The Essence of Permaculture

Topics: Biosphere

Agriculture was imposed as the main economic system about ten thousand years ago, constituting a key step in the development of humanity. For centuries we have learned to manage the resources that nature offers us, and now it is not easy to understand a society without agriculture, or what is the same, without the art of cultivating the land. However, in recent decades, we have observed how agricultural practices are causing environmental problems. These practices since the beginning of Green Revolution (aka Third Agricultural Revolution) have been oriented to significantly increase the production for the small farmers, but far from its original idea, the large agriculture-food business has been monopolized by a few multinational companies.

We face important challenges, such as the increase in world population, generating tension in the production of food, the progressive abandonment of farmland, the benefit of large cities and infrastructure, as well as desertification and salinization of soils in many places. However, as  put in context ‘The criticism is not to the use, but the misuse of the technique itself, resulting from the advances of science, to what until then was considered an art’

This global degradation of the quality of life has led various people and social groups in different countries to look for real and viable alternatives to obtain food that satisfy our basic needs through agricultural practices, and management of natural resources in a respectful way with life.

This new technologies and methods seek to reduce to the maximum the dependence of fossil fuels, fertilizers and man-made chemicals to obtain the highest possible degree of self-sufficiency.

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As Fernandez described it must be accomplished by means of simple techniques, which integrates ecology and the landscape, in an aesthetic and utilitarian value. {}. These new thinkers long to recover our ancestral essence, through a more globalizing vision, which have a more social and ecological than economic focus, and where cooperation prevails over competition. So, for this reason permaculture surged as the new alternative within agriculture.

The term permaculture was first devised by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the mid-1970s to describe ‘an integrated and evolutionary system of plants and animals useful to humans’. Derived from the contraction of the words ‘permanent agriculture’ or ‘permanent culture”, its scientific basis, resides mainly in Ecology. In simple words. permaculture is the conscious design of landscapes that tries to mimic the patterns and relationships of nature, while providing food, fibers, nutrients and abundant energy to meet local needs. People, their buildings and the way they organize themselves is fundamental in permaculture in order to establish a harmonic relationship between humans and environment. In this way, the vision of permaculture as permanent or sustainable agriculture has evolved towards the vision of a permanent or sustainable culture.

When Mollison and Holmgren began to develop of a series of ideas, they hoped to use them in the creation of stable agricultural systems. This was their response to the increasingly frequent use of destructive industrialized methods in agriculture popular after the Second World War. But according to Mollison ‘ Its [industrialized agriculture] were poisoning the land and water, drastically reducing biodiversity, and destroying billions of tons of soil that previously maintained fertile landscapes’.

Initially, permaculture emerges to respond to two phenomena; industrialized urban societies, where cities depend on rural areas for food, and high energy consumption from non-renewable sources. Furthermore, it is was also an alternative for those who dissatisfied with the urban life model, emigrate to the countryside.

Permaculture is imbued with the philosophy of the Japanese Masanobu Fukuoka, who established a cultivation system called ‘Mahayana Natural Agriculture’. Fukuoka was a scientist, who in the thirties worked as a microbiologist. He would later abandon his position, to start what he considered ‘the return to the natural path’, becoming a great reference of agriculture in accordance with the laws of nature (Bueno Bosch, 2004: 46). The emergence of permaculture occurs simultaneously with the presentation of this revolutionary method, in the publication of The Revolution of a Blade of Straw, in the Eighties. Both systems share the principles of:

a) The reproduction of natural conditions to promote a gradual enrichment of the soil, resulting in an optimum nutritional quality of the food. The idea of giving to nature and receiving it naturally is established, instead of demanding the land until it is exhausted.

b) Natural cycles are respected and strengthened, to favor a better growth of plants, reducing energy and effort, and based mainly on the interaction of biosphere and soil.

The permaculture concepts of Mollison, and the Fukuoka’s Natural Agriculture are complementary, and are part of a radical methodology in the interpretation of the management of natural resources. Both practices are aimed at the interaction of man with ecosystems in an optimum way, respectful, productive and creative. Fukuoka’s philosophy of life linked respect for Mother Nature to daily applications, offered a different model of agricultural development. According to Bueno (2004) Fukuoka’s model provided better long-term prospects, compared to the industrial agricultural development models. It also integrated the traditional practices of many indigenous cultures of the world, emphasizing solutions and the use of local resources, and proposed a true agronomic revolution based on the self-fertility of the land. Finally, the management of natural resources, in a sustainable manner, and through holistic thinking, after observation and planning, as a key strategy in the recycling of energy and the sustainability of the system created.

The administration of land and nature is the most developed aspect in permaculture. It is based on regenerative agriculture which is the analysis of the landscape, and efficient utilization of natural resources, such as water, soil or forest. It can materialize in the creation of water channels, soil conditioning and fertility, using local resources. This at the same time promotes biodiversity, through the conservation of seeds, to maintain certain species, and to help regenerate the soil. However, one of the biggest challenges is the organization and planning of the space within the application area. The tendency to use all space must be avoided. Generally, five zones are designed, the first (zone 0) is the center of activity, and the last is a wilderness area that does not need maintenance.

The zoning deals with the correct location of the elements that make up a permaculture farm. The zones are usually listed from 0 to 5, or from 1 to 6, (it is just a technicality that depends on the author). Each reflect the intensity of use and frequency of daily visits for its maintenance. The golden rule is to first develop the area closest to the center or at home, and once it is controlled, expand the borders to the consequent zone . There are some cases in which the number of zones is reduced to three or four. Not all projects required, all five zone. For example, there may occasions when only zone 1 and zone 2 are used. This happens if the farm is intended to be only for production of food for its own marketing. Nevertheless, zone 5 should always be present, as an area of observation of nature patterns.

