Translated from the original Dutch article by Maarten van der Schaaf, which appeared in the February 2019 edition of Down to Earth magazine
Camping for a Fertile Earth
Had enough of the depressing talk about biodiversity loss and climate change? At Ecosystem Restoration Camps everyone who wants to do something about it is welcome. Maarten van der Schaaf travelled to Spain and rolled up his sleeves.
Article by Maarten van der Schaaf Photos Levien van Zon
If you type ‘La Junquera, Múrcia’ into Google Maps, you will find a hamlet with five barns, a handful of houses and crumbling ruins. To the north-east of the village is a huge solar park. Somewhat to the south is a green oasis. There the Quípar wells up, a river that flows into the Mediterranean Sea. When you zoom out, you are shocked: no green fruitful landscape, but an endless, yellow-white expanse. Welcome to desertified Spain.
If you look closely, you will see a small garden between the houses and ruins of La Junquera. There lies the headquarters of the world’s first Ecosystem Restoration Camp. Volunteers from all over the world are working here at Camp Altiplano on the recovery of five hectares of degraded agricultural land – the result of decades of industrial farming and overgrazing. Since 2017, they have had the land on loan from Spanish landowner, Alfonso Chico de Guzman, a local pioneer of regenerative agriculture. This is agriculture that, in the words of the famous eco-farming champion, Joel Salatin, “heals, instead of agriculture that harms the soil, water, animal species and the community”.
In reality, the environment may look even more apocalyptic than on Google Maps. On a gray October day, I am guided by the British volunteer Jonathan Church. Church co-ordinates the land restoration activities. On our way to the camp we pass hills full of young almond trees that extend for kilometers in tight rows. There are white plastic protective covers around all the trees, which remind me of a Second World War cemetery. Almost nothing grows between the trees. Camp Altiplano is located in the middle of this monocultural landscape. From a distance you recognize the camp by three large white tents and, in the distance, two Mongolian yurts. “In order to welcome volunteers, we started with the construction of basic facilities such as accommodation, compost toilets and a covered kitchen,” says Church.
To provide the camp with water, owner De Guzman has dug three basins higher up. Rainwater is collected there for spraying the vegetable garden. The ponds also form a good breeding ground for frogs, water snakes and insects. At night, all kinds of wild animals drink here.
In the garden grow courgettes, aubergines, tomatoes, pumpkins, lettuce and corn. “We eat vegetables from our own land every day,” says Church. Further on is a foil greenhouse in which cuttings can be grown – but that is not yet in full use. Large holes have been dug on the adjacent piece of land to plant five hundred almond trees this winter. “This will not become a monocultural landscape, like the other fields in the area, but forestry,” says Church. “We mix almond trees, herbs, nitrogen-fixing trees and bushes.”
When we plant sage, thyme, rosemary and lavender together later that afternoon, Church explains how they want to revive this ecosystem. “When we just started, we carried out an analysis of the soil. This showed that there were very few different microorganisms and fungi in it. That is the result of decades of monoculture and ploughing. Fungi and bacteria convert minerals and organic matter into food for plants and are therefore essential for a well-functioning food system.” He points to a thinly forested mountain in the distance. “To enrich the soil we have extracted fungi from that forest. With this we have made our own brew, with all kinds of indigenous seeds and seeds from permanent soil-covering varieties. We spray this so-called compost tea over the land.”
Regenerative agriculture against climate change
Regenerative agriculture ensures that carbon-rich organic material is extracted. Plants are better rooted, nutrients are absorbed better, water is retained more easily, biodiversity is increased, resistance to plant diseases increases and soil fertility improves. According to environmental activist Paul Hawken, author of the book Drawdown, the most comprehensive plan ever to reverse climate breakdown, regenerative agriculture worldwide can extract 60 to 150 tons of CO2 out of the air in 10 years per hectare.
The volunteers also dug trenches that drain rainwater more slowly and spread it more efficiently. The herbs that we plant in the rocky earth are next to those trenches. “The idea is that their roots suck up the rainwater that runs alongside them,” explains Church. At the edge of the land, at the steepest spots, there are low stone walls. “They provide terrace formations and reduce erosion. Without this intervention, a strong downpour can wash away in one go the valuable top layer that we are trying to restore.”
