Sand Gardens

Mohamed Sleiman Labat (EH)

Sand Gardens, also called Sandoponic gardens, have been developed in the Sahrawi refugee camps in southwest Algeria. We use sand as the medium to grow vegetables and herbs in a very challenging desert environment with dangerous sandstorms and extreme heat levels. We grow in sand because that's all we have in the Hamada Desert. By containing sand in a plastic film and making a drainage at one end, we can also collect the water and recycle it in the same system. Sand grains with slightly bigger diameter actually help the water penetrate faster through the soil. The air pockets between the sand grains also allow the roots to access the oxygen. 

Developing such Sandoponic gardens is primarily to help the Saharawi families access nutritional food locally. The Sahrawi refugees are dependent on food aid whose nutritional value is limited. There are high levels of anemia and malnutrition among the Sahrawi. This artistic intervention responds to a critical problem using local low-tech accessible materials. The Sandoponic gardens save up huge amounts of water. Before the Sandoponic farming model, we had to water the plants every day but water would evaporate. With the Sandoponic model, we went up to seven days without watering the garden as the system keeps the moisture in the soil. Sahrawi agricultural engineer Taleb Brahim is leading the family gardens movement. His experimentation allowed such simple low-tech interventions to be accessible for the ordinary camp residents to replicate. We often engage in conversations and exchange.  

My film DESERT PHOSfate weaves through narratives of sand particles, plants, and human and mineral displacement. It also brings up narratives of the newly developed Sandoponic practices and our context. Such artistic interventions highlight the importance of interdisciplinary approaches that allow the friction between artists and scientists to bring forward concrete change to our local communities by working with the local materials, knowledge, and people.

Motif Art Studio, Samara refugee camp 
Algaada Centre for Small Scale Farming and Agricultural Research, Samara Camp is the place where Sahrawi Agricultural engineer Taleb Brahim and his team of assistants developed the first Sandoponic prototype in the Sahrawi refugee camps.
The Nomad Garden, Samara Camp

The film DESERT PHOSfate is part of PHOSfate, a three-year Artistic Research Project together with Pekka Niskanen, funded by Kone Foundation, Finland; Arts Promotion Centre Finland; and Osker Öflunds Stiftelse, Finland.

Mohamed Sleiman Labat (EH) is a Sahrawi multidisciplinary artist, filmmaker, writer and translator. Born and raised in the Sahrawi refugee camps southwest Algeria, he now runs Motif Art Studio; a small art space built from discarded materials following destructive floods that hit the camps in 2015. His art and research draws upon the past and present life of the Sahrawi people. He has been exploring these interconnected topics through films, writing, and community-based art. He now experiments with local food production as part of the studio practice. He explores how small-scale family gardens are addressing issues of food security, environmental change and community resilience. Sleiman Labat has exhibited internationally, and has been awarded a number of prizes, residencies, and grants.

The Sahrawi people, once nomadic, now reside in refugee camps in southern Algeria, having been driven from their homeland due to colonial exploitation of phosphate resources in Western Sahara. Despite their displacement, the Sahrawi community has demonstrated remarkable resilience and innovation, as depicted in the film DESERT PHOSfate, which highlights their efforts to cultivate family gardens in the harsh conditions of the Hamada Desert.

These refugee camps, previously devoid of agricultural activity, now feature thriving gardens nurtured by the Sahrawi people, who possess no traditional farming background. Instead, they have developed localized, adaptive farming techniques to overcome the desert's formidable challenges. Agricultural engineers and local farmers collaborate, sharing knowledge and devising innovative solutions to grow food without relying on processed phosphorus. They enrich the sandy soil using locally sourced nutrients and fertilizers made from animal manure and food leftovers. The transformation of these gardens is not merely about agriculture; it is a profound narrative of community resilience. These small patches of greenery symbolize hope and self-sufficiency, providing fresh produce and a semblance of normalcy in an otherwise harsh environment. Sand Gardens tells us about the essence of the life in the desert and the process of the Sahrawi people to adapt their way of life within the desert camp conditions, emphasizing their significance as strong expressions of community resilience.

Awarding this community project recognizes the Sahrawi people's determination and resilience. It sheds light on their adaptive strategies and the innovative spirit that enables them to cultivate life in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. The project serves as a powerful reminder of the human capacity to persevere and innovate, even in the face of extreme adversity. By showcasing their story, the film DESERT PHOSfate both honors the Sahrawi people's resistance and inspires others to find creative solutions in the face of the current planetary challenges.