Friday, August 31, 2012

No Dig Gardenbeds & The Village Crazyman

A social pattern that Rick Coleman has observed in his work overseas is that of the 'Village Crazyman':

Everywhere he has worked, Rick has encountered this person - typically slightly overweight (ie well-fed), and the only person in his village who is growing anything with any success - often with raging success, while everyone around has written him off as 'crazy'; simply because of the lack of social proof: 

If that guy was doing things so right, then why isn't everyone else doing it?

Africa, Peru, Mexico, Palestine, Mongolia; wherever he went, sooner or later he would eventually run into this person, and when he did… it would be time to ask lots of questions & take furious notes… and ironically enough, when Rick returns home to his productive permacultural bio-dome smack-bang in the middle of the declining pastures in Gippsland (considered prime dairy country in that neck of the woods), guess who the neighbors consider to be the crazyman?

Photo: Our new friend Sawi is Da Man!

When we first met Sawi during our tour of Ifira Island on Day 1 of this consultancy, it was clear that he was doing some very good things - but it wasn't until we had conducted our site visits to Araki Island & Dixson's Reef that it started to become clear that we had found our 'Crazyman'.

One consequence of the relative material affluence of this small community is a preference for buying cheap, processed & imported foods, and Sawi is one of the few residents of Ifira Island still growing his own food: trained chickens, free-range-non-foraging pigs, cyclone yams (not a typo), fruit & nut trees, hessian-crete walls (hessian bags dipped in concrete and used as a sort of plaster), thermal-efficient roasting oven, handmade fishtraps, compost heaps, nursery operations - he's got a lot going on.

Check out these no-dig garden beds, made from treestumps, compost, & leaf litter, growing 'cyclone yams' (wild yams which can store in the ground for many seasons and can act as a backup food supply in case of cyclones), at least 3 different varieties of Island Cabbage (Abelmoschus manihot, aka Edible Hibiscus), an unidentified shrubby edible, and interplanted with colorful varieties of Coleus to attract beneficial insects:


Photo: No-dig Gardenbeds on Ifira Island in Vanuatu.

Photo: Three different varieties of Island Cabbage (Abelmoschus manihot, aka Edible Hibiscus).

Photo: Mushrooms thriving on the decomposing log borders.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Appropriate Design & Knowledge Transfer


Appropriate Design.
Google 'Appropriate Design' and the first few results you get are a handful of Green Design Firms  Self-Sufficiently Sustaining their Sustainability through 'appropriate design'.

As a kid growing up, the word 'inappropriate' was often used to describe my behavior - so what exactly is appropriate design, and who or what exactly are we being 'appropriate' to or for?


"Local relevance and local needs are often considered key to appropriateness. A technology or practice is considered "appropriate" if its costs and benefits are appropriate to the locality in which it is used. "  - wiki -


Local relevance.
Traditional Cultures have co-evolved closely with the place a peoples have descended from, shaping both people and place.

For example, the extensive taro cultivation of Ancient Hawaiians evolved to as a response to the peoples' efforts first to survive, and then to thrive within the ecological limits of the islands; in turn, the terraced lo'i (taro paddies) and kauhale (family housing clusters) in the ahapua'a of Ancient Hawaii forever altered the wild tropical rainforests that Ancestral Hawaiians would have encountered upon their first arrival by voyaging canoe.

Similarly (though in a radically different part of the world), the nomadic herding culture of the Mongols evolved as their people's response to first survive, and then to thrive in the extreme conditions of their place. 

Animal herds are the peoples' primary energy storage (food supply) which can survive -40C winters; animal dungs provide fuel for fires, and provide fertility for the grasslands in the delicate balance that is life on the steppe.   Over the millennia, the Mongolian landscape has co-evolved with the movement of animals & people across its rambling, arid highland plains.

