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What is 'survivalism' and why is it getting so popular in Spain?

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What is 'survivalism' and why is it getting so popular in Spain?
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It’s a sunny day in the mountains, just an hour away from Madrid, the Spanish capital.

A group has come from all over the country to take part in an unusual outdoor activity.

"You can use this as an arrowhead, a spear point, or an axe blade. You can also use it to start a fire," explains an instructor, showing a thin piece of silex he just broke off a larger rock.

'Survivalism' versus 'preparationism'

It is one of the many survival courses organized throughout Spain. Participants are taught the basic skills needed to get through all manner of life-threatening scenarios.

Long-time survival instructor at 'the Spanish School of Survival' Juan Lopez is also a so-called “prepper”, or preparationist. A term defining those who are bracing for any disaster that could befall us at any time It's a belief that has been gaining ground with the pandemic says the instructor.

"People are beginning to think that living day by day is counterproductive," says Juan. "If we have the knowledge and can adapt our equipment to survive several days, then at the height of these pandemics, or of emergency situations, we can save ourselves."

Preparationism is gaining momentum in Spain, as it was hard hit by the pandemic. In less than a year, demand has increased by more than 30 percent according to Ignacio Ortega, the head of a survival school:

"One thing is to experience a survival situation if you are lost in the mountains. Another is to be in a survival situation when the whole State may be affected. When rescue teams, the social security system, the health system, collapse, people realize they can't rely on the help of outside professionals as they used to. So they need self-management, self-security. So it's normal that they seek training."

"Just in case"

The Covid-19 crisis won Pascual over to preparationism. The entrepreneur came all the way from Valencia, 4 hours away, to follow the course; He says he wants to learn what to do, in order to protect his family if the worst comes to the worst.

"What motivated me to come basically is the situation of uncertainty that we are experiencing. It's not as much that I worry about the pandemic, as about what can happen after," Pascual clarifies.

"The economic crisis we are suffering through and which we are going to suffer from for years. When State aid dries up, we may start seeing mass layoffs in companies and so on. You may see food shortages in the cities, situations of chaos, there may be revolts. So I'd rather take the initiative of preparing myself, just in case."

Preppers' communities are thriving on social media, where members exchange concerns and tips, to cope with potential catastrophes. Gaining access to their private sphere is not easy.

Survivalists shrouded in secrecy

One man who was supposed to show our crew some storage sites in Madrid changed his mind. It was the fourth time, a prepper who had agreed to this in different cities of Spain cancelled at the last minute.

One of our contacts did send us footage of the supplies he stocks in order to cope with potential disasters, on the condition of anonymity.

Fuel, survival kits, dehydrated or canned food, but also camouflage attire, anti-nuclear equipment, weapons and ammunition, are only a few of the items that preppers keep in individual or collective storage places, that are always kept secret.

"The grasshopper and the ant"

Born in the United States during the cold war, and sometimes linked to far rights ideologies survivalism developed in Europe in often less radical forms. The philosophy of those who describe themselves as neo-survivalists, or preppers, is nonetheless worrying in the eyes of sociologist Bertrand Vidal who is an expert on survivalism.

"Survivalists organise themselves in communities, they try to share the means to overcome adversity. To that end, they use the fable of the grasshopper and the ant," says Vidal. "On one side, are the grasshoppers, who didn't see winter coming, the catastrophe. Otherwise known as us. And on the other side, are the survivalists, the ants, who organise themselves, who stock up and get organised especially in communities, like colonies. To get through crises."

"They would be the chosen ones of the Apocalypse, the chosen ones of the next world, the winners, while we grasshoppers would be the losers, and nearly would deserve to die, during the end of the world that's imagined, but also hoped for, by the survivalists."

Sharing know-how

The next world is what the families we are meeting near the city of Toledo, south of Madrid, are bracing for. They are not among those who wish grasshoppers any harm but rather, they are willing to share their knowledge.

These seasoned preppers take us to one of their familiar spots, where they sometimes come to reconnect with nature, and ancestral techniques, like this underground oven, going back to prehistory. But what is a hobby today could one day serve a more serious purpose.

"One thing is to be prepared for what might happen, and another is to be prepared for those who might want to harm you," warns prepper and survival instructor Javier Garcia Serrano. "Because unfortunately, when something bad happens, there are always people out to kill, out to rob, out to plunder."

"So you must always try to hide your belongings, to bury basic items in places that only you know. That can get you out of trouble. I hope nothing will happen. But one day or another, it will come."

Gaia Survival School

Roberto and his wife Melania started Gaia Survival School a year ago. Burying goods in nature, in order to survive for several months, is part of their teachings. They prepared a preppers drum for us: medical equipment, canned food, seeds, candles, soap, ropes and knives, are just of few of the essential items of a preppers basic stocks. Once the drum is buried, a stone is used as a landmark to find it in case of need.

They make a demonstration for our camera, but the family's treasures are hidden elsewhere and in larger quantities.

"We are a family of 4 people, soon to be 5, so a bucket that small wouldn't be enough", explains Roberto Fernandez, founder of Gaïa Survival School.

"We have three crates buried in at least two different points in Spain. One of them contains all the medical equipment, another is for food, and the third contains everything we need for self-defence."

Valerie Gauriat - euronews

"Are you convinced that you will need to use all these things one day?"

Melania Moreno Vara - Co-founder of Gaia Survival School

"There can be natural disasters because the planet keeps getting in a worse and worse shape. There can be other pandemics. There can be all sorts of conflicts. So yes, I think I might have to use it one day. If I don't need to, it's better. But if I do, then it will be at hand."

Roberto Fernandez - Co-founder of Gaia Survival School

"There are people who think that those who are getting ready for that kind of thing, are mad. But it's not the case! What's better than to reconnect with nature, while preparing yourself for what could happen? Without being obsessed by it, and spending your days thinking that the world will collapse the next day. No, we're not getting ready for the end of the world, we're getting prepared in case the world ends."

Journalist • Valérie Gauriat