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We participated in a Work Camp in Iceland!

Our team participated in a Work Camp in Iceland through the project “F.O.R.E.S.T. - Foster Environmental Strategies for Change” and this was what they brought back with them.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes and 16 seconds

© João Simões, Helder Berenguer

How does it sound to you the idea of volunteering in a forest, lost between glaciers and lava fields in Iceland? That was exactly what five members of Agora Aveiro - Helder Berenguer, Liane Carvalho, Nuno Afonso, Nuno Brízida and João Simões - did , between the 20th and the 30th of April. This was the second out of five activities that we will implement through “F.O.R.E.S.T. - Foster Environmental Strategies for Change”, the project we are developing with SEEDS - Iceland, as part of the Erasmus+ Programme.

The main objective of F.O.R.E.S.T. is to promote international cooperation in projects and campaigns about environmental sustainability, with the goal of mitigating the effects of climate change in local and regional communities. It acts as a tool to exchange good practices and ideas between organisations experienced in reforestation, invasive species control, clean up activities and awareness campaigns.

The Icelandic Forest - Reversing Hundreds of Years of Degradation

When the Vikings set their feet in Iceland, almost 1150 years ago, roughly 40% of the island was forested. For hundreds of years, the forests have been cut down for wood and cleared for agriculture and grazing, leading to the destruction of around 95% of the original forest.

The beginning of the reforestation efforts began in 1899, but it was only during the 50s, after the establishment of the Icelandic Forest Service (IFS) that a million of trees were planted. Priority has been given to the plantation of native species like birch (Betula pubescens), but also of other exotic species like the Siberian larch (Larix sibirica), the shore pine (Pinus contorta), the Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) and the California poplar (Populus trichocarpa), species with a faster growth adapted to the Icelandic climate. As a result of these efforts, the forested area of Iceland now covers around 1900 km2, corresponding to 1,9% of the territory.

Nature Conservation Camp - to Learn in order to Protect

Waiting to welcome us in this Nature Conservation Camp was Jón from the IFS, with whom SEEDS has been collaborating for some years. We were hosted in a small wooden cabin, named Skógarkot, in Norðtunguskógur, a forest of 156 hectares in the West of Iceland, composed of birch trees, conifers and cypresses.

During our stay, we helped to collect and transport branches of fallen trees to transform into wood chips that were used soon after for the creation and maintenance of hiking trails in the middle of the forest. There was also some time left to remove poplar saplings in the forest of Skorradalshreppur, to be used by the IFS in the plantation of new forests.

However, our work camp was not only limited to work itself! We had the opportunity to visit some of the natural wonders of Iceland like its waterfalls, vast lava fields, glacier peaks and mountains. To end our week with a cherry on top, we were even able to watch an aurora borealis dancing in the Icelandic skies. There is no better way to understand how this experience went if not by getting to know what some of the participants have to tell about it. We leave you here with João’s testimony:

This was my first and only Erasmus+ experience (so far) and couldn’t be any better.

There was time for everything. To work in the conservation of the Icelandic forest and in the maintenance of the place that hosted us; to learn more about the adversities of the Icelandic climate and its impact on the forest, soil and biodiversity; to appreciate the natural beauty of the mountains, waterfalls and some touristic sights with a long roadtrip through the Snæfell peninsula; and even to relax in the warm water of the Sundhöllin pool, just before our return to Portuguese lands.

I was impressed with the amount of work that needs to be done to restore the Icelandic forest, but also inspired by the dedication of the Skógræktin Icelandic Forest Service specialists that aided us throughout this mission of preserving the Icelandic environment.

It was also interesting to find out and watch how volunteering is looked at in another country and how the modus operandi of SEEDS is.

For me, it was also a great opportunity to practise my English skills by communicating with our “cabin mates”: Ana, Isie and Kata - three volunteers from SEEDS that joined us in this camp and brought us some intercultural moments during our free time at the end of the day.

Another interesting challenge that we faced was adopting a vegetarian diet. Even though it sounded like a complicated idea to some of us in the beginning, it surpassed our expectations and it became an enriching gastronomic experience! We discovered new flavours, new ingredients and learned to appreciate creative and flavorful vegetarian dishes cooked by all of us.

My favourite part was having the luck of watching (and photographing) the Northern Lights. The fact that our lodging was located in a remote place, afar from the artificial lights, allowed us to be present in this natural show of colourful dancing lights just above “our cabin”. It was magical and surreal and I will never forget it.

In the end, it was a unique experience and I feel the urge to repeat it. To whoever has never participated in an Erasmus+ project, I don’t know what they are waiting for!

- João Simões

What else will we be doing?

This was only one of the planned activities of F.O.R.E.S.T. and it had the objective of exchanging experiences and knowledge so that, in the near future, we will be able to implement in Portugal our own nature conservation camps. In October, it will be our turn to host the SEEDS team in Aveiro, who will follow our work with local volunteers from up close and learn how to better involve the local community in the development and implementation of projects.

F.O.R.E.S.T. - Foster Environmental Strategies for Change” is organised by SEEDS Iceland in collaboration with Agora Aveiro. This project is supported by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union as part of a Key-Action 2: Small Scale Partnerships.

Helder Berenguer