zaterdag, juni 15, 2019

Kirsten van Reisen
Climate change is a reality that is knocking on our front door. And although many people rise up asking for awareness, others want to take concrete and tangible action and have no clue how to do that. Kirsten van Reisen (on the photo left) asked herself this question as well and found a way to contribute. She decided to work to restore a highly degraded piece of land in Spain as part of a team of volunteers at the first project of Ecosystem Restoration Camps (ERC). On May 29, she shared her experiences at the center of Initiatives of Change Netherlands together with ERCs director Pieter van der Gaag.

The inconvenient truth

After her studies, Van Reisen started her career in the international development sector at War Child Holland and later switched to the institutional and legislative level. Her professional life was driven by learning how to make a positive impact and contribute to society. However, ever since she saw the documentary An Inconvenient Truth a feeling of discomfort about the ongoing climate change wouldn’t let her go. As time went by, this feeling became stronger and she searched how she could contribute on a very concrete level to tackle climate change. When a common friend of ERCs founder John Liu and herself told her about the restoration camp in Spain, she knew what to do!

Foto van het herstel van Altiplano na het 1e jaar.Restoring the earth

With land restoration being in the top 5 of climate change solutions, Van Reisen contacted ERC to join them. In 2017, she took a sabbatical of 3 months to travel to the first camp of ERC, Altiplano, to volunteer as an earth restorer. After 1 month she knew this was what she wanted to do. She quit her job and stayed 1 year in Spain to help set up the camp and restore the soil.

Together with a team of volunteers, she started restoring these 5 hectares of land that had been industrially farmed for cereals for many years in the region of Murcia. It was highly degraded with little organic matter or soil biology. You can see the progress over the first year on the photo to the right.

Why does soil get degraded?

So, how does earth get degraded? Van Reisen: ‘It starts with deforestation. Trees are cut down to make a plot of land suitable for other use mostly agricultural. Trees are an essential part of the ecosystem. They are important in the water cycle and storage, tree roots anchor soil so it doesn’t wash away, and they have a major role in the CO2 cycle as they store it.’ Moreover, forests provide a home to 70% of the world’s plants and animals. In Altiplano, the soil is highly degraded due to industrial agriculture. ‘By constantly ploughing only the top soil, the first 30 cm, the layer underneath becomes as hard as concrete. Consequently, the water and other nutrients cannot run deep into the soil. This means that the top soil is loose and can be swept away by rain.’ Unfortunately, this way of agricultural farming happens in a lot of places in the world, including the Netherlands.

How to start restoration

One of the first steps in restoring the earth is to restore its capacity to retain water, by opening up the concrete-like soil with a 'deep ripper' and creating swales and ponds to make sure water doesn’t flow away. ‘To fertilize the earth, we made compost and ordered 40 tons of compost. We didn't have a machine to spread it with at the time, so we were spreading it manually with wheelbarrows.’ After these first steps, the team started to plant local cover crops. Cover crops enrich the soil by preventing erosion, supplying nutrients, improving the water cycle of the soil, and breaking pest cycles.

Below you see this process explained in a video from the camp in Altiplano. For more videos and photos, please check the Facebookpage of ERC Altiplano.


Building a community

‘As we were the first team to ever start a camp, lots of things had to be set up and clarified.’ The team of volunteers consisted of people from all over the world (see photo below). There were 10 members in the core group who lived together in one house in a semi-abandoned village nearby. To get to the land, they took a car which also carried the tools and other necessary equipment. Because of the harsh terrain, it was not an option to cycle but occasionaly someone walked back to the house. As everything in the camp was done together, this gave the opportunity for time to contemplate and be with oneself. Overtime a social structure was created: ‘We for instance started every day with a check-in and had weekly meetings.’

When the camp started, the team was barely in contact with the local farmers. Despite the fact that the land of Altiplano is owned by a local farmer who was interested in the project. Van Reisen takes away that the project should be locally led to make sure relationships and trust with other locals is easier. After she left, the team of volunteers changed and half of the team is Spanish at the moment. And as results of land restoration slowly start to show, the camp recently has had a visit from a local farmer every week.

Team van Ecosystem Restoration Camps in Altiplano in de tijd dat Kirsten van Reisen vrijwilligerswerk deed.


The team faced several challenges when Van Reisen was working there. The land is in a remote part of Murcia. So, when the team needs anything, for instance construction materials, it takes (a lot of) planning as they have to drive a long way to get it. The finances of the camp and land restoration are also challenging: it takes approximately 20 years to properly regenerate a plot of highly degraded land. Funders like to see short-term and quick results, but as Van Reisen puts is ‘you can’t plant trees if the soil isn’t ready for it’.

ERCs director Pieter van der Gaag tells the audience they are looking for ways to get the projects funded. ‘This first camp in Altiplano is showing results that attract other foundations and companies that also restore land. And that opens the door for collaboration.’

Connecting with oneself

Van Reisen ends her talk by saying that the time she volunteered was more than labor itself. ‘We all love being out in nature. And in Altiplano, every path and seed had been planted by our team. This created connectedness for me to the land and enriched me in many ways.’ Now she is back in the Netherlands, she is hopeful about the future again. She is inspired by the solution, has seen it can be done and has gained a network of friends who are working on this solution around the world. ‘The time in Spain was also a restoration of myself and my hope for the future.’

Laura Reijnders

Willemijn Lambert, graphic recorder by profession, recorded the story of Kirsten van Reisen in a drawing. 

Graphic recording van Willemijn Lambert die de avond in beeld weergeeft.