PERMACULTURE – MUCH MUCH MORE THAN GOOD TECHNOLOGIES

PERMACULTURE AND WHY DEVELOPMENT AID NEEDS IT

I am writing this in response to a recent request for sources of ‘hard data’ on successful Permaculture projects.

I must admit that my first reaction was indignation. I can understand the concept of quantitative verification of project efficiency (or otherwise), but I know from extensive personal hands-on experience that there are often other significant parameters which should also be taken into account, but which are not so easily measured by existing record collection status. So, I am inspired to outline these for your consideration. Also, I am as strongly aware as anybody, of the capacity to ‘doctor’ figures, which may portray very different results than reality demonstrates.

As witness to the inappropriate and inaccurate measure of worth of Permaculture. I want to offer the example of a project which I was closely involved with for many years. Perhaps my words can inspire in someone the power to take it seriously, to actually propose experiments that can be observed and – no doubt – which will convince all of Permaculture’s importance.

This was only a small local project in Tamil Nadu, south India, insignificant in comparison with so many multi-million dollar interventions of the World Bank, IMF, UN. And the list goes on, of grand funding agencies inaccessible to the majority of people in dire need around the world, denied by their scale and grass-roots nature to the small quota of financial support essential to initiate or maintain their precious and often life-changing projects. Unlike the grander ones attracting the attention of those great benefactors, these do not require vast dollars or vast energy. The chances of them resulting in great mistakes or wastage is minimised, as too the possibility of distaster, great scandal, or very questionable long-term sustainable consequences.

Our project began with very modest resources, including a pitiful financial base of two or three thousand dollars. Almost nothing, even given the relatively small aim of the project: the reforestation of a sacred mountain. Hill actually, since the peak of Arunachala stands little more than 800metres above the surrounding harsh landscape.

Most people declared the idea of that pile of barren rocks being transformed into a verdant forest as absurdly optimistic, if not impossible. After all, every photographic evidence of the past century had recorded the same thing; stone, patchy grass, and a few straggly bushes here and there. The few attempts at reforestation had been virtually a total failure. Adding to the improbability of success, the mountain represents the deity Siva, Lord of Destruction and Regeneration; worse still, Arunachala is perceived as Lord Siva in the elemental form of Fire. Such a symbol was a potent encouragement for any believer with a box of matches to earn extra karmic merit points by starting a fire on its scantily vegetated slopes. Little wonder there was so little vegetation, even though ancient scriptures had described it as a ‘mountain of medicine’.

The funds were meagre, but at least enabled the establishment of a small plant nursery, and the first attempts at tree-planting on a very limited scale. The nursery flourished, but those early plantings were more like a ritual sacrifice, for of five thousand seedlings planted, I can’t honestly say if more than the tiniest percent actually survived, their young lives terminated by fire, or goats, or machete. Even a twig can be burnt, and the demand for cooking fuel is virtually insatiable.

I mentioned enthusiasm earlier as a powerful form of energy ignored as immeasurable. Yet without it, and the blind determination it inspired, the project would have withered and died at the first hurdle. Instead, the first set-back became the critical spring-board that initiated altogether different results. A re-focus on sites most likely to achieve success proved correct, the need for paid watchmen was obvious and augmented, the nursery expanded into the main temple where water was constant and public attention assured; local support followed in large measure. Funding became available on the heels of our results. Given the failure of the first attempts, now I think of it, perhaps a dose of strong-headed madness in denial of what seemed to have been accurate, also played a role. In any case, small mistakes should lead to greater wisdom and the foresight supporting subsequent success.

I won’t go into the trials and tribulations that we endured on the way to achieving the results which eventuated, but instead offer a brief synopsis of those achievements. Nobody would deny now that the the mountain is well on the way towards being a green beacon after so many generations as a great pile of rocks and little else. So for the sake of a balance sheet of inputs measured against the original aim, the Greening of Arunachala gets a shiny big tick of acknowledgement, at a cost over twenty something years of a bit over half a million dollars in total. Wages, logistics, the lot.

