Keeping the Camino Clean

Keeping “The Camino” Clean: The Impact of Many Marked Footsteps on a Landscape

In celebration of Earth Day, Guest writer, Augusta Thomson, shares her perspective on sustainability and her research on the Camino de Santiago and how to keep the Camino clean.

I walk up a hill; the weight of my backpack forces me to move as quickly as possible— kicking earth and rocks out of my way. At the top of the incline, I meet an elderly woman with a cane. She nods at me. Behind her, a flock of sheep cover the field I must walk through. I sigh. I wish that she would just clear them out of my way. I do not stop to think that this is her land, that it has likely been in her family for generations, that I am a guest, and that really, it should be her right of way before mine.

Almost three years ago, I undertook my first five-hundred-mile trek. In September 2015, I walked along the Santiago de Compostela, a thousand-year-old pilgrimage route beginning in St. Jean Pied de Port (a small town in the Basque region of Spain) and continuing to Santiago de Compostela, a moderate city in the west of Galicia.

Keep the camino clean pilgrim

Some of the questions I’ve been asking (without finding answers, of course) are:

  • Is sustainable tourism actually a thing (Many hostel owners have emphasized the sustainability of their albergues, and yet, this is contested by other members of the communities)?
  • Who is in charge of cleaning up the Camino, and what will happen if numbers continue to rise?
  • Will there be enough resources to foster the infrastructure needed to sustain the growth in peregrinos (pilgrims)?
  • Given the quantity of discarded waste along the Camino de Santiago, whose responsibility is it to ensure that the landscape and ecosystem remain preserved and protected?
  • How can pilgrims be better educated, so that they can make informed decisions that support local, environmentally-conscious and community-based agriculture and crafting?
  • And what is my responsibility as a researcher to ensure that what I discover is made accessible to as many people as possible? Do I have a responsibility to offer solutions?

All this begs a larger question about our responsibility to the planet more generally. If we are all implicated in the environmental degradation, how can we work together to think through wise, culturally-sensitive, and long-lasting solutions?

The Camino

How to keep the beautiful Camino Clean? Photo credit: Augusta Thomson

Is tourism always positive on the Camino?

There’s a steadily increasing number of pilgrims on the Camino.

At first glance, this increase in tourists appears to be a positive thing for towns and businesses along the pilgrimage route; but it is becoming more and more environmentally and socially contentious. While tourism contributed 14.5% of Spain’s GDP in 2016,[1]  and Spain was ranked the most common tourism destination in the EU that year,[2] recent Barcelona protests against tourists suggest that this economic growth is far from universally celebrated.[3] As the demand for pilgrim hostels along the Camino de Santiago grows, business moguls from Barcelona and Madrid are investing in properties, to the chagrin of local landholders, who lack the capital to maintain their own properties— as homes, let alone pilgrim hostels. This trend mirrors the 1960s, when large-scale agricultural organizations moved into the central region of Spain— taking over family-owned farms and forcing rural to urban migration.

Interestingly, the changes on the Camino are echoed throughout its history. Much of the Christian repopulation of the Spanish peninsula was facilitated by the pilgrimage route and its prominent supporters— the kings of Navarre, Castile, and Galicia. Merchants and artisans arrived and settled along the pilgrimage route, leading to the construction of an extensive infrastructure of bridges, roads, villages, and churches. Then, as now, the pilgrimage route facilitated widespread exchanges— traffic in goods and stories.

What has contributed to this increase in numbers?

Most likely, a variety of factors. More and more people are seeking respite from their fast-paced careers and daily lives. More and more people are looking for engaging travel experiences that involve extensive time outdoors, cultural immersion, and a robust community. Perhaps most interestingly, thanks to the experiences of a few travellers— shared via media outlets— the journey has gone viral over social media outlets. Not only did Emilio Estevez’s feature film, The Way (2010), spark a flurry of American interest in the pilgrimage route, but the French film, Pilgrims (2005); the documentary, Six Ways to Santiago, and more recently, I’ll Push You (2017) have sparked a trend in walking and documenting the pilgrimage route.

What’s unique about studying the Camino? What does it offer the wider sustainability community? And what can we learn about how to keep the Camino clean?

I think that studying the Camino challenges me to think more carefully about how we actually interact with the environment around us— particularly, about what it means to travel intentionally- paying attention to our surroundings and the way(s) we impact them.

Today’s trend of hyper-mobility can all too easily sweep away pressing concerns about the environment. A pristine forest can lead us to believe that our planet is doing just fine. It is too easy to neglect the spaces that are not our own, expecting that someone else will pick up after us (especially when we are “on vacation”). Perhaps, then, the first choice we can all make is to truly pay attention- to ourselves in/and our surroundings, because we are all essentially visitors. After all, the word for ‘pilgrim,’ comes from the Latin, “peregrinus,” meaning “foreigner.”

Anthropologists are notoriously bad at offering solutions, and yet, ethnography is one gateway to understanding what is meant by “problem” and “solution.” It will take the concerted effort of millions of individuals, communities, and corporations, to put our research into practice. Which is why I feel that tourism is one key place to start.

View of the camino

Photo credit: Augusta Thomson




Augusta Thomson
PhD Student in Anthropology at New York University
Featured in Waste & Recycling
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