Innovation of the Week: Greening the Desert

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By Emily Gilbert

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there are 1 billion hungry people in the world, most of who live in poor rural areas. As the world’s population is set to hit 7 billion, policy-makers are struggling to find ways to nourish our planet’s growing population.  Traditionally, the answers have been sought in higher-yield seed varieties, vast dams for irrigation, and tons of artificial fertilizer.  But these approaches have proven to be costly both for the environment and for poor farmers, often without addressing the fundamental issues affecting our food systems.

The Jordan Valley Permaculture Project. (Photo credit: Dan Smith)

With this in mind, the Permaculture Research Institute (PRI) of Australia established the Jordan Valley Permaculture Project in 2008, to create a model for sustainable agricultural development in an arid environment that, according to PRI, demonstrates “all the basic needs for a healthy, meaningful, peaceful lifestyle can be affordable, understood, and achieved by poor local people.” In the process, the project has restored 10 hectares of previously unproductive land.

The Jordan Valley Permaculture Project is located in the Dead Sea Valley.  With months-long drought and temperatures reaching 122°F (50°C) during the summer months, it is difficult to imagine anything growing here.

To tackle this deficit of freshwater, Geoff Lawton, founder and director of the Permaculture Research Institute, and his team designed a swale, or landscaped contour system, over the project’s 10 acres. This allows millions of liters of water to store up during the winter months and soak back into the earth, creating an underground reservoir for the hot summer months.  After collecting excess and scrapped organic matter from neighboring farms, the team was able to plant nitrogen-fixing tree species which help rehabilitate the soil and provide shade for successor species.  Within four months of planting, fig trees were over a meter high and already bearing fruit

The first permaculture design and education course was held in October 2009, and by 2010, the project had completed management and education training programs for local instructors with mentorship from the primary Permaculture Research Institute. This has led to the establishment of a Permaculture Research Institute of Jordan, helping to ensure that the knowledge and benefits of permaculture are being disseminated to the local communities.

Bringing together local and international students, the project offers educational courses and practical demonstrations on energy-efficient, culturally-appropriate housing with natural cooling systems; solar hot water; biological waste water treatment recycling; and diverse, interactive plant, animal, and tree systems for local food production and processing. The income from the education programs is then returned to the project to support staff and site maintenance.  As a result, the project is building the framework for not only ecological sustainability, but also economic sustainability.

According to Geoff Lawton, “you can fix all the world’s problems in a garden”.  Through its array of diverse agricultural and production techniques, the Jordan Valley Permaculture Project brings the quest for Eden a little closer to reality.

What do you think about permaculture? Do you think this project can be replicated elsewhere?

Emily Gilbert is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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