That’s pretty good, by any means, but there is so much more to relate, some of it quite easily quantifiable, much of it not. In raising our nursery of three or four hundred thousand seedlings per year, apart from supplying the reforestation needs, we initiated the largest temple garden in India, recreated sacred planting constellations forgotten for long ages, awakened the population to a direct relationship between their culture and spriritual devotion and the regeneration of the topographical feature which dominates their city. Question: How do you measure a change in consciousness? And how far can the consequences lead?

The authorities of the great temple (ten hectares in area) were apparently amongst those whose consciousness changed, for they agreed for us to create forest and gardens on six more parcels of wasteland around the mountain. Bear in mind that this sacred mountain is visited by millions of pilgrims each year whose main focus of devotion is to walk around the base of the mountain, inevitably visiting or passing by each of those regeneration sites. Since we were permitted to declare our works and sentiments on noticeboards at each site, millions of pilgrims from all over the country, all over the world in fact, were made aware of the potential for reclaiming absolutely barren land and transforming it into beautiful, productivity. Who knows what some of them may as a result have been inspired to do? Empowerment by clear example can have far-reaching consequences.

The impression it made had very tangible results to, greatly reducing the need for institutional funding. One of the pilgrims, inspired by our work, even donated enough money to purchase a parcel of 2 hectares of completely arid and abandoned land, encouraging us to establish a Permaculture Demonstration Site. Many agreed that it was an impossible dream, but of course we accepted their challenge gratefully. We did nothing special in particular; nothing than any farmer could not do, without resorting to money or excessive energy in put. Just wise ‘common-sense applied Permaculture principles including perfect water conservation, complete ground coverage, great diversity of species, animal-plant association, close functional analysis to ensure maximum efficiency and productivity of the whole system. In short, excellent integration of all elements as distinct from the disjointed approach I have so often seen in larger projects. Apparently it is too complex to undertake whole systems analysis and integration. The consequences though, are invariably vastly superior in every sense than the narrow specialist focii still so prevalent.

And guess what? The barren land was transformed into productivity within just a few years, with that productivity increasing year by year with little extra input. Transformation of the working patterns was an important factor in this. I can’t pretend, I must admit, that the spectacular transformation created a revolution in district farming practises. In conservative rural situation, the fear of change is often stronger than the proof of desirable change. Still, since agricultural practises are slowly changing everywhere, at least there is a shining example of what is possible. What value is assigned to that evidence of potential? Potential that anyone can duplicate, regardless of resource (though the scale and speed of transformation may vary of course).

There have been many workshops and micro-credit programs initiated through the project, with abundant consequences, and the whole region is unquestionably more treed and less degraded than twenty five years ago. Our project has certainly been a notable contributor to that improvement, but actually quantifying the direct benefits would be difficult to undertake.

There are springs running on the mountain year-round now, that have not done so in recent memory. If clouds were gathered around the summit in the early morning, as soon as the first rays of the sun hit the rocky slopes, the resulting dry convection heat from all that stone invariably evaporated the clouds quickly, Now though, the same sun hitting the forested slopes stimulates the evaporation of the moist leaf surfaces, and the resulting humid air rising adds to the clouds rather than repelling them, resulting even in some rains that did not fall previously. In twenty five years only. How does one attach comprehensive hard data to such consequents, that accurately portray reality?

The same slopes now forested support a diversity of wildlife – animals, birds, insects and no doubt other life-forms – that have not been seen in years. Quantifying that in terms of nutrient recycling and fertility-raising would also be a challenging task that nobody has undertaken. It would not be easy to do so accurately anyway.

Perhaps though, one of the most dramatic benefits of the project has been the change in the public consciousness, in the attitudes towards what is possible, in the empowerment of people to get involved, to rush onto the mountain en mass whenever a fire breaks out (they still do, of course) to extinguish it, because they know now the benefits and want to be a part of the changes, to add to them where they are perceived to be good. Not easy to put accurate data on these things either, on the many workers trained originally by the project who have now initiated their own projects as a result of their experiences.

