Ecosystem Restoration on La Muela Mountain in Spain

Learn about Ecosystem Restoration Camps and our reforestation project on La Muela mountain in Southern Spain. How can we restore a degraded area like this, in such a dry climate? Since my experience in Spain in 2018, project initiator Ecosystem Restoration Camps (ERC) has opened a camp on almost every continent.

Since I grew up in the Netherlands, I have never had to wonder when the rain will come next. Neither am I usually all too grateful for it. But here in Los Vélez, Southern Spain, it had been 3 months since it has rained the last time, and most days the sun radiated its heat in full force. We were in week five of the restoration project for La Muela mountain, and we really need the rain to come. Without it, we couldn’t plant the trees and shrubs that were to cover the southern slopes of La Muela. Here in Los Vélez, I walked out of the house with open arms and a big smile, when the rain finally came on Wednesday, December 29, 2018.

La Muela mountain

In this project that lasted 6 weeks in total, the aim was to plant 50.000 trees on the heavily degraded La Muela mountain. We were guided by local ecologists from Association Alvelal and working alongside a local team. This has been the biggest reforestation effort undertaken in the region, a 10.000-acre expanse of severely eroded wild land. For Ecosystem Restoration Camps it is the first full-fledged restoration project we participated in. Various volunteers had been climbing up and down this steep and rocky mountain for weeks to dig holes, preparing for the planting of trees and shrubs.

My turn to climb the rocky slopes

La Muela

On week 3 of the project, it was my turn to help out. I had been volunteering in the Communications and Membership team online for some time. And now I was keen to visit Camp Altiplano and participate in this nearby restoration project. Driving up to the mountain on my first day was quite something. La Muela is impressive, and I was in awe as we were approaching this rocky giant. Years of cutting down trees by the local population have caused its slopes to be barren, and the mountain slopes are suffering very much from erosion. However, its trademark, the rocky top in the shape of a molar (la Muela) has not changed. Since 1987 Sierra María-Los Vélez has been designated a protected natural park. And a reforestation project in the Franco years at the base of the mountain has created a small pine forest.

Preparing the soil for new life

Digging holes on the steep mountain

This pine forest is where we started our days. After passing the pine trees the true climb began, as we scrambled our way up the mountain, carrying our trusted hoe or heavy rock bar. As dedicated earth restorers we were digging holes, or in more affectionate language, preparing tree homes. These homes were to host a variety of indigenous trees and shrubs. With the hoe, we dug into the rocky and dusty soil. With the rock bar, we broke bigger stones, and loosened the soil, to make work easier for the tree roots. A range of five indigenous species was to be planted in each hole, as it is expected that only 1 of 3 trees will make it in this harsh environment.

Local species which were planted on La Muela were:

  • Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis)
  • Phoenicean juniper or Arâr (Juniperus phoenicea)
  • Cade juniper, or prickly juniper (Juniperus oxycedrus)
  • Black hawthorn, or Mediterranean buckthorn (Rhamnus lycioides)
  • Evergreen oak, or Holly oak (Quercus ilex)

Regulating the water flow

Gathering the largest rocks for check dam construction

Our second activity was building check dams. Looking at La Muela from a distance, you can easily see the deep gullies cutting into the slopes. This is where water flows down when it does come. The check dams we built improve the infiltration of water into the soil, helps sediments to settle, and prevent erosion. On a flattened surface, we placed the largest and flattest rocks we could find, while leaving some space for sediment to settle close to the mountain. This is as much as we could do to prepare for new life to flourish, as for the rain, we would rely on Mother Nature. After the 2 days of rain, the moment arrived that we could start planting the trees. Our team of restorers was accompanied by the volunteers of Camp Altiplano. We felt excited to carry up the young trees and give them a new home. One last time, I enjoyed the beautiful views from La Muela mountain.

Ecosystem restoration is about people as much as nature

What made this experience truly special, other than the satisfaction of restoration work, was the teamwork and community. I met such wonderful people working on this project, who inspired me each in their own way. Otty from Italy, Patrick from Germany, Justin from California, Alex from the Netherlands, and Dylan from Switzerland. We shared the joys and pains of our hard work, had great chats, and made so much music in our house. Sitting by the fire, fuelled by the dry wood and pines from Franco’s project. We also spent some time at Camp Altiplano, celebrating the opening of a new communal co-working space on the farm. The focus at Camp Altiplano is not only on renegeration of landscapes but also in reviving the local villages.

The La Muela project was a partner project of Ecosystems Restoration Camps and Association Alvelal. The financial needs of the volunteers, such as housing, were financially met by Ecosia. While this project took place, the team at Camp Altiplano, an hour away from us, continued to work on the preparation of the very first Ecosystem Restoration Camp. The aim of the camps is to restore ecosystems and biodiversity in regions degraded by human activity. Inspired by ecologist and filmmaker John Liu, this movement started in 2016 and immediately received a flood of support from all over the world.

Join the movement

If you are excited by the possibilities of restoring biodiversity and ecosystem health, you can join our movement of earth restorers and as a member. You can also volunteer in one of the camps across the globe. And, for the latest news from the foundation and the first camp in Spain, you can sign up for our newsletter. Please do share the hopeful news of ecosystem restoration! The documentary Green Gold by John Liu, initiator of Ecosystem Restoration Camps, is a great introduction.

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