An aerial view of the site
Although the landscape here could be seen as a model for scarcity, what there is an abundance of is rocks. The baked dusty earth barely passes for soil and during the summer there isn’t rain here for over six months. With valuable agricultural resources seemingly at a minimum, rocks can be incredibly valuable in the design of a sustainable human settlement. In the case of the Permaculture Research Institute of Jordan’s site (PRIJ), rocks have formed the main building blocks of the swales that form the back bones of this small farm. They surround the heavily mulched planting pits for the many varieties of trees here and they also can be used for another useful function which litres of my sweat has been testament to! They make up the substrate of the grey water system into which reeds are planted that feed on the water flowing through from the sinks and showers in the washing block.
My first week here, amongst other things, involved filling the ponds with rocks wheel-barrowed from the surrounding desert. The two end chambers of the pond are now filled with larger rocks with a gravel topping and the larger central one with only gravel. Sadly I will not be here long enough to see the ponds filled and planted as one of the pipes from the washing block has a leak but once the system is up and running it will provide the adjacent trees and shrubs with life-giving water that would have otherwise been piped off as waste and not utilized. Eliminating waste, or rather turning waste into resource, is one of the key principles of permaculture’s ecological design approach. There is no such thing as waste in natural ecosystems, as resources such as water, nutrients and energy are continually and efficiently cycled throughout the system. This is what permaculture aims to emulate thus making the best use of available resources and therefore minimising the import of finite resources such as fresh water and fossil fuel energy.
The Institute has been far from quiet since I arrived just after the International Permaculture Convergence in the stunning setting of Wadi Rum’s crumbling crimson canyons. Running concurrently to my display of rock shifting prowess, was a seed saving course run by renowned New Zealand permaculturalists, Kay and Bob Baxter, who established the Koanga Institute. Amongst many other things, the Institute has New Zealand’s most important collection of heritage fruit, vegetable and flower seeds and it is committed to protecting, conserving and developing this genetic and cultural heritage which has developed over hundreds of generations.
Their five-day course has covered all aspects of setting up a local heritage seed bank from finding local heritage varieties to setting up a seed catalogue database. Everyone has been truly enthralled and the course has hopefully spawned the establishment of several such ventures around the world by the course’s participants hailing from Turkey, South Africa, Jordan and Australia. The course was held in the newly finished teaching and accommodation block which is a concrete frame, straw bale and compressed earth block construction to allow good insulation from the searing heat of the midday sun. This low impact construction saves the use of the standard concrete breeze blocks for the walls as well as the need for energy hungry air-conditioning to keep the building cool in the summer. On my first night I and a few other volunteers scrubbed the dust and plaster from the newly lain tile floor to get the building ready for our habitation, so I feel I had a small hand in its completion.
Not an ugly duckling in sight!
Other news from the farm is the arrival of three beautiful ducklings to add to the gaggle. They have been enjoying floundering in the pond under the watchful eye of their very attentive mother. There is also a new kitten as of a few days ago. Nadia’s brother Hael found some cruel kids swinging it around by its hind leg and rescued it for the farm’s growing animal population. He has been devouring yogurt since his arrival and is happily limping around the house after anything that moves. The dogs find him a bit of a novelty and have taken to aggressively licking him, much to his fright. I can’t tell if they are buttering him up for dinner or not so I have to keep a watchful eye. I have named the poor little fluffball ‘Limpy’. I’m not sure if the name will stick after I leave.
The farm’s newest animal addition, Limpy the kitten,
with his yogurt covered nose testament to a great appetite.
The new contour bed kitchen garden next to the teaching centre is full of chillies, aubergine, onions and newly planted carrot, cucumber, tomato and melon seedlings — poking out of the heavy straw mulch which suppresses weeds, prevents evaporation and keeps soil temperatures down. There is also a variety of other seedlings strengthening in the shade house for transplant. One of my daily chores is giving the garden its morning watering and I can almost hear and feel the plants hungrily sucking up the water from the freshly saturated earth.