Quite frankly, I was far too busy actually ensuring that the project was functioning well to have time or the energy to devote to recording all the data necessary to satisfy your needs, and the resources of the project were insufficient to justify the studies required, as desirable as they may have been.

One should not forget that this project, successful in abundant measure, was based first and foremost on the principles of Permaculture, at physical, social, cultural and financial levels. After all, Permaculture is so much more than just agriculture or organic gardens. I challenge large aid agencies to put Permaculture to the test; let us show that it will outshine almost every other approach to development projects, leaving the rest in the shade.

I have signficant photographic testimony to the progressive story of the diverse aspects of this project, and the financial records were always meticulously maintained. I am sure enquiry to the Annamalai Reforestation Society, Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, 606603, India would receive appropriate response.

This example is not unique by any means, and the number is constantly growing, from small to very large. The specific interventions vary considerable, according to climate, culture, needs, finances, experience, limitations. The one constant is the applications are based on the same principles; Permaculture principles. The name is not so important, except to convey a particular integrated concept of the relationship between people and place to create a harmonious, productive ‘marriage’, which lasts and invariably grows. Success breeds success. We are talking about empowerment; capacity-building in ways which most ‘development aid’ have scarcely touched. Believe me, I know from firsthand experience and observation.

In any case, I would be open and pleased to present my experience with Permaculture over the past more than 30 years, from Australia, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Pakistan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Russia, mainland Europe and the Canary Islands. I have no doubt that any reservations that may exist about Permaculture’s relevance – importance is more appropriate to say – to the world of sustainable development and creating a better world, would be largely clarified and dispelled.

PERMACULTURE AND SPIRITUALITY

Dear old Bill Mollison would ferociously chew my ear about Spirituality and Permaculture, if he didn’t simply hang me by the balls and be done with me. Silly old sausage. He alludes to it often enough in Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual (Tagari Press), about the integration between all elements and the role people have and potentially could have, in nurturing nature while nurturing themselves. As if Nature and People are somehow disconnected. I believe this is the fundamental problem; the separation that exists between ‘Us’ and ‘It’, implicit even in declarations such as “I love Nature”.

One evening I was relaxing on my verandah in the sub-tropical rainforest of northern New South Wales , Australia. The night was peerless: balmy mild temperature; no wind; the soft sounds of the birds and animals going about their nocturnal rituals; not a cloud in a moonlit starry sky. Perfect. I was overwhelmed by it, thoughtlessly swept up in the moment. I recognized I was a part of that moment, that perfection, but with a very particular role or function, as with every individual part of Nature. One of my specific characteristics was the power to nurture, or destroy. What an awesome choice, a huge responsibility. My relationship with the natural world of which I am a part, had changed forever.

So I think that ‘spirituality’ and Permaculture are one and the same thing, if Permaculture is truly understood and applied. We live in very changing times of course, and must move with those changes. What was considered hippie dreamtime stuff when we first dived into living with the land and Permaculture, has now mercifully become almost mainstream. There are courses and workshops offering all sorts of wonderful potentials for doing-it-yourself, taking control of our lives by increments, spreading the good words in a world of negativity. One aspect that concerns me in the teaching of Permaculture in some places, has been the glossing superficially over the very fundamental basics so that maximum time can be reserved for ‘doing practical things’. Adapting to demand is very important, and no less so with Permaculture, but I strongly believe that giving time to a very deep understanding of its foundations are essential. To call a course having done 30 hours or so of theoretical with another 40 or 50 hours of practical themes, for me simply does not adequately fulfill the criteria for a Permaculture Design Course certificate, which should cover at least comprehensibly a huge range of themes which amount to total design.

