Eridani's front garden was planned using permaculture design. It is my favorite area on the farm. This pond maintains moisture in the air and attracts birds who feed on pests in the garden. The banana trees growing in a pit behind the pond purify our kitchen and bathroom sink water.
I used to think that permaculture was a type of agriculture, like biodynamic, organic or conventional agriculture, but I was wrong. Agriculture is only one facet of permaculture. Permaculture is a design strategy used to create sustainable communities by studying ecology and mirroring natural systems. Permaculure is used to design buildings, water sanitation systems, waste treatment facilities, agricultural areas, community spaces and ultimately entire villages.
It is difficult to summarize permaculture, but I will try to at least present the guiding ethics, basic principles, and a few rules of design that I read in Permacultura Passo a Passo by Rosemary Morrow. I think that permaculture is an interesting tool that should be used to help create more sustainable societies.
Guiding Ethics of Permaculture
- Care for the earth, care for people, care for all living things
- Reduction of consumption
- Distribution of production
Principles of Permaculture Design
- Search for solutions, not problems
- Cooperation rather than competition
- Work only when and where it’s worth it
- Start small and progress slowly
- Think in the long term, design a system that is self-sustaining
- Think locally, in terms of knowledge, materials, resources and species
- Before commencing a project observe and carefully study the environment
- Become familiar with and respect traditional techniques
- Be aware that the impacts of new technologies, systems, and interrelationships will be more complex than predicted
These principles apply to everything from building a house to planting a garden. While bioconstruction is very interesting and important, agriculture interests me more, so I will focus on that aspect of permaculture.
A bee enjoys one of many flowers in the garden at Sitio Baru. The house at Sitio Baru is an example of bioconstruction under permaculture design. The materials are almost entirely local: adobe, rocks and wood.
I watched two Brazilian videos showcasing farmers practicing permaculture on their land. One was called Nesse Chão Tudo Da, and the other Policultura na Bahia no Semi-Arido. Some of the farmers were subsistence farmers trying to provide for their families, while others exported their products. They all described what they were doing in this way:
“Through permaculture we are growing ecosystems, not individual crops”
“We encourage diversity through policulture and plant many native species”
“We are restoring soils. Each year our land becomes more fertile as moisture and organic matter increase in the soil”
Here at Sitio Baru, Eridani is organizing his 4 hectares of land based on permaculture design. That means that after studying the land, climate, native species, ecosystems and water he has divided the land into 6 zones. From zone 0, the house, to zone V, a natural reserve that is kept largely untouched. In zone III Eridani is planting agroforests. Agroforestry is fascinating to me; I’ll dedicate a post just to explain this better.
Every time Eridani plants, he follows these Rules of Agriculture under Permaculture:
- Mulching: the number one rule. A thick mat of organic matter (branches, grass, dry leaves etc…) is spread over the soil to maintain moisture and reduce weeds
- Green compost: a cover crop that is grown to be cut and left on the soil to increase organic matter, nitrogen fixers are great for this
- Curvy and circular garden beds and paths following topography to prevent erosion
- Diversity and rotation of species cultivated
One small garden bed in zone I at Sitio Baru. Eridani has planted: aςai, lemon, papaya, pineapple, lemongrass, guandu (a nitrogen fixer), jabuticaba berry, flowers and aloe. Now that’s biodiversity!
During this trip on other farms, I’ve heard people scoff about permaculture. Some say that it does not produce enough, others say that is it a lazy type of agriculture where the farmers don’t work. And yet others claim that permaculture is not accessible to most farmers because courses are too expensive.
I understand where this criticism comes from. Permaculture farms do not produce as much of one product as conventional or even organic farms do; instead, they produce many different products. And it’s true, we don’t go out in to the garden to work every day here at Eridani’s farm, we leave things be most of the time. But really, is a little more free time so bad? While working on traditional organic gardens where rows and rows of single crops were planted on exposed earth, I had to pull weeds for hours every day, and we had serious pest problems. If we save energy and restore soils by planting a diversity of species and by covering the ground with organic matter to protect the soil from pests, weeds, sun, wind and water erosion, then I think these permaculturists are really on to something!
In terms of the expensive courses, it’s true, permaculture courses are expensive. But Eridani argues that they should be; the professors have been studying permaculture for years, and their knowledge should be valued. Permaculture is a way of thinking, something that takes time and experience to master. I would argue that I am learning about permaculture from books, by observation, volunteering and simply through conversation. There is no cheaper education than that!
Eridani has not been farming here for very long, and he will have to wait to harvest many of the crops he has planted (especially fruit trees). But he has organized the land in a way to be able to harvest at least a little all the time. He is reusing household water in the garden and he has already improved the fertility of the soil on his property. His garden is always full of bees, butterflies, birds and lizards. And his 4 hectares are a pleasure to live in; it is much greener and more humid than in the surrounding hot, dry cerrado.
This Friday I am going to visit one of the first permaculture institutes built in Brazil. It is right here in Pirenópolis and serves as a resource center for Permaculture design. It is called Ecocentro IPEC, Instituto de Permacultura e Ecovilas do Cerrado, The Institute for Permaculture and Ecovillages of the Cerrado. At IPEC there is a biodigester, composting toilets, water catchment tanks, a worm garden, agroforests and everything was built with natural materials. They offer (expensive) permaculture courses but I will be going on a two hour tour with a group of international students.
Yesterday I visited another WWOOF farm that practices permaculture here in Pirenópolis and by the end of the week I am going to be WWOOFing on yet another farm. I hope that by the time I leave Pirenópolis I will have a good grasp of permaculture design, and I hope that this post served as a basic introduction.