The interventions seem to be yielding results after eighteen months. “After the fall of the first rains this autumn, the land that we have cultivated became green much faster than the surrounding fields. One day when it was pouring from the sky, the water flowed like a river over the ploughed land next door, but not on this land. “
Once the land has been brought back to life, regenerative agriculture must then ensure that the ecosystem enriches itself. That is also the vision of thirty-year-old landowner De Guzman. “My family has owned 1,700 hectares of farmland here for five generations,” he says in his house in La Junquera. “As a child, I often asked my father why he did not just sell all that land. I myself was not interested in it. “
That changed during his studies in Boston. While shopping at Whole Foods, De Guzman discovered the growing demand for organic products. In the knowledge that trends from the United States usually pass to Europe, De Guzman concluded that when he returned to Spain he wanted to start farming his family’s land. He moved to La Junquera, refurbished one of the dilapidated houses and joined the local organic farmers’ cooperative AlVelAl. This is how he came into contact with John Liu, the initiator of Ecosystem Restoration Camps.
The Chinese-American filmmaker, John Liu, is a fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Ecology (NIOO-KNAW). He has been engaged in the rehabilitation of large-scale ecosystems for twenty years.
In the nineties he filmed the transformation of the Chinese Loess plateau from exhausted desert to flourishing landscape. He then participated in the inception of the Dutch foundation, Commonland, which invests in large-scale ecosystem recovery. After screening the documentaries Green Gold (2012) and Green Gold 2 (2014), which he made for Dutch public broadcaster, VPRO, Liu received many enthusiastic reactions from viewers. That led him to start Ecosystem Restoration Camps. “Let’s go camping to restore the Earth and ourselves!”, Liu now announces wherever he goes.
“The goal is to create places where everyone can come to learn about ecosystem restoration and actually get to work on it”, says Liu. The Ecosystem Restoration Camps foundation established in The Netherlands holds the overall vision and provides start-up financing. The individual camps operate independently and organize themselves. Camp Altiplano in Spain opened in 2017; in March 2019 a camp will follow on the Guanajuato plateau in Central Mexico. There are also camps in formation in Nepal, Kenya and California. Liu outlines his ideal image. “Above all, the camps must be fun and inspiring. You learn, for example, how to make a compost toilet and which trees you have to plant to fix nitrogen in the soil. You work in small teams for up to five hours a day and then eat delicious organic food from your own land.”
On the Spanish plateau, nine volunteers from the United States, Great Britain, The Netherlands and Israel sit like a large family at a long dining table. The Israeli, Dori Shredel, puts a steaming bean stew on the table, and the wine glasses are filled. The mood is elated, there is loud talk and a lot of laughter. Yet it is not always as convivial as this, admits British biologist Frances Osborn who has been helping here for a year. “The physical work is heavy and socially it is sometimes quite tough. Volunteers come and go. There is hardly any privacy: all tents and rooms are shared. And nobody lives here except for the volunteers. The nearest bar or shop is ten kilometers away. “
“We make decisions together,” Osborn continues. “So we have to consult a lot and talk about our disagreements.” During a meeting I notice that not everyone always has patience for that. When a fairly insignificant theme is talked about for a few minutes, a volunteer snaps at one of his colleagues. The chairman, who changes weekly, calls him to order. “If you do not feel like being here, you don’t have to be,” she says kindly. The irritated volunteer apologizes and leaves. “I’ll come back for the next discussion point, is that okay?”
“You work in small teams for up to five hours a day and then eat delicious organic food from your own land.”
The next agenda item concerns the upcoming weekend in which the camp will receive volunteers from the area. It is jointly decided that the extra manpower is used for the restoration of a ruin into accommodation. “There is a lot to be planted this winter,” explains Church. “We need a lot of people for that. We must be able to provide decent housing. It can get pretty cold here in the winter.” He sighs. “There is so much more to do. But our resources are limited.”
But money is not the biggest challenge, according to Liu. “For the camp in Múrcia, crowdfunding raised more than thirty-five thousand euros in just a few weeks. In the end it is mainly about increasing the awareness of people around the world. We need everyone.”
When I am in my tent at night, I wonder: how long will it take for Liu’s message to land on a massive scale? There’s thunder and lightning above Camp Altiplano. The thunderstorm stays for more than an hour, because there’s hardly any wind. Then the rain pours.
Find out how to get involved at www.ecosystemrestorationcamps.org.