Deserts are not normally considered agriculturally productive environments. The are (often) very hot and (always) very dry. Without an abundance of plants, the soil lacks organic materials and nutrition necessary to grow healthy food. A project in one of the driest places on Earth is proving that Permaculture principles and techniques can transform even the most brutal ecosystem into an oasis garden.
The Greening the Desert project in Jordan was started in 2001 as a demonstration site to test Permaculture techniques in an extremely arid environment. The ten acre site is a couple km from the Dead Sea. It receives barely any rainfall and temperatures are commonly above fifty degrees celsius. The soil is extremely saline.
Geoff Lawton was not intimidated. He is a Permaculture consultant, designer, and teacher with experience in fifty countries on six continents. He has been practicing Permaculture for nearly thirty-five years.
Geoff and his team began by digging water harvesting ditches, or swales, to collect every bit of rainfall that fell on the site and distributed it to planting areas. After a typical rain event, the swales collected a million litres of water that was then absorbed into the landscape.
In Jordan, most of the water is used for industrial agriculture, which is an enormous waste. This alternative could be huge in terms of sustainable water usage.
On the uphill side of the swales they planted pioneer trees that could withstand the challenges of the environment. These trees improved the soil by providing structure and adding nitrogen, a crucial nutrient for plant growth. The trees also prevented evaporation by providing shade and wind protection.
The traditional approach to agriculture in this area (and many others) was to remove fallen plant materials such as leaves and dead plants. Geoff kept all organic waste materials to be used as mulch and compost for soil building. Turning waste into a resource is a key Permaculture principle, and one that proved critical to this project.
On the downhill sides of the swales they planted layers of fruit trees that could use the water in the swales to fuel their growth. They situated vegetable beds in between tree rows and used water in the swales for irrigation. As the trees grew and dropped their leaves more valuable organic material was collected and used for mulch and soil building.
The results were incredible. The salt content on the site was drastically diminished after a couple of years. Scientists in the area couldn’t believe they hadn’t just washed the salt out of the soil with massive amounts of water. In fact, the organic material in the soil had locked up the salt, making it inert. The soil was suitable for food production using entirely ecological techniques.
When they peeled back the layers of mulch around the trees, they found dark, rich soil where before had been dry sand. They also found mushrooms growing – a great indication of soil health and very unusual in an arid environment.
These types of projects depend heavily on funding and volunteer support. After three years establishing the Permaculture site, the project lost funding and was discontinued. But, a return visit six years later showed that natural processes had continued where human intervention left off. Fertility continued to accumulate from water circulating slowly through the environment and organic materials falling to earth and decomposing.
Although the original project was abandoned, new work has begun. Muslim Aid, a non-profit organization in Australia, is educating locals in the Jordan Valley about the applications of Permaculture to their ecosystem. They are also developing a grey-water treatment system in the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan. This will make it possible to grow vegetables onsite.
While the worlds deserts are some of the most inhospitable places on earth, around a billion people live in them. That’s nearly one-sixth of the Earth’s population. Permaculture could be a huge benefit to the region. Having the ability to increase food production in the areas could be crucial to addressing hunger and poverty. As Geoff says, “All the world’s problems can be solved in the garden.”
Here’s an excellent video documenting the Greening the Desert Project.