BEIRUT: In the quiet village of Saidoun in the Jezzine area of south Lebanon, a silent revolution is taking place. A fledgling organization founded by four Lebanese environmentalists, SOILS Permaculture Association Lebanon, is encouraging local farmers to abandon pesticides and chemical fertilizers in favor of self-sustaining agricultural methods such as composting, mulching and using natural, nontoxic insecticides.
But permaculture, a movement founded in the mid-1970s by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, is about far more than organic farming.
“Permaculture is a new concept in Lebanon,” says Alexis Baghdadi, one of the association’s co-founders. “It’s not very well publicized, even though a lot of people are already doing it – they just don’t call it permaculture.
“Basically, it’s a system and a way of life, a way of providing food, shelter and a more sustainable lifestyle for yourself. You reduce your impact on the environment, you grow your own food and you also change your consumer habits ... it’s about shopping locally and responsibly, buying local produce instead of importing food ... and reducing the use of chemicals in agriculture.”
The word “permaculture” was originally an amalgam of “permanent agriculture,” but as the movement has expanded and evolved, it has come to be associated with the term “permanent culture,” emphasizing its social aspect. Permaculture is not just for farmers. It can also be practiced in urban settings, Baghdadi explains.
“It encompasses so many things,” he says, “from recycling, to upcycling, to growing stuff on your balcony. ... In an urban setting, you can grow herbs, you can make compost, you can consume more responsibly, you can shop responsibly. You can also do something called guerilla gardening, which means planting in areas of the city where people usually don’t plant: You grow on your balcony, you can have a rooftop garden. You can make seed balls, which are clay, compost and seeds in a hardened ball, and drop them off on the side of the road.
“Interestingly ... we’ve discovered that beekeeping is more efficient in cities than in the countryside, because there is no spraying, no pesticides. ... I know that there are some people who have beehives on their rooftops in Beirut.”
The movement is growing swiftly in Europe, the U.S. and even regionally, Baghdadi says. Permaculture courses are now offered in Egypt and in Jordan, where Geoff Lawton has had great success with his Greening the Desert project, in which he used natural compost and created areas of shade to transform 10 acres of arid, salty desert into a self-sustaining garden. It is also growing in popularity in Turkey and the West Bank.
A number of Lebanese permaculturists have studied the movement abroad, says Baghdadi, but its local specificity means that the techniques involved vary based on climate and terrain. It is therefore crucial that locally informed expertise be available if permaculture is to take off in Lebanon.
The SOILS association aims to promote awareness of permaculture and facilitate the teaching and learning of sustainable practices through courses and workshops. They are also establishing a demonstrating site in Saidoun, Baghdadi says, where these strategies are put into action, allowing interested parties to visit, attend presentations and workshops and volunteer.
To date, the association has organized workshops on beekeeping, composting, creating an urban garden and making seed bombs, among other skills, as well as a “Discover Permaculture Day,” consisting of talks and presentations on the movement for 120 visitors.
The idea for the organization started last summer, Baghdadi says, when he and project manager Rita Khawand began discussing the idea of how to promote the movement in Lebanon with two Lebanese permaculturist living in Canada.
They intended to start very slowly, initially focusing only on Saidoun, he says, but in autumn 2013, they won a social entrepreneurship competition, organized by Arcenciel and funded by USAID. The prize included six months funding, which allowed them to register as a nonprofit association, set up a website, begin to organize workshops and presentations promoting their work and send out a monthly newsletter.
Today, the newsletter has over 300 subscribers, and the association is about to hold the first full permaculture training in Lebanon, a two week course in Jezzine led by British trainer Klaudia van Gool and Lebanese instructor Betty Khoury, who studied permaculture in Egypt. At the end, participants will be awarded an internationally recognized permaculture design certificate.
Baghdadi says that they still face some opposition to the idea from a generation brought up spraying crops with pesticides and treating fields with chemical fertilizers, but that in Saidoun, permaculture techniques are gradually catching on.
“Composting at first was surprising to people,” he says, “because they thought organic waste is garbage that has to be disposed of. We changed this mentality by giving demonstrations ... and by persevering. Little by little even the older people in the village are accepting this and becoming ... engaged advocates of composting. They’re willing to fight with their peers and make them understand the differences, as opposed to us who are the younger generation, who have to concede graciously.”
They have also introduced mulching and convinced local residents to stop spraying pesticides on the olive trees they use to make oil for personal consumption. Unfortunately, he says, the village’s only source of income comes from the sale of tobacco crops, which are still sprayed with pesticides.
“An interesting story about Saidoun is that we asked Rita’s mother why they grew tobacco,” Baghdadi says, “and she said: ‘We grew tobacco to buy food.’”
“Rita’s question was: ‘Why don’t you grow food?’”
To find out more about SOILS Permaculture Association Lebanon, please visit www.soils-permaculture-lebanon.com