Certainly there is a hint of come-hither tease in the way Tindaya rises from an arid, featureless plain. Its surface glows sandstone or ochre depending on the light, with the sea for a horizon line, and no foothills or encompassing sierra to spoil the contrast. But the most dramatic view is inland from the Malpas beach, three miles to the west.
Eyeball impact surely encouraged Fuerteventura’s original inhabitants to regard Tindaya as a special place. They were called Majoreros or Guanches and we actually know a fair amount about them. That is because extensive notes were made by the French brigands who showed up in 1403 and the Spaniards who subsequently took over their colonial franchise. They were astonished by the natives’ fair skin and hair, somatic similarities shared with the Berbers of northwest Africa, and figured they were on to one of the lost tribes of Israel.
Culturally, the Majoreros were a Neolithic people who arrived on the island sometime between 1,000 and 300 BC. The powerful sea currents that brought them to the Canaries also prevented them from leaving, until eventually they seem to have forgotten how to build boats. They went on to breed and made the best of it, never making contact with the neighboring islands, not even Lanzarote, visible across a narrow strait. Like the great auk, isolation made them a pushover for annihilation. Forced conversions and inter-racial marriage represent the gentler side of a genocidal process in which microbes and massacres also played their part. A century after the Europeans arrived, the Majoreros’ extinction was a done deal.
We know that Tindaya was special to them because of the podomorphs: trapezoidal markings with toe-like appendages representing what appear to be human feet. At one time, there were 253 of them and “in the entire archipelago there is no comparable site with such an abundance and variety,” says Antonio Tejero, Professor of Archeology at La Laguna University, who maintains that the figures are aligned with a sector of the horizon where the sun sets at the winter solstice. “Knowing that date is fundamental to agriculture, especially given the island’s desert-like climate,” says César Esteban, a colleague of Tejero’s in the Astrophysics Department. But why feet? Maybe the best answer to that is: why not feet? Actually, the motif is not uncommon in Berber North Africa.
Chillida, in the event, was not put off by prehistoric precursors. “I heard about these markings that absolutely could not be touched,” he said. “So I went up to see, these podomorphic incisions that are identical to my signature. Pretty strange, don’t you think? They were utterly neglected, anyone at all could go up there, and there was this one where right next to it somebody had scratched out a heart with ‘Maruja loves Joaquín’.”
Interesting how everything is interpreted in terms of himself. He was right about one thing, though. The podomorphs were neglected – in fact, nobody even knew they were there until 1977. Two decades later, a local ecology group reported 28 of them had been removed or mutilated. The damage could never be confirmed, because island authorities ordered Civil Guards to cordon the area off to “trespassers”. After all, Tindaya was a protected nature reserve and priority ecosystem, though not many people knew about it until Chillida showed up, and fewer still cared.
At this point, the mind’s eye is required to execute a reverse dolly shot to situate the mountain in its real-world context. Receding, it becomes clear that Fuerteventura is a desolate place. Exports of cochineal dye and barrilla stone (used in making soda lye) not being what they used to be, its big cash crop these days is tomatoes. They do well in the black volcanic soil, ripening when it is winter in the upper latitudes of mainland Spain.
The coastline forms a continuous dune ecosystem of wind-swept, cinnamon-bun beaches. Superb water sport facilities were built around Puerto Rosario, but that’s about it in terms of infrastructure. That can be a draw for a certain type of tourist interested in nudism, SUV trekking, windsurfing and other activities with a negligible add-on value; but not really the high-spenders islanders would be delighted to see descending upon them in vast numbers.
Instead, Fuerteventura has become the destination of last resort for illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa who set off from Morocco at a rate of 30, 50, or 80 a day in open skiffs painted blue to avoid Spanish Coast Guard spotter planes — history’s payback for the millions of Africans who were shipped over to restock the Canary Islands with slaves after the Guanches were gone. The same erratic winds and fierce currents that propel them to Fuerteventura make it a sure bet that on any given day, one or more flimsy vessels will capsize and dozens of bodies wash ashore, the famished, exhausted survivors to be rounded up and shipped out of the country.
A hardscrabble economy and beaches strewn with dead, black corpses does not jibe with what locals want for the odd island out in a chain that has come to rely on a diversified tourism base as its primary revenue spinner. That is why it was the politicians who approached Chillida in 1994, rather than the other way around, and they who undertook full responsibility for executing his project in a contract in which the ”socio-economic benefits to surrounding population centers” and “stimulating the creation of employment through the provision of services” were mentioned.