An example of zoning is presented in “Permaculture: The Growing Edge”. Roth describe that in zone 1, there are medicinal plants and main vegetable crops, seedbeds and the greenhouse. Here it is found also forest waste, which used for firewood, and the dedicated areas to the microbial composting  and vermicomposting. Zone 2 contains the fruit trees, such as plum trees, pear trees, apple trees and fig trees, and locate the animals, which allow the clearing and regeneration of the land. In addition to supply products for human consumption. In this case, Roth explain that zone 2 has another section where the apiary is located. Zone 3 consists of fruit trees that do not require pruning or mulching, bushes and shrubs foragers. It contains also what would be consider as edible forest, composed mainly of autochthonous species. In zone 4 consists mainly of evergreen forest and another wild plant species. Three in this zone supplies wood for different artisanal projects. Furthermore, this zone marks the transition to the untouchable area. Finally zone 5 is a totally wild area.

The topography of the land can have important effects on issues such as local climate, water displacement, erosion, and wind speed. This affect directly the boundaries between zones and the extension of each of them. We have to take into account the slopes and the level curves, which will have a lot of weight in the design strategies. One of the most effective methods for evaluating the position of all elements within a property is the study of key points and lines. Analyzing the topographic map, in any slope with values higher than 12 º, it is recommended that there be permanent vegetation. Above 18º should have permanent tree coverage. Once the topography has been evaluated, the sectors are studied, to determine the right location of each zone. This means that one must understand how external energies enter and move through a system. It represents aspects such as the direction of prevailing winds, the orientation of the farm, the paths of the sun in winter and in summer, the constitution Geological site, important to know the existence of clay soils, sandy, areas predisposed to frost. In this study it must be included the strategies that one could do to counteract the negative factors.

In summary, to establish a correct permaculture environment in the book the Permaculture Book of DIY is essential to consider 12 aspects: one, the type of agriculture that was used before in the land. Two, urbanistic planification of the zone and the legal limitations in land use. Three, the topography of area. Four, orientation and energy of exposition of each zone. This is an important aspect in zone 1,2 and 3. Five, scientific analysis of the soil to know its pH, type of soil, absorption, nitrogen levels, stability, and field capacity (drainage) of land. Six, the animal and plant species, indigenous and introduced by man. Seven, the weather and other elements such as altitude, seasons, mean annual pluviometry, and monthly maxima and minima temperatures. Eight, Hydrology to know the location of near water sources, flood risk, and water quality. From the point nine to twelve, the planning strategies are mainly focused to big scale projects in rural areas where accessibility is not easy. They cover the construction of additional infrastructures needed like roads, basic utilities and connection emergency and state agencies. They also involve cost and size of each additional resource and the proper information about wildfire risk and history of natural catastrophes.

Permaculture Ethical Philosophy

The ethics of permaculture is given by moral beliefs and actions that contribute to the conservation of our planet. It is based on three fundamental pillars: caring for the land, caring for people, and sharing the surplus. This last component, encompasses the first two and refers to the possibility of extending our influence and energy in helping others achieve this approach, after having covered our basic needs and designed our systems. It deals with the environmental, community and economic aspects, where cooperation is the key. “The principles of permaculture are simple, and their relationship and interconnection, end up resulting in complex systems, in which the human being, is integrated with the ecosystem” . According to Holger Hieronimi, researcher and designer of ecological systems, ‘there is a direct relationship between the words humus, human and humility’. ‘Touching the earth alive every day, support their health and vital processes, help their formation and regeneration, are very healing activities and at the same time necessary in these times.’ This permaculturist considers that the daily experience of observing nature and interacting with the soil is a form of meditation, and a spiritual and physical practice at the same time, very positive.

The ethical and design principles are applied in seven areas, which need to be analyzed to create a sustainable system, represented by a flower, which according to Holmgren, expresses the uncertain and versatile nature of this process of human being’s integration with the environment. In addition, a completed design is never considered, as it is always in constant evaluation and evolution

The simple answer to this question is Yes. Permaculture in theory works because it based its methods on the equilibrium between human and ecosystem. However, this conclusion is reached through what is exposed by those who believe that permaculture is the solution to the current problems in the agricultural system. There are no many solid evidences that shows permaculture could work at as the main agricultural system in the world; or its efficacy at a large-scale project. In other words, the current validity of permaculture is based on theories and principles. Furthermore, if permaculture is the real solution to food system problem, why has permaculture not had a great impact in the society? According to Holmgren, there many causes that can explain why permaculture as a novel solution had not have greater impact in the last decades. Holmgren enlist three major reason. First, the scientific community is very cautious towards holistic research methods research. Second, the dominant culture of consumerism prevents the integration of measures that change the current status-quo. And third, there are some political, economic and social factors controlling local and global markets that refuse to lost influence over the local production of food.

There is no doubt that the current economic model has produced more opportunities for industrial agricultural work, causing the increase in economic benefits. But it fails to take into account the decline in well-being. The global market and the campaigns that try to convince us about the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and the use of transgenic plants, put into practice in conventional agriculture, have isolated us from our innate capacity to develop self-sufficient and sustainable lifestyles. Our modern society floods us with new, cheaper consumer goods that stimulate consumerism to the point of saturation, while measures of social capital and welfare continue to fall since the 1970s. These circumstances highlight the need for a change of mentality in society and globally .

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The Essence of Permaculture. (2022, May 27). Retrieved from

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