Documentary Highlights Benefits and Principles of Permaculture

Story at-a-glance -

  • Documentary illustrates how permaculture harnesses nature’s synergistic relationships to create efficient, self-supporting ecosystems
  • A five-zone model, designed for maximal output with minimal input, shows how permaculture can optimize energy efficiency and sustainability
  • In Brazil, pigs are the center of an integrated farming system in which they roam freely through and sustain their own food forests

By Dr. Mercola

Modern industrial farming, deforestation, overfishing, and other unsustainable practices are exhausting Earth's resources at an alarming rate. More than a billion people have no access to safe drinking water, while 70 percent of the world's fresh water is going to agriculture.

One organization putting forth a valiant effort to turn this around is the Permaculture Association,1 a national charity whose mission is to promote permaculture across the globe.

Every year, the Permaculture Association holds an International Permaculture Convergence (IPC), where experts from dozens of countries unite with the common goal of preparing for and mitigating our looming ecological crisis.

Their primary goal is clear: creating sustainability through self-reliance. The film "Permaculture A Quiet Revolution" covers the eighth IPC (IPC8), spanning across rural and urban Brazil.

The film illustrates permaculture's basic design principles, centering on the concept of zones, and the proper placement of elements in a way that ensures maximal output for minimal input.

What Is Permaculture?

Permaculture epitomizes sustainability by harnessing mutually beneficial relationships to create synergistic, self-supporting ecosystems. Its principles incorporate the best of organic, biodynamic, and regenerative agriculture.

According to the Permaculture Institute:2

"Permaculture is an ecological design system for sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor.

It teaches us how to design natural homes and abundant food production systems, regenerate degraded landscapes and ecosystems, develop ethical economies and communities, and much more."

Permaculture is an agricultural system in which the parts of the system are all interconnected, working with nature as opposed to against it. The word "permaculture" derives from "permanent agriculture" or "permanent culture."

The focus is not on any one element of the system but on the relationships among them — animals, plants, insects, microorganisms, water, soil, and habitat — and how to use these relationships to create self-supporting ecosystems.

According to an article in Rodales's Organic Life,3 the ultimate purpose of permaculture is to "develop a site until it meets all the needs of its inhabitants, including food, water, shelter, fuel, and entertainment."

Every part of the system plays multiple roles. Permaculture is based on design — it's not just organic. If the design element isn't there, it may be green, it may be organic and environmentally sound, but it isn't permaculture.

Designing by Zone

According to the Permaculture Association, permaculture design is defined as "a system of assembling conceptual, material, and strategic components in a pattern which functions to benefit life in all its forms.

It seeks to provide a sustainable and secure place for living things on this earth. The system that accomplishes this is called "zoning," as illustrated in the following diagram.

Zoning Illustration

Permaculture is much more than a garden or landscape. At its center are you and your house, but its outermost zone is untamed wilderness. Zones are organized in a way that maximizes energy efficiency — activities are sorted by frequency of use, tending, visits, etc.

Without making the colloquial value judgment here — you are "high maintenance!" Meaning, you require the most energy input and cultivation, so you're the center of the zones, but permaculture unites you with the entire ecological system around you.

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Working the Zones Maximizes Efficiency

The film illustrates examples of how permaculture can be used in each of these zones, which are organized as concentric rings progressing outward.

The activities for Zone 0 would include things such as energy efficiency for your home, biological sanitation, rainwater collection, solar panels, and heliotherapy (natural sunlight therapy). If you need moisture or temperature regulation, you could implement additional measures such as attaching a greenhouse or a "glass house" to your dwelling.

The next is Zone 1, reserved for your frequently visited, relatively high maintenance garden essentials such as vegetables, herbs, and medicinal plants. The documentary emphasizes that medicinal gardens are a key component of the Brazilian lifestyle, as they don't rely on Western medicine — their garden IS their medicine.

Crops in Zone 2 are slightly less intensively cultivated, including foods for home consumption as well as foods going to market. The permaculture model encourages the sharing and selling of goods to your local community, which helps promote sustainability. Zones 2 and 3 include orchards, food forests, pastured poultry, and livestock.

A major focus of permaculture is composting and recycling, with the concept being "composting with nature rather than imposing on nature." Both plant and animal waste are recycled.

