It can seem difficult to remain upbeat about the state of the planet at a time when governments continue to deprioritise the climate crisis.
However, non-profit organisation Ecosystem Restoration Camps (ERC) is providing actionable solutions by building a grassroots movement to educate people about restoring degraded land.
ERC is growing quickly. The non-profit organisation opened a camp on every continent in 2019, to build a global regenerative farming community, where knowledge, tools and experience can be exchanged to help repair ecological damage and preserve landscapes for future. ERC is changing attitudes and ensuring that food is produced sustainably.
ERC’s goals are clear, measurable and attainable. The organisation expanded tenfold in 2019. Having initially launched with Camp Altiplano in Spain, in May 2017, the group now has affiliate camps in Mexico, Bolivia, the US, Thailand and South Africa. It is on the cusp of announcing more sites in Portugal, France, Egypt and Brazil. The team is now actively seeking out an Australian partner to work with.
Ash Brown, ERC’s business development manager, explained: “Initially, there was a model of two camp types, but this is being dissolved so that all camps will be managed by local farmers. We set up the debut Camp Altiplano from scratch, yet we’re in the process of handing it over.
"Other camps – like Vía Orgánica – were established through partnerships with pre-existing businesses that already had on-site workers and in-built accommodation, enabling ERC to run projects immediately.
"Our camps promote regenerative ways of growing regional food and provide training and local job opportunities, which stop farmers from emigrating as severely degraded land can lead to food shortages. The camps also double up as training centres for ergonomic schoolchildren and – as in the case of Vía Orgánica – other regional farmers.”
ERC plans on getting one million people to its affiliate camps by the end of 2030, believing that if enough people participate in land restoration, they could change public attitudes towards the climate crisis.
Regenerative farming can reverse climate change if completed on a large enough scale. By reviewing the way animals graze and determining which plants will be most suitable for the land, ERC is focused on sequestering excess carbon from the atmosphere.
The Vía Orgánica farm, based in Mexico, hosted the organisation’s first affiliate programme in March 2019, providing a model for other camps to replicate. ERC partnered with the 25-hectare plot - which opened in 2009 - as Ronnie Cummins, who runs the farm with his wife Rose Welch, sits on ERC’s advisory council.
Regenerative farming has been the focus at Vía Orgánica for over ten years. The organisation has even opened a connected food shop and restaurant in the neighbouring town of San Miguel de Allende, stocking farm produce and native artisanal products, making it popular with tourists.
According to on-site design consultant, Grover Stock, Vía Orgánica is becoming bio dynamically-certified and increasingly incorporating organic agricultural techniques to better understand the connection between animals, plants and soil.
Vía Orgánica’s landscape is undergoing a huge transformation. The surrounding arid, desert-like countryside resembles what the ranch previously looked like. The soil is extremely dry and unable to retain much moisture despite the four months of constant rain that the region receives.
Most nutrients are washed away in the downpours. Vía Orgánica, in contrast, “looks like an oasis,” says Welch, although they’re still working to decompact the soil.
It is illegal to use water in San Miguel for agricultural purposes, so Vía Orgánica uses innovative techniques to revive the soil’s quality.
Welch said: “Clever water catchment systems sit beneath each cabin to reduce the high evaporation of water from the land." These cisterns, dugout ponds and water delivered by truck have kept the plot well-nourished.
And it shows – the vegetable patches and flowerbeds are thriving but they’re a rare sight in the otherwise beige-coloured terrain. Welch continued: “It’s so rewarding to see what can happen. But it takes time. Change has been noticeable even after one season. Since starting the rotational animal grazing, we’re seeing biodiversity that hasn’t grown for 50 years begin to flourish.”
Animal grazing patterns have been carefully designed at Vía Orgánica to give the land a chance to repair. Livestock can draw carbon from the air and redirect it into the soil.
Animals play a crucial role and are hugely undervalued. She’s even gone back to eating meat after 30 years of vegetarianism since realising their importance in the regenerative process.
Welch says: “By buying grass-fed beef or lamb, you’re actually contributing to the land’s regeneration. That’s a very necessary part of scaling up quickly, bringing the microbes back and capturing water.
