Stef van Dongen – Regenerating a 100.000HA watershed in Spain while preventing the forest from burning and people from burnouts

A conversation with Stef van Dongen, founder of The Pioneers of Our Time, about how to regenerate a whole watershed, how to see value again in a super overgrown forest, water, the meaning of life, burnouts, farming, eggs, cows and a lot more.


A wide-ranging interview from the top of a mountain in Spain. How to connect a multi-billion dollar tourism industry with the source of its water?


Stef created a home for the pioneers of our time that can host from 8 to 60 people. It is very remote in the middle of the forest and has water from the mountain. The theme is well-being, taking care of yourself, resting and eating well. All the food comes from the valley, and it’s ecological, healthy, very tasty, and nicely presented.

“I wonder why I did not burn out in those 20 years. My insight was I spent every year one or two months in silence in nature and even in the busiest periods […] It was a regeneration of myself, basically. It really worked well. And so I wanted to create a safe space for changemakers basically to regenerate, rejuvenate themselves, to connect to nature themselves in their inspiring peers.” – Stef van Dongen

“So the concept is you come to my home and I try to make you feel at home. So everything is thought through. […] We had groups from the UNFCCC, we have majors from different cities, and they come in their suits and they come with their laptops, a lot of people are entrepreneurs. If people arrive, we let them walk down. So already the silence grabs them. And you see them, ‘What am I doing here in my suit?’. So, within half an hour, an hour people are making the first step of becoming themselves again.” – Stef van Dongen


The forest is full of invasive species, for instance, pine trees are everywhere. Wildlife is pushed out, the canopy gets closed, less light, and becomes a risk for fires, plus low life and low biodiversity. A lot of water has been sucked up by these trees, and so the microclimate is also changing. People abandoned the valley, and there’s no economy.

“This side of the Pyrenees was basically charcoal production place. So the farm that you see here was historically one of the main farms managing these forests for charcoal production, which actually was the input for the energy production in the Mediterranean area. So what you see here, basically is oak forest, now you see a lot of pines, but they were not here a hundred years ago. And so the trees were cut every seven years. So this is a specific type of oak. It’s called the stone oak, and its sprouts multiple trunks on one route system. So they could harvest every seven years a new batch. And that’s what they did for hundreds of years. Early 1900s, oil and gas took over, and withihn a couple of years the whole thing collapsed and people moved away, the farms became ruins and the forests exploded.” – Stef van Dongen


They have a vision of creating a demonstration case for a real regenerative economy. Stef started with hospitality and real estate development. With the profits coming from there, they created a farm to revive the farm that was here. They brought chickens and cows and tried essential oils, which didn’t work.

“The cows didn’t work either. We have 50 cows here in the forest to see if they could open up the forest before we go into the forest and clean it. It was a really interesting experience, the cows preferred the football fields in the local villages above the forest. […] And we started to explore the forest products. And while doing that, I realized ‘I need something more’, an innovation lab where we actually pull in universities, academics, innovators, entrepreneurs, funders, to start doing this together. Nobody knows what to do with a 100-year overgrown forest, especially inaccessible like this” – Stef van Dongen

“We started a market garden. What you see is that wildlife is a big thing. They eat everything in the first three years. We tried several things. And now we start to see what can coexist, what can co-grow with the wildlife, wild boar, deer, etc. And so we found different types of herbs, different types of wild plants that actually grow here naturally and are not eaten by the wildlife.” – Stef van Dongen


“I would try to find the right mentors around me. I started with a lot of local people, of course, that’s good because they know the valley, they know the forest, they have connections here. I think I could have taken in more international benchmarking to go even faster.” – Stef van Dongen


Koen and Stef also talked about

  • The importance of working on your inner work.
  • Making sure you don’t become a “hermit”.
  • Where does Stef think differently than others?




Feedback, comments, suggestions? Reach me via Twitter @KoenvanSeijen, in the comments below or through Get in Touch on this website.

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The above references an opinion and is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.

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