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Thinking inside the box

Anna: Today's interview will be with... Andrea, who will finally have a space to get a little deeper into permaculture. We were asked many times during our events, workshops or after publishing some changemakers’ stories what permaculture means and we thought it would be handy to answer in one text, bringing up also various examples of changemaking permaculture farms we visited along the years. But let's start with the basics. Andrea, what is permaculture?

Andrea: The most common definition states permaculture is a set of principles, guidelines, to design sustainable living spaces. It started in the 70s in Tasmania, Australia, by Bill Morison and David Holmgren as an alternative agriculture practice, inspired by the Aborigines' approach to nature. With time it got wider and wider to embrace ways of doing things, of understanding spaces and of being together. The word “permaculture” at the beginning referred to „permanent agriculture” but right now it is rather understood as „permanent culture”, to also include social dynamics.

Personally, I define permaculture as a way of thinking inside the box. The spaces we live in are always finite, like a box. If we live in a flat, there is a limited amount of square meters; if we have a farm it also has limited space; even our planet Earth is not endless. If we want to build something permanent and sustainable we have to understand what comes into our box and what goes out and make these flows stable and balanced. Permaculture gives guidelines which help to think, improve and optimize spaces so they become more sustainable.

Anna: Does it mean to use as little resources as possible?

Andrea: Not necessary. It means to be careful with the amount of input, of resources you bring, and as resources I mean not only electricity or water, but also money, time, your effort, your energy. The idea is to keep them circulating in your system as much as you can and balance resources which go out with those which go in.

Anna: Could you give an example?

Andrea: The most common example in permaculture is water. Wherever you live, being flat or farm, you need a certain amount of water to sustain yourself. In the current system the use of water is very often linear. It comes in, you use it for washing something or flushing the toilet and it almost immediately goes out, without staying long in the system or being used for its best. In this way you need a lot. Not sustainable. In permaculture we try to study our spaces and make sure the water stays in as long as possible, circulating in different places, used for different functions. Maybe you have a pond or a tank where you can keep the water and use it in various ways before it goes out of the system.

Anna: I remember, for example, that in the Green Warriors farm in the Philippines the water from our shower was going directly to the plants. That's what you mean?

Andrea: Exactly. You can collect rain water, filter it and then use it for showers or washings. Or filter it better and use it for cooking, as we did at Oasis Boliviano and other places. Then you can filter it again, maybe with proper plants (that's called phytopurification), and you can use it to water your garden.

Another interesting example of using resources in a creative way is the food forest. Imagine a plot of land in which food is coming out of perennial plants, trees basically, and not annual plants. The system is built to use the given space as much as possible. Trees and plants are packed all together and there is a big diversity, as much as you can find in a wild forest. It is meant to explore different levels – there are tall trees, small trees like lemon or pomegranate, then some vine trees which hang on other plants; then smaller shrubs, plants and roots - many different layers which can coexist to optimize the space. The plants chosen for the food forest are all edible or at least they have a clear function in the design. After a few years, when the forest is up and running, you get food and you just have to keep the growing in balance. If you build it properly, you don't have to fertilize it or fight against pests too much, a bit as a natural forest does.

Anna: It also reminds me about one permaculture principle I learned about in Żywa Ziemia: everything should have more than one use. Is that right?

Andrea: Yes. To be sustainable it's not a good idea to put your energy on something that has only one single function. The rule of thumb is that it should have at least three. Here the most common example are chickens. Normally we see chickens as source of eggs and meat, that's all. By thinking about chickens that way, focusing only on that function, you end up building the system of production we have now, where thousands of chickens are packed up together, they grow quickly, get killed and get eaten. If you see chickens from the permaculture point of view, then you realize they have their own needs going beyond food and water. They need shelter, air, dust, but also a clean and dry environment. And they give more than eggs and meat, for example they go around and eat pests, they create manure (poo, which can be used for fertilizing plants), they scratch the ground which help to break it down and make it easier for plants to grow. Maybe you have leftovers from your meal which you can give to chickens and they will eat what they need, and break up the remains, so it decomposes faster, giving nutritions back to the soil.

Anna: Is permaculture something you can practise only on the farm?

Andrea: No, you can do it in any human settlement, it could be used in the cities as well. It's called urban permaculture and it helps to optimize space in your home, for example by understanding the position of the house and air conditions, from where the wind blows, to where the sun rises. And the dynamics in your block of flats, or district. What's more, permaculture can be the way we deal with people. There are three ethics upon which permaculture is built: Care for the Earth, Care for People and Share the Surplus. These are the ethical pillars that lie under the 12 principles. And the 12 principles are the guidelines you should follow when you approach a building project, when you create something.

Anna: Could you give some examples of the principles?

Andrea: Most of the principles are meant to regulate circularity, optimizing the use of resources, for example: avoid producing waste. Use and value renewable resources. Catch and store energy. Use and value diversity. When we spoke about chickens we saw how every single item should have more than one function but the other way is also true: every single function should be carried out by more than one item. For example, water again: in the vast majority of middle class houses all over the world it comes from the pipes. There is a centralized system that pumps water from the ground and brings it to our flats. If that system fails – game over. There is no other way for houses to get water. The idea is to have more ways to carry out the same action. What if beside having a pipe each house also stores rain water?

