The monastery was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991, and this gave rise to an ecological conversion process which has in turn led to the intelligent management of the site
The Cistercian community has developed action plans for all major environmental areas, which always start by analysing current situations and proposing specific targets for each area
The cultural and natural heritage is a gift that has to be passed on the future generations with all its integrity, and serving spiritual criteria that give life its full meaning
The Santa Maria de Poblet Monastery is one of the largest medieval monastic complexes in Western Europe.
Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1991, and having been managed by a Cistercian community for eight centuries (1151-1835 and 1940-present), it is undergoing a process of ecological conversion that has led to intelligent management. The Monastery, a pantheon of the kings and queens of the former Crown of Aragon, is located within a National Natural Interest Area, which was established by the Government of Catalonia in 1984, and became part of the European Natura 2000 network in 2006. The monastic community, one of the oldest and most sustainable democratic organisations in Europe, has managed the estate and its surroundings since its inception using prudence, frugality, self-sufficiency, authenticity, real communion and stability (resilience) as its criteria, and through the development of what is now called best practices in the fields of agriculture, forestry and hydraulics.
In 2007, after a short period coinciding with the economic boom years of the society at large in the last decades of the last century and consistent with its principles, the community began its personal ecological conversion process. This process has prioritised all its activity in intelligently searching for sustainability and efficiency, and is deployed in three main areas:
- Application of environmental justice criteria to all the monastery’s facilities, based on the principles of the Cistercian monastic tradition and the secular principles of sustainability (product life cycle analysis, etc.).
- Effective protection of the agricultural landscape and the surrounding forest as well as its gardens, improving ecological integrity, silence and beauty.
- Making visitors aware of the responsibility we all have to meet environmental challenges, from spiritual and moral principles, improving coordination with the managers of protected areas, local educational services and developing their own educational programs.
In this way Poblet’s Cisterian community has developed action plans for all major environmental areas, which always start by analysing current situations and proposing specific targets for each area. In five years, Poblet has achieved quite remarkable results, and is on course to achieving all the goals unanimously approved by the community.
With regard to energy and greenhouse gas emissions, the community has proposed gradually replacing fossil fuels with alternative sources of clean energy to reduce CO2 emissions and other pollutants, while also reducing noise and light pollution. To achieve these goals a power audit was conducted which recommended the standardisation of meters and the introduction of high efficiency lighting. Photovoltaic conversion lamps have been introduced (without mains connection); two photovoltaic production plants using cutting-edge technologies have been installed, and various solar powered domestic hot water production systems, all of which are well integrated into the monument. Diesel boilers have been reduced by 70% and those remaining have been connected in a heating ring that serves all the monastery’s premises (about 1200m2) which currently results in a 50% saving on oil consumption. Furthermore, the community plans to build a photovoltaic pergola in the outdoor carpark that is capable of supplying all the electricity that is consumed, and to introduce vertical axis wind microgenerators that can be integrated into all the monastery’s towers. Finally, in order to achieve maximum hydrocarbon reduction, a pilot project is underway: a production plant for heat and power derived from biomass by pyrolysis: this is a combustion process with a low oxygen presence, and as well as energy this generates a special type of organic carbon (biochar) which incorporates atmospheric CO2 into its structure. It also retains many of the original biomass fertilizer’s properties so it can be used as natural fertiliser, thus avoiding the use of synthetic fertilisers. The biomass for the plant is expected to come from the sustainable management of the forests near the monastery, as well as tree pruning in the surrounding areas.
Regarding water management, the community proposed to reduce consumption, collect rainwater for irrigation and minimise the pollution of both surface water and groundwater, and remove every type of detergent, chemical fertiliser and biocide. To achieve this, an audit of the water distribution network was conducted, which allowed the identification and quantification of losses and any operating problems with pumps and tanks. Work began to repair the network and a ring was created for distribution only. Moreover, ecological showers which reduce the consumption of water by 65% and allow washing without soap, thanks to the introduction of the Lenard effect. Tap diffusers and underground drip-drip irrigation have been introduced. As a result, the total water consumption in Poblet has been reduced by 95%, despite an increase in the on campus resident population and with the commissioning of the new external inn, with a restaurant and fifty rooms. It should be noted that the reduced water consumption helps to maintain a more constant pressure, which has eliminated various electric pumps from the distribution network, thus saving energy. The next planned steps are the introduction of high efficiency irrigation systems in all gardens and the implementation of rainwater storage systems, for which a collection system for water discharging into the main cloister has already been built.
The vegetable patches and gardens have also entered into the conversion process. The community wants to increase its self-sufficiency in food as much as possible, so it is expected to recover orchard and fruit crop areas, which are already being managed with organic farming techniques. Many of the gardens in the monastery premises are currently dominated by grasses with high water and chemical fertiliser consumption. They want to change them for Mediterranean gardens, which have low water consumption and environmental management. This has already begun in the main cloister’s garden
Regarding waste, and beyond the conventional choices, the community has proposed combining different minimising strategies at source: own production, buying products in bulk or which come in large containers, and also turning organic waste into compost for vegetable patches, orchards and gardens. So far this has managed to substantially reduce the amount of inorganic waste; many chemical pollutants have been eliminated and turning the “all orgànic” waste into compost has been achieved by using a Japanese technology based on bacteria.
Regarding mobility, vehicle limitations have been implemented within the monastery’s premises eaving a pedestrian area. A project is being developed to convert the large outdoor carpark into a sustainable one that will produce photovoltaic energy in a safer and more pleasant way, enhancing its integration into the surrounding agricultural countryside. A strategy is also being prepared to reduce the environmental impact of visitors who come to Poblet.
In addition, the monastery has contributed to improving the management of the National Natural Forest of Interest and the environment, promoting the development of Forest Guidelines, which were approved by the Governing Board in 2008, and promoting their application in the magnificent Mediterranean forests of which it is comprised.
Therefore, Poblet Monastery’s organic conversion process is underway and has already had good results, although much remains to be done. The challenges it faces are important both for the extraordinary monumental character that this World Heritage Site has, and the high number of visitors it receives. The centuries-old monastic community continues to work hard for the environment that welcomed Ramón Berenguer IV nine centuries ago to guard and protect it, promoting truly sustainable development based on respect for all creation, and considering that all cultural and natural heritage are gifts to be passed on to future generations in all their integrity from spiritual criteria that give a full meaning to life.
by Lluc Torcal – Josep M. Mallarach