Using Permaculture Principles in Travel
GGT readers (and writers) are travelers of a certain caliber– upstanding members of a global society that share a love of culture, nature and the melding of the two. We embrace the world, we go out and enjoy it, and we want to keep it around as long as possible.
And that is why—after we give ourselves a quick pat on the back—we are all destined to take an interest in permaculture.
If you’re into organic gardening or eco-construction, you’ve probably already heard this term tossed around a time or two. But the problem folks often run into is that the definition of permaculture can be a bit slippery.
Defining Permaculture Principles
The problem is that there’s not a concrete set of instructions or circumstances from which permaculturalists work. Instead, there are permaculture principles. Or, as co-originator David Holmgren describes them, “thinking tools that, when used together, allow us to creatively re-design our environment and our behavior in a world of less energy and resources.”
Permaculture is about working efficiently with nature, not against it, by mimicking and enhancing its systems—plant, water, wind, sun, soil and so on—to help us create more abundant yields of sustainable food, energy, shelter and resources. If we take care of the earth, then the earth will take care of us. The answers come from cooperation rather than separation, which is what occurs with tractors, pesticides and the fast food lifestyle.
Practicing permaculture principles can be as grand as designing an entire waste-free, self-supporting village or as simple as growing an edible garden on your kitchen windowsill, and everything in between. That’s why it’s so hard to pin down. The term adapts to whatever it can principally use. In fact you, as a conscientious GGT reader, are likely already practicing permaculture in some form…
Examples of Permaculture in Action
I learned about permaculture while volunteering on farms throughout Central and South America. It seemed to be all the rage– a buzzword amongst up-and-coming farmers– but still largely elusive in meaning. Permaculture practitioners were up to all sorts of stuff:
- One guy was trying to set up an aquaponics system, which is a designed eco-system that creates a sustainable cycle: Fish provide plants with natural fertilizer, the plants clean the fish’s water, and people eat the plants and fish.
- One lady was into banana circles, in which a large hole is dug and turned into a sunken compost heap that feeds a guild of crops (in this case, bananas, sweet potatoes and yucca), which in turn keep the heap full and the cycle going while people get all the food.
- One man was converting a five-acre property into a food forest, complete with ponds. He had gardens outside his kitchen, edible plant life everywhere, greenhouses with medicinal plants, sheep for wool (and manure), chickens for eggs (and manure), and quick-growth trees for firewood.
- People all over the world were looking for help with their eco-construction projects, including structures built from mud, from tires, from bags of dirt, even from repurposed plastic bottles.
What I quickly learned is that permaculture isn’t just some zany form of organic farming. It’s truly all over the map, and it more or less incorporates any successful effort to improve upon the way we coexist with nature and each other.
Permaculture may include far-reaching goals like sustainable energy and more simplistic tasks like mulching garden beds with yard clippings, so as not waste the resource (which is a soil replenisher in its own right), not to further stuff our landfills, not to expel more energy in clearing it away, not to let the soil in the garden dry out, not to need to weed so much, etc…
The Deeper Meaning of Permaculture
Of course, these examples don’t explain exactly what permaculture practitioners do. But the why behind what they’re doing is as important as what they are doing. And, behind the whole grand design, the following ethics hold true.
The best way to describe permaculture– an abbreviation of “permanent culture” and “permanent agriculture”– is to discuss the three elements at its center, the crux of which will keep the planet (and us) alive and kicking rather than kicking our butts:
- Earth Care: Caring for the soil, waterways, air and animals, making sure that the earth remains healthy so that we, in turn, can be healthy.
- People Care: Looking out for ourselves and those around us, empowering each other to achieve more for the greater good rather than aggressively competing to gain more than we personally need.
- Fair Share: Practicing the art of distributing overabundance amongst our communities as well as back to nature, while learning what is appropriate to keep for ourselves.
In the end, permaculture becomes a way of living more than merely a way of growing food. What started as a curiosity during my travels has increasingly played a role in how I get from one place to the next, where I buy my food, and even what I use to brush my teeth.
What a Difference It All Makes
One of the primary tasks of the permaculturalist is to simply observe and interact with the environment; notice nuances such as where the water settles on a piece of property or how the sun passes over; and then design accordingly, utilizing as many facets as possible in as many ways as possible while creating as little damage as possible.