The notion that 'lands belong to people' is a symptom of disconnect between people and land in modern culture - all traditional cultures that are still intact today have a shared notion of 'belonging to their land' - in other words, a universal recognition that their ability to thrive as people is nested within the ability of the landscape around them to thrive:

We take care of the land, and the land takes care of us.

'Local relevance' takes us back to this idea of designing solutions which utilize locally available resources to solve the specific challenges presented by a locale's landscape, and the culture which has co-evolved within it; in other words, solutions which are appropriate to place and culture.

Knowledge Transfer.
Gardening techniques & tricks that have been developed for a seasonal agriculture may not be appropriate for a culture that has developed a perennial agricultural system in response to its landscape.

At first glance in Vanuatu, it may appear that there are no garden beds (that we may recognize) within the village, a shift in our perception reveals a complex & diverse agroforestry system of edible & useful species planted within the village and extending into the surrounding lands.

The fastest-growing traditional crop here is likely sweet potato, which is ready for first harvest in around 3 months; compare that to the Mongolian growing season of 90 days.

So, when working in foreign lands & cultures, we must work to match our design solutions to place & people. 


Photo: Knowledge replicating out into community as one of our student's next door neighboor is now feeding her banana patches w/ organic matter instead of burning it.

For example, in the shallow topsoils of the tropics much of the nutrient is held in the biomass of the plants growing there.  The practice of burning any & all organic matter (in the interests of maintaining tidiness) breaks this cycle, turning valuable nutrients into char & smoke.

Once a foundational understanding of permaculture principles is established (in this case, the principle of 'cycling energy'), students can begin to relate these into locally appropriate action & practice.



Monday, August 27, 2012

Island Water & Watersheds


Photo: High Island [photo credit:].


Photo: Low Island (Ifira Island).

When we understand the importance of water and the watersheds which catch, store, filter & deliver our fresh water to us, we gain a deeper understanding of where we fit in to the ecology of a place.

Permaculture Publications managed to record, transcribe, and publish to the public domain a series of lectures from a PDC given by Bill Mollison in 1981 (New Hapshire, USA).  The treatise he gives on High Islands & Low Islands are excellent (and highly entertaining, if you can manage to read them in a lazy aussie drawl to fully capture the dry ironic undertone in his delivery).

There are both High & Low Islands on Vanuatu, so it is important to understand the way each is formed if we are to understand the differences in managing & protecting their watersheds.

Permaculture_on_Islands.pdf Download this file
Download: 'Permaculture on Islands', by Bill Mollison (1981)

For a detailed description of these differences, download the above Mollison transcript (well worth the read), for the cliff notes, see below:

High Islands:


    •    Air is funneled up the mountains of the windward side.
    •    Clouds form as condensation occurs at upper levels.
    •    Most rain is dropped on windward side.
    •    Rain shadow is created on leeward side.
    •    Upland forests seeds clouds with transpiration, which increases precipitation.
    •    Over time, forests can descend from the upper slopes of the leeward side.
    •    Clouds follow the forest into rain shadow.
    •    Watersheds filter water through sedimentation, solarization, oxygenation & filtration.
    •    Trees protect the watershed.

Low Islands:


    •    Bird droppings (phosphates) & sand (calcium) form basis of soil.
    •    Pioneer plan species must break through 'platen' layer of phosphate + calcareous sands.
    •    Once platen layer is penetrated by pioneers, groundwater table can form.
    •    Organic matter from vegetation creates humus for succession species.
    •    Groundwater table only 3-5 feet deep.
    •    If groundwater is overdrawn, salt water can get in.
    •    This groundwater is shallow & must be protected!
    •    Surface water catchment strategies help protect groundwater.
    •    Low islands must be protected w/ trees or wind & waves will quickly erode.
    •    Trees protect the island & watershed.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Mapping a Site: Sectors & Zones

Mapping a site is a basic skill that is essential to permaculture design; it is the 'Point A' from which the design process starts.


Photo: Students map the homesite in the ground.

