Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mongolian Permaculture: What's next? (Day 22)

Theme song of the day: 'Just Breathe' by Eddie Vedder.  His lyrics just couldn't say this any better.

Photo: graduating class of Dec 2009 PDC at SCPI

It's been about 15 months since I stumbled across permaculture at Rick and Naomi Coleman's Permaculture Design Course at the Southern Cross Permaculture Institute in Leongatha (Victoria, Australia).

I had run out of money, moved back home with my parents in Melbourne, and, in search of what was next for me in the adventure that is my life, I had applied for a position studying Landscape Architecture at RMIT University in Melbourne.  There was no way of knowing on day one of my PDC that in just over a year, I would have been to Mongolia twice, covering an area from the Gobi Desert in the south to Zavkhan province in the northwest, to the Kazakh stronghold of Bayan Ulgii in the far west; and working on projects making a positive contribution to Mongolian communities all along the way... life is strange, and unpredictable, and beautiful.


Photo: Bek 'The Mongolian Maniac' wrestles with Dave 'The Ghost' Gibb at Wilson's Prom during our PDC rest day.

The new humble Monoglian friend I made on that course turned out to be the Food Security Director of an international NGO, and the small pact we made over the campfire one evening (to visit each other's homelands) is growing into an international collaboration of knowledge & resources that could help vastly different cultures connect, and learn from each other.

It's Bek's turn to visit my homeland since I am 2-0 in the visit tally right now, but first he has his work cut out for him with establishing a strong foundational year for the SEAL Project, and the other permaculture-based projects he is implementing throughout Mongolia (permaculture has been integrated into all of ADRA-Mongolia's Food Security initiatives).

600 integrated root cellars, and 600 passive solar greenhouses equipped with 600 drip-irrigation systems will be built for carefully selected beneficiaries throughout Bayan Ulgii province in the next year, as part of a 4-year plan to strengthen local food security and stimulate the local economy (with microenterprises and Self-Help microfinance groups) by seeding the community with these permaculture demonstration sites and future permaculture teachers.

Photo: 'Bolhadt', Project beneficiary living in Sagsay soum.  He is married, has 2 young children, has an existing root cellar installed under his house, is already farming his own worms, and has some experience growing potatoes and turnips.

Beneficiaries are screened not for their level of needs (this would be applicable to an 'aid' or 'relief' effort), but rather for their character, motivation, and potential to become future community leaders once equipped with the tools, knowledge, and opportunity to create positive, regenerative change in their own lives.  Checks and balances (such as monitoring gender-ratios and potential conflicts-of-interest) are designed into the selection process to maximize the project's potential for success.

Like all projects and organizations, the quality of results created is entirely dependent upon the quality and character of the people driving it, and based on my experience of the eleven ADRA staff devoted to this project, and the leadership & vision of Bek, Doc, and Michelle Abel (Programs Director) from ADRA-Mongolia's head offices in UB, integrity levels are high and the project is off to a very good start. 

One heartfelt conversation I had with project staff in the closing days of the course revolved around my personal experience of how many friends came forward to support me emotionally, practically, and even financially while I watched the small fortune I made during my twenties be taken away; when the money was gone, all that was left was the people I had touched - and I was humbled to find out how many that is, and how rich I truly am.

The SEAL Project staff have a similar opportunity, in that the work they are being paid to do over the next four years will touch many lives and forge many relationships that would be challenging to create outside of this context; if project staff focus on taking care of their people the best way they know how, than each one of them will be richer than they can imagine by the time the project ends - and we are talking about true wealth: the wealth of rich and supportive relationships, not the transient & deceptive wealth of money.

Photo: Bastama School Gardens project.

Dr. Beket's Bastama School Gardens project has the potential to impact an additional 500 students and families, while Guliya's large-scale fruit & vegetable production plot could also impact countless more.  In this way, we plant the seeds of permaculture design with 13 students, and watch it grow to help over 1,100 families move towards a sustainable & regenerative future.

