Permaculture-letting mother earth point the way
Permaculture stresses the need for compatible co-existence between man and nature, a philosophy which has come to enjoy strong support in Taiwan. Shown here is Yamana Garden, located on Mt. Yangming.
Source： Taiwan Panorama
By (Kuo Li-chuan/photos by Jimmy Lin/tr. by David Smith)
One core concept and two reports have brought a shift in the future of mankind.
In 1987, the United Nations issued a report entitled Our Common Future, which put forward the concept of sustainable human development and defined sustainable development as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
At the end of 2008, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization pointed out in The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2008 that small island nations must act quickly to ensure the capability of their food systems to respond to climate change, lest their agriculture, fisheries, and livestock industries be severely debilitated in the future.
These two reports nudged many nations to a clear understanding that developing self-sufficient food sources can reduce foreign exchange expenditures while heading off problems in a key aspect of national security. Given today's frequent natural disasters as well as water and food crises, "sustainable development" and "development of self-sustaining food sources" are pressing tasks for a small island nation like Taiwan.
Long before the UN reports, in fact, the term "permaculture" (a portmanteau from the words "permanent," "agriculture," and "culture") had been put forward by Australian naturalist Bill Mollison and others to stress the need to grow crops in a manner that allows for compatible co-existence between man and nature. It is looking today like permaculture offers us the opportunity to "have our cake and eat it too." Efforts are now afoot in 120 different countries to implement the concept.
With news media helping to introduce the idea of permaculture in Taiwan, projects got underway here in 1998. What sort of success have we seen?
Devotees of permaculture established Ya-mana Garden in 2005 on Sha-mao Road, north of Tai-pei on Mt. Yang-ming, where they put their ideas into practice on a plot of about 1,000 ping (3,300 square meters). A windbreak at the entrance functions as a "food forest." The idea was explained to me by the proprietor, Yam-man (actual name: Tang Yan-han): "The food forest relies on the phenomenon of forest succession-the natural replacement of plant or animal species in an area over time-to produce the food we need without calling for too much maintenance on our part."
The food forest at Yamana Garden comprises a canopy layer, understory, and forest floor, with different types of vegetation producing a dozen or more crops. Yamman stresses that more than 100 different kinds of fruit, nut, vegetable, and grain crops can be grown in a typical food forest, which can also provide a habitat for wildlife.
(right) Yamana Garden is run by Yamman, who left the rat race some years back after the pressures of the work world left him with chronic illnesses. After learning about permaculture, he threw himself headlong into it. His lifestyle is now both healthy and environmentally friendly.
Food forests and shared prosperity
At age 40, Yamman found a new life goal in the "food forest" concept.
Before then, he had worked in construction and satellite television. The high-pressure lifestyle had him smoking three packs of cigarettes and chewing several packets of betel nut per day, and his weight soared to over 100 kilos at one point. His quest for success had put his health in danger. Suffering from severe allergies, he decided he had to leave his job and take drastic steps to regain his health. He went to mainland China to study traditional Chinese medicine in Wu-han, and naturopathy in India. After learning about permaculture in 2005, he decided to establish Yamana Garden because "for people to be healthy, we must first have a healthy environment."
In addition to the food forest, Yamman also adopted the "three sisters" crop system originated by indigenous peoples in South America, who plant corn, squash, and beans together in a way that allows for symbiosis between them. The corn is planted first, and once it grows to about 15 centimeters they plant beans, which climb up the cornstalks. The beans provide nitrogen, which is needed in large quantities by the corn. The squash, in the meantime, spreads along the ground, where its large leaves make for the perfect mulch, blocking the sunlight, inhibiting the growth of weeds, and protecting the soil.
The concept of permaculture was first introduced in Taiwan by an American married to a local woman.
Peter Morehead, a major in botany at Wisconsin University who since childhood had enjoyed identifying edible plants and tracking wildlife, came to Soochow University in 1991 as an exchange student to study Chinese. Within three years he had met and married -Jiang Huiyi and settled down for the long haul in Taiwan.
The couple lived back then in an apartment in New Taipei City. The concrete-bound existence grated on him, and so in 1998 at the suggestion of a Canadian friend he decided to take a course in permaculture in Australia. After returning to Taiwan he rented out a plot in Beitou and started planting crops there.
In a corner of the rooftop garden at Morehead's home, there are to be found a water tank, some papaya trees, and a compost bin. The papaya trees provide shade for the water tank and smaller plants. The water tank lowers the temperature, serves as a windbreak for the surrounding environment, and reflects sunlight back to the papaya trees. The yams he planted there climb up the papaya trees, and green beans planted subsequently are now climbing their way up the yams. The compost bin, meanwhile, shelters the garden from the wind and creates a cooler microenvironment.
Morehead explains that when people hear the word "forest" they get the wrong idea that you're talking about planting crops in the hills, but in fact a food forest can be modified to suit any particular environment. Where water tends to collect, for example, you can plant a ring of banana trees numbering anywhere from a few to several dozen, and then carry out composting within the ring. "The banana root system absorbs a lot of water, and the compost pile fertilizes the trees."
