It's been exactly a year since we left for Europe (January 8th). We visited so many interesting places, yet the list is still long... Sunseed's website attracted us as they present themselves as a very serious research project, a living example of people functioning sustainably under desert conditions!
Though the minimum required donation for visitors was a bit over our monthly budget limit, we decided to make an exception, as Sunseed was an exclusive research project, with income coming only from guests. So with an extra few of the new Euros, we took the bus to Almeria, and then to Sorbas. A short ride with a taxi revealed the village of Los Molinos.
Los Molinos (named after the gypsum mills) was abandoned by its Spanish residents several decades ago and there are other similar villages in the area that are not resettled. The area is the driest in Spain, but the river in the valley is the only one in the county that runs year round. The wadi and village are a beautiful contrast to the surrounding desert.
About 20 years ago an American bought the land on the left of the above panoramic photo (later building that ugly unfinished red brick house). He excavated the ancient irrigation line (dating back to Moorish or even roman times), and made it usable again.
More people became interested in this pastoral village with a protected nature reserve around it, and eventually every single plot has been bought and restored (mostly as holiday homes) by mainly British people, in an area where locals hardly speak English...
There's no road and no connection to the national electricity or telephone grid, just a narrow trail from door to door to carob-tree and solar panels and a whispering wind generator, and the occasional singing by local artist Cathy. Though the village is far from an intentional community, the natural conditions, sharing the irrigation line and trails, make some interaction, cooperation, and murder threats inevitable.
The Sunseed project is operating in 4 houses in the village, in the garden plots and in the designated research areas. It is trying to come up with solutions that will make the life of people living in similar conditions easier and healthier. The two main departments are Biotechnology - dealing with plants and trees, land regeneration, gardening, water use and reuse - and Appropriate Technology - developing and experimenting with various solar cookers and solar distillers.
The staff was a bunch of patient, enthusiastic and very friendly people. Most of them came for one year and manage the research, gardens, guests, household, publicity, finance, construction and maintenance. Almost every member gave us an extensive tour of his/her department. Paul took us on a walk along the irrigation line, telling its story and how they maintain it. Becky explained the different experiments with trees and plants. Jaime showed us around the houses and the composting toilets. Helena shared her gardening research and Ben went with us up on the roof explaining the solar electric and heating systems.
Our days started early, usually working in the gardens for 4 hours with an orange juice break, then lunch, and then either have a tour, read, hike, work on our website, or rest. OfeK stayed up late with the rest of the males having bonding discussions and learning card and bar tricks over sunflower seeds and wine made by the neighbors from the vines in the yard and nothing else. Everyone was really very nice, and had his/her share of Momo's attention.
And now for some criticism...
The beautiful village and its friendly inhabitants contributed to a rewarding visit, but the Sunseed project itself was quite a disappointment. The Sunseed trustees, monitor the project from the UK, yet never participate onsite. The staff has to report regularly to the trustees. The long-term staff members (couple), with quite a generation gap over the rest of the staff, keep its hands clean as well, taking care of finance and management. In other words, the atmosphere was similar to the one found in unpleasant hierarchical environments with a big brother watching over. The response to this would be that the 'working class' of the staff is only assigned for one year at a time, and therefore management is needed for continuity. However, it seemed that in all departments, the staff was trying to figure out what has been done before, clean up neglected projects, or simply start from scratch. The way the project is designed does not allow long term and efficient self management of the people working within.
What we've seen we have seen before, but at least in other places it was used! There was plenty of sun but not even a single meal was cooked with a solar cooker, nothing was dehydrating in the dehydrator, the drinking water was not from the distillers, rather it was driven from town. The gardens seemed to be producing almost only Swiss chard. The nice gardener was in the process of diversifying it, but with only a few months to do so, it will probably sink into neglect again. All the food bought was not organic, yet beer and cigarettes were always within sight.
One could say that Sunseed's real genius is getting their guests to pay 100 dollars a week (per person in average), work 4 hours a day (or more), and yet get to sleep in gloomy cold rooms and eat the worst food we ever had on our trip! White pasta, white-ish rice, white bread, and the cheapest vegetable oil (not even bought in bulk). Out-of-date principles of having two protein containing meals a day. The amount of fresh vegetables that was bought in a week for the whole community was probably what Momo eats in one day. And fruit? None besides the unripe oranges on site.
Perhaps it was for the best, as it made it very easy for us to stick to our raw diet. We sustained on the local oranges, carobs, cactus fruit (prickly pears), Swiss chard and whatever we could find in the garden. The nice neighbors of Vida Verde would occasionally share with us something from their gardens, growing special organic non-hybrid seeds. And from the kitchen we sprouted lentils and chickpeas. On top of that we purchased some avocadoes, persimmons, kiwis and dates from town, all in season and quite local, but still adding up to the cost of staying in Sunseed.
We ate our meals with everybody else, and Momo didn't seem too interested in other people's plates. On the last day we were asked to make a raw meal for everybody. After all, if the solar cookers are not in use, why cook at all? We made a huge fruit cake and a lentil pâté to be wrapped with veggies and mushrooms into leafy greens. It was decided later that there would be one raw meal a week thereafter...