Students split up into teams and walked the teaching site (we are being hosted in the home of Talek, one of Ifira's best rugby players) to pace the boundaries, and gain a hands-on experience of drawing a site map to scale. 

After everyone had sketched rough maps in their notebooks, we gathered again as a group and consolidated the information gathered to create a 3-D map on the ground.

In this way participants could share & discuss the information each had gathered, and discover each other's different perceptions of the same site.  This interactive group process also serves to engage multiple learning styles and cross language barriers, creating opportunities for teams to start learning from each other instead of relying upon a translator to convey the entire lesson - not everyone can learn effectively in a lecture format in their own language (let alone having to sit through a translated 90-minute lecture).


Photo: Class discussion to map external energies acting upon the site.

Once the class had transferred the information gathered to create the larger-scale map on the ground, we could map the external energies which impacted the site - what we refer to as 'Sectors' in permaculture design.

As the group discussed prevailing winds, solar aspect, foot traffic, water flow across the site, and hurricane risk, it became apparent that it would just make sense to place certain elements  in certain places (for example bananas in the lee of a structure to give it protection from hurricane winds).


Photo: Student map.

Next we explored how use patterns will affect design decisions made for the site - what we refer to as 'Zones' in permaculture design.  Since the bathroom, kitchen & pigpen are all areas which are visited daily, we can take advantage of these energy flows to place what we need most often along these paths.

If we plant fruit trees along these flows, we can monitor them daily on our way to where we need to go anyways.  Or back at home in Hawaii, we may choose to site our herb garden outside the kitchen door (or even inside the kitchen if we are especially creative!).

Friday, August 24, 2012

Making Connections: The Story of Design

The Functional Analysis is a tool which is used in permaculture design to map the needs, products and characteristics of resources we have available so that we can start to use them as elements within our system by seeking out functional relationships between each element.

Simply put, it is a tool we use to help answer the question: How can we use what we have to create what we need?

Students split into small teams and begin by listing the Needs (Inputs) / Characteristics / Products (Outputs/Functions) of an available resource - in this (somewhat infamous) example, a chicken:


Photo: Multifunctional-Permaculture-Superchicken.

Once the functional analysis for this resource is completed, another resource is selected and the functional analysis is conducted again.  This is repeated again and again, until students have a list of elements which can be connected to each other to create functional relationships.

By asking, 'How can the needs of one element in our system be met by the products/functions of another element within our system?', we can begin to tell the story of how these elements can work together to create a functioning system: the story of design.

In other words, we are creating the beginning of a fully functional permaculture design.


Photo: Students from Vanuatu 2012 PDC present a simple 'story of design' integrating Coconuts, Cattle, Pigs, a Dog, and Taro.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Ethics (on Island Time)


Photo: 9am at the classroom... but where are the students?

Day 1 of the Vanuatu PDC started promptly on island time (2pm vs the scheduled 9am), and we had a beautiful class discussion and exchange of cultural ethics & values to kick things off.

Photo: English on the left, Bislama on the right.

English: Earth Care
Hawaiian: Malama A'ina
Bislama: Lukaotem Gud Kraon ('Look out 'em good ground')
Local Example: The traditional practice of slash-n-burn agriculture (where a garden plot is cleared from the forest by a controlled burn) has evolved from a cultural practice of working with what the landscape has to offer.  Once food crops were grown & harvested, a family would move on to clear & farm another plot, leaving the old one to fallow so that the jungle could reclaim it and replenish the nutrients taken from the land to grow those crops.  Only after the land had a chance to regenerate itself would it be farmed again, a practice which makes sense given the low populations supported by the land.

Photo: Child on Dixson's Reef; wanting to create a better world for our children is fundamental human value which transcends all boundaries.

