‘a land ecology generator’ is a flagship research project that intends to use science and the humanities as strategies to rebuild diminishing rural communities in arid zones. By utilising the intertwined realities of research, innovation, science and culture the project seeks to create socio-ecological systems resilient to external global influences by providing security, a sense of identity, purpose and wellbeing.
Anthropogenic events are keenly felt in dry lands, acutely dependent upon rainfall. Food security becomes vulnerable, leading to conflict and migration, abandoned landscapes become unstable. A human’s metaphysical attachment to ‘place’ and specific knowledge, as defined as local ‘creed’ is lost.
The research site is Cortijada Los Gázquez (3281 ft. alt.) a 50-acre ‘off-grid’ rural farm in the heart of the Sierra María-Los Vélez Natural Park, Almería, Spain. Historical land abandonment has led to a vulnerable monoculture of re-forestation leading to forest fires and disease expansion. Novel ecosystems resulting from the reforestation of abandoned human-used land are not necessarily the best strategy against current global changes. Excessive land tillage, over grazing and mechanised farming, destroying traditional water catchment systems, has all led to soil degradation such as extreme erosion as a consequence of mismanagement combined with changing rainfall patterns and extreme weather events.
Our combined strategy of research driven innovation, restoration and conservation of land, with the sustainable use of soil and rainwater, combined with contemporary art practice as means to express, interpret and disseminate the ideas we have created, is a unique opportunity for regeneration.
Through the restoration of an abandoned landscape-integrated irrigation system we aim to demonstrate the value of traditional land-uses to provide both ecosystem resistance to global change and community sense of attachment.
The problems structure the research process while the art reconfigures the conclusions into cultural life in a modern context.
This holistic approach is designed to mirror vital and component parts of any society, large or small. Science and innovation realises both problems and solutions and seeks technologies that can give the food security such regions need whilst humanities manifest an understanding of our place in nature, connect us to the means to define our society and how we protect our environment.
Using the theory that socio-ecological systems and their properties should be valued as part of a whole as opposed to collections of parts, we have designed a program that incorporates strategies that can not only create ecological resilience but also create clear avenues of expression for cultural/scientific human engagement and more profound, intellectual and emotional non-material investment. The selected study site offers the ideal context to develop such program.
Cortijada Los Gázquez is located at the driest place within Europe, receiving an average rainfall of 200mm annually. This is a sedimentary limestone/clay area and the role of climate, topography, time and human influence on soil formation is an essential element for agrarian communities. After 2000 years of anthropogenic influence on this landscape we now see a sharp polarity dividing the traditional ecological knowledge developed by our predecessors, in creating a variety of agrecosystems as coevolutive processes between nature and humans, now opposed by the continuing and extremely negative consequences of contemporary land use over the last 50 years.
In the first half of the 20th century this land supported an extended family in five adjacent dwellings. Man made terraces provided flat ground suitable to capture sufficient rainwater for growing arable crops for flour and feed. The water catchment system at the farm created a water resource stored in a small retention area. This resource allowed them to grow vegetables and rear a source of meat. Wild zones provided traditional foraged food and wild meat. There is a strong tradition of pastoralism with sheep and goats both providing meat and dairy relying on ‘commonland’ as well as transhumance practices across Spain.
Abandonment of the farm and land in the early 1970’s has led to un-checked amplification of pine forest. The rainwater catchment system no longer functions and does not provide a water resource for agriculture as a consequence in changing rainfall, lack of maintenance and over extraction of ground water at lower altitudes. All areas are currently suffering from serious soil erosion and lack of fertility. Ground water extraction for industrialised ‘out of season’ agricultural practices has led to man manifested earthquakes, ground water salinity and hygroscopic desiccation. Well-intentioned European Union subsidies have driven an insecure monoculture of agricultural land use, which is susceptible to global market prices and consequently reduces regional food security. In short the ecological, economic and cultural value of this arid zone has all but disappeared. Slow to regenerate ecosystems are out paced by the drive to gain short-term financial returns. Traditional activities that provided a sense of ‘place’ have been ignored or forgotten. There is no longer a beneficial interaction by humans within a balanced environment. Within this context inside Europe the first signs of climate change will be felt most keenly here.
Our principal hypothesis is that novel ecosystems resulting from land abandonment are less resilient to global change than agro-forestry socio-ecological systems based in traditional and sustainable management techniques, which also improve the livelihoods of local communities. Within this context we have four specific objectives:
We intend to consider the essential human factor as interventionists (both negative and positive, past, present and future) as a means to best preserve diversity and endurance within our landscape. This process will begin with the study and investigation of the ancient water catchment system at the project site. Once limited, we hypothesize that abandoned areas contain less diversity than the original landscape, especially of species adapted to arid conditions,
The second step is the establishment of several restoration techniques, aimed at the reconstruction of the rainwater catchment system, the incorporation of diverse agricultural techniques of soil and insect natural communities conservation, and followed by the appropriate research follow-up. Although in a long-term basis, we hypothesize that original diversity will be recovered, showing the need of traditional management in arid areas of Europe at the edge of desertification pressures.
