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Report on our Iranian Consultancy Trip of December 2008

Editor’s Note: Iran has been making headlines in the media a great deal over the last few years. Here’s a side to the story you don’t normally get to hear, as experienced by our own Geoff Lawton.

We are applying Permaculture techniques to restore the landscape
in the hottest place on the planet

In December 2008 it was our great pleasure and honour to be invited to Iran to work for the Forest Rangeland Watershed Management Organisation, originally formed in 1928 (see Word doc on their work here). We were working with different departments of the organisation, like the Sand Dune Fixation Department that was formed in 1958 for the Bureau of Desert Affairs. All of this falls under the central government’s main organisation of Jihad Agriculture Ministry. We were invited to teach a 10-day Permaculture course focusing mainly on desert rehabilitation.

Permaculture course participants in Birjand in Eastern Iran

The work that has already taken place in Iran is enormous and monumental, and is probably the largest application of good desert repair work in the world. I think it is safe to say it is the largest-scaled effort in the history of the world, with two million hectares of desert project area under rehabilitation. This has been a very, very major effort and still goes on today to repair the long-term effects of desert extension and salinisation in this ancient landscape, a landscape that has enormous diversity and ancient systems with a very, deep-rooted history of human settlement.

Erosion control with gabions and tree planting

Iran has some of the most diverse landscapes anywhere, and is still geologically active from the movement of tectonic plates. Some of the most extreme desert wind erosion sites can be found here, and all credit should be given to the Iranian people and their government, who are making major efforts to rehabilitate landscapes using modern techniques and some rather unusual and innovative cutting-edge techniques for desert rehabilitation. In addition, they are implementing very traditional land use systems using the ancient knowledge of local people.

It was a very unique Permaculture design course and we shared a lot of information through dialogue, as the people that we were working with were all professionals working within the Iranian government from different departments. They took a very serious and professional attitude toward the course information and I believe they learned a lot about integrated design and connected design across landscapes, in particular with swale connections between desert features and the application of size relationship of features and soakage of water through catchment hydrology to stimulate appropriate desert and dry land ecologies to stabilise landscape. The areas that are under rehabilitation are the largest I’ve ever seen and experienced and the seriousness of real work on the ground and the numbers of people involved are the largest I’ve seen or heard of in any country. We should really start to learn from their experience, as they have been able to demonstrate success in some of the most difficult landscapes and situations on Earth.

Sand dune leak point stabilization earth works ready for planting

Wind erosion traps planed to trees

Part of our work with the Forest Rangeland Watershed Management Organisation was also to demonstrate for the Bureau of Carbon Sequestration, which is a project in itself. They are actually demonstrating carbon sequestration because there are ethics involved, and what would surprise most people in the world is that in Iran there are very strong ethical movements to reduce the use of fossil fuels and to make a commitment to carbon sequestration and reduction of global warming. Although their country is rich in fossil fuels, they are committed to demonstrating they have ethics in providing beneficial infrastructure and appropriate alternative technology, particularly in the development of villages for the nomadic people that are still in their landscape and are moving from nomadic lifestyles to settlement. These marginal people are settled in villages built by government organisations and the government is striving to establish biological stability through the design of natural systems around those settlements using appropriate technology like solar powered street lights, solar and wind generation of electricity and large solar hot water bath houses. This is not the type of thing that you’d imagine an oil- and natural gas-rich country to actually focus on. Iran at the time of our work only had 30% of its GDP coming from fossil fuels, the rest being from their own manufacturing and production of industrial products. They are a very, very independent industrial country. In fact, it’s quite surprising to realise how independent they are despite having had two years of official economic sanctions (and actually 30 years of sanctions from western countries, particularly the USA and Europe). This puts them in a similar position to Cuba, except of course Iran is a much larger country with a larger population and a great diversity of natural resources and landscape. They do have a coastline on the Indian Ocean, as well as sharing a border with Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Desert re-forestation work

Wind erosion trap plantings

Despite the cost of fossil fuels within the country being inexpensive, they actually have their larger focus on moving away from fossil fuel dependence toward a more sustainable resource model. Gasoline/petrol when we were there was 10 American cents per litre, super petrol 14 American cents, diesel 1.6 American cents, Kerosene was 1.6 American cents per litre and natural gas was 1.5 American cents per cubic meter. Just about all houses throughout all cities and major towns and villages have a supply of natural gas, so nobody is suffering from cold in the winter. Some areas are mountainous and very snowy and cold, with very extreme variations in the climate, and there is an enormous use of natural gas. I believe it is 600 million cubic metres a day of consumption for natural gas alone, which is a most unusual situation.

