This agricultural model was born in the 70s, thanks to the idea of David Holmgren and Bill Mollisone, two Australian ecologists who tried to create a model of self-sustaining agriculture, with a much higher probability to last for the use of coming generations.
Since 1974, in Australia, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren began to develop a framework for a sustainable agricultural system, centered on a mixed farming based on perennial species of trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and root systems. The ambitious objective of this method is to design human settlements that reduce the work required to maintain them, minimize the production of waste and pollution, and, of course, at the same time, maintain or increase soil fertility and biodiversity of the system. Since the 80s,The Permaculture method has spread all over the world. Today there are more than a dozen books and manuals on Permaculture, based on the original work of Mollison and Holmgren. Despite this, there have never been substantial additions or changes to the method originally developed in the late 70s.
In practice, Permaculture objective is to support the creation of sustainable, agriculturally productive, non-polluting and healthy settlements. In many places this means adapting our existing settlements. In other cases it can mean starting from scratch.
Permaculture has these following ethics:
1) Earth care - Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. Permaculture works with natural systems, rather than in competition with them. It uses methods that have minimal negative impact on the Earth’s natural environment. In everyday life, this may involve buying local produce, eating in season, and cycling rather than driving. It is about opposing the destruction of wild habitats, and the poisoning of soil, water and atmosphere, and it is about designing and creating healthy systems that meet our needs without damaging the planet.
2) People care - Provision for people to access those resources necessary to their existence. This is about ensuring the wellbeing of both individuals and communities. As individuals, we need to look after ourselves and each other, so that as a community we can develop environmentally friendly lifestyles. In the poorest parts of the world, this is still about helping people to access enough food and clean water, within a safe society. In the rich world, it means redesigning our unsustainable systems and replacing them with sustainable ones. This could mean working together to provide efficient, accessible public transport, or to provide after-school clubs for kids.
3) Fair shares - The third ethic recognises that:
- a. The Earth’s resources are limited.
- These resources need to be shared amongst many beings.
Permaculture seeks to divide these resources fairly amongst people, animals and plants alike, not forgetting future generations who will need food, water and shelter just as much as we do now. It is 'one planet living'.
Permaculture has 12 principles ((Holmgren David, 2002):
1) Observation and Interaction: We have to know how nature works if we want to be able to work with it. Permaculture uses an 'action learning' approach.
2) Catch and Store Energy: a) Storing energy in the landscape (creating a useful soil), by planting and nurturing new areas of 'biomass' - living things - mainly plants, usually as trees, woodlands, forest gardens, meadows, ponds, etc. to ensure that plant systems contribute to the development of deep healthy soils. Deep soils allow good crops, retain more rainfall, and also have the hugely important role of being the world's largest and most important living stores of carbon; b) Catching and storing energy in our built environment (exploiting renewable energy), by using sunlight and solar photovoltaics in order to heat homes and provide light for free; c) Storing energy in the household (storing food and wood), by preserving fruit and vegetables, wines and beers and a wood pile for winter fuel.
3) Obtain a Yield: Permaculture stresses self-reliance - the ability to meet many of our own needs from our own resources. We can no longer rely on global food systems to meet our needs, or on there always being enough fossil fuels to bring the crops to us.
4) Apply Self-regulation and Accept Feedback: Self-maintaining systems are the 'holy grail' of Permaculture, and can be seen in designs for forest gardens, in which work is minimised by planting ground covers to reduce weeds, nitrogen fixers to replace fertilisers and perennial and self-seeding plants to reduce annual plantings.
5) Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services: Permaculture design aims to make best use of renewable resources to create, manage and maintain high yielding systems, even if some non-renewable resources are needed to establish the system in the first place. Wind, sun and waves are the key renewable resources that can help us move towards sustainability.
6) Produce no Waste: Permaculture aims to connect inputs and outputs so that different elements meet each other's needs. Recycling in Permaculture is very important. Kitchen waste can be used to make compost and this can be used to grow crops. In this way we reduce waste, the use of external inputs (external compost and fertilizers) and increase yields (better soil, more crops, more worms.). Careful maintenance and investing in good quality long lasting products can also help reduce waste and overall consumption levels.
7) Design from Patterns to Details: Zoning is a very good example of a design method that is used to help generate an overall pattern for the site and ensure that it is designed to be energy efficient. Sector analysis is another design method used to see how energy (sun, wind, wildlife, etc) flows through a site. Both of these tools help to give an overall shape to the design, before getting too carried away with the specific details to start with.