 English: People Care
Hawaiian: Aloha
Bislama: Lukaotem Gud Pipol ('Look out 'em good people')
Local Example: The islands' communities are interdependent with each other, and rely upon people looking after each other - each producing its own specialty matched to its lands (good fishing, or special varieties of yam, taro, banana, kava, etc) and trading its surplus with neighboring communities.  In this way a diverse, resilient network of community has been created which can adapt dynamically and respond creatively to challenges; especially useful in a land of seasonal cyclones and volcanic activity.

Photo: Community bamboo woodlot outside of village at Dixson's Reef.

English: Resource Share
Hawaiian: Kapu
Bislama: Sherem Ol Samting / Tabu ('Share 'em all something / Taboo')
Local Example: Sharing of resources also means stewarding of the resources entrusted to you; this is done most effectively by setting limits to consumption, population & growth.  Tabu is one system used to to limit consumption by forbidding the use of an overtaxed resource to allow it to recover (e.g a reef ecosystem or wild harvest area); the practice of requiring marrying daughters to move to the communities of their spouses was used traditionally as a way to limit population growth within island communities.


Photo: The balance between tradition & innovation / culture & change must be maintained if healthy culture is to keep evolving.  Without one or the other, culture (tradition) will become extinct.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Vanuatu 2012: 'Kaekae fo Laef' (Food For Life)


Photo: The view from the plane on the way to Malekula Island.


“Food security has been defined as ...access by all people at all times to sufficient food for an active and healthy life.  
- (Online), Dieticians Association of Australia, (2006.) -



Photo: The open market in Port Villa is filled with a diverse variety of local produce & goods


Food Insecurity
Food insecurity in Vanuatu is not primarily a case of inadequate volumes of food to feed people. 

[TGB: In fact, our site visits to two remote island communities (one accessible only by a 60-minute banana boat ride) revealed a richness in diversified perennial cropping systems and a deep knowledge of local plants & their uses.  We also discovered a fondness for consuming large amounts of cheap imported white rice.]

(Food insecurity in Vanuatu) is more related to what can be termed “hidden hunger”, or deficiencies of vital micronutrients in people’s diets. In rural areas, it is related to people eating unbalanced diets, and a building dependence on imported convenience foods (rice, noodles and tinned fish).


Photo: Typical household on Ifiri Island, a small island community located a short 10-minute boat ride from Port Villa.

In urban areas, it is related to people’s access to land, the ability to earn sufficient income to purchase food, and changes in people’s eating habits, shifting away from nutritionally rich traditional staples to imported, less nutritious food items.

In both rural and urban Vanuatu, there is physical evidence of some malnutrition amongst infants, pregnant and lactating women, low-income earners and the unemployed. Not all people are able to get access to enough food.

Findings from the 1983 National Nutrition Survey (no other recent work of this kind has taken place since) indicate that malnutrition is noticeable amongst children between 1 and 2 years of age in rural Vanuatu. In urban areas the problem is more prominent amongst low-income earners, who cannot earn sufficient income to meet the full food needs of their households.


Increasing Soil Infertility
Shifting cultivation is still widely practised in the rural areas of Vanuatu, where land is cleared, cultivated for a number of years, and left fallow while families move to a new piece of land to repeat the process.


Photo: Slash-and-burn garden plot ready for planting, Araki Island.

After each cultivation period, the soil is drained of almost all available nutrients. Therefore, a long fallow period is required to let the soil recover. It has been estimated that it can take as long as 15 to 20 years for land to recover fully in the tropics.

In the past, when population pressure was low this fallow period was feasible. However, in more recent years, the fallow period has been shortened to as short as two years or even less, particularly on the more populated islands.

Most rural families in Vanuatu are semi-subsistence farmers. These families are reporting differences between yields of crops harvested each time a piece of land is re-cultivated.


Photo: Slash-and-burn garden plot planted 3 months ago, Dixson's Reef.

Declining food crop yields are most likely directly related to declining soil fertility, which is an outcome of shorter fallow periods, which in turn are a consequence of land pressure that is linked to increased monoculture of cash crops and rapid population growth.

