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The orchard, when the sisters started getting it ready almost two years ago. Photo: Sara and Laura Fernández Jubín

Living off the land in Spain: a rising trend

After an eye-opening trip to India, two Spanish sisters decided to live a sustainable lifestyle in the Basque mountains. And they're not alone.
After an eye-opening trip to India, two Spanish sisters decided to live a sustainable lifestyle in the Basque mountains. And they're not alone.

It’s been almost two years since the last time Sara and Laura visited a supermarket. These twin sisters, aged 27, turned their lives around at the beginning of 2019. After a 15-month long experience in India, where they led a simpler and more sustainable lifestyle, they wanted to pursue the same type of climate-friendly living back in their hometown, in Gipuzkoa (northern Spain). And so they did. 

They moved into a little shed their grandfather had built for family reunions. Just beneath the Aralar mountain range, their shed is surrounded by nature, in the green Basque Country landscape. It is a one-room space equipped with a kitchen, a grand wooden table, an improvised bed, and two small couches. There is no shower and no central heating. And there’s no internet connection.

Twin sisters Sara and Laura. Photo: Sara and Laura Fernández Jubín

They occupy themselves with different activities, such as gardening, cooking, reading, hiking and playing sports. On weekdays, Sara bikes to the village of Tolosa, a twenty-minute ride from the shed—, where she works 15 hours per week at a bookstore. She also plays rugby in Ordizia, 40 minutes away. 

Her teammates, she says, are curious about her low-impact lifestyle, but many of them believe they wouldn’t be able to do the same. “But I don’t feel any sacrifice… except for the shower. Sometimes you do need a hot relaxing shower,” she said. They use a big bucket of water to bathe, the same they did back in India.

Laura —who used to work as a doctor— also has a job: she takes care of the orchard the twins started when they moved to the valley. Their plant-based diet consists mostly in what they grow themselves, with the exception of nuts and cereals, which they acquire in bulk at the ecological local market. 

Those groceries are their only expenses, together with the electricity bill, which, they say, doesn’t set them back much as their consumption is quite low. They also have a public transport card they rarely top up, since they normally bike everywhere.

A recent harvest from the sisters’ orchard. Photo: Sara and Laura Fernández Jubín

“We had always been aware of our ecological footprint and the need to keep it to a minimum, but the turning point was when we came back from India because we could be entirely on our own and start all over,” Laura explained.

Their parents sold the house they used to live in before they both left for university, so after they graduated they had nowhere to go. “Before renting a place, we thought we might as well just live in a tent and grow our own food. But then a family member reminded us we had the shed,” Sara said, relieved they didn’t end up living in a tent.

They have one neighbour, a man who herds cows and who gives Sara and Laura milk every week. Over time he has become very fond of them. “He is very happy to see young people come and live here the way he does. We buy him eggs every now and then and we try to pay him for the milk as well, but he won’t charge us for it,” Laura said.

Sara and Laura’s shed. Photo: Sara and Laura Fernández Jubín

Neo-rural experiences like Sara and Laura’s are not an exception in Europe. In France, for example, they have been around since the 70s and 80s. But for Spaniards, going back to the countryside is a recent but rapidly growing trend. 

Kois Casadevante, a sociologist and food sovereignty specialist who keeps track of alternative communities, pointed out that these choices are more frequent since the onset of the pandemic. These lifestyles, with an almost zero carbon footprint, “for sure inspire others and serve to show that it is possible to live differently and still have a good quality of life,” he argued. But, he warned, there is a risk that they are perceived as something “funky” in a sense that they seem unattainable.

“Ideally, change should always be conceived as individual transformations of collective dynamics. We need group transformations and public policies if we want it to be something that we can universalize. So that it does not become an ‘every man for himself’ issue. And to avoid that the neo-romantic side of the most alternative, self-sufficient communities is seen as a matter of privilege,” he concluded.