Permaculture at La Choza Chula and how a garden can save the world
When La Choza Chula launched the secondary school permaculture garden project in April this year, we did so with the help of Spanish Engineer, Carolina Fernández.
Carolina has been travelling around the world for over a year and as part of that journey came to La Choza Chula to help in the initial preparation and construction of the permaculture garden.
Carolina has since written a blog post about the importance of permaculture worldwide and her time at La Choza Chula, so please have a read of the blog below to learn more about why we started this permaculture project and what we are hoping to achieve with it. For the Spanish version click here.
‘The solutions to the economic crisis and finding livelihoods are also the solutions to the crisis of the climate and also the solutions to poverty and unemployment. Start a revolution, start a garden. Agriculture and food is an area where everyone can begin today. That is why the garden is so important, it teaches us that there is something that we all are capable of doing. Only with something so small that can be in everyone’s hand can we challenge the empire’.
Dr. Vandana Shiva, Scientist, Author and Environmental Activist.
Climate change is already affecting food production on land and sea in a considerable manner. The rise of temperatures and decrease of precipitations, the growing frequency of natural disasters, the scarcity of water and the degradation of the land, amongst other factors are reducing yields, destroying harvests, causing cattle losses, and raising prices, threatening food security all over the world.
In poor nations between 75-90% of the population are farmers, their economies depend heavily on farming practices and fishing and their lack of resources makes it very difficult for them to adapt to these changes which are having dramatic consequences, not only in the welfare of the population but also in the economic development of the countries. In 2014 the UN published a report saying that global warming is fuelling not only natural disasters, but potentially also famine and war due to the cut in the global food supply. With a current average population growth estimated at 80 million per year, projected to reach 9.6 billion people by 2050, the world is sounding the alarms as we are getting into an ‘Agricultural Global Crisis’. As Obama put it recently at the Seeds & Chips Global Food Innovation Summit celebrated last May in Milan, food has not been the focus of climate change discussions as much as it should have been.
However industrial agriculture is not only being affected by climate change, the industrial agriculture is also contributing greatly to climate change. This is the case to such a large degree that the industrial agriculture has been ranked by experts as one of the most polluting industries at a global level (a debate is still maintained whether it is the second or even the first ahead of energy production).
Regarding the livestock industry, the main issues are the high amounts of GHG’s emitted, of water used, of antibiotics and fodder fed to the cattle, of land occupation and of deforestation caused. Nevertheless, the growing concerns over animal farming are not juts related to animals and environmental protection. A couple of weeks ago 270 scientists and policy experts in global health, medicine, biology, and climate research, signed a letter that was sent to the head of the World Health Organisation asking him to recognise that factory farming poses a major threat not only to the wildlife and to our environment but also to human health, arguing that practices such as the indiscriminate use of antibiotics, close confinement of animals, and unsustainable large scale of production have become the industry standard, and each has grave consequences for human health. The whole text can be read here.
Regarding the intensive agriculture of seeds and crops, the main concerns are the GHG’s emissions from soil and the use of agrochemicals, land degradation, soil erosion and sedimentation, contamination, clogging of waterways and the loss of biodiversity due to large-scale monoculture practices. Furthermore, the use of these agrochemicals, pesticides and fertilizers, is linked to health problems such as both acute and chronic neurotoxicity, lung damage, chemical burns, infant methemoglobinemia, a variety of cancers, immunologic abnormalities and adverse reproductive and developmental effects. According to the US National Centre for Biotechnology Information, currently approximately 600 active pesticide ingredients are used, but adequate toxicological data are available for only approximately 100 of these.
On the other hand, we have the big corporations of the industry who, by genetically modifying seeds and spraying their ‘mono-culture’ of glyphosates everywhere they go, have taken control of the world’s food supply where they impose their rules on local markets trapping small farmers on high debts worldwide. This monopoly is currently proving to be both unsustainable and highly detrimental to the environment.
In the middle of all this global agriculture controversy, permaculture is gaining more supporters and some even claim that permaculture is the solution that we need to save the world. However, what does permaculture even mean?
The permaculture philosophy was developed in Australia by scientists Bill Morrison and David Holmgren in the late 70’s. Permaculture – term that refers to ‘permanent agriculture’– goes beyond organic agriculture, it is all about design involving ecology and geography and people cooperating with each other and working with the nature not against it. It refers to land-use systems which utilise resources in a sustainable way, observing and simulating the patterns of the nature to achieve diversity, stability and resilience, and furthermore it is even able to recover the most degraded land- actually, it can make a desert to turn into an oasis again. Permaculture is not only a revolutionary agricultural technique, is a way of thinking and living where the core ethics are to care for the Earth, for the people, and to ensure fair share of surplus, recognising limits to growth and consumption. Some of its guiding principles include create cero waste, maximise biological resources, encourage biodiversity, cooperate not compete, see solutions not problems, and to bring food production back to the cities. The goal of permaculture is sustainability through self-reliance and design.