In the search for fertile soils for new gardens families are clearing forests a long way from their homes, often up to a full day walking distance.

This is creating pressures on women and children as they must travel long distances for the cultivation and harvest of food, which is contributing to preferences for nutritionally poor, imported non-perishable foods such as rice, noodles, etc (TGB: it is far easier to go to the local convenience store or bulk-buy processed foods from the supermarket than to walk a full day to-and-from your sustenance plot every day).


Brief Description of the Proposed Project
This project will improve food security through the introduction of innovative agriculture practices and training based on the permaculture approach that will allow intensive vegetable cultivation in gardens within the village, using organic methods that retain soil fertility year round.

The innovative gardening approaches will build on the gardening skills of rural families, and allow them to trial new ways of growing, processing and preserving their traditional crops. The project will work directly with families in two rural communities on Malekula and Santo Islands, and one poor urban settlement community in Port Vila.

Photo: At least 3 different varieties of Island Cabbage (Hibiscus manihot) grow as a planting guild in raised beds with Yams, Coleus, and an unidentified edible leafy green shrub (in front of logs). [Ifira Island]

Permaculture is based on creating closed ecosystems for growing food that are as natural as possible and meet all their own needs internally, such as supplying pest management, nutrients for all species, temperature control, soil building and maintenance, wind control, pollination, germination and pruning.

Key aspects of permaculture are intercropping for pest management and creation of microclimates that support the differing cultivation needs of the vegetables grown. A development opportunity that this project will be built upon is that some of the key practices of permaculture are already part of traditional Vanuatu gardening practice.

Currently the constraint is that the food gardens in Vanuatu are placed a long distance from the village, and the practice of slash/burn agriculture is depleting soil fertility to zero. Mono-cropping is another farming system practised primarily for cash crops such as coconut, cocoa, coffee and kava.


Photo: Coconut plantation on Malekula.

Permanent cash crops tie up land for long periods of time, resulting in shortages of suitable land for food crop production. Due to the value of the cash crops these are often located on the fertile soils closest to the village, another reason why food gardens are located so far away.

This project will use permaculture approaches to allow families to build on the integrated planting methods they are familiar with in order to cultivate complimentary food crops within their cash crops.

Rural families in Vanuatu also keep animals as sources of food or income, such as chickens, ducks, goats, pigs and some beef cattle. Usually this livestock ranges freely throughout the village, making establishing vegetable gardens impossible – especially if the villagers keep pigs.


Photo: Pigpens in Dixson's Reef Community.

A key aspect of the permaculture approach is the integration of livestock into the gardening system, as livestock both consume garden waste (fodder for goats or cows, or rotting vegetables for pigs), manage insect pests (chickens and ducks) and produce very fertile manure.

This project will work with the rural villagers so that they are able to integrate their livestock into their gardening practice, which will result in greater soil fertility and improved pest management. Sustainable vegetable production training will focus on seed saving, soil fertility, natural pest management, and water conservation for coastal communities with a long dry season.


Photo: Solar dryer in Araki Island.  These Beach Almonds are harvested by the local children and sold at market for 400VT /kg ($4USD).

Food processing and preservation techniques will also be introduced to the communities. Currently there is a high demand for this type of knowledge. This project will have a high potential for replication across Vanuatu.

In order to facilitate this the project will work with the Vanuatu Department of Agriculture and possibly a rural vocational training provider to develop curriculum materials based on the lessons learned and the approaches developed through the project activities.

These training materials will then be used to replicate the knowledge and skills so that agriculture extension workers can provide the knowledge to communities in other parts of Vanuatu, and young people at vocational training centres can obtain certificates in the permaculture approach.

