Sweeping Change

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Kristof compares his farm now, which uses permaculture to make the most of the soil to grow over 200 species of plants, to the land in 2003 when it was dry and contained very few plants. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Kristof compares his farm now, where over 200 species of plants grow thanks to the use of permaculture, to the land in 2003 when it was dry and contained very few plants. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

This is the final in a four-part series about my visit to Stacia and Kristof Nordin’s permaculture project in Lilongwe, Malawi.

Travel anywhere in Malawi and you’ll see people sweeping—the sidewalks, the floors of their houses, and the bare dirt outside their homes. And while the sweeping makes everything look tidy, it’s also one of the major causes of damage to soils in the country. Because sweeping compacts soils, leaving it without any organic matter, erosion is widespread and the soil has very little nutrients. As a result, crops—especially corn—in Malawi rely heavily on the use of artificial fertilizers.

Kristof and Stacia Nordin have been working in Malawi to help educate farmers that “tidy” yards and gardens aren’t necessarily better for producing food or the environment. Stacia works for the German Technical Co-operation GTZ, while Kristof runs the farm and is a community facilitator. Their home is used as a demonstration plot for permaculture methods that incorporate composting, water harvesting, intercropping and other methods that help build organic matter in soils, conserve water, and protect agricultural diversity.

“Design,” says Kristof, “is key in permaculture,” meaning that everything from the garden beds to the edible fish pond to the composting toilet have an important role on their property.  And while their neighbors have been skeptical of the Nordins’ unswept yard, they’re impressed by the quantity—and diversity—of food grown by the family. More than 200 indigenous fruits and vegetables are grown on the land, providing a year round supply of food to the Nordins and their neighbors.

In addition, they’re working with the three families who live in houses on the property to practice permaculture techniques around their homes and have built an edible playground, where children can play and learn about different indigenous fruits.  More importantly, the Nordins are showing that by not over sweeping, people can get more out of the land than just maize.

Such practices will become even more important as drought, flooding, other effects of climate change continue to become more evident in Malawi and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

For more about permaculture, check out Chapter 6, “From Agriculture to Permaculture”  in State of the World 2010, which was released today.

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