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Sunseed’s Spanish Oasis

Volunteers in Spain Learn How to Make the Desert Green

The Sunseed Desert Trust, www.sunseed.org.uk, located in the tiny village of Los Molinos del Rio Aguas in Southern Spain, is an oasis in every sense of the word.

Set in a desert moonscape in the midst of a nature preserve, Sunseed is immediately visible as a swathe of lush terraces and orchards against a backdrop of parched hillsides. Tucked into a tiny river valley, Sunseed, a British nonprofit which discovers ways to improve the environment in desertified areas of the world, straddles the only year-round water supply for miles around.

The project is run chiefly by volunteers, who help with environmental research in desert studies, soil rehabilitation, appropriate technology, and permaculture techniques. Sunseed also attempts to raise awareness of desertification through education and outreach and to promote sustainable living, not only through demonstration but also by using the same sustainable techniques within the community.

In desert or near-desert communities, such as those in Sunseed’s region of Southern Spain or in sub-Saharan Africa, a longer than average drought or even a demographic shift puts an extra strain on delicate dryland ecosystems. When existing shrubs and greenery are used up for fuel or animal fodder, topsoil dries out and blows away. What’s left behind is a hard unproductive soil called laterite desert, soil that demands lots of coaxing to bring it back into a productive state. In dryland or poverty-stricken areas, this process may take decades, and the land is often abandoned before it can be made fertile again. Communities move on, often tipping the balance in another dryland area, and the cycle begins again.

Sunseed addresses these problems with a two-fold mission: finding simple, sustainable ways for people in poor communities to reclaim this marginalized land and providing appropriate technology to help these communities better provide for themselves during this often very slow process. The purpose of the Andalousian branch of Sunseed is part research, part education with the opportunity for visitors to help out in a practical, ground-level way with research designed to help people in need.

Currently, volunteers and staff members are working to develop solar ovens and stills, low-technology tree nurseries, and terracing techniques that make maximum use of scant rainfall. The emphasis is on ultra-low-cost methods that can be applied in areas where people may earn just a few dollars a year and simple technologies that can be built and maintained by these communities without outside help.

Sunseed also works in its immediate area, raising and replanting native species of shrubs and trees pushed out by centuries of monocrop farming on marginal land. The results of this field work and other experiments are taken up by Sunseed’s sister organization in Tanzania and by other nonprofit organizations.

Finally, Sunseed provides an oasis from the workaday world by emphasizing simple living and commitment. A common problem with ecotourism is a feeling of disengagement. The conditions that visitors go home to at the end of their day are very different from what they’ve seen. Sunseed avoids this dilemma by having all its volunteers live as closely as possible to the tools and research they’re trying to develop. All sanitation, including washing and sewage facilities, is dealt with onsite. Electricity and running water are generated using solar panels and a water-powered ram pump. Most of the food is grown organically and prepared by volunteers. Perquisites include fresh-baked bread daily, dips in the local swimming hole alongside rare species of frogs and river turtles, and the freshest produce around.

When I came to Sunseed as a garden volunteer, the last thing I imagined myself doing was cracking dried earth with a hoe or bending over a bed of seed potatoes. But I got a tremendous feeling of satisfaction from harvesting the first figs, watching the eggplant I planted come into flower, and learning local irrigation and natural pesticide techniques.

No visitor to Los Molinos is allowed to sit on the sidelines, and volunteers immediately take charge of all aspects of their lives in a community where everything is accounted for.

More Information

Sunseed Desert Technology aims to develop, demonstrate and communicate accessible, low-tech methods of living sustainably in a semi-arid environment. They are based in the province of Almeria in the eastern part of Andalucia, Southern Spain.

Every year up to three hundred international volunteers come to work at Sunseed Desert Technology staying for between a week and several months. Volunteers can work in all of our departments which include: Appropriate Technology, Organic Gardening, Dryland Management and Construction and Maintenance. All volunteers and staff also share the communal cooking and cleaning duties. Volunteers pay a weekly donation towards food and accommodation, this money almost entirely funds the work of the project.

For more information on how to volunteer at Sunseed Desert Technology, or for information on their work, please contact the project or see the website www.sunseed.org.uk

Sunseed Desert Technology, Apdo 9, 04270 Sorbas, Almeria, Spain, sunseedspain@arrakis.es, tel. + 34 950 525 770

Sunseed Desert Technology is the Spanish Project of The Sunseed Trust Ltd (UK registered charity no. 1098353) and a registered Spanish Association (no. 162660).