 - Excerpts from ADRA Australia 'Kaikai fo Laef' ['Food for Life'] Concept Note written by Michelle Abel & Tileuybyek Ye, September 2011 -


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Vanuatu 2012

Not only does Vanuatu has the dubious honor of being home to the world's first community to be forced to move from their land because of rising sea levels (see 'Vanuatu village relocated due to rising sea level' on ABC Australia), this chain of 83 or so islands and islets also happens to sit on the edge of the Paficic Tectonic plate:


From this article published in Der Spiegel:

Klaus Töpfer, a German politician with Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Party (CDU) and the UNEP's executive director at the time, bleakly noted: "The melting and receding of sea ice and the rising of sea levels, storms surges and the like are the first manifestations of big changes underway which eventually will touch everyone on the planet."

A climate-change report to be published next year will present evidence that the world's oceans will rise between 0.5 and 1.2 meters (1.5 and four feet) by 2100, with global warming already increasing sea levels by 1.8 millimeters (0.07 inches) a year. However, that amount is not much when compared to the natural fluctuations at work here. Like most inhabitants of the South Pacific, those of Vanikoro must contend with sea-level fluctuations of some 20 centimeters (eight inches) caused by currents in the Pacific, such as the climate phenomenon called El Niño.

Earthquakes and tsunamis strike Vanikoro regularly, but people here are at the mercy of the forces of nature in a longer-term way, as well: On its slowly sinking course, the Australian Plate is dragging Vanikoro along into the depths.

That the UN had been premature in declaring the villagers on Tegua to be climate change refugees became clear when a large earthquake caused the island to shoot back out of the water in 2009. "The coconut plantation has been on dry land since then," Ballu [Valérie Ballu, 44, a geodesist from Paris] says.

However, she points out that, for the people there, it doesn't much matter which specific physical phenomena forced them to abandon their village. What frustrates Ballu is that a climate-change adaptation fund helped them resettle in a new village, but in a location hardly better than the original one. "It's at a lower elevation," Ballu says. "Spring tides or tsunamis can still reach it."

Which brings up an interesting point: no matter how one may quibble at the details, the fact of the matter is that changing weather patterns are impacting communities around the world, perhaps none moreso than the island nation of Vanuatu.

Although the archipelago "luxuriates in a tropical maritime climate with characteristic uniform temperature, high humidity and variable rainfall"(1), its island communities must deal with intensifying tropical storms, shifting rainfall distribution patterns, and alternating drought & floods as the El Nino and La Nina cycles also intensify.


Photo: Vanuatu from the air (photo courtesy

Freshwater is becoming increasingly scarce and many upland watersheds are being deforested and degraded. Proper waste disposal and water and air pollution are also increasingly troublesome issues around urban areas and large villages.

Additionally, the influence of consumer culture which western development has brought to the islands is shifting traditional cultural behavior patterns & values, sowing the seeds of disconnecting peoples from the land they have lived so closely with for millennia.

On the bright side, in 2006 the Happy Planet Index published by the New Economics Foundation and Friends of the Earth environmentalist group estimated Vanuatu to be the most ecologically efficient country in the world to achieve high well-being. 

Despite the challenges faced by these island communities, we take it as a good sign that the WELCOME sign on the airport wall reads: THE WORLD'S HAPPIEST COUNTRY.



Ifira Island

Photo: Arriving to Ifira Island.

The campfire smell of a firepit outside our window wafts through with each flurry of breeze, the bells of the gospel singing practice that has been belting out hymns next door for the last 90 minutes stll ringing in the air.

It's 9.30 at night, and the village of Ifiri Island is slowly winding down for the night.

Although it's supposedly the dry season, we descended from the clouds into a grey, humid & wet world - it has been raining off and on for the last couple weeks.

"Mother Nature is changing", says Noel, Project Manager for the Kaikai fo Laef project and our guide for this evening.

Tomorrow we meet Eddie, youngest member of the Chief's Council, who will guide us on a tour of this small island on foot (he tells us it will take only an hour or so to walk all the way around).

Meanwhile, a soft bed and pillow await aching travelbones...