Of course in such limited time frame, ‘covering’ such an integration process is simply impossible, but at least if an intense, concerted effort is made to touch them sufficiently to truly embrace the participants in the complexity of an integrated design process, is to convince them of the connectedness of all, and the necessity of seeking to consider them in achieving a harmonious design system. This includes the financial, social, political and psychological as well as the dirty-hands ‘practical exercises’. We can have a good garden, but that is only one part of a broad matrix of considerations that must be included in striving for a sustainable society and environment.

In this way a certificate holder should be able to clearly observe a diversity of specific situations and apply the undertanding to each unique situation. Permaculture is a design framework, not a junket of great things to do, even when they are good practical contributions to a situation. One can learn all sorts of great techniques in workshops and course devoted to such subjects, rather than pretending to offer a “Permaculture Design Course” in the guise of satisfying participant’s desire to go home and make good compost.

When the ‘whole picture’ is appreciated towards creating a whole system, rather than just a series of good ideas and techniques, we have the potential of truly world-changing consequences.

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Killing the goose that laid the golden egg,’

Toscana is exquisitely beautiful. Everyone seems to agree on this point, whether patriotic Italians, or the hoards of foreigners who swarm the gorgeous landscapes, gushing their praces, falling in love with the place. Some stay. I did.

Little wonder then, that Tuscons are so proud of their land. So why is it being trashed? ‘Killing the goose that laid the golden egg,’ is an English expression that aptly describes the situation. As I move around Tuscony, my heart cries out in pain to see so much environmental vandalism taking place, generally by the same proud Tuscons.

But surely Toscana is a model of ecological good management. Green politicians are active in local government, and Legambiente is a strong and respected environmental watchdog. I repeat again – environmental vandalism, on a grand scale!

Vast areas of land are in a state of mass movement, with thousands of hectares of agricultural land literally sliding down the hills, heading inexorably to the sea. During heavy rains, the situation is of course, at its worst, with tons of precious topsoil colouring every stream and river siena red. The blood of the land.

The official response is to pour millions of euros into grand schemes to channel and get rid of the water as fast a possible, to speed up the process of losing the precious water and all the topsoil it contains. Then lamenting the dry times when they inevitably arrive. Flood or famine.

If this were ONLY an aesthetic theme – in these times when appearance seems to hold the highest ranking – then the consequences may not be so desperate. In any case, aesthetic degradation would probably draw a more immediate response.

This is much more than appearance though; it is our future, the basic quality of life and our capacity to feed ourselves that is at stake, seriously threatened.

If Tuscon pride has substance beyond self-posturing, there is indeed plenty which can be done to reverse the trend and confirm its reputation for sensitive pragmatic environmental awareness. And to maintain the beauty for which it is so famous.

The world has lost over 50% of its agricultural topsoil in the last century, largely due to the ‘industrialisation’ of agriculture with the introduction of mechanisation and extensive use of synthetic chemicals. This was exacerbated in Italy by the breakdown of the mezzadria system of land tenure. While this may have had social merit with the disbanding of an unjust serfdom of tenant farming, the ecological impact was to transform large tracts of farmland divided into small packets of mixed landuse, into large swathes of broadscale monoculture farming. Perfect for a market encouraging the economies of scale reaped by huge machines for ploughing, fertilising, dispensing chemicals on single crops, and harvesting the resulting spectacular bounty.

This is the land of the Grand Tour by artists and aristocracy of northern Europe. I daresay they would lament the Toscan landscapes of today, a skeleton of the beauty they must have enjoyed.

How many times I have heard locals extol the virtues of the local wine, as if it is the only fine wine on this planet. And that wine has been grown here for two thousand years. Good wine, yes. And certainly these hills have supported vineyards for millennia. But equally certain, it has been only in the last 40 years that it has been cultivated in such an industrial art, with vast acreages of vines all lined up down steep slopes that ensure the departure of topsoil is hastened, that guarantees the development of erosion lines between those symmetrical lines. If we continue with current methods of landuse, there is litle possibility that in even 200 years (surely much less) this Tuscony will be able to support a fraction of the vineyards of today.

