Celebrating 25 years at Sunseed Desert Technology, Spain

Posted by MH
Thursday, 15th December 2011

This year Sunseed celebrates 25 years of hard work and play in the oasis valley of Los Molinos, within a natural park nestled among the arid lands of Almería in southern Spain. The challenge of encapsulating the myriad experiences of the thousands of volunteers, visitors and staff who have passed through here is a great one and we have set up a blog for past participants to share their memories and tell us where they are now. 

Sunseed is a British / Spanish charity researching re-vegetation techniques and working with international volunteers to give them hands on experience of low-impact living. We aim to develop, demonstrate and communicate accessible, low-tech methods of living sustainably; and although based in a semi-arid environment much of what people learn can be applied elsewhere, particularly for those who pick up some of our permaculture ways of interacting with natural systems. The unique characteristics of this valley and region offer an opportunity to practise that important feature of permaculture: Observe! The ecosystems here take some time to understand and appreciate.

The project comprises of seven departments: Sustainable Living (SL), Education Publicity and Fundraising (EPF), Eco-Construction and Maintainace (ECM), Appropriate Technology (AT), Organic Growing (OG), Dryland Management (DM). Each has a coordinator responsible for that department and for cooperating with the others on the many levels of community. Coordinators work together on the bilingual courses we run which include Solar Cooker building, Introduction to Permaculture, Thermal Mass Stove Construction, Composting, Make your own bamboo polytunnel, Breadmaking, Drystone walling, Soil fertility and Land Management of terraces, Construction of wind turbines, and PV panel installation.

Local links

Our relationship with the local area is healthy; this year we ran a six week program in the local high school on composting, companion planting, mycorrhiza, fertility building and native tree planting. Local crafts people have been involved in our most recent open day, with workshops on grass weaving and clay bowl making. More Spanish people from the region are volunteering with us and we are beginning to get involved with the development of a bioregional seedsaving group, as well as local and interregional permaculture groups. Local growers are willing and valuable sources of information on growing techniques and the traditional use of indigenous plants. We collaborate with other projects in the village to organise joint tours and educational experiences.

In the organic gardens we are experimenting with polycultures, developing our own seed stock, conducting a mycorrhiza trial, and caring for the almonds, figs, loquats, oranges, lemons, mulberries, apples, apricots, grapes and pomegranates that grow in abundance alongside the annual vegetable gardens. Last year we built a polytunnel from caña, a bamboo like plant that is prolific in the river. We use (and value!) this cana in many of our activities. (See the How To Guide below).

Although the winter sun is warming by day, the night temperatures make heating a critical issue. Three of our four houses have thermal mass stoves in them and we are working on ways to spread this heat more evenly throughout the buildings. We have one rocket stove and two Kachelofens, a German design that ensures efficient use of wood – 80% more efficient than a wood burner.

In the Drylands we have focused our experimental work to assist natural soil fertility using a succession of native species specifically native legumes, Retama, Anthyllis, and Carob as well as Agave which support healthy Mycorrhiza populations (as well as providing food) and distribute this throughout the vast areas of land we are stewarding. Our focus has changed from an original ideal of 're-greening the desert' via the planting of exotic trees to the redistribution of native vegetation and the enhancement of the rare and stunningly beautiful Gypsum landscape, flora and fauna we inhabit. However we are constantly interested and observing the natural systems to see where we can make improvements to traditional and scientific thinking. We work with permaculture design techniques for agriculture, water catchment, soil stability and erosion control on the terraces and within the drylands.

In the last week of October we had a conference week of workshops, talks, practical activities and storytelling to celebrate our 25 year anniversary. Our plans for the next 25 years include further protection and revegetation of the surrounding environment, spreading the ecological word from the center of an area desperately in need of water conservation and environmental and social concern – Almería region is covered in plastic greenhouses which supply tomatoes to Europe through the year with the consequence of depleting water bore holes and terrible working conditions.

We are also investigating the introduction of a bio char research project as a source of carbon sequestration and long term dryland fertility, as well as continuing our development of mycorrhiza inoculation techniques in both the gardens and the drylands. We welcome volunteers of all ages, interests and abilities and if you would like to volunteer with us and gain some further knowledge and hands on experience look for our website application form at www.sunseed.org.uk

For more information on any of our activities check out the website at www.sunseed.org.uk or email us at sunseedspain@arrakis.es

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