Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Greening the Desert with Permaculture

A few weeks ago, I spoke with a family member about poor soil management practices I was seeing in central California. He didn't seem to appreciate how much better we could do, so I wrote this letter in response.

Hey [family member],

I've been thinking about our conversation a week or two ago, where I mentioned all the poor land management practices out here and you responded that this area, Bakersfield California, used to be a desert and so would always quickly return to that without constant upkeep by humans.

Figuring out how to permanently reverse decertification has actually been something I've been studying these past few months - it's a major application of permaculture techniques and principles in highly arid areas around the world, especially ones with miserable soil quality and a history of overgrazing, toxification, and other misuse by humans.

[Just to be clear - permaculture is about much more than food production or land reclamation, but I'll just be describing that aspect here.]

Just as humans have permanently degraded large areas of once-fertile land, such as the 'fertile crescent' of Iraq that unconscious cultures turned into desert a few millennia ago and which hasn't yet recovered, we can do the opposite too when we learn to work with nature. Here are some pretty cool examples from around the world -

Greening the Desert in Jordan

This is the first of 4 videos about Geoff Lawton in Jordan right near the Dead Sea. As he describes, their soil is incredibly dry and salty. He describes how with competent water catchment and planting techniques, he and his team continually surprised the local farmers and agriculture academics, successfully growing food where they thought it was impossible!

I studied precisely the techniques he discusses, though with plants appropriate to western North Carolina.

Here's Lawton's website.

Greening the Desert in Saudi Arabia

The Al Baydha project in Saudi Arabia is reclaiming land where it doesn't rain for a long time and, when it does, it flash-floods and none of the water is retained. This happens when the soil becomes very compacted and doesn't soak in water, and when there are no or few plants or fungi to hold the water - the water just runs quickly over the ground, as it does with asphalt. This project is younger than the Jordan one, but they've still made great progress in slowing down the water when it rains, allowing them to trap it and use it to begin planting trees and re-green the area.

It turns out trees encourage rain fall - I was shocked to learn this! And so one of this project's goals is to increase rain fall in the area, not just to capture more of what comes down.

Greening the desert in New Mexico
This article's author, Dan Smith, met with the leaders of both the Jordan and Saudi Arabia projects and discusses how similar New Mexico's situation is to there's. When he describes the impact humans have had in the US, it makes the desert seem like less of a 'force of nature' and something that humans can really affect, for good or ill:

"A secondary reason for the situation [intense wildfires] is that the entire ecology of New Mexico has been abused and degraded for hundreds of years, and on arguably a larger scale than most US states, leaving it vulnerable to the weather shocks of climate change and drought. These days, many worry about the so-called mega drought, which seems always on the horizon. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the environment of the southwest United States and New Mexico was systematically raped and pillaged, but the abuse began in many respects before the mining or deforestation that occurred later. It began with the importation of European cattle and sheep in the 16th century and 17th century under Spanish colonial rule."

He uses the same landscaping, water-trapping, and other techniques as those used in Jordan and Saudi Arabia and is seeing good results!

Managing water flow on a small scale

Before and After Pictures from Around the World
This article contains many more examples, but here are some pictures from it that show the impact permaculture-thinking can have:

One person's yard in Massachussetts:
The Loess Plateau in China:
Follow this link to the original article for more examples from Niger, Ethiopia, Australia, and others.


I hope this shows the value of what I'm studying - desertification, water pollution, and habitat destruction don't have to be permanent. Permaculture thinking has another crucial advantage - creating these natural human habitats allows humans to live happily with sufficient clean food, water, housing, and tools without fossil fuel use. We don't need industrial mining, agriculture, and manufacturing to live happily.

I talk to a lot of people who don't like fracking, coal mining, and other damaging industrial practices, but few people are willing to live without the energy and products they provide. Permaculture projects like these above are what will truly allow us to transition to a sustainable way of life and end fracking forever - or live happily after the fracking bubble collapses and energy prices and food prices spike. 


PS One other clarification - when I mention 'permanent' ecosystems here, I mean that the ecosystems we foster will be able to persevere without intensive human help by some future date.