Over four years ago now, I lived at the yoga retreat, Suryalila, in the south of Spain for two months. I volunteered there through Work Away, meaning that in exchange for working five to six hours a day, six days a week, I received free accommodation, food and yoga classes everyday. It was a life changing experience that has led me to return there in October this year to train to become a yoga teacher.
I met life long friends there that I am still in touch with and some have been back. They all tell me how much it has changed since we volunteered there. I can tell by the pictures too. Including the volunteers, there were about fifteen of us living and working/volunteering there. Whereas now, the team seems huge and there are lots of exciting projects going on! Not only have they built the Om Dome Yoga Hall (honestly, take a look at the link, it looks incredible, I cannot wait to practise yoga there), they have also launched a massive conservation project on the retreat and surrounding countryside.
The Danyadara (meaning ‘Blessed Earth’) project aims to stop the degradation and desertification happening on the land at Suryalila. Desertification is literally the process by which fertile land becomes a desert, in this case, as a result of intensive farming practices over many generations. Desertification has a detrimental effect on water availability and farming meaning that as the soil becomes less and less productive, the local economy is declining and water shortages are becoming more and more common. The Danyadara project hopes to educate and inspire inspire conservation in the wider Andalusia region of southern Spain. Jon Valdivia, from the project, was kind enough to take the time to speak to me about this vital conservation project.
How did the Danyadara conservation project begin?
When the Suryalila Retreat Centre opening five years ago there was already an interest to beautify the area through tree planting. The first few years focused on making the retreat centre a viable business and once the business was up and running, the attention went into doing something really interesting with the land. A year and a half ago, a permaculture consultant and designer were hired and the non-profit Danyadara project began.
What are the main objectives of the project?
In the short term, we want to stop the degradation and desertification processes happening on the land. We will do this through a combination of farming techniques as well as tree planting.
In the medium term, we want to see an abundance of production and biodiversity (the number and variety of species) in what was once barren land. We want this production to feed the kitchen of the yoga retreat centre as well as create jobs in the area.
In the long term, we want the project to create a blueprint or model to follow for other conservation projects. It would be a dream that other plots of land in similar conditions follow our lead and transform their lands into productive and agricultural projects. This would mean that collectively we could stop desertification and bring abundance to the region of Andalusia in southern Spain.
How do you plan to measure the impact of planting more trees?
We do soil testing each year in different parts of the plot. This is the most scientific way of measuring the increase in the quality of the soil year on year as we progress.
We want to increase the number and variety of species of insects and birds by planting a wide variety of species in the food forest. It would be useful for us to work with the research teams in nearby universities to help measure the impact of increasing number of plant species on the wider population of insects and birds.
What are the biggest difficulties that you have encountered so far?
The biggest difficulties we have encountered are availability of water and funding. Unfortunately, droughts in our area are a very real problem. Some plots are plugged into aquifers but our land is not, so during some months of the year, we need to buy water in. We have plans to harvest rainwater during the winter.
Funding is also a concern since we are very new enterprise. Normally, the projects that receive substantial funding have a history behind them. That is why we have created a website and are trying to develop a profile on social media. We want people to know we are serious about this dream and we want the audience to be part of our story!
What tips do you have for anyone who is keen to get involved in conservation or even has their own grassroots community project?
As of now, our progress can be traced back to enthusiasm, a good team, and focusing on what we can do instead of on what we do not have. Everyone that comes into the team brings whatever they can do best and this is helping us to find new ideas and ways to advance.
Hopefully, in ten years time we will be able to provide a clear, step-by-step template on how to do things, but we are learning as we go at the moment, by being in touch with some of the most knowledgeable experts in the field, both locally and internationally, learning everyday, and bringing all of our energy into the vision.
Something we have also learnt is to enjoy the process and not obsess over perfection. Some people make permaculture some sort of new religion. We want to save the world but we also have a laugh and take a light hearted approach to our work. This helps us put things in perspective. After months and months of work, we can see progress and that is motivation to keep going despite the difficulties.