Hope for a New Era: Before/After Examples of Permaculture Earth Restoration – Solving Our Problems From the Ground Up

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Loess Plateau, Early September, 1995

Loess Plateau, Early September, 2009

Rio+20 has been and gone, and, in the big scheme of things, has achieved little, or worse. With this post I’d like to take the opportunity to jot down some thoughts, and images, that might help us shake off disappointment, disillusionment and despair, and give us something we can all consider, adjust and rally around. Our ‘leaders’ are taking us ‘down the garden path’, but, unfortunately, in the proverbial, rather than literal, sense. It’s truly time to forge new beginnings, create new economies, and to prioritise natural and social capital with the goal of restoring ecological and social health.

The problem we as a race (particularly Anglo Saxons like myself) have, I think, is that when we think of nature, we tend to compartmentalise it. It’s that ‘reserve’ or ‘park’ that needs to be ‘protected’ from us. We tend to admit that we ourselves are destructive, but the central problem is that since we can’t see ourselves being anything more than destructive, we conclude that if we can just leave enough space ‘out there’ that we don’t touch, then it’ll all somehow balance out. This is a totally ingrained, but little recognised, failure of our modern culture.

Permaculturists look at the world differently – in that humankind are also part of nature. Not only that, and not only that we (as part of nature) deserve to survive, but we can actually be a beneficial organism in the picture also. If this capacity (which is proven) could be true of all humans, then it doesn’t matter where man lives, even if he virtually covers the globe, as he is an asset to the planet, and not a parasite. This of course can only happen if he learns to work with nature, and not battle it at every step, as he mostly does today. Where, for example, an agronomist can take a perfectly good piece of land and turn it into a desert over the course of a few decades, or even just a few years, a permaculturist can take a desert, and transform it back into a perfectly good piece of land, and can design it to be (like a natural forest) almost self-perpetuating whilst producing food.

But, putting that aside, I want to share something else with you. It’s essentially some logic that I find difficult to put aside, and which keeps me on track in my work and purposes:

  1. If you study soil science (as I have, and I could wish it was compulsory in schools) — and not just from a reductionist chemical standpoint as do the agronomists, but from a biological standpoint, where you’re observing the ‘magic’ of biological/chemical interactions and interdependencies — then you quickly become aware that the larger in scale you go with agriculture, the more compromises you begin to make in regards to working with nature. The more land you endeavour to take care of per person, the more you begin ‘forcing functions’ (trying to get nature to do something it doesn’t want to do — a bit like pushing water uphill). With larger scale, two things happen: 1) the larger in scale, the greater the detachment between the land-steward and his land — observing macro-level synergies and tweaking them becomes increasingly difficult to impossible, and 2) monocultures become a necessity to the automation required, and you end up putting more energy in, and getting less out, and you begin the input treadmill of labour, fertilisers, chemicals, etc., that are the inevitable result of trying to maintain what nature doesn’t normally allow. (This post gives a good easy-to-understand rundown on one example of this).
  2. You know very well that, with present systems, we’re using enormous amounts of fossil fuels to produce ‘food’ (‘food’ being in inverted commas, because it’s increasingly empty of nutrition). And, you know very well that we just don’t have that energy to burn any more. Additionally, because of our globalised system, we’re not eating plants we could, simply because they don’t travel well, so are sidelined by BigAgri (think berries, and all kinds of other plant varieties). The system that promised more diversity in our diet has actually reduced it dramatically. Even of that limited range of produce that is ‘approved’ by the BigAgri globalised model, around 25-50% of the food is wasted (according to the FAO) before it even reaches supermarkets (and lots more is wasted post-purchase as well!).
  3. The use of fossil fuels (pesticides, fertilisers) has not only increased our population manifold, but it’s simultaneously consumed our soil life at an escalating rate.
  4. The last three points all mean humanity is in a highly precarious position (dead soils, peaked oil, burgeoning populations). We’re heading into definite famine territory….
  5. Then add in climate change, which is seriously exacerbating our ability to correct the above problems. Much of this climate change is due to the above — the carbon that should be in our soils is now in our atmosphere, due to ignorance and greed.
  6. Add to the above that most people now live in densely packed cities, so are unable to work the land even if they wanted to, and even if they knew how.
  7. The above all inevitably mean two major things need to happen — a massive re-skilling/re-education movement, combined with a transition of people back to the land, for those who don’t have access to it.
  8. Given that in much of the ‘developed’ world, most of the land is held by large farms and even by a handful of very large multinationals (with farmers often little more than serfs on them — ‘managing’ their farms with a colour-by-numbers approach dictated to them by their corporate feudal lords), the above reskilling and transitioning back to the land is complicated with the very difficult necessity of land redistribution — something that historically almost never occurred without revolution and bloodshed.
  9. Where today we have economic incentives that favour large scale and Big Agri, if we are to work in the political realm then I think we need to target the need to see policies enacted which instead incentivise ‘get smaller or get out’, the very opposite of the policies of the last 50 years. Again, this will only work if people managing these smaller plots are educated in the how of it, otherwise instead of increasing resiliency and decreasing food insecurity, we can just exacerbate the situation.
  10. For urbanites, this is a good transitional option in the interim, where we relegate the lawn to its place as a short-lived entry in our history books: www.permaculturenews.org/2011/05/13/the-grass-isnt-greener.
  11. It’s key to understand the biology behind global warminghow the deforestation and mismanagement of our land started atmospheric CO2 increases long before we even began to mine coal and oil. If people would understand this better, rather than only approaching it from a fossil fuel emissions, reductionist standpoint, then we’d be one step closer to understanding the holistic solutions to climate change (reinstating carbon sinks, by way of food forests, and permaculture agricultural methodology — all of which also, themselves, free us from our addiction to fossil fuels).