The main project site that we worked on was near Birjand and this is out near the Afghan/Pakistan boarder in eastern Iran. Further east of Birjand is the Husein Abad Plain and it was in this district that we focused our groundwork, although the projects of the Forest Rangeland Watershed Management and Sand Dune Fixation Bureau go right through all districts of Iran. At the project site on the Hersinabad Plain we visited during the course we actually went through surveying processes, surveying contours between catchment valleys and looking at combinations of connections between swales of water catchment. These swales would catch to gabions and backflood through silt trap gabion soakage. We found we could actually increase the soakage across broad contours of landscape and generally rehydrate a larger area of soakage, and accumulate that soakage so that we could easily start to re-tree the landscape with appropriate species. This would demonstrate that through the planting of appropriate species, not always native, as there are many non-native trees that are already used to begin repair work before native endemic species can be interplanted to facilitate landscape repair. There are very hardy Chinese species that are already being used by local people in the local organisations.

Overgrazing exacerbates desertification

These swale systems would help rehydrate larger areas and start a faster reforestation, which our students readily understood. There was also an understanding that we need to re-pattern the landscape to harmonise with these particular water soakage contours and therefore readminister the rangeland, because one of the major problems is the use of rangeland by traditional people. There are still a large number of traditional people moving into re-settlement villages and they have a traditional right to grazing land. However, with the increase of population and the increase of grazing stock it makes it very difficult to re-forest areas, so large blocks of areas at the present time are taken out of pasture and other large areas are kept in pasture and are accessible to the traditional people.

Swales planted to trees

We explained how we can rehydrate the landscape on contour with water harvesting swales between landscape catchment features like gabions, very small dams and lemonier rock catchment systems, so we can then actually improve pasture between these contour strips. These contour strips would then actually become viable grazing land for livestock, which would mean a much more intricate management system. That means a redesign of the traditional people’s grazing practices, but then there would be less area needed for the same number of stock. There is a limited number of stock set by the government and each area has set limits to the number of grazing animals allowed. Although the area presently used is large, this could easily be reduced by simply implementing rehydration on contour and re-foresting, reducing the evaporation of the local rain and increasing its soakage, first through reduction of evaporation through soakage as well as through shading of the trees, then the reduction of wind evaporation and also wind erosion by those contours and tree belts. Reduction of evaporation would thus occur in three ways:

  1. through infiltration of soakage
  2. through shade
  3. through reduction of wind

Net and pan water harvesting

This is a standard procedure in desert design systems, using permaculture as an integrated whole landscape design and linking features together. This was a major change to design patterning for the students in their professional positions, and the use of a diversity of pioneer species, and an increasing diversity as landscape recovers, allows the biology and the ecology that we are establishing to actually become more and more diverse over time. There then comes an opportunity to go back into native forests, native endemic productive forests and enhanced native endemic productive forests. Thus, by bringing in productive species that come from climate analogues around the world, we can begin to globally identify similar climate landscapes and pattern systems in like manner.

Gabion silt field

Oil residue and seed sprayed desert sand dunes

We then looked at the traditional systems of landscape features put in over centuries, or even thousands of years, particularly drainpipe overflow. These surplus water drainpipe systems are traditional in Iran for gabions, so gabions can be flushed and overburdens of water can be drained quickly and soakage can be moderated in silt fields behind gabions. This is a unique technique that can increase production in small areas of silt fields behind gabions, thus creating enormous production of wheat and other crops in these soakage systems. This was explained to us and we shared this technology between each other. We also looked at the spraying of oil residues and oil waste products over sand dunes which is a system proposed by Bill Mollison in the first Gulf War in Kuwait, where oil wells that were destroyed and were causing a lot of pollution across the landscape. These oil residues and surplus oil waste products can be used to spray sand dunes after they have been seeded to rehabilitation species and pioneer sand dune stabilisation species.

