How to Build Community - lessons from the desert

Sunset Desert Technology
Tuesday, 28th June 2016

Sunseed Desert Technology are celebrating 30 years of innovative projects and education. To celebrate they are sharing their tips for creating a sustainable community through education, volunteers, and communication.

In a forgotten corner of southern Spain, somewhere between Almeria's miles of industrial greenhouses and the Wild West film sets of Europe's only desert, lies a stunning oasis – and in it a curious experiment in communal living and learning.

Thirty years ago, Sunseed Desert Technology emerged out of the vision of a group of friends and colleagues to experiment with tools to combat desertification. Through many changes and challenges, the project has now evolved into a hands-on educational centre for all aspects of low-tech, sustainable living – and a dynamic, ever-changing international community of people united by a desire to find practical ways to live more lightly on the earth. 

Every year hundreds of volunteers come to experience what is often their first taste of community life, and start a journey towards a more sustainable way of living. Many come to learn permaculture techniques in the organic gardens, and experiment with water catchment and improving soil fertility in the Drylands department. Some come to get stuck into eco-construction, working with local materials such as caña (cane) to create structures harmonious with the arid desert surroundings. Others come to learn from the Appropriate Technology team the secrets of the project's solar ovens, haybox, parabolic cookers and gasifiers.

Though structured seminars and workshops are on offer, the focus is very much on learning by doing, and space is always open for a great deal of trial, and no little amount of error. This way of experimenting opens space for “invisible learning” – informal education that not only builds practical skill but also creative thinking and problem solving, not to mention the social and interpersonal skills required to work and live alongside dozens of people from all walks of life.

Over the years, this little village hidden away in a spectacular Andalucian valley has seen its fair share of joys and challenges. The project exists in an endless process of growth, change, and renewal: nothing stays still for long at Sunseed, but as it celebrates its 30th anniversary, the Sunseed team are looking back at what's been learnt from making a community strong – and what keeps it that way.

1. Grow your networks. Today, Sunseed is flourishing, and it's hard to imagine that there was a point in recent years when it was facing financial crisis and imminent closure. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of the staff team, not to mention the immense generosity of a wide network of friends and supporters in Spain and around the world, Sunseed has been able to move forward into a new period of abundance and growth.

Without time spent growing and maintaining networks, this might never. Regional permaculture groups, as well as national networks such as the Iberian Ecovillage Network, are invaluable resources and forums for communities where knowledge and learning can be shared with individuals and organisations who share the same values and experience the same challenges.

2. Embrace uncertainty: One of Sunseed's most unique characteristics is that staff terms are limited to three years at a time. This presents a number of challenges: questions around continuity and information transfer are ever-present; the ability to plan for the long-term can feel limited. Yet what is at times lost in this sense is gained in a system that encourages experimentation and nurtures the ability to let go of power and rigid roles, embraces change and the unexpected, and allows new ideas to take root.

It can be challenging for longer-standing community members to watch the same patterns, mistakes and questions occur with each new arrival, but letting go of this and allowing new wisdom to emerge from them is a source of immense value to any community. Term limits may not always be the answer, but finding ways to experiment with embracing uncertainty and change keeps a group fresh and alive.

3. Try, try, try again. How many times is too many to build a herb spiral? Make a polytunnel? The truth is, it doesn't matter. In a community that welcomes hundreds of volunteers every year and focuses on practical, self-directed education, the chances are that there are projects that will crop up like so many proverbial weeds... But every time you create something, no matter how many times it's been done before, somebody learns something new. Each new volunteer is on their own journey and will take their learning to a new space in the world once they leave. Innovation is great – but allowing people to work with tried and tested methods is just as important. 

4. No community is an island. Any community – especially one with such a transitory nature as Sunseed's – needs deep, broad roots to hold it up and help it flourish. Joining in with local activities, supporting community initiatives and connecting with other projects and campaigns is crucial. Every Tuesday Sunseed open its doors for a free tour, and often welcomes school groups from the region to come and experience community life first hand. They're astounded by the lack of gadgets – until the chance to give the bike-powered blender a try diverts their attention. Hearing them express their desire to come back in the future to live and work in the village offers hope and excitement for the future of Sunseed, and its place in the wider world. 

5. Don't neglect inner work. In a community based around practical experimentation, time for self care is easily forgotten, or subsumed into the rituals of cooking, cleaning, and meetings that keep daily life running smoothly. Making space for inner work may be met with resistance when practical or administrative work feels more pressing. However, time and again we remind ourselves that the principle of People Care starts with compassion for ourselves and for those close to us, and time spent engaging personally and empathetically with one another is never wasted. In the words of the great Wendell Berry, “conviviality is healing”, and communities are spaces of immense potential for human growth, where we can support one another and journey together towards a healthier connection with ourselves, our communities, and our planet.

The next 30 years?

True to the Sunseed ethos of embracing change, what the coming years hold depends very much on the inspiration, ideas, and flow of new energy that crosses its threshold every day with new staff and volunteers. However, its future may be shaped by other factors that will test their ingenuity and resourcefulness to the limit. In the driest region in Europe, the community depends on scarce and precious water resources that allow us to irrigate our crops, as well as other daily uses such as washing up and showering. In the village, Sunseed and other projects and families rely on an ancient Roman water line that channels water from deep underground, but in recent years this flow has rapidly decreased, posing a serious challenge to our way of life.

The aquifer that feeds the whole region is being hugely overexploited by the watering of the thousands of hectares of intensively planted olive groves – millions of trees -  that have appeared in the region over the last few years. These are entirely unsustainable and this type of cultivation, requiring heavy water use, is unsuitable for such an arid region. Sunseed is involved in local initiatives to fight these plantations and their exploitative water use, but the process is slow and the problem is immediate, as we and villages throughout the area witness water levels dropping dramatically year by year, month by month. 

Nevertheless, as so often, the problem may just turn out to be part of the solution. As this challenge turns focus towards innovation and education in water catchment and management, this may prove to be the beginning of a new chapter for Sunseed as it goes back to its roots as an experimental site for Desert Technology. We hope many more people will join us for the journey.

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Sunseed invites old friends and new to a week of celebration, talks and workshops this October 15-21. For more information please visit www.sunseed.org.uk/sunseeds-30th-anniversary/ 

To find out more about the overexploitation of the Alto Aguas aquifer and sign the petition, visit www.change.org/p/sos-nos-quitan-nuestra-agua-para-el-beneficio-de-unos-pocos-destruyen-el-r%C3%ADo-aguas

Further resources 

Celebrating 25 years at Sunseed Desert Technology

Greening the desert using permaculture

Desert or Paradise

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