Before tourism became the driving force behind Lanzarote’s economy, the locals relied on a diverse range of activities to earn their income. The island’s unique geographical features, coupled with the resilient spirit of its inhabitants, played a crucial role in shaping the various industries that sustained the local population. From agriculture to fishing and craftsmanship, Lanzarote’s residents found innovative ways to make a living long before the influx of tourists.
Agriculture formed the backbone of the island’s economy. Despite its arid climate and volcanic landscape, Lanzarote’s resourceful farmers implemented a remarkable technique called “jable” to cultivate crops. They created semi-circular volcanic stone walls, known as “zocos,” to protect the fields from the strong winds and trap moisture. The locals grew a variety of crops, including cereals, potatoes, onions, and tomatoes. These hardy farmers possessed an intimate understanding of the land, adapting their farming practices to the challenging conditions. The agricultural produce not only provided sustenance for the locals but also served as a source of trade with neighboring islands.
Coupled with this, Lanzaroteños used windmills to mill grain, and then traded or sold flour and gofio to the other islands.
Livestock farming, although challenging in Lanzarote’s volcanic terrain, also contributed to the local economy. Goats, sheep, and camels were reared for their meat, milk, and wool. These animals adapted well to the harsh environment and were an important source of sustenance for the island’s inhabitants. Camel caravans were a common sight, transporting goods and people across the island. The wool from the goats and sheep was used to produce textiles, which were either consumed locally or traded with other islands.
Fishing also played a significant role in the livelihoods of Lanzarote’s inhabitants. With its abundant marine resources and a long coastline, fishing became an essential industry. The fishermen braved the unpredictable Atlantic waters, relying on their expertise and traditional techniques to catch fish and seafood. They used simple yet effective tools such as nets, lines, and traps to secure their daily catch. The locally caught fish, including sardines, mackerel, and grouper, provided nourishment for the locals and could be sold in the island’s markets, sustaining a bustling trade.
Fishing grew into an international industry in Lanzarote in the 1960’s and 1970’s, with one of Europe’s largest sardine fleets based in Arrecife, and a succession of canneries in the capital processing the catch.
Craftsmanship and skilled trades were integral to the local economy as well. Lanzarote’s residents possessed a rich cultural heritage, which was reflected in their craftsmanship. Traditional pottery, woven baskets, and intricate lacework were highly prized and sought after by both locals and visitors. Skilled artisans meticulously crafted these items, drawing inspiration from the island’s natural surroundings and cultural traditions. Their expertise was passed down through generations, ensuring the preservation of these unique crafts. The production and sale of handmade goods provided a vital source of income for many families on the island.
Salt and Minerals
Furthermore, the extraction and processing of natural resources played a role in the local economy. The island’s volcanic terrain offered valuable resources such as pumice stone, salt, and minerals. Locals would extract these materials and trade them with other islands or the mainland. Salt pans were a common sight along Lanzarote’s coastlines, where seawater was evaporated to produce high-quality sea salt.
Cochineal farming played a significant role in the economy of Lanzarote for several centuries. Cochineal, a red dye derived from the cochineal insect (Dactylopius coccus), was highly prized and in great demand during the colonial era. Lanzarote’s favorable climate and volcanic soil created ideal conditions for cultivating the cochineal insect, making the island a prominent producer of this valuable commodity.
The cultivation of cochineal involved meticulous care and attention to detail. The farmers would cultivate the prickly pear cactus plants, known as “tunas,” which served as the primary host for the cochineal insects. These insects were small and lived on the cactus pads, feeding on the plant’s sap. The female cochineal insects produced a deep red pigment, which was harvested for its dye properties.
The process of harvesting cochineal involved careful collection of the insects from the cactus pads. The farmers would use brushes or small brushes made from horsehair to gently remove the insects, taking care not to damage their delicate bodies. The harvested insects were then dried and crushed to extract the valuable red dye.
The dye derived from cochineal was highly sought after for its vibrant and long-lasting properties. It was used in a variety of applications, including fabric dyeing, cosmetics, and even as a food coloring. The demand for cochineal dye was particularly high in Europe during the colonial period, leading to significant economic benefits for Lanzarote.
However, with the advent of synthetic dyes in the 19th century, the demand for cochineal declined, and the industry experienced a gradual decline. Today, cochineal farming on the island is not as prominent as it once was, but efforts have been made to preserve this traditional practice as part of Lanzarote’s cultural heritage. Cochineal farms can still be found on the island, attracting visitors interested in learning about this historical industry and its significance to the local economy.
Before tourism took center stage, Lanzarote’s economy was diversified and resilient. The locals employed their resourcefulness and deep connection with the land and sea to sustain themselves. Agriculture, fishing, craftsmanship, livestock farming, and the extraction of natural resources all contributed to the island’s economic prosperity. While tourism has undoubtedly transformed Lanzarote’s economy, it is crucial to acknowledge and appreciate the historical livelihoods that shaped the island’s rich cultural heritage.
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