We aim to re-align contemporary culture as a fundamental asset in the re-imagining of diverse and preserved socio-ecological systems. Networking and social learning activities should promote the engagement of local stakeholders, from local associations to international initiatives sharing similar objectives.
As a successful project we intend to model the process making it transferable to all arid landscapes, to all communities struggling to survive amongst diminishing resources. To that end, we aim to involve local and regional policy makers from the very beginning to share and select with them the best management practices conducted during the project that could be offered as engines of development.
Methods and Activities:
The following research is conceived to contextualize the area, the history and the current environmental pressures:
Commence an archaeological survey to understand the past human settlement at Los Gázquez in relation to natural resources. The analysis would take into account mainly the Medieval/Modern period, especially the Islamic period when the main irrigation system was probably formed.
Make a hydrologic survey using hydrologic archaeological methodology to map the old water catchment system and how it was managed.
Develop an Ethnographic survey. As the old inhabitants of Los Gázquez are the ones principally aware of the water catchment system, we will create semi-structured interviews, guided visits to places and participative maps. The ethnographic interest will include water-soil-plant-animal traditional management as part of a complex traditional ecological knowledge.
We will make hydrogeological analysis of the water catchment system, its underground aquifer and water flow.
Historical and geographical analyses will define original and abandoned plot areas for field sampling, aimed to compare the richness and composition of plant (trees and shrubs) and animal (terrestrial and soil arthropod) communities in existing and novel forests, along environmental and disturbance gradients. Plant counts transects size will depend on plot size and abundance of species will be estimated by a semi-quantitative scale (e.g. DAFOR). Quadrants of 5×5 pitfall traps separated by 1 m will be located as much centred as possible inside plots (to avoid boundary effects) and extracted after one week, if possible extraction will be repeated each season. 10 Soil samples of 10 cm depth will be extracted in each plot in the spring period looking for similar microhabitat conditions (probably bare soil) and soil microfauna will be extracted by Tullgren funnels. Sampling techniques are thought to be easily replicated by volunteers.
ANOVA analyses will be used to compare original and abandoned plot areas on tree & shrubs, terrestrial arthropods and soil mites abundance and species density. The influence of other factors (temperature, rainfall, soil moisture, proximity to human disturbance…) on plant and animal abundance and species density will be assessed using linear models (using R, v2.8.1). In addition, we will compare estimated species richness of fauna using individual-based rarefaction and sample-based rarefaction and extrapolation using EstimateS (Version 9).
Restoration techniques to be developed are the following:
Research physical interventions to aggregate ‘run-off’ material within erosional fissures.
Research contour strip cropping as recourse to minimise soil erosion and preserve the productive capacity of soil.
Research contour strip insectaries as plant resources to encourage predator insects at the expense of pests.
Research agro-ecosystems in relation to climate change by creating a high natural value farm, resistant to drought years via diverse income streams, protected land resources, cultural and sustainable tourism and the development of microclimates created by research into water strategies. The farm will be established as a long-term study site of global change resilience and follow-up of restoration techniques by seasonal measurements of selected plant and animal groups richness.
In order to re-enforce community identity and bring contemporary thought to the rural situation:
Experimenting with diverse and new agricultures and creating links to new markets and new distributers.
Make available a generous bursary to invite artist from an international community to take up a residency and create a body of work in relation to the research data collected within the project. Develop strategies for the reinterpretation, diffusion and valorisation of contemporary cultural practice in the rural environment. Artists with research focused, ecological and activist based practices will be attracted to working in such a multi disciplinary pedagogical environment. The role of such cultural practitioners can be one of mediation, reimagining ways of looking at and interpreting the past to revision the future.
Stimulate sustainable development in rural areas by analyse, within a group of local and regional policy experts and policy makers, the efficiency of these systems and the current problems of survival in arid zones within the context of global change.
The use of a transdiciplinary specialisms through a coordinated committee of consultants from multiple fields will be consulted in order to share the different working techniques and specific methodologies of the specific areas included in the study. This format will contribute to the training of the research staff/citizen scientist of each of the participating partners.
1. increased scientific knowledge
2. developing environmental leaders
3. enabling organisations and business to become more sustainable
4. informing environmental policies, agenda, and management plans
5. enhancing natural and socio-cultural capital
This project is to be an exemplar to best practice within arid zones. Landscape/community character assessments’ followed by experimentation in alleviating negative outcomes and developing new successful ideas, will be a fundamental recourse in changing perceptions and practice. The project, as a transferable model, aims to return inspiration to communities disconnected from their land and culture, from its resources and its wellbeing. By showing the benefits of our approach we hope to engage and inspire change where it is most needed. Our transdisciplinary approach is intended to revision agro-cultural activity to a modern world. It is an opportunity to educate and inform, the results of which can be measured by employment opportunities and new business activities that will give people a positive future outlook and meaningfulness. Returning natural assets by restoring biodiversity, topsoil and hydrology, clearing invasive species, decreasing erosion and increasing carbon absorption are fundamental factors measurable over the project duration by comparing results to the previous landscape condition.