"The movement of their hooves on the land should be meticulously managed. If the animals eat too much or spend too much time on the soil, it can cause damage. So they need to be carefully monitored so that the right amount of crop can be eaten, allowing for accelerated photosynthesis to occur. Which in turn releases carbon into the air and back into the soil. If these long roots are cut off or left to die in the earth, there won't be the same carbon build-up.”
Of course, these techniques have been adapted to suit Vía Orgánica’s climate and soil type specifically, but this model can be replicated elsewhere – especially with the help of ERC.
Brown said: “If any members wanted to convert their existing spaces into camps, we would be able to support them by giving them a restoration advisor who is familiar with their biome and climate.”
The main priorities for ERC camps are to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, restore soil fertility, increase tree cover and improve rainfall retention. But farmers need to design schemes that specifically suit their terrain.
At Vía Orgánica, pioneer plant species such as nopal, mesquite, and magae were all purposefully planted – knowing that these plants use little water and can survive harsh conditions.
Once they’ve flourished, they can provide shade for other crops to grow under. Creating compost tea is another technique used for creating a natural fertiliser. It’s been used at Vía Orgánica for about six or seven years, where it’s been very effective at replenishing the soil with much-needed nutrients.
Eric Bordon, a Canadian landowner who took part in the affiliate programme, said: “It’s about repairing the cycle. We have to change people’s minds. It’s all there in the ground; we just need to regenerate that life. The more life the soil has, the more carbon can be sequestered and the better nutrients you will get. But changing the mentality is hard, especially when we’ve been so accustomed to using chemicals in agriculture.”
Chemicals kill naturally-occurring microbes and make the soil reliant on fertilizers. Cedric Mason, an American soil specialist and scientist who also participated on the programme, said: “We need to sequester more carbon in the soil to improve its health and pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere so that it can be stored.
"Carbon dioxide is good for plants but because of all the fossil fuels that we're burning and all of these industrial processes, land use change and deforestation, we've been putting too much carbon dioxide in the air and that’s part of what's causing extreme climate change. If we can manage our soil to capture some of that carbon dioxide, we can reduce the climate’s rate of change.”
Trial and error
At Vía Orgánica, conditions are intense; the soil resembles a heavy clay texture and is hard to work with. Yet when it’s wet, it becomes sticky. The farm was initially focused on the production of short-term cycle crops, like corn, squash and rice.
Gerardo Ruiz, an agricultural consultant, said: “These have a shorter photosynthetic process, so less energy is captured from the sun and drawn into the soil. Their root systems are much shallower so they require more access to water.”
Under Ruiz’s watch, a long-term plan has been established, growing more resilient perennial plants that can withstand the region’s extreme weather with life spans of 500 years. Olive trees have been planted for instance, as they have deeper roots and require less water.
Ruiz said: “They capture much more carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their biomass leaves and in their root system. As they’re producing sugar, they’re also creating photosynthesis, which is released through the roots and feeds the microbiology in the soil. This enters the atmosphere and over time, is stored in the soil and redirected back into the biomass.”
Noticeable improvements have been made to the quantity of organic matter in the soil in the four years Ruiz has been at Vía Orgánica: “Perennial plants take longer but they’re much more sustainable,” he says. “They can be integrated opposite annual crops as these kickstart the process.”
Mason set up various experiments at Vía Orgánica to test the soil’s biology and taught on-site workers how to measure its quality and assess its water retention.
“I’ve been monitoring Vía Orgánica’s soil and looking at insect biodiversity. By analysing pore structure, compaction issues and soil texture, I could recommend specific practices for workers to implement to remediate the soil.” By the end of the programme, Mason shared a written protocol for Vía Orgánica’s team so that they could continue repeating the measurement process.
Bordon described why he became involved with the camps: “It’s fun to be a part of the solution. I have a farm with 35 acres and an orchard, where I used to raise deer, boar, goats and chickens but not anymore. I wanted to transform it into a forest garden but I wanted to do it right.”
Bordon was one of 23 volunteers who joined the Vía Orgánica camp in March. Others hailed from Europe, the US and Mexico with on-site translators working across the different languages.