Bulldozer towing oil/seed spraying equipment into position

This is a system that’s used extensively in the most damaged and most unstable sand dune areas of Iran and has proved to be a great success. Despite being a little more expensive than a lot of the other techniques it has worked extremely well. It was wonderful to see an idea that was proposed by Bill Mollison actually in action and working – an idea that a lot of people were very critical of at the time and said was an extremely radical idea. As the Iranian experts pointed out to us, the oil and oil residues are really only ancient fossilised forest products anyway. They are fundamentally broken-down forests, and to re-apply them back on a surface that is eroding to establish new forest is quite an ethical thing to do.

Geoff instructs course participants in compost-making

We also looked at how we could stimulate and increase soil fertility rapidly through soil biology. There was a lot of discussion about the quality of compost that can be produced, and how that can be measured by looking at the organisms suspended in water so that they can be analysed by their diversity and quantity with a microscope. We then discussed the work of Elaine Ingham and the Soil Food Web and explained how you can stimulate microorganisms with oxygenated compost teas. The stimulation of soil biology could be achieved over a large area with a small amount of compost oxygenated so that the soil microorganisms breed rapidly, and then inoculating the landscape through spraying. This was something that was of great interest, and at the project site of Hersinabad Plain we actually had one practical session where we made a fast aerobic compost and explained the basic principals of compost production. This is something that we would like to help the Iranians extend and promote so that they can speed up the recovery of their degraded landscapes and promote a faster biological recovery. The people became very excited about this potential.

Check dams

After the 10-day course we continued to share many learning experiences with our hosts, and some wonderful Powerpoint presentations were shown to us with visual representations of the valuable and extensive work that’s been done – earthworks, tree plantings and education systems among them. We went on from the Burjand sites and visited many ancient systems, very old earthworks and dams, and traveled through the perimeter of the Loop Desert – a landscape that holds the record for the highest recorded temperature on the planet – 70.4 degrees Celsius. It was winter when we were going through it, and there were small rain events we could witness through the landscape. We went onto other areas and visited sites where there were ancient water catchment systems, very large areas of almonds, walnuts and figs, with small catchments around every single tree. We went onto enormous areas planted in pistachio and many different crop systems.

We were also shown some very ancient cities, ancient markets and many different craft areas specializing in production of fabrics and carpets – of course the famous Persian carpets. Generally we were made to feel extremely welcome and everyone was very, very polite and very, very honourable. There was a great respect for us as foreigners everywhere from the people we were working with and everybody we met wherever we traveled. There was also a great united respect for the Islamic faith and spirituality. Everyone had very strong and very honest ethics. We were continuously shown different products that were processed by local people and traditional crops in the area around Birjand and East Iran. Of particular interest to us was the barberry. Often barberries (berberis vulgaris – a very small red berry that seems to be an endemic and wild species in Iran), were part of meals.

An ancient Almond and Fig system using individual tree water catchment systems

All in all this was a very successful trip. We were taken to some of the most ancient sites where some of the old cultures of Iran, and the world, were centred. The general end result of our work was that we were invited to continue to interact with the Iranian organisations there and the Forest Rangeland Watershed Management Organisation and the Sand Dune Fixation Bureau. We were also invited to become involved in at least two project sites and extend our work through other project sites, and we very much look forward to that as a continuing relationship. We believe the Iranian expertise in desert rehabilitation is something the world needs. Some of the best experts with some of the most extensive long term experience in desert rehabilitation are in Iran, and we would like to be able to share their expertise with many of our projects around the world. We will be engaging in their expertise and calling them in as consultants on many projects. We would like to publish some of their work, so the world can share in the quality of their ability to repair desert landscapes and arid landscapes in general. This we hope to do for them through our website and through interaction with universities with which we cooperate.