My Experience of Permaculture Aid Work in Ethiopia
I’m not sure it’s possible, looking back now, to say exactly what I was expecting when I hopped on that plane and flew to Ethiopia for an internship at Strawberry Fields, but one thing I am sure of is that it’s been one of the most transformative, edifying experiences I’ve had in my life.
Two months ago I arrived at Strawberry Fields Eco-Lodge in Konso, Ethiopia, a freshly graduated, adventure-seeking young adult with a strong conviction that what I was meant to do after college was to go live in Africa for a year and learn about permaculture. My reasons for going were simple: I knew I wanted to travel, I wanted to learn more about permaculture design and practice, and I really wanted to get myself ‘on the ground’ to see and experience for myself the real lives and stories that existed behind this huge academic veil of sustainable development studies. After spending four years pondering and analyzing what often seemed to be mere abstractions of real-life problems, I had the strong (and quite correct) intuition that there was much more to understand about those problems than was possible from the context of a university classroom. So, I went! And now that I’m here, I can hardly begin to describe all the ways this internship has taught and shaped me because they are so vast. Nevertheless, I will very much enjoy trying to capture some of the ideas and practical knowledge I’ve been gaining here in these next few lines.
One of the first projects here was getting all the trees out of our tree nursery and into the field. When I first arrived in Konso I was told there were about 5,000 tree seedlings that needed to be planted in the next two months and to hop to it, not knowing at all where to start. But over those few weeks I learned a great deal about the whole process, spanning from the big-picture model of ecological succession and food-forest planning down to which tree species prefer which micro-climates in different locations on the site. Here is a (relatively) short explanation of the work we’ve been doing on this project.
To start, we have to understand the topographical and climatic context for this project: Konso is characterized by the steep slopes and heavy, concentrated rainfall that are typical of the Great Rift Valley. Additionally, Konso has pretty poor quality soil, a kind of cracking clay that is highly permeable but dries out very quickly. For this reason, the staff at Strawberry Fields decided to construct a series of bunds and swales on the site, turning what most people would consider as significant challenges of the site into valuable assets instead and enabling us to execute other projects that both enhance the resilience of the local ecosystem and simultaneously support human life. So, this is where the trees come in!
Obviously, trees perform several important functions for ecosystems. Besides the fact that they fix carbon dioxide and create oxygen, protect from the sun and wind, and even give us food in some cases, they also create organic material that strengthens the soil structure on both a physical and biological level. And, when planted in the rolling-terrace system of bunds and swales designed to catch and hold water rather than letting it run off the site, the trees significantly increase the capacity of the local ecosystem to sustain more numerous and different kinds of organisms.
In order to maximize these effects, we had to carefully plan exactly where to plant each species in the nursery. Here’s a list of the main trees we planted:
- Waybetta (Terminalia birownii), an indigenous tree with a hardwood timber whose leaves can be used as fodder for goats and cattle;
- Copta (Ziziphus mauritiana), another indigenous tree that is well suited for windbreaks and can withstand heavy doses of sunshine;
- Leucinnea (Leucaena leucocephala), a quick-growing leguminous tree that acts well as green manure;
- Sesbania (Sesbania grandiflora), another legume tree that (like leucinnea) grows quickly, creating lots of shade and material for ground mulching in a chop-and-drop system;
- Mango (Mangifera indica), a delicious fruit tree that is tough against the sun and enjoys lots of water;
- Guava (Psidium guajava), another fruit tree that enjoys similar amounts of water but is also fairly drought-resistant; and
- Papaya (Carica papaya), a quick-growing and fast-reproducing fruit tree that likes a bit less water than its other fruity counterparts in this list.
These trees were planted literally all over the site, matching each species with its most suitable microclimate within the bund and swale system. That means that the mango and guava were planted in the bottom of the swale where they can enjoy plentiful water during these last few weeks of the rainy season; the legumes were planted along with the papaya on top of the bund in order to grow quickly and create shade for the fruit trees; and the indigenous trees were planted on the downward slopes connecting the bunds to the swales, as they tended to be the toughest against the Ethiopian wind and sun. Ultimately, within even even years this system will begin to mature into a multi-layered, biologically diverse food forest and will be a great catalyst in the process of permanently improving the soil on the site.