Anna: Yes, storing water seems to be the first thing to do in most permaculture places I've seen. And how did your adventure with permaculture start?

Andrea: The first time I heard the word permaculture was in 2016 in the Philippines, when we visited the Green Warriors farm, mentioned before. They were organizing courses to teach permaculture and they were working with volunteers to keep the place and production running. We volunteered there for a week. But the breakthrough came a bit later, at the Kadagaya community in Peru. That's where I got a clearer perspective. I could read books and discuss various approaches with community members. Another important step was the internship in the Food Forest Institute in Austria, where I spent 4 months. There were other places as well, yet the truth is that I learn the most when I think about the places I work on more often, for example my family farm in Fano or Żywa Ziemia in Poland, but also the flat we use in Łódź. It's where I observe and think how things could be done better, what the issues is and how could I go about it with a permaculture approach.

Anna: It's interesting that you gave those three examples as they seem to me quite different. At the Green Warriors farm in the Philippines the approach was fairly spiritual, we were participating in various rituals. In Kadagaya, on the other hand, everything was science-based and spirituality was never really on the table. In the Food Forest Institute science was also present yet the main idea was to educate and experiment. Everything we built was in a way temporary, just to check if it works and in relatively short time it was destroyed and recreated into something else.

Andrea: It's because permaculture is not about the philosophy or worldview you have. It's about how you do things. You can apply it to any mindset.

Anna: One of the common things I heard about permaculture, independently from approaches or mindsets, is that it should also optimize human work so we can work less, but in fact all permaculture farms I've seen so far require quite a lot of work. How do those two go together?

Andrea: That's a part I'm a bit less content with when reading or listening about permaculture. Popularizers often tell that once you have a system up and running there is not much to do, you can sit and relax, but in fact it's never the case. Things need constant work to keep them going. Otherwise wilderness takes over. There is always something to do, something to improve, some new idea. I've never met a place which is at its best, simply done, and you can just enjoy the view. Whenever you work with soil, plants and animals, there is always a big amount of work and you have to get dirty.

Anna: Why is it worth it, then?

Andrea: For several reasons. First of all, it's a different approach to doing things. If you cannot take how things are done conventionally, you have to find alternatives and permaculture and similar concepts are those that make more sense to me. And once something makes sense to you, you cannot avoid doing things that way. And then because being in nature, being with animals and plants is just a nice way to live. It's like meditation.

Anna: What else could be challenging in permaculture?

Andrea: There are two things coming up to my mind. The first one is from a general perspective: for permaculture and other alternatives to flourish, become more popular and bring a real impact, we need people to change attitude. We need to see things in a different way. And that's not easy to achieve. I hope we are going this direction and I see more and more people interested in the challenges our planet is facing and in doing things better. The second one is more practical: permaculture didn't reinvent the wheel. Permaculturists research how things were done before conventional agriculture, study new technology and try and take the best out of them. But it's not easy either. It's a challenge to understand which practices are good, sound and useful, even though they may be historically justified by metaphysical religious reasons or those which have no solid reason behind other than the good old “it was always done that way”. You have to try to understand the rationale behind every single thing. It's a neverending discovery.

Anna: We know how it was before, we have some idea about how it is now, what about the future? How do you see permaculture in the years to come?

Andrea: In my dreams it will merge with the mainstream, it will affect the way things are done in general, it will become part of our culture. Some permaculture principles will just become (or rather be again) common sense. This is what I hope and what I work for.

Anna: If I wanted to help this change, I wanted to become a permaculturist, where should I start?

Andrea: There is plenty of material in the Internet. Permaculturists are open to share ideas, concepts, as well as seeds. Exchanging seeds is a very common practice. Another thing is to see if there is a group of people, organization, association that does things close to where you are. Nowadays permaculture is spread pretty much everywhere. And learn by doing – visit another farm, volunteer there.

Anna: And why permaculture among all the other alternative ideas?

Andrea: What I like about permaculture is that it doesn't tell you what you should do. It only suggests the way to approach an issue. For example, it tells you to sit and observe first, before taking any actions. It gives you guidelines, not solutions. Saying so, I also appreciate and practise similar approaches, for example the regenerative agriculture which we met in Siolta Chroi in Ireland.

Anna: This reminds me about Joanne from OURganic Gardens in Ireland who said that all good gardeners are more than 60 years old because you need 30 years to observe and then change, adapt and change again, to really have results. It seems to be a constant process in which you never really arrive to the end.

Andrea: It's a continuous learning and continuous improving. The more you do things, the better you understand them and the more you want to change. There is no way you just stop and enjoy the view.

Anna: Although enjoying the view after a day of hard work with nature and people is something I would definitely add to the picture. Thank you Andrea, and let's put our hands on!* :)

* If you want to join us in hands-on activities and discover the permaculture approach in practice, check our courses [link to education] or contact us for collaboration opportunities.

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