Responding to disasters requires doing a lot with a little as quickly as possible. After my post on the use of solar power as part of the Haitian recovery, a few readers pointed me to aid efforts that are using permaculture techniques to meet pressing demands for clean water, food and shelter. There is even talk of creating a permaculture relief corps: the "PermaCorps."
Permaculture's motto is that nothing goes to waste -- which is perfect for situations where there is never enough to go around in the first place. Its community based work is also an inspiring contrast to the shock doctrine approach to emergency aid.
Modern permaculture goes beyond its agricultural roots to include everything from waste, water, and energy systems to building techniques. By looking at all of these as interlocking parts of one larger system, permaculture can use what would normally be considered "waste" from one system as input for another. Composted sewage becomes fertilizer; buildings and landscaping provide both shelter and catch and purify drinking water.
Geoff Lawton is the managing director of Australia's Permaculture Research Institute (PRI), one of the world's leading permaculture organizations. In an interview with ABC radio, he described how permaculture relief differs from traditional emergency aid in meeting both immediate and longterm needs:
"Present problems can be future solutions. ... If possible, and it is usually possible, the systems that you put in are an asset to the people. That asset is in leaving living systems on the ground. You go from sanitary considerations, to systems that then go on to increase soil fertility and lead to better nutrition and more vitality to get [the population] out of this disaster and move forward."
Permaculture techniques have been used in some of the world's worst disaster zones. The PRI, in collaboration with the UN High Commission on Refugees, has worked in Macedonia after the Kosovo crisis, Guatemala following the civil war, in Northern Iraq, Sudan, and Indonesia after the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. They do everything from large scale planning to community built and maintained gardening systems that allow people to begin providing for themselves again.
Permaculture projects, like blackwater systems and instant gardens, are designed and built with the communities that will use them and keep them running. That hands-on approach contributes to the success and durability of the projects, but it also has psychological benefits that can't be overestimated. Amidst devastation, it provides people with an opportunity to be actively engaged with something positive and meaningful.
A variety of organizations including PRI USA were already active in Haiti prior to the quake, and have since turned their attention away from the country's deforestation and soil fertility problems to help deal with the impact of the earthquake.
Within days of the quake, work had begun outside Haiti to assemble a larger group of volunteers. Some of these are expatriates from Miami's Haitian community, where permaculturist Cory Brennan was working the weekend of the quake. Others are being drawn in from the broader international network of permaculture practitioners. But, understandibly, much of this is seems to be happening in a relatively adhoc way.
Evan Schoepke, a permaculturist, blogger and student based in Washington state, was one of the first to call for a more organized permaculture relief corps, or PermaCorps. The vision is of something that would begin in Haiti but maintain a continued presence for future disaster work. He is currently assembling two small teams who will be leaving to joining other permaculturists in Haiti in the coming weeks:
"This is a project that really couldn't have happened until right now. No permaculture organization exists that is specifically set up to respond to these kinds of events and help with relief, recovery and redevelopment."
In the short term, permaculture techniques meet the crucial needs of daily life: compost toilets reduce the risk of sewage born disease, rocket cook-stoves and gardens provide food, engineered catchments and filtration systems provide drinking water. But recovery from disasters is a longterm processes. The real promise of permaculture is in providing systems that can sustain themselves beyond the redevelopment period. Like renewable energy, they are approaches that can help rebuild Haiti on firmer footings.
Permaculture's community driven approach is also an alternative to the much criticized top down and economically driven "disaster capitalism" approach to aid and reconstruction. (See Naomi Klein's arguments at the end of last month.) In amongst everything else, these projects may be a real opportunity for some "disaster leapfrogging."
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