As for me?  Well, I couldn't have done any of this work if not for the foundation laid by the many permaculturists who have gone before me, especially the work done by Rick Coleman and Kat Lavers during the 2010 Mongolian Permaculture project; had it not been for that experience and learning curve, I would not have a strong enough baseline of knowledge & experience to be effective here, and in fact it would have been irresponsible to send me in lieu of a more experienced instructor.


Photo: Rick and Kat, Mongolian Permaculture 2010

I was able to be effective in Mongolian conditions, and adapt the lessons I learned last year to Mongol-Kazakh culture, only because of the time, money and effort dedicated towards skilling up, and learning from others who were so willing to share with & teach me.  Now I have a stronger baseline to operate from when working in Sustainable Aid and Overseas Development, but there are knowledge & experience gaps (especially in creating and cultivating my own productive & functional crop systems) that I need to fill.

Bill Mollison said it best in the Global Gardener series:

'Once you've set up your home, so that you can leave it for 2 or 3 months and it just gets better, so that you are free to travel, then you can go and teach other people.' 

- Bill Mollison -

So that's what is next for me:  return to Hawaii, marry the woman I love, put some roots down, and start growing some veggies. 

Come visit if you are in the area.

Photo: Wind & Light ride in Hawaii.

Photo: HOME.


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Eaglehunters of Bayan Ulgii (Day 15 )

The famed Kazakh Eaglehunters of Bayan Ulgii, proudly bought to you by Back-To-Bek-Travel - for all your Bayan Ulgii Adventure Travel needs.
All photos are Copyright of Jan Schultz 2010, and appear courtesy of with permission from Aynabek Khavduali.

Photo: Herder on the steppe with Altai Mountains in the distance.
Photo: Hooded hunter.


Photo: Hunter & hunter.
Photo: They start 'em young.

Photo: Not-as-young Eaglehunter.

Photo: Hunting grounds.
Photo: In action.

Photo: The hunt.

Photo: The drop.

Photo: Closing in..

Photo: Got 'em.

Photo: Golden eagle and ovod.

Photo: All in a day's work.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Permaculture and Passive solar greenhouses in Ulaanbaatar (Day 21)

Note: All photos on this post are Copyright Pierre Thiriet 2010 and appear with permission of Pierre Thiriet.

Met with Anne Randall today, Agronomist/Technical Advisor at the French NGO Group for the Environment, Renewable Energy and Solidarity (GERES - pronounced 'jheh-rehz', not 'Gee-reez' - it's French after all!) to compare notes and share information between projects.

It's one of the simplest, most important things an NGO can do - share information with other NGOs working in the same area - so that learning curves can be accelerated (mistakes don't have to be made twice if shared), and projects can grow to flourish and complement each other.  Based upon our meeting today and the information shared from both sides, the potential for this to occur between the GERES and ADRA projects is significant.


Photo: GERES Research & Development Center in Ulaanbaatar.

GERES are the good folks that brought us the Passive Solar Greenhouse design in Ladakh which have achieved year-round vegetable production down to minus 25C at approximately 3,000 meters above sea level (and which we modeled during the Permaculture Design Training for the classes on passive solar greenhouse design).

Anne picked up on theGreenBackpack doing further research for her current project, which is to develop & implement a passive solar greenhouse design which can achieve year-round production in Mongolian conditions (illustrating, by the way, another permaculture principle: Multifunction, in which this daily log also functions as an informational resource, a networking tool, and a historical record for future volunteers and aid/development workers to build upon in Mongolia).

Since operating in Mongolian conditions from only August of last year, GERES has already achieved a 3-seasons greenhouse design, using a double-layered, concrete block / brick clad walls insulated with polystyrene (floor must be insulated too), single-sheet polyurethane plastic sheeting (imported from Korea, expected 2-year lifespan), a reflective 'solar blanket' type insulative layer for nighttime, and specially calculated steep-angled 'glass' (plastic) wall to maximize solar gain for Mongolia's latitude.

Photo: GERES 3-Season Greenhouse in Ulaanbaatar.