Separately, another exciting element of my work here at Strawberry Fields has been contributing to the Permaculture in Konso Schools Project (PKSP), a partnership between Strawberry Fields and various different primary and secondary schools in the Konso area to establish permaculture projects on their campuses. During the last couple of weeks in particular I’ve enjoyed visits to several Konso schools, working with Alex McCausland (author profile here), the founder of Strawberry Fields, to complete follow-up assessments of the schools’ projects and make renewed recommendations for how to update and expand their designs. (For a very thorough review of each of the PKSP schools’ permaculture projects and recommendations, see Alex McCausland’s recent report.)
Besides this being a great exposure to different PC design elements and a load of fun, I have especially valued working with the PKSP for the model of sustainable development that it offers. I’m not even sure that calling it a sustainable development project is entirely apt for the PKSP because I don’t think that ‘development’ is an overt goal of the project, but nonetheless it has served as a fantastic model for community-led, locally empowering sustainable development. The fact that the teachers in the schools have taken the time to get trained in permaculture design and the students are participating almost daily in nurturing these truly exemplary permaculture projects offers great hope that the PKSP could be a strong catalyst in transferring knowledge of how to design sustainable and agriculturally productive spaces to the local community.
In fact, on our way back from a school visit about two weeks ago we were invited to the home of one of the teachers from a PKSP school to see how he had been implementing permaculture principles in his own compound. Quite honestly, it was incredibly impressive. This teacher’s grasp of how to maximize the utility of every element present in his home compound far exceeded my expectations for a translation of PC principles to local community members. He had rainwater-harvesting infrastructure, a well-intercropped vegetable garden and a fully utilized composting site, and he had strategically located his animals in such a way that they were contributing to the fertility of his land with minimal human effort or disruption of the design. As we were walking back to the car after having seen and heard about all he had done, I can clearly remember thinking to myself that this was a perfect example of how internationally conceived and funded initiatives can support and enhance indigenous knowledge for the betterment of the local community.
Back at Strawberry Fields proper, there’s one more project we’ve been working on that I will write about here. As was mentioned before, water retention projects designed to combat erosion are of central importance in this location. Stretching across the northern block of the site is a long, gently sloping watershed that feeds into a gully on the northeastern corner. When heavy rains come to Konso they create a heavy flow of water running from west to east across this section of the site, ultimately dumping out in a gully at the bottom of the watershed, or sometimes flowing off the site.
Previously, a network of check-dams was constructed all along the northern block, intersecting the streams that form during the rainy season at perpendicular angles. These check dams were made mostly from wood and brush and served to divert the flow of water laterally, ideally keeping the water in the watershed and holding back the nutrients flowing out of the soil in the form of sediment. However, it became clear after the first few rainy seasons with the wood/brush check-dams that they were not fully efficient at holding back water and sediment and that they were slowly disintegrating from termites (aside from basic wear and tear). This realization led to an idea that expanded and improved upon the original idea for water diversion, kind of like a ‘Check-Dams 2.0’ – living barriers.
The concept of living barriers basically entails creating walls of live organic material that follow a similar pattern to the check-dams, perpendicularly intersecting the existing flows of water in order to slow them down (thus reducing erosion) and also create a more effective system for holding back sediment. What we did at Strawberry Fields was to plant numerous successive walls of three different species – banna grass, sugarcane, and cassava – in an alternating pattern all across the watershed with about 3-5 meters in between each wall. Once the propagules establish themselves and start to develop into an actual wall, the plants and their root systems will create a network of organic material that both slows and soaks up water when it comes flowing through. This is a significant improvement compared to the wood brush check-dams, because instead of simply holding the water in the middle of the barrier, plants spread the flow of water across the wall laterally. Additionally, this will ultimately create a subtle terrace system as the water is stopped at each wall, sediment is built up, and then the water flows over the sediment bund. Overall, living barriers allow for more deposition of sediment and less erosion and they build up water and nutrients in the watershed instead of losing them, and increase the biodiversity of the watershed, making them a highly desirable asset for this section of our permaculture project.
Even all of this just barely scratches the surface of everything I’ve been learning in these last two months. Besides all the other smaller projects we have going on at the farm, I should also briefly mention that another huge highlight for me during this internship has been our work in Hafto, a rural community in the Hadiya region of Ethiopia, where Strawberry Fields’ staff have been collaborating as permaculture consultants in the construction of a solar-powered grey water staged system. (To read more about this project see Alex McCausland’s report on this.)
All in all, I’m incredibly grateful for the various opportunities this internship has afforded me, and I can’t wait for the time at the end of my stint here when I try again to capture in writing all the lessons I’ve learned.
Editor’s Note: If you’re very quick, there’s still time to jump onto Alex McCausland’s next Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course. Find out more here!