8) Integrate rather than Segregate: One of the most important insights from ecology is that the relationships between things are as important as the things themselves. A healthy vibrant ecosystem is a mass of connections and relationships. Permaculture seeks to integrate elements together so that the needs of one are supplied by another. This is well described by three earlier principles: a) each important function is supported by many elements; for example, food for a household might be provided by a diversity of main crops, wild food, salad and vegetable beds, orchards and soft fruit, agreements with other producers, small and large livestock. If any one source fails, others will provide. b) Each element provides many functions; in a Permaculture system we are trying to use all the different functions and yields of an element, e.g. a chicken can provide pest control, tillage, meat, feathers, eggs, heat etc., to increase the overall yields and create a more integrated system. c) Relative location; in order to make good connections between different parts of the system, it is important to place them so that they can do this.
9) Use Small and Slow Solutions: Small scale solutions and activities are more likely to be adaptive to local needs, respectful of nature and able to see the consequences of actions. Incremental changes can be more easily understood and monitored. This concept links to one of the "Golden Rules" from Bill Mollison's Designers Manual - start small, get it under control and then slowly expand the perimeter -.
10) Use and Value Diversity: Permaculture designs should always try to incorporate a wide variety of plants, animals and approaches. This is because diversity can act like an insurance policy - if one crop fails, another may succeed. Even within an orchard there will be a diversity of different varieties. Polycultures (agricultural systems with many plants), are now proven to be more productive overall and resilient to weather, pests and other factors, than monocultures (agricultural systems with only one plant species). Plant diversity is also the key to many useful techniques such as 'integrated pest management'.
11) Use Edges and Value the Marginal: The place where two eco-systems or habitats meet (e.g. woodland and meadow) is generally more productive and richer in the variety of species present than either habitat on its own. In ecology this is called 'ecotone'. This is central to the idea of using edges as a design method. Such marginal lands are abandoned by conventional one-crop agricultural systems.
12) Creatively Use and Respond to Change: By understanding how ecosystems change over time, we can accelerate the process and create productive ecosystems faster than in nature. There are also many methods for social changes, organisational development and community engagement used to help groups work together and collectively plan for changes.
One of the main features of Permaculture is the method of “zoning”: the environment is split in “zones” in order to maximize the efficiency of energy use. Each zone has its own objective and a distance from the house (or the central part of the farm) depending on the frequency of human work. In general, in Permaculture 6 zones are identified:
Zone 0: it is the center of the activities, the house, a stable or, on a large scale, an entire village. This zone must be set in order to maximize the energy saving and satisfy the needs of the inhabitants.
Zone 1: it is located near the center of the activities. It is the most used and controlled area. It consists of the garden, the greenhouse, the nursery, the housing of poultry, the fuel tank, the woodshed, the drying rack for laundry and an area for the drying of cereals. In this zone there are no large animals; there are few big trees with the only purpose of shading. There are, instead, many little trees for common use, such as lemon trees.
Zone 2: it is a zone treated intensively and densely cultivated. This zone includes terraces, hedges, trellises and water features. There may also be some large trees that host under them a complex system of herbaceous species and trees, especially fruit plants. There are farm animals in selected areas and there may be an area for grazing animals.
Zone 3: it is the agricultural zone less treated.There are fruit trees that don’t need to be pruned, pastures and larger areas for animals, for meat or not, and the main crops. There are large trees that also perform the function of shelter belts and sources of forage.
Zone 4: It is an almost wild zone. It is used for the harvesting of wild fruits, forestry and accommodating wild animals. In addition to this, it is the area for the production of valuable wood.
Zone 5: it is a natural zone. This zone is used only for observation and learning. It is not interested by the design process.
Currently, there are two big branches in agriculture: conventional agriculture and biological agriculture. The main difference between these two methods lays in the use of fertilizers and pesticides: conventional agriculture uses prevalently chemical products, while biological agriculture uses natural products. Biological (or organic) agriculture includes many branches: biodynamic agriculture, agro-ecology, Permaculture, and so on. Permaculture, like the other organic methods, is based on the use of policultures and of natural fertilizers and pesticides. What makes Permaculture different from the other organic systems, is the emphasis giving to the goal of reducing the dependency on external inputs, through a detailed design of the environment in terms of space (physical layout) and time (how things change and evolve over time). In that perspective, Permaculture can be seen as a system of design techniques complementary to all the other systems. For more information on this thematic, please see the interview with David Holmgren on www.lteconomy.it/en.
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This article by Dario Ruggiero
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