Practitioners of permaculture take advantage of the natural properties of the environment to create complementarity between plants and animals, and to achieve diversity. Besides taking human needs into account, permaculture crops are also grown in such a manner as to provide for the needs of insects and other life forms. Shown here is a permaculture farm in Miaoli County.
Setting up this sort of complementarity between plants and the environment so as to dispense with fertilizers and reduce the need for weeding is done all the time in permaculture.
Yang Wenxian, who was in the group that attended the first permaculture design course (PDC) ever held in Taiwan, runs a permaculture farm in Yilan -County's Zhuangwei Township in nearly barren sands near the Pacific Ocean and the mouth of the Lanyang River. The soil holds water poorly, and is buffeted by the incessant northeast monsoons of winter. Yang decided to use the trees already growing there to work out a cleverly designed "green fence" that serves simultaneously as a windbreak and food forest. He has planted ficus trees, wax apple trees, and bananas, and then beneath the trees cultivated sea hibiscus (Hibiscus tiliaceus), various types of ginger, day lilies, and arrowroot.
"Designing a plant community, you have to consider shade, falling leaves, windbreak, nitrogen fixation, minerals, the arbor, and other factors," says Yang.
He grows over 100 different crops on his plot of some 6,000 ping, and notes that where there is a great diversity of flora and fauna, with a bit of planning you can harvest the different crops on a staggered schedule. What isn't sold can be used to make yeast or vinegar, so there's no need to store it anywhere. "If you've just got one or a few crops, then the volume of production means you've got to worry about selling it. That's why from the very start I wanted a diversity of crops and many different planting methods."
When designing a permaculture plant community, one must grow short-term, medium-term, and long-term crops together so they can complement each other. Shown here is the farm of Yang Wenxian in Yilan County.
Let your crops do the work
Generally speaking, conventional farmers have carried out their vegetable planting, tree tending, and chicken raising as completely separate operations, but permaculture encourages integration wherever possible so that different functions, needs, and products can complement each other.
Peter Morehead points out, for example, that raising chickens provides protein and fertilizer (chicken droppings), and the animals help control weeds, which is exactly what is needed in a vegetable plot, while the vegetable plot provides weeds, bugs, and other things for the chickens to eat. Fruit trees also need fertilizer from the chickens. Chickens in turn feed on fallen fruit, controlling the flies that would otherwise harm the fruit crop.
The endless task of weeding is a big bane for farmers. Morehead once suggested that a friend use mulch to protect the soil, but the person wondered where to find mulch, to which Morehead responded: "Why don't we look at the function of 'weeds' from a different perspective? If we look at weeds as an inexhaustible supply of mulch, we can solve Taiwan's problem of heavy pesticide use in a single stroke."
Weeds seem at a glance to benefit no one while competing for soil nutrients, but in fact they can protect the soil and produce fertilizer, and when weeding, it is enough to chop off what's aboveground while leaving the roots intact, which will then release the now unused nutrients they contain. These nutrients are absorbed by the crop. Moreover, photosynthesis fixes certain needed elements from the air, which make their way into the soil.
Weeds also have another important function-to accelerate ecological succession by absorbing sunlight, water, and nutrients, then converting them into organic matter which goes into the soil.
Hardy, fast-spreading sedge grasses can give farmers headaches, but they do an excellent job of anchoring soil that is prone to erosion.
Water is of course the single most import agricultural input. Taiwan has one of the highest precipitation rates in the world, but its rivers run a short and rapid course to the sea, and our nation's "concrete-happy" model of economic development has hurt the hydrologic cycle, reducing the island's capacity to store water.
Water shortages have been identified by the UN as one of the most easily overlooked of crises. In Zimbabwe and Zambia, the lack of clean water has triggered outbreaks of cholera and malaria. The convenience of urban living, however, makes it easy to forget how difficult it is to secure water resources.
"High precipitation here means that Taiwan has excellent potential for capturing rainwater," says Morehead, who points out that anyone looking out over the city from a tall building will see a vast number of tin roofs, most of which were put up to protect buildings from the sun and rain, but if roof runoff were captured and used to water flowers, grow vegetables, and wash things, or if the water were diverted to settling pools for use in filtration of household wastewater, cities would be more self-sufficient in their water supply.
Yamman uses trees as mini-reservoirs in and of themselves. A banyan tree can store five or six tons of water, or perhaps three or four tons if it's a smaller type of tree. The water stored in the tree roots can keep the surrounding soil moist and fertile. He also points out that one can observe the path of rain runoff near home and divert water to places where water is lacking, thus adding to the total organic matter on land that was relatively barren before. The eventual result can be a very productive plot of land.
Along the border of his farm, Yang Wenxian has put up a food forest that doubles as a windbreak. Shown here is a type of Alpinia ginger that grows in the understory and comes ready for harvesting in the dead of winter.
Local foods, community development
The concept of permaculture is not tough to grasp, but how do you actually put it into practice?