We would like to thank individually the nice and accommodating people but as a project we went to Sunseed to share two weeks with serious people researching and living under desert conditions and instead it felt more like a backpacker's hostel in a beautiful village in the desert. After we left, it ended up being cheaper to stay in a beautiful communal hotel in Granada, walking around and eating all organic food...
COMMENTS - we have received various comments about our Sunseed report and we post them below for our readers' discretion. There are more related comments in our guestbook.
On April 20th, 2011 we received the following through our guestbook:
On June 2, 2006 we received the following through our guestbook:
I have just read your piece about Sunseed in Spain. I stayed there recently - early 2006 - I just want to say that many people have a good time there, but I completely agree with your criticisms. It is not a serious project at all! The manager who suggested that you "move on" (about your web site) has now moved on, and what has replaced her has moved the project back.
On November 28, 2004 we received the following words from a visitor:
I visited Sunseed recently, autumn '04, and would echo what Bob Robertson said. You must have hit the place at a low point. Whilst a few of your criticisms are still valid, on the whole they're not. It's a thriving and inspiring project.
In addition, they're now doing some really innovative research on mycorrhiza (symbiotic relationships between plants and soil fungi). This is ground-breaking stuff in the field of sustainable food production which will be of real value to people in many parts of the world. They have already passed the method on to their partners in Tanzania. For details see Permaculture Magazine No 42, pp 11-13.
Best wishes, Patrick Whitefield
On August 31, 2004 we received the following words from a Sunseed old-timer:
I've just read your page on your visit to Sunseed and have to say that I agree with you in many ways. The only possible caveat being that things probably have moved on. I first went there in 1988 - the same time as Graham - and was there while the previous manager was shamefully sacked by the trustees to be replaced by Graham. During my time there, there were two abortive "coups" against Graham to get him replaced by a staff group management structure rather than a rigidly hierarchical structure. Each year, we got improvements but with the change over of the staff group these were clawed back by the trustees each year - at one point we threatened to resign on masse and squat the place. Issues with the trustees was another problem Money raised in the UK never reached the project. Approaches to development issues were mires in early 70's thinking and the appointment of Graham as manager, was a disaster - a person who thought the project should be a bird-watchers place and who knew nothing of development. His only visit to a third-world country had been a bird spotting holiday to Gambia. As a person who was supposed to provide continuity - he failed singularly. And then Shirley arrived. ..[[personal stuff removed]].. The basic approach of the pair of them was that the staff group were out to rob the project blind and that it was their role to stop this. When I first arrived, there were MSc and PhD students doing their theses. When I left totally disillusioned 3 years later, this had collapsed under Grahams management. Failure to make adequate resources available and failure of vision all contributed, as did Graham's moonlighting for Dan, the Canadian property speculator who owned a large part of the village and with whom we had frequent conflicts. A definite conflict of interest on Grahams part. But for the staff group, especially in my final year, I had huge respect - yes we were a bunch of dope-smoking hippies but we all had serious intentions and worked hard.
And the end result for me? After Sunseed, I used my experience there to parley my way into a post-graduate course - I don't have a degree. After that, as a water engineer in Uganda and then on with MSF in Tanzania during the Rwandan crisis and then Oxfam in Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire, Congo and then ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) in Bosnia twice, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Afghanistan during the Taliban time and now again, this time for 18 months - overall in charge of a $40 million technical reconstruction programme - urban water, hospitals, rural irrigation - dams, canals, spring protection, etc. etc. So much though the incompetence and moral corruption of Sunseed angered me, I did well out of my time there. And now I have my own place - about 25,000 square meters on a mountainside in Malaga. So not bad at all. And in 3 months, I finish here and go home for a long holiday -4 months to 2 years! And after that, who knows....
Cheers, Gavin (MacMillan)
By the way, although Bob Americano may claim to have renovated the irrigation line, I did this with the help of volunteers in 1989 - 90. I have no shortage of photos at home to prove this. I also set up the AT department in 1988 but as noted above, we never had enough resources to do it seriously...
Also by the way - the village was not abandoned decades before. Cristoph, the last Spaniard in the village only left in late 1990, while I was there.
On March 24, 2004 we received the following words from a recent visitor:
Having just returned from a 2 week stay at Sunseed in Spain, I thought it worthwhile giving you an update how Sunseed is going. Contrary to your findings published on the Economads website, I found the following :
Together with the very friendly staff and visitors, the superb location and good walking, this made for an excellent stay.
Your website almost put me off visiting - I'm very glad it didn't.
Perhaps it's worth considering that all staff and visitors to Sunseed are temporary. That means that projects will come and go depending on the interest of those who are currently at the project. Personal interest and development is part of the project and so it is not too rigid in how it achieves its aims.
Update: On January 12, 2004 we received the following words from Carol Biggs, who became the new project manager shortly after our visit:
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