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describes life and
work at Sunseed
in Andalucia in Spain, the British charity, The Sunseed Trust, established a small re- search station some 15 years ago called Sunseed Desert Technology. Sited in what was the abandoned village of Los Molinos, the project lies in a spectacular depression of the gypsum rock, typical of the area. The Rio Aguas (river of waters) – one of the only two rivers running all year round in the whole province of Almeria – provides water for irrigating the crop terraces. In the past,
Los Molinos was a rich village with several oil and corn mills and plenty of land to grow food. Today, locals from the neigh- bouring town, and also more and more foreign ‘villagers’, are bringing the terraces into production again.
Apart from the Sunseed community there are other per- manent residents and houses only used for holidays. The volunteers and staff members of the project live in several old buildings which are repaired and maintained by the com- munity itself.
on the sun:
lights, and can
on a fuel efcient
stove made from
an old metal
a piece of
Technology is “to find and spread methods to improve the lives of people on degraded areas and to demonstrate sus- tainable technologies and life- style”, applicable to desertified areas mainly in Africa – but this also applies to Southern Spain! Almeria is the driest and hot- test spot in Europe with signs of severe degradation and soil erosion; therefore it is an ideal site for experiments.
The running of a tree nursery, tree planting activities, sowing and monitoring of dryland crops occupy the BIO-depart- ment. Between 1988 and 1994, Sunseed carried out an intensive tree planting programme for the Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA), monitor- ing the survival rate and develop- ment of different tree species. At the moment, research is concen- trated on shrubs, as they provide micro-habitats and shade for other species to germinate. Also research into wastewater treatment using a combination of reedbeds and hydroponic crop production (seeP M19) is undertaken at Sunseed, to process the wastewater before it joins the river again. The other important area of focus of Sunseed is the Appropriate Technology Department (AT); volunteers and staff members
invent and construct low-cost solar cookers and water stills of every thinkable material and design: adobe, cardboard, wood, metal, glass or plastic. The idea is to use the sun’s power in order to cut down on firewood consumption. All designs are as low-tech and low-cost as possible. “There are no white coats or complex laboratories,” says the visitors’ guide – instead you find plastic bottles and bits of cane used in the most unusual ways.
The adobe solar cookers were tested in several villages in Tanzania between 1995 and 1998 but these trials showed the difficulties of transferring tech- nologies developed in one place to another place with a very different culture. The adobe solar cooker was eventually abandoned because of technical problems (e.g. termites loved to chew the straw incorporated in the adobe mix) and cultural ones (e.g. women prefer to cook indoors). However, in 1996 an offshoot of Sunseed, Sunseed Tanzania Trust (STT), was formed by a small team of volunteers. STT now works with local partner organisations in the Dodoma region on a successful Domestic Energy Project, which is spreading the use of heat retention cookers (sometimes known as hay boxes or hot boxes). Local women chose this simple technology,
as it suits their style of cooking and their lifestyle, is cheap to make and can reduce the amount of fuel wood needed by half.
The way of testing solar cookers, of course, is using them and experimenting with different ways of cooking and preparing the food. According to the number of volunteers staying at the project, there is an alternating solar family of four or five people, cooking all their food in solar cookers and on one parabolic dish during one week. If there are not enough volunteers to take part, the AT coordinator prepares one solar meal a week for the entire community. The big winners always are solar cakes and bread; the fact that the cake or bread cooks at a very steady but not too high temperature over a long time (3-4 hours instead of less than 1 hour in a conventional oven) seems to be the secret. They bake best in one of the oldest and most reliable cookers, built entirely from car scrap material. Hay boxes are used in the kitchen for cooking pulses, rice and raising bread dough.
The spirit of Sunseed’s phi- losophy is also adopted in the community itself and therefore it is a great experience for all visitors and volunteers to share in the daily life at Sunseed. A life without modern conveniences such as TV, conventionally heated hot water and heating
(but yes, they have a telephone now and even email!) can be real fun in a well organised commu- nity. Rainwater is collected, the compost toilets work well and a solar water heating unit provides hot water for showers. A big step forward in providing enough electricity for lights, computer and telephone was made in 1997 by installing more solar panels with a rated output of 500W.
Apart from the two research departments there are other voluntary staff members look- ing after the functioning and well-being of the whole project: management, finances, house- hold, education/publicity/fund- raising, construction and gardens.
Half a hectare (1.25 acres) of flood irrigated land is under the control of the staff gardener. In this decent climate vegetable growing is possible all year round. But despite all efforts, the garden area is not big enough to feed all the mouths all year round. Also the (wo)man power is often too scarce, although volunteering in the gardens always seems to be the most popular task.
I had the pleasure of gar- dening for a full year’s cycle at Sunseed, gaining valuable exp- eriences in this type of climate. Flood irrigation with the trad-
itional system of irrigation lines (acequias) is a typical feature of small-scale horticulture all over Andalucia. Although some say it washes nutrients to layers too deep for plant roots to reach, this irrigation system has been used for centuries and the locals seem to be happy with it, producing vast quantities of vegetables. In this hot-dry climate all ingredients of Med- iterranean cooking grow well: tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, courgettes, pumpkins and basil in the summer; the autumn is peak sowing time for broad beans, peas and transplanting brassicas; garlic is put in in January, potatoes after the last frost in February as well as all root crops like carrots, radishes and onions – then it starts all over again! The head gardener at the moment, Elena from Sevilla, is following a crop rotation of root crops, strong feeding plants and different beans.
Although Sunseed is a registered British charity whose legal decisions are taken by a board of trustees based in England, the day to day decisions and the overall direction of the project is taken by the project manager in Spain. Since last summer, Carol Biggs took over this post with lots of enthusiasm
in the tree
of soil mixes
and ways of
here to achieve
a high rate of
water all year
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