Pigs Gone Wild

Zones 2 and 3 are marked by a masterfully designed system that integrates food forests with livestock and poultry. As an example, pigs can be raised to sustain their own food forests. They roam through land planted with their favorite foods, such as sweet potatoes, daikon radish, and pumpkins, which they may or may not choose to share with their humans. Once they've cleaned off one plot, they're moved to the next.

When piglets are born, they live in little pig huts until they're old enough to roam freely, until eventually they're slaughtered for meat. Pig waste is biodigested by algae and certain weeds grown specifically for this purpose, in pools that supply water for irrigation. The pigs feast on these weeds as well.

The pigs are also allowed to forage into Zone 4, a semi-wild area requiring very little input but yielding wild foods for pig foraging as well as timber for harvest, which helps preserve native forests. Zone 5 is pure wilderness. It's a region of non-interference where highly evolved systems naturally operate and can be observed by humankind. Zone 5 teaches us what processes to replicate and how to organize the system.

Implement Permaculture in Stages, Keeping Basic Principles in Mind

While it's rare the urban gardener can implement all of the principles of permaculture, you can implement some of them to create a new way of living based on purpose and efficiency. Beware of allowing your burst of enthusiasm to result in biting off more than you can chew — start slowly.

In the above video, permaculture expert David Holmgren4 recommends easing into permaculture in small steps, as opposed to massive projects that can end in "disaster." He lists 12 basic principles and strategies to keep in mind when adopting a permaculture model, which are outlined in the table that follows. Two great ideas are discussed in the final sections of this article: chickens and wood chips.

1. Observe and interact 2. Catch and store energy
3. Obtain a yield 4. Apply self regulation and accept feedback
5. Use and value renewable resources and services 6. Produce no waste
7. Design from patterns to details 8. Integrate rather than segregate
9. Use small and slow solutions 10. Use and value diversity
11. Use edges and value the marginal 12. Creatively use and respond to change

Poultry-Centered Regenerative Agriculture

If a drove of foraging pigs is not practical for you, consider chickens! Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, an innovator in the field of regenerative agriculture, has developed an ingenious blueprint for a system that has the potential for transforming food production around the world. Reginaldo believes sustainable agriculture needs to be centered around livestock in order to be optimized, and he's revolutionized a system with the use of chickens for "poultry-centered regenerative agriculture."

Poultry connects nearly every community across the globe. The meat and eggs are a valuable source of animal protein and can be a solid economic platform to deal with poverty and hunger. Poultry is also very accessible to small-scale farmers, who produce the majority of the world's food.

In Reginaldo's system, chickens are completely cage-free and free ranging with access to grasses and sprouts as they are rotated between paddocks. This system significantly reduces the amount of labor involved, compared with other models such as mobile chicken pens. The minute you start moving a shelter for an animal, it becomes a labor-intensive process, and automating water and feeding becomes impossible. Pens are also not a natural habitat for chickens.

If you want more information about this innovative system, please refer to my prior article about poultry-centered regenerative agriculture, which includes my interview with Reginaldo.

Wood Chips Instead of Compost

Using wood chips as ground cover instead of compost, or to reduce your reliance on compost, is a cost-effective strategy for immensely improving your growing of nutrient-dense food. Building your soil with wood chips helps decrease your dependence on commercial products.

Several months after putting down a deep layer of wood chips, you'll end up with lush fertile soil beneath the chips that will support whatever you choose to grow. Using wood chips has many benefits, from promoting soil fertility and earthworms that create vermicompost, to eliminating the need for irrigation and the use of fertilizer.

Most tree trimming companies will drop a truckload (or more) of wood chips right on your property, for free. You just lay down uncomposted wood chips on top of your garden using whatever is available locally — typically a combination of leaves, twigs, and branches. The chips break down gradually and are digested and redigested by a wide variety of soil organisms, which is exactly what happens in nature.

I have personally put down more than 300,000 pounds of woodchips on my residential property to create a high quality soil. For more information about wood chips, listen to my interview with Paul Gautschi.

These are just a few suggestions about what you can do to move yourself in the direction of a permaculture lifestyle. Regardless of your resources or the size and style of your living space, there are many things you can do to boost your health and happiness while at the same time preserving the viability of our planet.

When it comes to human ingenuity, the sky's the limit, so with some boldness and tenacity, your adventure into the world of permaculture will surely bring health and abundance to your life!