Bordon continued: “I wanted to find out how the camp works. I know how to restore but I want to know how to pass my learning onto others. Vía Orgánica has provided me with a good example of what I can do around mealtimes and accommodation. In return, I have shared my knowledge on microbes, helped the team understand the microscope and taught others to create optimum compost.”
Since his involvement on the camp, Bordon has held various conferences and workshops on his land as he moves towards a more regenerative farm. He has a beach-facing garden, which is in poor condition and sits beneath 100 feet of sand, but he is confident that with enough organic matter, he can change the surrounding climate and revive the soil.
Of course, establishing regenerative practices is time consuming, but it’s a financially viable option for landowners.
Vía Orgánica has seen a huge improvement in its soil quality and food security for the region has been enhanced since these regenerative practices were in place.
Welch explained: “Ecotourism is huge for us; we’ve had a lot of people come to see how a working regenerative ranch with goats, rabbits and turkeys operates. We also hold other activities for tourists like horse-riding and bike rentals to cater to their demands.”
It’s taken a while for the farm to break even, but in the last two years it has. The ranch has various streams of revenue to rely on, such as hosting permaculture workshops, but it’s also propped up by the shop initiative in town.
But Ruiz also cleverly designed schemes to ensure that three or four species planted had economical market value: “I try and find the highest value products that can withstand and adapt to the climate. If they can sustain a prolonged shelf life and can be easily transported and stored, even better.”
This includes the mesquite and agave plants – which have multiple purposes and require little maintenance. Though they can be eaten as vegetables, they can also be transformed into honey, pulque, mescal, agave syrup, nopal or even sundried and made into chips or tortillas, thereby giving them lots of uses.
From Welch’s perspective, they want to continue hosting ERC’s programme, possibly even a couple of times a year to accommodate different groups.
Ruiz has also noticed the effects of the programme on the camp: “It’s been very valuable welcoming people from around the world to enrich what's happening here. I want to make things at Vía Orgánica even better and see how our model could be replicated elsewhere.”
Vía Orgánica’s programme was attended by Mexican farmers from various regions, such as Manuel Ricardo Rivas San Dovval, who represented a farm from San Juanito, Chihuahua. He was sent to observe the agricultural practices in use: “I was constantly taking pictures and sending information back to my farm.
"The place where I work is very similar to Vía Orgánica and we experience a similar soil condition despite the different climates. A lot of the practices that we've been doing here are very useful for what we want to do. “
More countries are looking into the effect of carbon build-up on soil quality. Welch said: “In Finland, free carbon testing is available for all farmers.
"The government is taking the building-up of soil carbon content seriously. It’s happening bit by bit. We’re not cutting down on fossil fuel use any time soon, so regeneration is a practical solution. Carbon can cool the planet down.”
Brow concluded: “The beauty of an Ecosystem Restoration Camp is that everybody who attends is together for the period of the programme and they have the same shared intention that naturally creates a feeling of community, a feeling that you've found your people.”
Vía Orgánica was the model camp for ERC’s affiliate camps, so now that the organisation has opened more camps internationally, similar programmes will be rolled out as of next year, providing people with more chances to get involved.
ERC’s camps offer opportunities for people to find resolutions to the climate crisis and improve degraded lands. The organisation is hoping that with every visit to its camps, more people will be enthusiastic about setting up something similar in their own countries, allowing the community to continue growing.
The programmes are an optimistic way of getting people to share their expertise and experiences of land restoration; creating a safe space to experiment with new practices.
ERC is providing an alternative method with actual workable solutions for people to adopt; it’s a practical solutions-based initiative. With ERC, change seems possible.
Olivia Atkins is a London-based freelance writer and qualified journalist with a love for travel and interest in art. Having worked at various publications across the advertising, travel, lifestyle, music and national news industries, she now combines feature writing and copywriting with trips overseas. Her key areas of focus include people profiles, dissecting cultural trends and discussing the role that creativity plays in society today. Travel is another big love, having lived in Mexico as part of her Spanish degree, she’s always looking for ways to return to Latin America.
Image: Will Crombie