the tunnel. In 2003, some 600 scientists from different Catalan universities and areas of expertise—plus more than forty economists—signed a manifesto that requested the termination of the work and the reconsideration of the project. It seemed like a great moral victory for Salvem les Valls.
The Bracons conflict is undoubtedly representative of an agonizing and contradictory time of social change, when the old hasn’t yet died and the new isn’t yet born—somewhere between new roads as the capitalist pinnacle of success and a modern search for alternative modes. In the background lies the idea of progress as hegemonic, a philosophy we inherit from the Age of Enlightenment. The relationship between humanity and nature is based on domination, constant transformation, and immediate use. Economic growth and business profits become their main authoritarian indicator.
The main argument of the Bracons Tunnel defenders was that it would save the Vall d’en Bas from isolation and stagnation. Ultimately, it was the blind and unfounded political will of the pork industries, among others, that led to the continuation of the drilling of the tunnel. The project broke ground in 2003 and opened to motorists in 2009.
Today, even with the fluctuations of the economic crisis that began in 2008, it is difficult to appreciate or even see any of the claimed benefits of the Bracons Tunnel. The developers, forced for the first time to justify great investments that also meant a heavy environmental impact, were sadly dissatisfied. It did not bring the kind of wealth they expected. It hurt tourism in the Vall d’en Bas, because with easier access through the tunnel, visitors could now come and go in a day instead of staying several nights. If there were one positive outcome of the conflict, it was the creation of a new wave of environmentalists.
Twenty-five years after the outbreak of the conflict, the black clouds of climate change give more meaning than ever to that early opposition. From the resistance to the tunnel emerged a popular and legitimate discourse against an expressway. Those who perceived in Bracons a shift that would not be as positive as the political and business sectors proposed are validated today. Our dependence on cars and roadways is causing serious damage to the planet. Neighbors, who have seen how their quality of life is reduced, now count the number of cars and especially trucks linked to the pork industry circulating constantly in front of their doors.
If the tunnel project were proposed today, justifying it would be even more difficult. With an uncertain environmental future, we must seriously change our way of life and our methods of transportation. An era of irrational hypermobility will reach its end, dropping us off at the doors of an energy crisis of global proportions. We must focus on generating networks of collaboration to help us break the pattern of extreme growth. All our attention should go to finding ways to peacefully inhabit the planet, living better but with less.
The impacts we have seen and will continue to see validate the brief statement that Salvem les Valls activists wrote on a banner at the last rally, the day the tunnel was inaugurated on April 2009: “Bracons was not necessary.” Short but true.
Raül Valls i Lucea is the president of Salvem les Valls and a member of the Center for Territorial Sustainability.