Because of its dramatic relief patterns and chronic shortage of water in many areas, La Gomera faces problems in developing agriculture and further human settlements. The agricultural areas first expanded along the valley floors, where there was some possibility of access to water and also in the intermediate areas between the monteverde and the coastal strip, where there was some presence of humidity.
However, as the population grew, pressure on the outlying areas increased and some of them were occupied and the steepness was offset by the construction of banks, which served to retain the soil and achieve some minimum space for the cultivation of crops. Fruit of the immense efforts made by generation after generation of the island’s inhabitants, the blanket of artificial banks which covers vast areas of the islands’s terrain, climbing the steep mountainside, often in a way that seems incredible, and hewing out diminutive areas of level soil, creates a unique agricultural landscape which must be one of the most singular features of La Gomera.
At the same time, the relative scarcity of water meant that it had to be fetched from the freshwater springs and carried to the cultivated fields. This led to the development of an entire water culture, in which there were organised systems involving the entire community in the watering of crops. The results of this, in the form of canals, water tanks and so on, can still be seen today throughout the agricultural landscape of La Gomera.
The islands’s isolation also led to a need to produce a little of everything, in a system which we nowadays refer to as subsistence agriculture: each family had to produce different products. Cereal crops took up large surface areas and close to them sheds were built where the crops could be threshed. In the streamlets of northern La Gomera, water mills were built for obtaining flour and gofio. The vines, fruit trees and vegetable plots filled the remaining space. Especially vital was the vegetable gardening which produced a wide variety of products such as potatoes, corn, cabbage, pumpkins, yams, etc., all destined for local consumption.
With the introduction of the banana at the beginning of the 20th century, an exuberant subtropical landscape was created which flourished along the valley floors of La Gomera. And although this landscape is more typical of a more humid area, it added an agreeable touch of permanent greenery. Meanwhile, the other main export crop, the tomato, was spreading over the slopes of the south of the island. The success of both of these crops led to an increase in the number of canals, water tanks and later, reservoirs being built throughout La Gomera.
With the collapse of the traditional economy and the onset of emigration in the sixties, there began a process of depopulation in the country areas. All of this is clearly reflected in the present-day landscape of La Gomera. Today, we see that the majority of the mountainside banks and terraces which were previously planted with cereals have now become uncultivated land, used only by some wandering herds of goats under the eye of the herdsman.
Whereas some decades ago the island was self-sufficient in terms of food, today a large proportion of the islanders’ foodstuff is brought in from outside sources and the island’s agriculture continues to lose ground with the accompanying loss of much that is special about the landscape and culture. The abandonment of agriculture is undoubtedly one of the biggest problems facing La Gomera.