Double Page Spread in The Malta Independent
This Sunday the Maltese Independent Sunday News Paper ran a double page spread in there Life & Culture section. To read the full paper edition. Click this link
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Will You Join This Unexpected Journey into Eco-Restoration?
What do you do when the land on which you just spent your life savings, to create a sustainable lifestyle of your dreams with your new partner, almost goes up in flames? And this after having gone through a painful separation from the mother of your two children and letting go of the business you had built together? It would be enough to drive anyone to hopeless despair, but not Xavier.
It was April 2017 when Xavier and his new partner Arantxa left Malta for a three-week road trip in Portugal to explore the country with the aim of purchasing a plot of land to start their journey towards a sustainable lifestyle.
At the hamlet of Gravito, near Pedrógão Grande, Xavier and Arantxa fell in love with the surrounding villages, markets, swimming spots and areas of natural beauty. Here, they met and felt an instant connection with Miguel, who had lovingly and meticulously restored the hamlet, and Shobha, who runs a successful retreat centre in the area.
It was they who eventually suggested a potential piece of available land that sounded ideal. Just a week after his return to Gozo, his current home, Xavier returned to Portugal with his father to view it - the proposed land did not quite hit the mark, but led to the ‘Garden of Eden’ that Xavier purchased two days later: four hectares of forest in a valley near the village of Figueiró dos Vinhos.
Just a few weeks later, one of the worst forest fires in Portuguese history burnt over 44,996 hectares in three days (over 40% larger than the Maltese islands) and killed 66 people. The first Xavier knew of the fires was through messages from friends asking him if he was okay. As he took in the shocking images and horrific reports, he realised that he had just invested all his savings into an area with real environmental problems. But rather than being driven to despair, he and Arantxa embarked on a journey of eco-restoration that has unfolded in unexpected ways.
Miguel and Shobha had experienced the fire first hand. Their accounts of how they escaped the fire, and the destruction it left behind, was shocking and heart-rending, but it also gave hope, as their home and the retreat centre were miraculously spared. "In truth, it was like an initiation. The fire magically surrounded our hamlet and left a green island in the middle of a valley of charcoal," remarked Miguel.
Miguel started on a journey of learning, observation and understanding why areas of their land were spared. It inspired him to attend a Permaculture Design course on resilience and regeneration of damaged landscape, where the instructor focused on the restoration of Gravito. Then, Miguel decided to expand his study into syntropic forest agriculture, soil regeneration and water landscaping. With the help of great allies, he began a project of land regeneration and development, implementing two successful stages:
Creating a water-landscaped agro-forest consisting of terraces, reservoirs and syntropic forest lines, full of biodiversity and indigenous plant species to regenerate the burned land.
Hosting events with area specific experts to share their knowledge and offer first-hand experience with anyone who is interested in forestry and permaculture design.
Three months after the fires, Xavier returned to Portugal with a high level of anxiety. He had no idea how the fires had affected his ‘Garden of Eden.’ Driving through kilometre after kilometre of blackened forest wasteland for more than an hour before reaching his land was one of the saddest experiences of his life. But as he drove over the brow of the hill which overlooks his land, he discovered a green oasis: the heart of the valley, like Gravito, had been miraculously spared.
Miguel and Xavier became allies as they began to understand how the exploitation of the surrounding land, by over-planting Eucalyptus trees that feed the paper industry, had destroyed the indigenous forests, lost wildlife habitats and depleted the topsoil from nutrients, while creating a constant threat of extreme forest fires, as had just been experienced. Something had to change.
Rather than simply replanting Eucalyptus, as was happening in earnest since the fire, the plantations needed to be replaced with biodiverse alternatives. But Xavier and Miguel recognised an uphill battle in the face of such poor forest management, when it is estimated that the eucalyptus industry contributes to 4.9% of Portuguese exports - an estimated net worth of over 3 billion euros. It’s no wonder that Portugal has approximately 10% of its land mass covered with this tree of fire.
They recognised a need to begin a long process of removing the dangers of super-fires caused by the Eucalyptus plantations, and the only effective way to move forward is through education - by demonstrating that there is another way to nurture the land sustainably and simultaneously benefit everyone’s investment. Only the implementation of a full eco-restoration project could achieve this goal, and Xavier and Miguel committed to investing all their available funds, energy and time to enable the journey towards rewilding the land. Family and friends stepped in with donations and the process began.
Heavy machinery was brought in to clear over seven hectares of fire-damaged forest, burying all biomass to trap the carbon. A blank canvas was created to implement a ‘ground-up’ forest management plan which would introduce a system of syntropic agro forestry - with its focus on biodiversity, introducing strata levels found in a natural forest that increase the planting density of trees - as well as water management and human interaction.
At the beginning of 2021, the projects were blessed with a sponsorship consisting of two earth-moving machines, a JCB 3cx and a 2.6 tonne mini-digger, to be operated by Pete and Cyn, a husband and wife team who left Malta in 2019 to live on the land. Their full-time commitment to the project has propelled the plans forward dramatically. They have implemented terraces and natural reservoirs that fill up with rain water run off, soak-away pools to manage the excess water during heavy rains, and swales to slow the progress of water from the hillside and dramatically increase ground water to benefit any tree that will be planted in the future.
Once these interventions have been completed, it is time to start the regeneration aspect of the project:
The introduction of a wide mixture of nutrient-rich resources to the existing soil: wood chips, compost, manure, biochar, minerals, straw, mulch and nitrogen-fixing plants, all soaked in a natural compost and mycelium tea.
Creating the foundations for more than 100 species of trees, shrubs and bushes they aim to plant, with the help of biologists and volunteers.
But €45,000 is needed to plant the 4,000 trees, shrubs and bushes needed to fast-forward the recovery of this blank canvas of land with the aim of providing a real-life example of good forest management for generations to come.
The team is trusting in your support while inviting you on this journey to “Rewild the Future, starting from just €10 to plant a tree through a ‘Go Fund Me’ campaign. By getting involved, you can support a project whose mission is to change the mindset from exploitation to sustainability.
“As we move from monoculture into biodiversity, providing education and hands-on experience while implementing the reforestation project and thereafter, we can prove that there is another way to manage land that can be beneficial to all life involved.”
Donation web page: www.rewildthefuture.com/crowdfunding
Article written by: Melanie Drury