Following instructions I turned up a little dirt road that seemed to fit the description “It doesn’t look like it goes anywhere, but we actually live up there”. I really hoped that it was the right road and not a road that in fact - goes to nowhere. Luckily, as I emerged through a corridor of trees, low and behold the man I was looking for was busy working on his land.

Sebastian is South African with loads of energy and enthusiasm. He moved to Portugal 10 years ago and ran a successful surf school, but he decided to give that up as he started to feel like he wasn’t doing enough to help the beautiful natural world here in the Algarve that he’s grown to love so much. I asked him if he still surfs and he says occasionally, but to be honest, whenever he is sat out on the ocean on his board, his mind is now swimming with all the different things he could be spending his time planting instead.

He is passionate about doing his bit to help re-plant and renature the now quite ‘desertified’ (on its way to becoming a desert) area around Monchique. The hills and valleys used to be full of trees such as cork oaks, and Sebastian explained as he pointed to areas on his land that were still thick oak forest that it used to all be like that but people started to cut down the trees in order to have space to grow crops like corn and now without a canopy of trees to help keep the water from escaping, the torrents of rain that we do get simply tears down the mountain sides and the water escapes back into the sea.

There’s been many attempts to re-grow native trees like the Chestnut, Cork and Medronho trees, as well as of course the Monchique Oak, but Sebastian says they’ve been largely unsuccessful as just planting them in the now degraded soil on their own they will find it hard to survive, and what needs to be done is to grow them in conjunction with other kinds of species. We need to start from the bottom up and create a network of friendly neighbours that will help create shade, put nitrogen back into the soil and create root space for others to grow. The planted forest should be ‘stratified’, which means to have different layers and heights. This will create a canopy which will protect the soil, help prevent forest fires, and cool the land.

For this Sebastian says we can enlist the help of what lots of people call ‘invasive’ species (like the eucalyptus that has no trouble growing on its own). Sebastian doesn’t like the term invasive species and he asked me whether I thought the Alfarroba trees were one? Since I consider the carob tree a true mascot of the Algarve, I said no. But as Sebastian pointed out - they’ve only been here for 900 years. How long does a foreigner have to live somewhere before they become accepted as a native? The landscape has always been constantly changing. There’s no reverting back to the past. Nature doesn’t look back. We need to learn to work with what’s here now. Sebastian feels that there is no such thing as invasive species, there are simply ‘opportunists’ and the key is - not giving them the ‘opportunity’ to get too big for their boots, or shall we say, too big for their ‘roots’.

In order to get anything to grow we need water. Water after all is where all life springs from. When rain falls from the sky the trees act as a barrier stopping the rain with their branches and allowing it to then slowly drop to the ground (the original drip irrigation system). Without the trees literally ‘standing in the way’ it lands with huge force and quickly disappears down the mountain side taking the precious fertile topsoil along with it.

We therefore, Sebastian says, need to make contours or “small swales” (curvas de nível in Portuguese) along the mountain sides. They don’t have to be huge ditches but they should catch the water as it runs down the hillsides and give it enough time to soak in and infiltrate the soil. It’s in this way that we start to turn the tables, as this will bring up the groundwater table, helping to create the conditions in which life can once again spring.

It’s now time to bring into play Sebastian’s philosophy of “make your enemy your ally”. The other problem we have is the eucalyptus trees which given the opportunity dominate the landscape and bully the other trees into submission. However, as Sebastian says, like all bullies if you stand your ground they will normally back off, settle down and become easier to get along with. He says that in order to stop them getting too uppity we should radically cut back their branches in autumn. This will serve to make them less greedy and stop hoarding the resources. We can then spread out their freshly cut branches and leaves over the land. Particularly over the swales and gullies, as the leaves will act as a ‘mulch’, which before it decomposes into the land, helps trap in the moisture caught by the rainfall and stop it evaporating.

Sebastian says we humans have the need to tidy and clean up areas and put them into order. But what we don’t understand is that the natural world is naturally chaotic, and the leaves you might have swept up in your garden actually provide the ideal microclimates for many different kinds of species of plants and bugs to thrive. It’s good to allow things outside to be a bit of a mess, or even, dare we say it - make a little mess ourselves.

As we climbed up the hill Sebastian showed me all his little swales and gullies where he has already put this plan into action, pointing out the various trees and plants he already has living harmoniously together.

As we reached the top of the hill we saw a big piece of land that he had recently ploughed, or so I thought... Turned out it wasn’t him - it was the wild boar.

This takes us neatly into Sebastian’s other plan (that was the reason for my visit). He calls it ‘Holistropy’ - a mixture between holistic (the belief that everything is interconnected) and syntropy (from sythropic agroforestry, that is when you let various species work together harmoniously, as they do in the natural world). However, I hope he will forgive me if I call it: ‘The pig poop plant plan’.

After having already planted so many trees and seeds, Sebastian realised just how difficult it would be for us to re-plant all the trees ourselves, and has come up with a plan that will allow us to sit back and let nature do the planting for us, or for itself - the way it has always done.

And for this he plans to use pigs. The field we were walking across was evidence enough that pigs are natural ploughs, and with their noses they can dig up even the toughest ground like its soft mud. They also provide excellent fertilizer through their rear, and any seeds that they eat, and that successfully make their way through a pig’s intestine come out the other end bestowed with, let’s call them ‘superpowers’, as they grow up far stronger and more resilient than they otherwise would. Not only that, but when they are ‘planted’ by the pig it’s more likely to get off to a fighting start as it’s wrapped in a nice capsule of the finest fertilizer.

Sebastian at first thought he would need to get his own pigs to carry out his plan, but since wild boar roam the hills and pay a visit every night to dig up something he hasn’t fenced off - often much to his dismay, the swines. Once again he wants to make his enemy his ally.

The plan is as follows. He will dig a few holes and fill them with a mix of things boars just love to eat, such as black beans and corn. He will spread the rest around - as well as some seeds he’s been carefully collecting of the species he would like to re-populate the land with.

The boar with their fantastic sense of smell will get a whiff of this delicious mix hidden under the ground and hopefully dive in headfirst ploughing up the surrounding area in search of the food. In the process they will make the ground a lot more hospitable for life as along with their noses, their footprints should make lots of little holes for the seeds to fall into, and effectively, ‘plant themselves’. The pigs will also fertilize the ground while they are there, and the lucky few seeds that will be gobbled up in their feeding frenzy will be set down to live in a place of the boar’s discretion. Hopefully somewhere with a good view - which around Sebastian’s place is not hard to find.

So that’s it. Sebastian doesn’t see how this could fail to work. After all, it’s just giving nature a little helping hand to do things the old fashioned way. When a pig feels the ‘call of nature’, it will answer, and in the process come to nature’s rescue.
The current water shortage has people saying that we need to build more dams, but Sebastian says that’s just addressing the symptoms and we need to get to the root of the problem. Quite literally that’s it - we need more ‘roots’ in the soil.
Put simply we need more trees. More trees means more water, as once you have a canopy of trees the water doesn’t escape - it goes into the ground and brings up the water table, which increases the amount of green areas, which in turn bring about more rainfall.
And as Sebastian said, trees don’t care who plants them. Whether it’s a big company with a grant, or a wild boar with a grunt. It doesn’t matter to them. Let’s just get them in the ground.