Dispatch from the Jordan Valley Permaculture Project (aka ‘Greening the Desert – the Sequel’) – April 2011
The Jordan Valley Permaculture Project (aka ‘Greening the Desert – the Sequel’)
Here at the Jordan Valley Permaculture Project in Jawasari, we’re hard at work building the main facilities and enhancing the fertility of the site while we’re at it. Those who had the chance to see the system last summer may have had some pangs of fear looking at some of the fruit trees, nearly prostrate beneath the intense yearly roasts the Jordan valley experiences in last months of summer — last summer being particularly severe. But today, the system is strong and growing. Acacias, Prosopis, Tipuana tipu other hardy nitrogen fixers have shot up, and the formerly-moribund fruit trees are twice their size, growing healthily in the shade of the pioneers. Apart from one sickly palm, not a single fruit tree was lost, and we even have our first yield of fruit!
At the moment, the main focus remains the completion of the central building, which will hold the main classroom, the administrative office, and living quarters. As other authors have noted (here, here and here), the building is designed to showcase the thermal properties of straw bales and compressed earth bricks in an area filled with cheap concrete. Since the spring, the pace of building has been swift. While just a few months ago there was nothing but a single straw bale wall amongst concrete pillars, the outer walls are now completely built and the final coats of mud and lime plaster are being completed even as I write.
The western wall facing Jericho – before and after being smoothly
plastered by the PRIJ team
Looking back at when the plan for the work on this building started, I can scarcely believe what has occurred. It was only the summer of last year that a group of us at Entity Green had our first meeting with Geoff Lawton, to discuss composting and potential cooperation. Together we toured a banana farm, one of hundreds of such farms in the Jordan Valley, pumping huge amounts of water to support a crop that wouldn’t even be economically feasible without strong government intervention.
Myself, Hamzah, Geoff and Abdullah visiting a Banana farm
in the Jordan Valley. Photo by Anselm Ibing
From there, studying permaculture and getting involved in projects became a regular part of our lives. We took our PDC just months later, with Geoff and Nadia, and afterwards volunteered to start working on the building site on the weekends. Oftentimes, we would leave Amman early in the morning and would stay late into the evening, setting up electric lights to work into the evening hours. Sometimes it was a group of four of five, sometimes there were just two of us.
Farah, Hamzah & Anselm cobbing
We would bring friends, acquaintances and relatives to help mix and cob the western wall. And the work was slow at first. How many weekends did we work on just the interior of the western wall? I don’t care to remember, but gradually more and more volunteers started to join us. Soon we were officially organizing trips to work on our projects, and started getting volunteers from… everywhere. Apart from Jordanian & Palestinian volunteers we’ve met people from Russia, Japan, Cambodia, Australia, Estonia, Ecuador and the whole of the western world. The majority of our volunteers were from the capital city of Amman.
Amman, which is itself a nightmare of urban sprawl and traffic, offers few glimpses of nature besides the occasional garden terrace. Most of our volunteers, whatever their environmental convictions, wanted to get outside and work with their hands, to do something real. While the idea sounds cliché to most of us, it is a kind of reality here in Jordan — a sentiment we’ve heard verbatim from the mouths of many volunteers. Most Ammanis have a distinctly patrician attitude towards manual labor; it’s something better left to hard-working immigrants or the poor. By providing people with the opportunity to work and learn, we helped to bridge a huge social gap, and along the way initiated what was probably the first “work party” movement seen in Jordan.
Ahmad Abu-Handem, our local builder, & David Fairell, graduate of the
natural building course, who share great enthusiasm, as well as facial hair.
Now, augmenting our weekly flood of volunteers are the graduates from the natural building course, who return most every weekend to apply and sharpen the skills they’ve learned. Last Friday, anyone present could witness a human chain composed of locals and internationals handing freshly pressed bricks into immaculate lines inside the building. Initial connections we’ve made with volunteers have developed into much more — single acquaintances have become groups, groups networks, networks into communities of people who are familiar with our activities, connecting us with other enthusiastic volunteers, businessmen and women, and even members of the Jordanian Monarchy.
Volunteers and and the PRIJ team haul earth bricks inside
Meanwhile, Hayel & Galileo, the farm managers, have taken over full-time direction of the building process and helped produce thousands of the compressed earth bricks and dozens of batches of lime plaster. Even while the work is still being completed, everyone working on the site is already starting to feel the benefits of thermal properties of the straw & mud bricks. As it reaches midday, and temperatures begin to peak, the building remains cool and comfortable; the pleasant smell of fresh earth permeating the air of the room.
Hayel and Galileo sieving mud for plaster
One of the great benefits of the building process is all of the waste products from the building are straw and mud, which we use around the site to make new walkways, and for planting and compost. The local birds are also quite enamored of our new building, borrowing bits of straw to make their nests. We’ve been making plenty of compost with straw, native weeds, pigeon & goat manure, and food waste. We’ve been pleased to see the piles heat up nicely to 65°C within only a few days, losing very little water despite the summer heat.
.Mahmoud, a volunteer from Hebron, turns the compost
Our bacterial volunteers going to work for us
Meanwhile the recessed, double-reach beds designed by Nadia in Greening the Desert II for the Jawasarii Girl’s school has paid off. The school has twice in a row won the Jordan Ministry of Education’s award for best school garden, a rare honor for a rural school. The garden is thriving today.
The students of Jawasari Girl’s school holding their award
Working and learning in the garden
As part of the Permaculture Master Plan, the site aims to demonstrate and teach, among other permaculture practices, passive water catchment, polycultural planting, and sustainable waste management. Even before the facilities are completed we are already teaching — school children from Amman have come to learn about composting, and no one that sets foot on the site can help but learn at least a bit about permaculture design, nitrogen fixation, and water catchment. Jordan, as everyone should know, is on the front lines of the new critical resource: water. As summer starts the team continues to add new elements to the farm. The composting toilet block is nearing completion, our worm farm is thriving, and we’ve even started to add a few animal elements to the system, carefully. As the last light rains fall on the valley before the summer, the work continues. We’ve only the highest hopes for the season ahead.