At the same time, they said, due safeguards would be taken to protect endemic or otherwise scarce species of plant and animal life that have their habitat on Tindaya, a natural accumulator of scarce water. Nauplius sericeus, a fragrant shrub with a daisy-like flower, is present on its slopes, while Caralluma burchardii, a succulent stem found only on the two eastern islands, can be fairly said to be on the edge of extinction. The Canary Island buzzard (Buteo buteo insularum) circles the heights along with the Berber falcon (Falco peregrinus pelegrinoides). Two dozen more species could easily be added to the list and it is not hard to imagine what would happen to them all under the deluge of dust raised when 4,406,000 cubic feet of solid rock is blasted out from their habitat …
So promises to be “100% respectful of the environment” were met with scofflaws from Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, and local groups. Chillida likewise upset minority political players loath to lose a “sacred” symbol of historical victimhood shrouded in indigenous ritual that served to rally the local variant of the navel-gazing nationalism that calls the political shots in most of Spain’s fractious regions. A sufficiency of fuss was raised. “Tindaya is at a standstill, and all because a bunch of vandals and ignoramuses who don’t know the first thing about art are sticking their noses in, God knows why,” grumbled Chillida.
Then, in 1998, an eruption of seismic sleaze abruptly changed everything. For years, miners had been chipping away at Tindaya to extract trachyte, a kind of black poryphry coveted by architects for use as cladding in skyscraper lobbies. Even when demand pushed up prices, the mining stayed low-key, perhaps because on paper at least, it was completely illegal. The mountain had been classified as a ‘don’t-mess-with’ protected space and nature reserve under three different statutes, in 1965, 1971 and 1997.
First the regional government bought back the mining rights and a consortium was formed to develop the project. It later emerged that one of the companies was pretty much the same outfit as before with some new people in it as deep-cover partners. Those turned out to be several prominent members of the regional legislature and other holders of public office.
The kicker is that proceeds from the sale of excavated stone was to be used to cover as much as possible of the project’s $60 million cost. But a check of market prices showed mineral revenues would amount to nearly three times the total amount and guess where all that money was heading? Lawmakers rushed to their Tindayagate damage control stations, appointing a committee to “determine responsibilities”. But at least the mountain was left alone while the project remained “under review”.
By that time, Chillida was suffering from deep depression attributed to his cumulative frustrations over Tindaya, but which, in retrospect, may be linked to the onset of his final illness. According to Andrés Sánchez Robaina, “I once brought this matter up in the context of a friendly conversation with Chillida, mentioning the dangerous change of direction that his idea had undergone since it was placed in the hands of politicians. Not unreasonably, the sculptor indicated his total lack of interest in the politico-economic aspects and said he was only concerned with the artistic ones”. Towards the end, Chillida even came to repudiate his dream, claiming “they” had ruined it for him, but his final word was “Tindaya will happen, even though I won’t be around to see it”.
The moratorium lasted four years, longer than Chillida did, and expired in the run-up to 2003 regional elections. In the meantime, a group of “concerned citizens” appeared on the scene, and once again there was talk about being “the executors of Chillida’s legacy” and how it could “do for us what the Pyramids have done for Egypt”.
At that time, a consultancy headed by the son of Chillida’s lifelong engineeering associate was awarded a multi-million-dollar contract to devise a “technical implementation” plan. The money will buy them a completion calendar nobody expects to be adhered to, but it will not include an environmental or archeological impact study or an elemental crunching of numbers to calculate its costs and potential return. We will not find out where all these transfigured humans are going to have a pee, buy their authorized souvenir T-shirts or down a Coke to ease the 95ºF heat. One might as well ask how they are supposed to get up there in the first place, seeing as it’s a shadeless quarter-mile trek to the entrance? Nor is the study likely to give odds on the mountain just caving in on top of those performing the trepanation — a possibility raised by mining engineers and geologists several times in the past.
So Fuerteventura lurches that much closer to what Schama termed “the substitution of landscape with manscape,” a fate that Mario Cabrera, Fuerteventura’s Cultural Affairs Secretary, thinks is certainly no worse than death of the slow economic variety. Getting Tindaya scooped out, cleaned up and open for business would be like “winning the lottery,” he said . And then quickly went on to qualify that with “I mean in its cultural, as well as its ecological or economic aspects. All are equally valid.”