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Green Living and Sustainability in Spain’s Alpujarra

October 18th 2021

The Alpujarra is a mountainous region of southern Spain which harbours a sense of wildness and anarchy. Their way of life is closely entwined with nature.

Mountainside SpainVolunteer in Spain l WorkingAbroadThe norms of the Alpujarra are entirely at odds with modern society, namely in the connection to nature. In the outskirts of Órgiva, I experienced a community living in total harmony with their environment. They harbour what the average modern person lacks: gratitude and tenderness towards the marvels of the natural world. But then, in the Alpujarra, one can’t help but marvel at nature’s delights.

On these southern slopes, winding roads slice into the blushing red rock, with gutsy jalopies driving up the slanting crags and cruising over fallen fruits. Botany thrives here: groves of lemon, fig, and almond trees frame the tracks. Fields are laden with rows of vegetables, caught between the calloused fingers of brazen farmers. The Alpujarra is a natural paradise; visible proof of the wonders that can be achieved when we give our environment the respect that it deserves.

Like all natural paradises, there lives a community who are in total awe of their environment. Natural landscapes instil in their communities a yearning to protect it. Like the people of the Peruvian Amazon or the conservationists in Ecuador’s Cloud Forest, the hollows of the Alpujarra mountains are filled with people who are sensitive to the balance between man and nature. Their gratitude for nature’s generosity manifests in several ways. Primarily through a simple, ecological, and zero-waste lifestyle.

Gardening SpainVolunteer in Spain l WorkingAbroadEco Living

The fabric of the Alpujarra orbits around the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. There is a shared eagerness to limit the consumption of the earth’s resources. Some quirky examples of how this materialises are in the design of the Cortijos. My accommodation played with the decor quite marvellously. The Moorish house sits atop a homegrown staircase of recycled broken ceramics and mountainous rock. The lights hang from a long cable, tethered to the roof with (unapologetically) bright green hair ties – every resource is reused, nothing is wasted. In the bathroom, instead of a ventilator, there is a brick with six holes, understated yet effective.

Everything is boiled down to its core purpose, stripped of the unnecessary glamour. What’s left is beautiful simplicity. Maintaining such strong ties to nature has encouraged the Alpujarra to cherish every resource. This contrasts significantly with the mentality of the city: a world of excess.

Urban society is bolstered by the maxim of consume consume consume! Nowadays there is a whole host of goods available to sustain our journey towards transcendent levels of convenience. Take the electric salad shredder, or the luscious car-lashes, or the progressive microwavable s’mores maker… In our consumerist society, everything we could ever imagine is available at the click of a button.

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that we take the planet’s resources for granted. The consequences of this over-demand are already clear. Our toxic habits of overconsumption are creating a planet in which there is twice as much plastic as there are animals. The environment is buckling under severe strain. It’s high time we adopt the mentality of the Alpujarra and create a world that’s more sustainable.

Vegetables SpainVolunteer in Spain l WorkingAbroadCleaning the Clutter of City-life

The Alpujarra boasts a ubiquity of renewable energy sources. My accommodation relied on solar panels. This was refreshing to see. Spain’s greatest energy resource is sunshine, and yet it remains underexploited. According to the Spanish Electrical Network, in 2020 renewables accounted for 43.6% of energy production of which only 6.1% came from solar power. By harnessing the sun’s lavish rays, the Alpujarra is making optimum use of the immediate environment, thus piloting a movement towards sustainable living.

The Alpujarra depends solely on what the surroundings have to offer: architecture is built from locally sourced materials (stone and adobe form the walls, chestnut beams the ceilings), power is generated from sunlight, food is harvested in the valleys, and the water supply relies on rainfall and snowmelt. Indeed, along the contours of these mountains stretches a vibrant line of foliage, bulging against the dusty red rock.

Figs in SpainVolunteer in Spain l WorkingAbroad

This vital channel outlines the trajectory of Moorish acequias, an ancient system of irrigation that carries the water from the mountain peaks down to the valleys. An organised system ensures that the water is distributed equally according to what’s available. If there’s less rainfall or snowmelt, there’s less water. If nature is generous, larger reserves are made. The people are at nature’s mercy. This proximity obliges them to treat their environment with respect, which they do with humble sincerity. For centuries, the Alpujarra has thrived under this system, testifying to the generosity of our planet when we show it cares. Only recently has their way of life been under threat.

According to the 2015 study ‘La Huella del Cambio Global en Sierra Nevada’, temperatures in this region will experience a 6-degree rise by the end of the century, causing significant snow loss and water shortages. Life in the Alpujarra is becoming more precarious. Although the customs of modern life are rejected there, it’s impossible to shed the consequences of mankind’s overall destructive behaviour. Thus, we all have a responsibility to nurture our environment. Living in the clutches of nature is a truth that we must accept; to deny it is to seal a tragic fate. Reversing the emerging climate crisis requires that we follow the example of the Alpujarra.

WorkingAbroad offers various programmes which call to mind their fine example. What comes the closest, in my opinion, is the Cloud Forest Conservation Programme – a project which connects its volunteers to nature.

Cloud Forest in EcuadorEcuador Volunteering | Working Abroad

Conserving Ecuador’s Cloud Forest

High in the Ecuadorian forest lies an 800-acre reserve devoted to conservation and sustainability. With WorkingAbroad, volunteers can integrate into this community and share in their collective effort to protect the area’s vibrant biodiversity.

By being immersed in the spectacular landscapes of Ecuador, participants will gain a heightened awareness and admiration of the environment. Amidst the majestic beauty of the cloud forest, this programme offers the chance to experience a sustainable lifestyle, through the medium of bio-food production, eco-construction, medicinal gardening, animal conservation and reforestation.

Like the Alpujarra, the people of this reserve take what they need from their environment and nothing more. They nourish their surroundings and use their resources wisely. Sustainable practices are encouraged: bamboo is used to build infrastructure (like the chestnut beams of Granada); cultivation methods rely on companion planting and crop rotation, according to the lunar cycle. In the Alpujarra, these methods are also used. Whilst navigating through a labyrinth of twisting vines, I learnt of the perfect time to harvest Andalusia’s infamous tomatoes – at the full moon, when the water content is at its highest.

In many ways, the Cloud Forest Programme seems to echo my experience in the Alpujarra. For this reason, I would recommend it without hesitation. I know first-hand the riches that can be gained from sampling a life close to nature. Reconnecting with the environment is healing and transformative. It teaches you to be more mindful and treasure life, in all its forms.

Written by WorkingAbroad blogger, Hannah Phillips

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