In the last century, land abandonment in the Iberian Peninsula has led to a significant expansion of novel ecosystems. Despite the relevance of these changes, knowledge about the community assembly in these areas is scarce. This project aims to increase this knowledge by publishing such studies in at least two SCI journals. Later monitoring of predicted restoration activities should produce even more significant publications due to the scarcity of this kind of long-term research. By establishing multiple activities such as contemporary art practice in the rural environment, alternative agricultural product development coupled with dynamic marketing skills, investment in landscape both wild and cultivated, will give a local resource of financial capital, a sustainable profit source and a balanced risk via diversity. We aim the collaboration with policy makers to result in new innovative policies for the sustainable management and environmental conservation of socio-ecological systems in arid areas. The dissemination of the consequences of our research both from a human and scientific perception we consider as a vital role of the project. Our program also includes the development of a touring exhibition of all the work carried out by our project. The uniqueness of the exhibition will draw attention to our work and inspire others to follow in our direction.
The need for volunteer participation:
The project site Cortijada Los Gázquez and the arts led field research organisation Joya: arte + ecología has a long history in volunteer/student relationships. Within the last five years they have hosted in excess of 450 artists made up from individuals, globally, who have been drawn the their residency program but most particularly from universities within Europe. Los Gázquez has hosted group residencies (up to 20 post and undergraduate students at a time) from Goldsmiths University London MFA, the University of the Arts, London: Camberwell School of Art, Chelsea School of Art, Wimbledon School of Art MA Fine Art, Central St Martins School of Art MA Art and Science, The Slade School of Art, Bucks New University BA Fine Art, Manchester School of Art, Aberystwyth University and the University of Granada. The latter two Joya: arte + ecología has an agreement of cooperation and affiliation. All of these universities on the outset are drawn to the Joya: arte + ecología agenda. It was founded in 2009 by Simon and Donna Beckmann with the intention of making a strong contemporary cultural destination within a Spanish rural context. They believe that dynamic and sustainable creative activity is the backbone to regenerating land that has been slowly abandoned over the last fifty years. Joya: arte + ecología, as an arts led field research center, aims to be an exemplar to sustainable land use, creativity and invention. The Joya: AiR (residency) aims to facilitate, through production and collaboration, contemporary art and artists whose work manifests a discourse with the environment and sustainability. Joya: arte + ecología’s curatorial program seeks to explain, through contemporary art, abstract concepts such as climate change and the degradation of the environment. Los Gázquez is off-grid relying on the sun and the wind and the woods to create power for the farm. Wastewater is treated and recycled; fresh water is harvested from the roof when rain comes. Compared to a similar sized, but conventional building, in the same climatic zone Los Gázquez is 85% carbon neutral. Contemporary art and contemporary thinking creates and encourages cultural activity within this region. By particularly promoting the work of artists concerned with the environment and sustainability globally Joya: arte + ecología can particularly foster dialogue and exchange amongst communities facing the same challenges. Joya: arte + ecología also promotes collaboration with other institutions, organisations and individuals within Europe and further afield who share their aims. Simultaneously, over the last five years Los Gázquez has accepted volunteers from all over the world, young people drawn to the stunning location, the ecology and motivation to be at a sustainable destination. These volunteers combine tasks such as cutting wood for the Los Gázquez bio-mass heaters, learn how to build grey water reclamation systems, practice agriculture on the land such as pruning almonds, repairing terraces, helping to develop anti-erosional systems etc. Of all the hundreds of young (and not so young) volunteers who have come here, many return time and again, many become close family friends and many give as much as they receive, exchanging knowledge and experience. In part Los Gázquez runs on the efforts of volunteers and in return Los Gázquez gives them an experience of living off-grid and sustainably. They understand the work involved and they are proud to have contributed. Within the context of ‘a land ecology generator’ volunteers can actively be involved in many ways. Supervised physical work and data collection will be required to embark upon archeological surveys, ethnographic surveys (with the help of interpreters) and hydrological research of the water catchment system. These are all very much projects volunteers can engage with over a consistent period and receive a great deal of satisfaction from the activity. Citizen scientists can collect data and learn about Mediterranean entomology and botany; they can learn a hands on approach to designing and constructing benign approaches to repairing erosional damage. This may require physical and organic solutions to such problems. Simultaneously they can learn about the processes and ideas visual artists use to tease ideas and inspiration from substantial projects such as this. Cultural workers have a set of skill that allow them to read across all disciplines, look for nuance and lines of inquiry that stimulate ideas/actions and engagement. As they have with universities previously, Los Gázquez can offer Earthwatch volunteers a congenial but profoundly engaging experience. Volunteering to assist with the project will be a vital way of collecting data, physically manifesting experiments and disseminating the projects motivations globally.