Education is key. Creating inspiring demonstration sites is key. Collaboration is key.

Before/After Examples to Inspire

This post will be edited and extended as people supply* good before/after examples of restorative permaculture action from around the world. It is hoped that this page will become an inspiring example of positive, doable change, and that it will encourage a new generation to cast off the unworkable, untenable consumption-based mindset we’ve been bequeathed by previous generations, and programmed into with contemporary political/economic systems, to instead embrace a life that integrates harmoniously with not just ecological realities, but that also provides for the real, actual needs of humanity — clean water, air and living soils, comfortable and healthy shelter, and positive, satisfying labour and social interactions in interdependent, peaceful collaboration with the people and communities around us.

Don’t say it can’t be done. As you’ll see below, it is being done — we just need to see such examples replicated across the global landscape. Man must become a positive element in his environment, and the good news is he can.

I start with two urban examples, since most of the world’s population now find themselves in this situation. ‘Rewilding’ the cities is an urgent need. Lawns can become vegetable gardens and food forests. Ornamental gardens can be replaced with equally aesthetic and far more practical edible versions. The massive, high-input, food-swap system can be progressively dismantled, as we begin to carry food from our doorstep to the kitchen table, rather than across the nation, or globe. In tandem, as we, in this manner, reduce our need for monetary income, we can increase the amount of time we can invest in reskilling and providing for ourselves.

These contrasting before/after shots are from Eric Toensmeier (see Eric’s author profile), with his yard in Massachusetts:



The next urban example is with the rewilding of ‘public lands’ — the footpath in front of Brad Lancaster‘s home in Tuscon, Arizona.



Imagine the diversity, tranquility and eco-system services that footpaths such as this could provide worldwide!

China’s Loess Plateau, as recorded by John D. Liu, provides an awesome example of how community collaboration can achieve wonders at very large scale:

Loess Plateau example 1a: Early September, 1995

Loess Plateau example 1b: Early September, 2009


Loess Plateau example 2a: Early September, 1995

Loess Plateau example 2b: Early September, 2009

Loess Plateau example 3a: Early September, 1995

Loess Plateau example 3b: Early September, 2009

To follow is a snippet of the work of Tony Rinaudo, with his Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR). approach. You can find out more on this here, here and here:

Ethiopia, 2000

Ethiopia, 2006 (same hillside as above, but not from exactly the same vantage point)

Treeless land in Niger…

… and three years later

The two satellite images below show more of FMNR’s work in reforestation:

Niger, 1975

Niger, 2005

The next two images pictorially demonstrates the Permaculture Successes in a Zimbabwean Community, an excellent largish-scale example of transformation:

This shot shows how the Chikukwa lands looked in the early nineties,
bare hillsides and soil erosion, with the consequence in poor nutrition.

This picture shows a small section of the Chikukwa clan lands as they are now.
The houses nestled among orchards, the bunds with vetiver grass in the
cropping fields and the extensive woodlots are all typical of this design strategy.

Next is the PRI’s own Zaytuna Farm, in northern NSW, Australia, which has gone from being a run-down, drought-prone cattle property, to become a fertile, biodiverse, drought-proof example of permaculture in action at typical, medium farm-size scale:



Here’s a before/after ‘detail’ of Zaytuna Farm:

A tree stump, marooned on a dry, run-down ex-cattle property, 2002

The same stump, hidden amongst a climaxing food forest, 2012

A recent count of birdlife on and above Zaytuna Farm gave us this list (17kb PDF) of 64 bird species. While we do not know how many birds we might have counted before the project started a decade ago, it doesn’t require a genius to recognise that the inhospitable environs in the ‘before’ shots would not accommodate nearly so much diversity of wildlife.

For more on Zaytuna Farm, see the 2012 video tour.

Everything we are and have is due to the services provided by the natural world and its cyclic systems. Rather than behemoth, collapsing financial institutions, our soil is our bank, and it will service our needs if we can but learn to keep a balanced ledger. Our present economy is parasitising the very basis of our existence, just as that same economy is parasitising off the 99%. It’s sure that the rich and powerful will not relinquish their stranglehold on the natural world easily, nor will they surrender their grip on us, their precious labour-force-come-customer-base. But, we can undermine the system and replace it…. In this context I’m reminded of the following very astute quote:

Here’s good advice for practice: go into partnership with nature; she does more than half the work and asks none of the fee. – Martin H. Fischer (1879-1962)

Updates (examples added after first publishing the article above):

18-month comparison, Wollongong, NSW, Australia. See more here.

The next before/after shots are from Penny Livingston-Stark, with her first permaculture garden in Pt. Reyes Station, California, USA:

Before: Note walnut on left and blooming pear on right.
It’s late winter/early spring.

About two years later. Note: Walnut on left has leaves starting to come out,
so this photo was taken a bit later in the spring. We can no longer see the pear
on the right or the house in the background. We built up 8" of humus
in about 10 years doing this. Soil building on this level needs to be
taken into considerations when building foundations, etc.


* Please send your before/after shots to the following address, and please ensure they’re clear before/after shots, not before/in-progress shots, as many have sent through to date: editor(at)permaculturenews.org