Our relationship with our landscape has changed radically in the last century, in Tuscony as elsewhere. And definitely not for the better. Permaculture offers an alternative possibility, in which the old harmony between people and place can be restored, revaluing the best of the traditional wisdom farming in the context of modern awareness and needs. And in doing so, applied Permaculture can regenerate the beauty of the Grand Tour days while ensuring long-term higher productivity and sustainability.

We should not be asking simply how we can exploit the land, how we can make a profit from it. First we should ask what the land is offering us, what it can support without being degraded. If it is only possible to cultivate land by creating vertical rows, then clearly the land is too steep to be cultivated, to be constantly ploughed. It must instead be used in other ways, either through terracing or similar horizontal land patterning, or by perennially vegetated agriculture, with an emphasis on tree crops.

Rather than encouraging the water to leave the land and be channelled as fast as possible into conduits racing to the sea, we should be holding it back, spreading it out on the landscape so that it can be absorbed more slowly, deeply, replenishing the aquifers. This would have happened in years gone by, with the land pattern was so much different, so much more complex and diverse. Water is rapidly becoming as precious as oil, and the quality and lack of it is inevitably becoming the greatest threat and challenge to our continuing civilisation.

So cultivation of steep land should be halted, resculpturing the landscape instead through creating horizontal banks (‘swales’) that redistribute the water more evenly over the land and away from the gullies. Water then has time to be absorbed into the soil where plants can use it and its suspended fertility. We would then have the possibility of growing a much greater diversity of plants otherwise unable to survive in land that is so dry. At the same time more perennial plants would be cultivated, covering the naked land, protecting it from soil and water loss, preventing the current situation in which ploughing ensures the oxidation and loss of soil nutrients, the death of vital soil micro and macro-organisms, the destruction of soil structure.

With the industrialisation of agriculture, we have gained the capacity to plough the land as never before, with huge tractors able to pull equally over-sized implements through the landscape. Every time we expose the soil, oxidisation of many nutrients takes place, and are lost to the air; many more are washed away in the first heavy rains; and still more are simply locked up in the soils themselves, in crystals or clay particles where they are inaccessible to the plants that would use them. Soil needs to be nurtured, not raped. In healthy soil there is a constant balance between abundant oxygen and a lack of it, and this balance is maintained by many soil macro and micro-organisms. Ploughing completely breaks this, flooding the soil with oxygen, encouraging unrestricted multiplication of plant pathogens, and destroying the soil structure.

Witness the great clods of clay in Toscana. The only long-term means of transforming the clay into a receptive medium for plants is through massive inclusion of organic material, and minimum ploughing. The improvement can only be achieved over a number of years, but if it is not commenced, it can never happen and we are condemned to relying on a system (ploughing and chemicals) that is not only ecologically disastrous, but economically unsupportable. This at a time when agricultural subsidies are being consistently removed.

In Permaculture (and, I insist, in any truly sustainable approach to landuse) we seek to re-use and re-cycle all local resources as many times as possible, to slow down their movement through our lands (water, soil and organic materials spring immediately to mind), to create systems that are more autonomous and self-supporting. Not just in the words of politicians and theorists, but in practical application through the wise decision-making of the people most intimately involved with the land.

Let’s Permaculture it!

THERE’S NONE SO BLIND AS THOSE WHO REFUSE TO SEE

 

So the UK’s chief scientist Sir John Beddington – and so many others – has declared that the world can no longer afford to block cultivation of genetically-modified food crops on moral or ethical grounds, since population growth cannot be supported by existing food production. Predictable sentiments.

My resistance to such declarations is not a denial of the the potential science has to contribute to feeding the world, even though I do retain serious doubts of the capacity of science or anybody else to accurately predict the consequences of their inventions. Where I protest is in the field of the blindness, or ignorance or arrogance that fails to address much more fundamental solutions that can contribute hugely to raising food production.

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