While on the subject of water, I was lucky enough to arrive here at the same time as the first rains of the wet season and also the first rain on the site since March. How could one not take that as an auspicious sign…. Arriving about a month earlier than expected, the small shower allowed us all to witness the passive water catchment that is a key element of the site’s contour design. Being on a fairly steep incline, water falling on surrounding ground simply runs off the parched earth, carrying soil, dung and anything else it can pick up with it. However, on the site itself the many swales running on contour across the site caught all the run-off water and allowed it to sit and consequently sink into the farms sub-soil and landscape for all its trees, shrubs and plants to freely access. This was extremely plain to see and testament to the swales’ power was the fact that their deep mulch remained wet for several days after the rains, whereby everything else was bone dry a few hours after the downpour.
In Jordan as a whole, it is estimated that over 90% of rainfall evaporates back into the atmosphere and is consequently unavailable to plants. The same estimations leave only 5.4% recharging groundwater sources and only 2.4% going into river channels. For a country that gets under 200mm a year of rainfall over 90% of its area, this is a dire situation for vegetation and potential farming activities and highlights the need to reduce evaporation and increase groundwater recharge. Even though the PRIJ needs irrigation during the dry season, its swale system and heavy mulching helps to dramatically improve its water efficiency through reducing evaporation, recharging local groundwater and improving the soil moisture retention through increasing its organic matter content. Imagine how much water could be saved and how much groundwater sources could be recharged if systems like this were utilised country wide throughout the farming and forestry sectors and beyond. For a country that is one of the 10 most water scarce in the world and which had an annual water deficit of 279 million cubic metres in 2005, this approach is surely a survival imperative.
The inflow pipe into the reed bed treatment system
And it seems Jordan is listening. Jordan’s Princess Basma bint Ali was the patron of this years’ International Permaculture Conference (IPC10) in Jordan and it was also wholly supported by Jordan’s National Centre for Agricultural Research and Extension (NCARE). The Princess is a big proponent of sustainable agriculture and is very supportive of the permaculture movement in Jordan. She may also soon be entering into a strategic partnership with PRIJ in relation to her botanical gardens project and other endeavours. Watch this space for more news on that in the near future.
Only a few more rocks to go to fill up the treatment tanks
With several batches of newly graduated permaculture designers and permaculture projects springing up all over Jordan, another very positive sign is the interest of Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature who manage all of Jordan’s nature reserves and conservation areas. A large group of employees came to the PRIJ for a day’s course on composting while I have been here and they were all extremely positive about incorporating permaculture techniques into their projects. Permaculture has also been co-opted in projects by NGOs here in Jordan. A three year CARE International project has just come to an end which aimed to promote sustainable livelihoods among small farmers and marginalised sections of society through the teaching of permaculture techniques. The project has seen its beneficiaries incomes increase with their agricultural inputs decreasing by an average of 20% as a result of the adoption of practices such as composting, grey water systems and effective livestock management. The project has also saved the Jordanian state $130 per beneficiary family per year through the amount of water that does not need to be treated in government treatment facilities as a result of grey water reuse. It is most definitely win, win, win! Permaculture is essentially about how to string as many ‘wins’ together with each ‘win’ accounting for each extra system function facilitated by good design.
Filled and ready to be planted with reeds and opened to the grey water stream
Even though the system at PRIJ is only in its infancy, I can see how the elements fit together, each beginning to perform many functions with each function supported by many elements. With the grey water system about to come online, the compost toilets near yielding their first usable output, the wormery producing bucket loads of potent compost tea from the farm kitchens scraps, the animals producing essential nutrient rich manure for the sites vegetation, and the oncoming rains sure to give the farms growth a sizable boost, the system here is pushing into its intermediate stages of establishment. I hope I have the pleasure of visiting when it reaches maturity.