The Chikukwa project in Zimbabwe is the most successful permaculture project in the world. It benefits 6 villages and involve around 8000 local farmers. In the early 90’s bare hills, heavily degraded soil, dry spring, floods, poor harvest, hunger, malnutrition, and diseases were the reality of the area until the project was started in 1991. Over 20 years later, through locally controlled and initiated programs for permaculture training, conflict resolution, women’s empowerment, primary education and HIV management, they have turned into a healthy and strong community where food is abundant and the landscape a beautiful vast green field.
The benefits of a permaculture garden at a school level are not less significant. I’ve been living and travelling around developing countries for almost a year and a half and volunteering in poor communities in rural areas. I’ve witnessed how climate change is affecting local farmers and communities, furthermore I’ve been working and researching on nutrition and sustainable agriculture. One of the main findings of our baseline survey in Tanzania was that 71% of local people thought that fruits and vegetables have no benefits for human health, although the most shocking part for me, either in Africa or Latin America, was that it is easier to find industrial products such as wrapped chocolate biscuits, chips, or coca-cola than fruit or vegetables, even in villages in the middle of nowhere. This situation has two main terrible consequences,. Firstly the malnutrition of the kids and secondly the people and the pollution to the environment by the huge amount of packaging items such as wraps and plastic bottles. In places where waste management systems are reduced to ‘burn or bury’, too often waste simply ends up accumulated everywhere around.
Last April I headed to Guatemala to volunteer for a friend’s non-profit, La Choza Chula. La Choza Chula – literally in English ‘The Cool Shack’- is a small charity based in El Paredón, a little unknown surfer’s paradise in the pacific coast where I spend some weeks between gardening, palm trees, mangroves, a black sand beach, surfboards, pacific waves, and some of the most unbelievable sunsets I’ve ever seen. La Choza Chula focusses on the development of this village through educational, enterprise and environmental projects and it is currently managed by an enthusiastic and devoted team. There is Sonal, Alex, and Ben the three directors, alongside Maggie the Education Manager, David the English teacher and Luna the intern. In a very short time, La Choza has achieved extraordinary things for this community. This includes the construction of the El Paredón library, the construction of the secondary school, the computer lab, the construction of the permaculture garden and the upcoming new library at the secondary school. Moreover, La Choza Chula creates job opportunities for locals by selling Chula Products made by local women and teenagers and the running Chula Tours training and then using local guides. Furthermore they also teach English to the locals so the community can benefit from the growing surfing tourism in the area.
My role at La Choza was to manage a project helping the secondary school to build a permaculture garden from scratch, a project financed by two lovely Californian women, Justine and Lynne, who not only procured to fundraise the whole project but also came for a week to volunteer and help in the construction themselves. As mentioned before, I already had some experience in nutrition and organic gardening thanks to previous projects in Tanzania and Nicaragua but this was my first time collaborating in a permaculture project, therefore I welcomed the opportunity to learn about the subject. I met Alan, a local expert with many years of experience who gave me valuable advice and guidance and started researching by myself. The project was, and currently is, supervised by Luis the director of the secondary school with whom I had the pleasure to work with very closely. He is a wise and inspiring man who has the ideal relationship with his students; the perfect balance between a father and a teacher. Sadly something like this is very rare to find in our ‘developed’ societies, I wonder if the continuous activities in contact with nature rather than being always in a classroom between books and lectures has something to do with it?
In any case, the real leaders of a school garden must be no others than the students. This is why a Garden Committee was created, so the students take the responsibility at the beginning of the project and ensure the sustainability of it. The aims of the school garden are not only to promote healthy eating habits for the students by learning about nutrition and how to grow fruit and vegetables, but also to empower the students so they learn agricultural skills and increase their awareness of the need for environmental protection and soil conservation. Therefore food security will be improved at the school and in the area they could then sell the excess of food to market gardens, thus gaining entrepreneurial and livelihood skills. The profit obtained will be invested in new school projects. The students are expected to spread all this knowledge to their families and eventually to the whole community. This is how schools and community gardens can be an important long-term contributors to local health and food security, not to mention to the conservation of the environment.
Nevertheless, permaculture community and school gardens are not only beneficial for poor communities and rural areas in developing countries. Promoting healthy habits and encouraging a closer relation with the nature is also much needed in the modern developed world where cheap, high calorie and prepared food combined with sedentary & stressful urban lifestyles are increasing obesity and mental health problems worldwide. According to a report called ‘Garden & Health’ written by the British think tank King’s Fund, gardening and growing your own vegetables can cure depression, loneliness, dependence, anxiety, and stress. They even advise that gardening and growing your own fruit and vegetables should be prescribed as therapy by the NHS to combat these types of mental issues. Community and school permaculture gardening promote sharing and diversity, self-reliance, sustainable lifestyles, combat social isolation, and reconnects people with nature. What’s more, that permaculture approach is applicable to everyone anywhere, from a kitchen DIY herb garden in your 4th floor apartment, to your balcony, rooftop or backyard, to the schools, hospitals, the farm, or to the wilderness.
They say that every minute spent working in your own garden we are a minute closer to a sustainable and peaceful world.
So yes, let’s start a revolution, let’s start a garden!