In the Spanish provinces of Segovia, Ávila and Valladolid there is a hidden treasure.
There, in the middle of the Tierra de Pinares and the Sierra de Gredos, a thick forest of 400,000 hectares of resinous pines stretches towards the mountains.
Sheltered from the hot Spanish sun and lined with trails, this forest is a popular destination for locals and tourists.
And if you visit at the right time and look closely, you will see workers next to the trunks of the trees carrying out the centuries-old tradition of collecting the “liquid gold” of the pine.
A booming market
Pine resin was used by different civilizations for thousands of years.
In Spain and in much of the Mediterranean, it was used to waterproof ships, treat burns, and light torches, among other things.
But according to Alejandro Chozas, a professor in the department of forestry engineering at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, it was not until the 19th and 20th centuries that the extraction of pine resin became profitable in that Spanish region.
When technology and industrialization helped turn thick sap into plastics, varnishes, glues, tires, rubber, and even food additives in the mid-19th century, the owners of the dense forests of Pinus pinaster Castilla y León saw an opportunity.
Workers began to cut the bark of resin pines throughout the region to collect the valuable sap.
And although this slow process has stopped in much of the world, in the last decade it has seen a renaissance in Castilla y León, the place with the most resin manufacturers in all of Europe and one of the last in the continent where this practice persists.
From “death” to life “
Mariano Gómez was born in Ávila and worked for 32 years extracting pine resin.
“My father was a resin producer and I learned from him. At first he used lumberjack axes, but my hands hurt a lot. Today the tools are better designed for each task, (but still) they are manual,” he explained.
The extraction process was maintained practically unchanged since this industry began, but today’s resin manufacturers created more efficient and ergonomic tools, as well as chemicals that stimulate resin secretion.
As a result, yields and productivity were vastly improved.
What also changed was that in the past the extraction of resin was “to death” from trees, using very aggressive methods.
But, for some time there has been a change “to life”, with a practice in which the number of incisions in the bark is minimized, reducing the damage to the tree.
“Bleeding” the trees
In the warmer months of March to November, local growers carefully extract the resin from the pine trees by first removing the outer layer of the tree’s bark.
They nail a holder and place a collecting container. The pullers then use their axes to make diagonal incisions in the bark causing a “bleeding” from the trees and causing your resin to seep into the bucket. When they are full, they pour the sap into 200 kg containers.
Producers send the substance to distillation factories, which extract the turpentine from the resin that has a viscous, yellowish appearance that solidifies when cooled and turns into shiny amber stones.
During the boom in pine resin extraction in Spain in 1961, when 55,267 tons were extracted, more than 90% came from the forests of Castilla y León.
The lack of demand and the sharp drop in prices led production to decline and almost disappear in the 1990s. Many thought that this would be the end of this Spanish tradition.
In Castilla y León, resin has not only been an economic support for rural communities, but also a trade that is transmitted from generation to generation.
Many families have at least one person who has “bled” trees or participated in their distillation.
Much of the economic and social activity in these towns has always been marked by the resin industry and the communities maintain this legacy as an important part of their culture.
An ecological alternative to oil?
According to various studies, at the current rate of extraction, the Earth’s oil reserves are expected to be depleted around 2050.
Blanca Rodríguez-Chaves, vice dean of the law school of the Autonomous University of Madrid and an expert in environmental policies, believes that resin could be an alternative.
He argues that most petroleum-based products, such as plastic, for example, which is not biodegradable, can also be made with resin and break down more easily.
“Resin is the oil of the world today and of the future. The idea is that all uses of oil are replaced by resin, “he said.
“Plastics are already being manufactured from resin. (It is used) in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industry in addition to its applications in construction or in the manufacture of varnishes and glues. The forest is the great provider of renewable resources and energy that allows to substitute petroleum products. The resin plays the main role, “he said.
Proponents of pine resin also believe that it could offer a solution to the rural exodus from Spain.
According to a report by the Bank of Spain, 42% of the country’s localities are affected by depopulation because more and more young people are leaving the countryside to seek better job opportunities in the cities.
This phenomenon is aggravated in Castilla y León, where 80% of the municipalities of 14 provinces are considered “in danger of extinction”.
However, due to the new interest in pine resin, some young people have started to return.
Guillermo Arranz is one of them. He lives and works in Cuéllar (Segovia) and is the fourth generation of resin workers in his family.
“The pine forest is my office and the possibility of continuing to work in the place where I was born. What I like most about my job is the freedom of not having a boss, and of course, direct contact with nature and my people, “he said.
Vicente Rodríguez works as a resin producer in his hometown of Casavieja and is one of approximately 30 resin producers in Ávila.
“We are few. People are still surprised when they see us resin the pines. They think we are something of the past. But they do not understand that the future of these areas (is connected to) the resin,” he said.
Isabel Jiménez is one of the few women who extracts pine resin from the area. Given the harshness of the work, traditionally women’s work was limited to support tasks.
“I still remember when I started mining resin and men made jokes and bets on how many weeks it would last. And here I am three years later. I am a physically strong woman. Besides being a lifestyle for me and a source of income, This is my kingdom. My little piece of land on Earth“.
Autonomy at work and tourism
Approximately 95% of pine resin extraction in Spain is carried out in Castilla y León, and Arranz and Rodríguez believe that the best way to preserve these ancient forests is to give more control to the extractors themselves.
“The future is to allow resin producers to manage (their) own territory. If the government gave us help in exchange for cleaning or monitoring the mountains, we would work all year round and there would be many more resin workers willing to work in the mountains,” he said Rodriguez.
By attracting more young people to live and work in these rural towns, Rodríguez believes the region could see an increase in the ecotourism.
To help make this a reality, the resin-rich area of the Tiétar Valley (Ávila) has recently been nominated to become a Unesco-protected Biosphere Reserve.
There are also several museums where visitors can see the traditional cabins where the first workers slept and appreciate ancient tools, and several companies offer guided tours of the “Ruta de la Resina”.
On weekends, these lush forests can be filled with the sound of the footsteps of tourists who come to escape the bustle of the nearby cities.
But if you pay attention, you can hear the drop of the “liquid gold” of Spain while falling into the buckets hanging from the tree trunks.
Remember that you can receive notifications from BBC News Mundo. Download the latest version of our app and activate them so you don’t miss out on our best content.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.