One of the best ways is to consume locally grown foods and be a part of the local economy-to take part, in other words, in community-supported agriculture. The idea is that local farms should not have to expend huge quantities of energy selling to far-off foreign markets, but instead should provide their output for consumption by local residents.
The community agriculture idea of keeping food miles to less than a certain maximum was first promoted in the 1960s in Germany, Switzerland, and Japan. In Taiwan, the biggest force to emerge in support of the concept has been the Homemakers' Union and Foundation and its collective buying scheme.
The importance of proper eating to good health is the common thread running through the Korean emphasis on eating local foods, the Japanese preference for eating food in season, and the Chinese precept, put forward in the Yellow Emperor's Canon of Medicine, that "he heals best who prevents disease from occurring in the first place."
Yamana Garden, for example, seeks to be self-sustaining. Any extra food is put to use in courses offered there. In the dark, cold first lunar month they make bean curd cheese and red vinasse, in the second month they incubate seedlings, in the third month they take the students out to plant the seedlings, in the fourth month they pick mulberries to make fruit vinegar, in the fifth month, after the Dragon Boat Festival has passed and the daylight hours have become sufficient, they start making black bean soy sauce. And so it goes, throughout the year.
Yamana Garden uses its own natural yeast to bake bread in an oven crafted out of silty clay from an ancient Taipei lake bed. The oven is fired by burning branches pruned from trees on the property, thus keeping all the consumption local.
Outproducing conventional farms
Since 2007, Yamman has been working in Yilan with friends to push a project to "eat local food and leave the land clean."
He persuaded some small landowners there to provide him with plots to be tended with assistance from field managers. They use organic farming methods to reduce carbon emissions generated by rice transport.
In 2008 he bought Ban-ling, a parcel of terraced fields along the Yang-ming-shan-Jin-shan Highway, and commenced a life in the country. He used cast-off lumber to build needed structures, rigged up a water piping system, and tilled the land. Now, after much trial and error, he is turning out crops in a manner consistent with the principles of permaculture.
He says that one tenth of a hectare of land (1,000 square meters) can produce about 600 kilograms of rice per year using conventional farming methods. On the same land area at Banling, he managed to turn out 300 kg in the first year, 400 kg the second year, and 500-550 kg in the third year. Rice is -planted, harvested, and set out to dry completely by hand at Banling. Because only one manager is needed for each hectare, and they don't use fertilizers or chemicals, costs are thus much lower than with conventional farming, while crop value is two to three times higher. The land need only be farmed for half a year, moreover. He's truly making his money in a way that is good for the earth.
After leaving the rat race over a decade ago to take up farming, Yang took part in a program to train people like himself in organic farming techniques. He moved to Zhuangwei Township in Yi-lan in 2005, and in 2009 got together with other small farmers engaged in land-friendly farming to establish a farmers' market. The group started selling in-season items two weekends per month in nearby Dong-shan Township. They soon started selling their vegetables directly to schools. Knowing that their food was for schoolchildren inspired them to be all the more rigorous with their organic farming techniques, and the schools for their part began taking students on field trips to the farms, where they learned about where food comes from and how difficult it is to be a farmer.
Eco-toilets are designed to return to nature that which came from nature in the first place. The toilet shown here is located at a permaculture farm in Miaoli County.
Plans come to fruition
Tammy Turner, an American who has been in Taiwan for 25 years and was in the first group to attend the permaculture design course, remarks that "the word 'design' has a special meaning, in that it refers to a conscious design of an entire integrated system." The design process places all the elements in a system together such that each meshes well with the others. The system as a whole reduces or eliminates pollution and waste.
A Mr. Xu, for example, likes to tinker with things, and for that purpose has a spacious garage on the first floor of his residence. After attending a permaculture course, he replaced part of the tin roof with a transparent corrugated material and set up a clothesline to hang the laundry out to dry under the transparent roof. Now it's no longer necessary to turn lights on in the garage during the day, and he doesn't need to use his clothes dryer.
Having set up the Taiwan Perma-culture Community website in 2009, Turner encourages people to carry out a "values analysis" by listing everything they've bought in the past week and looking at each item to see whether it was beneficial to the spirit, the environment, or society.
Plastic bags may claim to be biodegradable, for example, but they only break down into bits measuring two millimeters at the smallest. When these little pieces of plastic get flushed into the ocean, they can be fatal to filter-feeding fish and shrimp.
Says Turner, "The purpose of this sort of test is to remind people to stop and think before buying things, and ask whether they truly need them, because ecological crises aren't just the other guy's fault, they're our fault."
A new concept put forward 33 years ago by an Australian naturalist has today become the driving force behind a global movement to make better use of the land. Having long treated natural resources as something to be plundered, it is now time for mankind to do some critical reflection, learn new things, and change our way of life. We need to make friends with the environment, get our hands and feet dirty, listen closely to what the soil has to say, and develop an emotional attachment to it. Hopefully the seeds of creative thought now germinating in the minds of a concerned few will eventually grow up into a huge tree that shelters all of the soil in Taiwan.