We shared and discussed challenges, mistakes, and lessons learned about our respective projects, and spent the next two hours brainstorming possible solutions for achieving year-round production within the greenhouse in Monoglian conditions.  Here's a quick list of some of the solutions we came up with:

  • Build coldframes within greenhouses to create an even warmer microclimate within the coldframe.
  • Use repurposed waste plastic bottles as inexpensive, readily available and durable cloches within the greenhouse to protect seedlings.
  • Explore plastic bottle wall construction options for 'glass' wall to create 'double-glazing' effect with air tapped inside bottles.
  • Re-using plastic bottles could help keep plastic out of waste stream (and prevent them from being burnt as winter fuel).
  • Improved ger stove design will decrease pressure on fuel requirements and the family budget.
  • Build root cellar under ger/house to maximize heating/cooling efficiency and security (root cellar must be dug deep enough to perform effectively).
  • Household heating system could potentially be extended to heat root cellar and/or greenhouse.
  • Establish windbreak/suntrap behind north wall using  fast-growing Populus laurifolia (Laurel-leafed poplar)  + Caragana (Siberian peashrub) species (keeping harsh Mongolian winds off greenhouse could help increase heat retention).
  • Organic matter dropped from living windbreak can then be used to build soils within the greenhouse and hasha.
  • Organic matter dropped from living windbreak can be used as cover material for pit latrines, for potential future use as 'humanure' (not currently culturally appropriate) .
  • Build hot compost heaps (using dungs (such as chicken or goat) which are not used for fuel) inside the greenhouse to add heat biologically and relieve potential conflicts on precious 'fuel'-dungs.
  • Chickens could be a valuable addition to a small-scale-intensive, passive solar greenhouse system, conditioning and building soil during winter season in a 3 or 4-season greenhouse, providing nutritionally and financially valuable eggs from March - October, plus meat and/or more chickens when needed.
  • Drip-irrigation systems maximize water efficiency and increase thermal mass within greenhouse.
  • Human urine from households can be diluted into drip-irrigation system to be used as a free and safe liquid fertilizer (provided all members of household are healthy).
  • Raised beds within greenhouse make management and harvesting easier; line paths with dark rocks to increase thermal mass.
  • Use planting guilds to maximize production from small-scale-intensively farmed space.
  • Plant potatoes in stacks to maximize production and create more space for other crops.
  • Cucumbers, squash, and other climbing/rambling crops can be trained up walls or across roofs to maximize growing space for other crops. 
  • Alfalpha, oats, or a native 'green manure' species (such as vetch) can be planted around hasha perimeter to help build soils within hasha walls (and provide backup animal fodder).
  • Local varieties of seabuckthorn and currants can be planted within windbreak of hasha walls to boost family nutrition. 
  • Research cold-climate species native to comparable climates to maximize productivity (eg Lonicera caerulea edulis, or Blue honeysuckle is a highly nutritious, climbing berry native to Siberia that will tolerate minus 40C and produce down to minus 7C).
  • Low-grade animal furs not suitable for commercial use may be a locally and readily available insulative material for floor that will break down and build soil over time.
  • Coal ash may be a locally and readily available insulative material that could be substituted for polystyrene within the walls, though further research into how safe this material is must be conducted before being implemented.

Ideas were flying so fast & furious that I am sure there are a few things I've missed; the point is that when like minds collaborate towards a common goal,  

1 + 1 can = 3.

In other words:

None of us
Is as smart
As ALL of us.

Best wishes to Anne and the rest of the team at GERES-Mongolia, we hope to continue to support and collaborate with them towards achieving their project goal of building 180 passive solar greenhouse for family beneficiaries throughout Mongolia over the next two years.

A bientôt!

Photo: Inside GERES' research greenhouse.


List of useful web resources from Anne Randall (merci beaucoup!) to help you with your passive solar greenhouse design:



Saturday, March 19, 2011

Altaitsudz soum: Large-scale fruit & vegetable production plot (Day 20)

Altaitsudz means 'Golden' ('altai') 'Cup' ('tsudz'), and as we descend from the rocky grey hillsides into the basin below, the reason for its name becomes obvious.

Photo: Entering Altaitsudz foodbowl.