For example, with a banana circle, a large hole in the center catches water and organic debris to feed the surrounding plants. Digging the hole creates a soft circular row of soil around it to plant crops in. Sweet potatoes and compost provide nutrients like nitrogen for the soil. Yucca helps to keep the soil naturally tilled, but also intact. The banana trees create leaf fodder for the compost. The circular arrangement allows for more dense planting, which prevents weeds. All together, it forms habitats for pest control agents, such as bats, frogs and lizards. Then, humans can come in without destroying any of it, harvesting food and ensuring the tiny eco-system stays healthy.
There’s actually even more cooperation going on in that circle than I mentioned. But identifying, replicating and enhancing those sorts of interactions is what permaculture is all about. Once a banana circle is doing its thing, a permaculturalist doesn’t have to toil over its upkeep, water it or weed it. The system supports and protects itself while providing for those who created it.
This can be done with loads of food combinations and different agricultural designs to create even larger self-nurturing ecosystems. But it can also be done with homes– utilizing the sun, appropriate building materials, well-placed windows and carefully chosen plant life to help create a comfortable, clean living environment. It can be done with cities, barns, patios, balconies, windowsills, backyards, city rooftops, vacant lots, and who knows what else. The point is to think about the right things— earth care, people care, and fair share— and get creative!
How to Incorporate Permaculture into Your Travels
GGT’s readers and staff have been practicing permaculture by the very nature of our interests, though we might not have known it until now. There are many ways in which permaculture’s ethics intertwine with responsible ecotourism. Now it falls on us to recognize and rev up our efforts. Here’s some of what we’ve been doing, and forage for thought about why it’s a good thing.
- Visiting National Parks: It doesn’t take much scrolling to figure out that GGT loves national parks. This is a great way to travel permaculture-style, because it supports efforts to preserve and observe natural environs. It also helps to protect plants and animals, waterways and long-cycling ecosystems. It generally means more basic accommodations rather than energy-gobbling amenities and resource-wasting structures.
- Staying in Eco-Hotels: When we travel, varying accommodations are vying for our business. The recent rise in eco-hotels demonstrates that more and more people are looking for places that are more considerate to the planet. Each eco-friendly accommodation takes different measures in what they do, but the point is that they are doing something, be it composting kitchen-waste or existing completely off the grid.
- Volunteering on Farms: Volunteering on small organic and permaculture farms is an amazing way to expose ourselves to a location’s ecosystems, both natural and cultivated, as well as sharing in knowledge and appreciation of earth and culture. Volunteers experience a more intimate interaction with the land, its people, and the food on their plates.
- Buying Local Products: Most of us– especially those who think beyond mega-resorts– travel to escape our bubbles, and doing so is good for the environment. Shopping in local markets, choosing authentic souvenirs, and dining at local restaurants rather than chains means less energy used on transporting goods, more support for the local people, and more deeply experiencing the place.
- Using Local Transport/Walking: This works to save the environment at home just as it does on the road, because it cuts harmful emissions and means less resources, energy and waste go into our individual transportation needs. For travelers, it also means more exposure to local customs, sights, people, languages, etc.
Of course, we’re just scratching the surface on what planetary positives we can create when we travel. How many of us have visited and supported conservation efforts? How many have volunteered with NGOs to build schools or clean a beach? How many more ways can we name?
Why Permaculture Might Just Save the Planet
When we travel with forethought, with the motivation of both enjoying a place and hopefully leaving it better off than it was when we arrived, it’s not just that country, town or park that will benefit. The entire planet is enriched, one little step at a time. The Permaculture principles are very much about making the effort, mentally as well as physically, to do that.
In the beginning, small things like microorganisms, bacteria and minerals in soil make for healthier gardens. The melding of healthy, diverse gardens create strong ecosystems. Combining those thriving ecosystems means more natural habitats and homes for us and the animals we love, as well as nutritious food for all. Ultimately, these diverse expanses of clean environments, replenishing resources and thoughtful people make for a healthier world and population.
Permaculture is all about discovering, refining and reinvigorating our roles within the planet’s natural systems. It’s much more about a permanent mindset than merely a way of growing potatoes. And it’s from our ability to reason and create in both productive and caring ways that we may just be able to prevent the world from shaking us off like fleas. –by Jonathon Engels, Photographs by Emma Gallagher
Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer & teacher who’s been living abroad as an expat since 2005. He’s worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited many others in between. He’s currently on a slow travel trip from Central America to Patagonia, volunteering his way throughout the journey. He’s a regular contributor to One Green Planet as well as Permaculture News, which focus on helping to keep the world green and clean. He’s also the founder of The NGO List, a compilation of grassroots NGOs seeking international volunteers. His work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad, and his current whereabouts and goings-on are available on his personal blog.
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