I decided to write about this experience after mentioning how life-changing it was for me multiple times, in different groups and occasions, and feeling that people were super interested but not totally understanding it. Before starting, let me share a little context about what is Permaculture and what drove me and my husband, at that time boyfriend, to this adventure.
Bill Mollison who first coined the term in 1978, defined Permaculture as "the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”
In other words, Permaculture is a holistic, harmonic, and sustainable way of living that combines ecological, ethical and community premises with a technical approach.
I signed up to the Permaculture Design Course (PDC), at IPEC, one of the references in Latin America and internationally, it was 2014 and at this point, I was consulting for sustainability, community and educational programs for almost 10 years. I had a few disciplines that used Permaculture high concepts in College so it wasn't something totally new to me. I was researching low-cost techniques to treat sewer, to collect rainwater and to house grouting for a project with underserved communities living in the North of Brazil and Permaculture came once again to my attention. I was looking for a refresh, new ways of thinking and solving problems. The ethic and techniques behind Permaculture draw me in easily. The course comes with an immersion in a ecovillage and I took the chance to use the few days off I had to join. I knew a couple of people that were skeptical about holistic and community-based approach for a landscape design, mostly engineers, but I decided to invite my engineer boyfriend to join me and share his insights according to his background. I thought myself "If he accepts spending 10 days in a rural community, with a natural tribe of people, all kinds of insects and animals, without internet, without hot showers, using dry restrooms, having a vegetarian diet and lots of community work and survives, I will probably marry this man." To my surprise, he accepted and bought the package right after we spoke. And there we went carrying a small bag and a lot of expectations. In the following reading, I organized our main discoveries and challenges during this new experiment. I hope you can feel how life in an ecovillage looks like and feel tempted to try it.
Design and live according to ethical principles and systems thinking
Every decision to be made according to Permaculture is based on three ethical questions: Will it improve the environment? Will it improve the lives of people? Will it improve the community? If you say no to one of these questions then you should review your plan, action or design. That's how we began our journey, putting environment and people into the core of our thinking process, before variables we are usually told to consider such as costs, market opportunity or access to supplies. The permacultural design is also a process of understanding how things influence one another, resuming in another words, systems thinking. In nature, ecosystem elements such as air, water, plants and all species work together to survive, flourish or perish. A house, a small village or even a country can be also seen as a system of people, structures, and processes that will produce a healthy or unhealthy result according to the driving principles and relations established. The human landscape functions interconnected and interdependent just as we see in nature, but we usually forget that. This paradigm direct resonated with my way of thinking an organization, a community, and even a family. We are all part of a big engine that depends on each other's individual collaboration and we must orchestrate our contributions in order to succeed in every aspect of our lives. For many others, it was mind blowing putting this premises in the center of the decision-making process, before other common planning references such as costs, market opportunity, or access to supplies.
Sustainable design, learning and living
The first meaningful aspect of this experience is having the ecovillage experience itself. We stayed in a bio-constructed room, with solar energy, natural ventilation and shared ecological bathrooms with other participants. Lunch was prepared by local chefs, giving preference to the food produced at IPEC.
Living and learning Permaculture. October, 2014.
Our classes took place every morning in a circular bio constructed auditorium followed by practical lessons after lunch. The facilitators designed and built the ecovillage housing and facilities with community support. The idea of designing and building a village, with low investment, using mostly resources locally, without necessary being an architect or an engineer, still is kind of mindblowing to me. Here is a list of a few other permaculture practices we had the chance to see and experience:
Organic and self-sufficient gardening
Integrated water management systems including water harvesting, storage and swales
Waste biological systems
Adding to that, at PDC we learn by experiencing, by literary doing things, and I couldn't agree more. The best way to incorporate a new set of knowledge and skills is by living it. So we did it. The most joyful and reflecting moments we had were when we were planting rotating cultures or a herbal garden, making compost and later on a fertilizer, having a warm shower while looking to the sky, watching how colorful and yumi our organic food was or doing the dishes using vinegar with super low water consumption.
Making Compost. October, 2014.
We had a few cleaning responsibilities too. I must say that this hands-on approach involved hard work activities and required some abilities that we don’t use in our urban modern lives. We noticed some of the duties were challenging for us specially in the beginning because we are use to delegating them to a third party. In the following pictures you can see me and Rodrigo devoted to this laboratory of sustainable experiences.
Agroforestry experiment. October, 2014.
An ecovillage is also a community where each individual shares the responsibility for managing land, labor and food production, as well as social activities. As I mentioned before, some of the daily operations activities were part of our group responsibilities and joining IPEC’s community taught us how cooperation and dedication are fundamental to every organization. The sense of being part of the village principles, sharing a routine with like-minded people and work together to make sustainable living real is something unforgettable.
Outdoor/indoor classes and natural cooking lessons. October, 2014.
The Permaculture Design challenge
To test our Permaculture Design skills and capabilities, we were challenged to design a new lot of land attached to the ecovillage we were staying. This practical design project had to be presented and approved by our facilitators in order for us to get the International Certification in Permaculture Design.
The end was just the beginning
After visiting the area in different times and days, we proposed a design that considered how we would start and grow holistically and sustainable as an interconnected system considering the landscape water cycle, climate, soil, vegetation conditions and the human relations necessary to keep the system in balance. We proposed a simple community code to define shared agreements and responsibilities combined with an ecological house design and placement that included energy conservation techniques, recycling, water harvesting, soil rehabilitation and self sustained organic food production. During this experiment, Rodrigo’s engineering experience and my community knowledge flourished and merged in such a natural way that I guess it was when we start to imagine ourselves living and working together for a lifetime. I’m glad to say that we got our PDC certification and we have been building many other amazing things together after that, including a family and a business.
Celebrating Permaculture Design Certification with our colleagues. October, 2014.
Now we are living in the heart of Silicon Valley and we sometimes joke about creating a new design methodology combining the permaculture principles with part of the technology we have available to create a village. How about you? Feeling tempted to join a PDC course?