Around 60km away from, and 300m below Ulgii City's average elevation (1,600m above sea level), it is considerably warmer here during the summer (so much so that mosquitoes can be a problem), providing better growing conditions (provided you can withstand the mosquito hordes), and as such is a veggie food bowl for the province ('agricultural' usually means livestock production in Mongolia).

The riverflats are thick with skeletal white trees (Populus laurifolia (Laurel-leafed Poplar), and varieties of Salix (Willow)), and the gently sloping river plains around are carpeted with golden winter grasses, and dotted with hardy red Caragana shrubs(i).  Bactrian camels, horse, and cattle browse the autumn-coloured palette nonchalantly, and closer to the soum, irrigation channels criss-cross the landscape around growing plots.

Our mission today: to visit the large-scale vegetable growing plot owned by retired Gold-Medalist-Mongol-Kazakh boxing star Beket (who must be somehow related to Dr. Beket, though I was unable to find out how), who is a friend of Guliya (our student from World Vision). 

The plot is approximately 5,000 square meters, and is nestled against the edge of a basin about 45 minutes' drive from Altaitsudz soum (which, in turn, is about an hour-and-a-half from Ulgii City) - seemingly in the middle of nowhere (I might have mentioned that distance is relative to Monoglians). 

Photos: The plot.

 The tightly wound slate-post-and-wire fence (slate posts! ...I winced as I remembered how expensive the slate floors in my old bathroom was... this slate was likely harvested from the surrounding hills, where it flakes off in large slabs) surrounding the plot announces the abundance of the owner's resources, which we confirm when we are shown to two artesian wells (dug 18 meters down to reach the water table), a greenhouse built upon concrete foundations, and later, a dam built 5 km away to divert a small river 2.5 km closer to the plot (made from old car frames, rubble, and sandbags).

Photos: Very expensive water harvesting.

250 seabuckthorn trees have been planted along the northwestern section, the innermost of which bore their first fruit last season.  A small experimental plot of oats and alfalpha sit next to the seabuckthorn plantation, with carrot and melon plots above that.


Photos: Seabuckthorn orchard.

'What', he asks, 'does the guy from Australia suggest we do to improve?'


Photo: Me and the (very) Big Guy  

 It takes a few moments to thaw my brain enough to formulate an answer, and I rub my nose with my frozen fingers to see if it is still on my face (it went numb shortly after arriving).  Well, I chatter, we might start by getting some of this wind off your crops.  It might help.

If distance is relative in Mongolia, than 'wind-chill-factor' is something locals notice only when a gale-force blizzard kicks up: 'Bit windy out today, tzaaaa...!?'

We noticed this last year in The Gobi, when we -asked- howled through the wind 'DO YOU FIND THE WIND TO BE A PROBLEM?', to be met with indifferent shrugs through the stinging sandblast we were copping.  Like fish who do not realize they are in the water (until taken out of it), it so often is with locals in their enviornment (wherever in the world you may be); because they live in these conditions every day, the obvious can go overlooked.

And this, perhaps, is where an outsider's perspective can add value.

But only if his brain thaws out in time.

Photo: (L to R: Bek, Beket, Dr Beket, Doc, and Matt.)

(i) a hardy, nitrogen-fixing pioneer species occurring throughout the region in various incarnations, from ground cover to large hedging tree-shrub.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Inaugural Permaculture Design Training Class of Bayan Ulgii (Day 19)

Congratulations to the graduating class of Bayan Ulgii's Inaugural Permaculture Design Training Course!  Special thanks to major sponsors The Canadian Foodgrains Bank and ADRA-Canada for making this project possible:



Photo: Bayan Ulgii Permaculture Design Training class photo (L to R (seated): Tilyeubek, Guliya, Dr Beket, Mereut, Makhabbat. (standing): Janargul, Janat, Doc, Ardakh, Bek, Matt, Janibek, Altangerrel, Bakhitgul.)


Slideshow: Students accept their certificates and share 'What's next' for each of them.


Photo: ADRA-Mongolia's SEAL Project staff are possibly the best-dressed permaculturists anywhere...