Ethical coexistence in environment: Know about Kerala’s Permaculture


Prof Prathapan Kesava Pillai

Representative Image | Photo:gettyimages.in

Bill Mollison, an Australian ecologist, and one of his students, David Holmgren, coined the word “permaculture” in 1978. It is a contraction of “permanent agriculture.” They defined it as a design system for creating sustainable human environments. It uses ecology as the basis for designing integrated systems of food production, housing, appropriate technology, and community development.

Permaculture is built upon three ethics of caring for the earth, human & future care and interacting with the environment in mutually beneficial ways.

A central theme in Permaculture is the design of ecological landscapes that produce food. Emphasis is placed on multi-use plants, cultural practices such as sheet mulching and trellising, and the integration of animals to recycle nutrients and graze weeds.

Characteristics are –

a) Earth care

b) People care

c) Future care

It is one of the most holistic, integrated systems analysis and design methodologies found and practised in Kerala since time immemorial by our forefathers. It can be applied to create productive ecosystems from the human–use standpoint or to help degraded ecosystems recover health and wildness. It can be applied in any ecosystem, no matter how degraded, a typical example is sacred groves (Kavu). It values and validates traditional knowledge and experience, incorporates sustainable agriculture practices and land management techniques and strategies in our Kerala Villages. It is a bridge between traditional cultures and emergent earth-tuned cultures, our older concept of ‘Tharavadu’. It promotes organic agriculture, which does not use pesticides to pollute the environment, which was done by our older generation. It aims to maximize symbiotic and synergistic relationships between site components, plants, animals, birds, etc. It is urban planning as well as rural land design. Its design is site, location-specific, client-specific, and culture-specific of Kasaragod to Thiruvananthapuram.

Permaculture design is essentially a multi-faceted, integrated and ecologically harmonious method of designing human-centred landscapes. Our homestead farming is a typical example.

By human-centred what is meant is that an ideal Permaculture design can supply many of the needs of a human family or community within its localised environment in an as efficient and sustainable manner as possible.

Integrated design refers to the interconnectivity of elements within a system. We work to align the outputs from one element to the inputs of another such that there is no waste, high efficiency and work is ideally reduced.

In all Permaculture design, we also strive to work with natural principles, learning from nature and attempting to harmonise in a way such that we can regenerate degraded land and create natural systems that support us as human beings on planet earth.

Permaculture as a subject is vast and spans many disciples and an understanding of a myriad of areas is needed to grasp how a design can function.

Permaculture covers soil science, hydrology science and engineering, biology, animal husbandry, climate, architecture, geology, geography and so much more. As Permaculture designers we are often somewhat of a generalist with basic, practical and relevant, understandings across a wide range of disciplines. It is this broad view that allows us to see the big or meta picture in an interconnected system.

At this point in the field of Permaculture, this is what is necessary. However, have no doubt that as this field opens up and becomes increasingly utilised and prioritised as the overarching design science for all human habitation, we will be able to form teams of high specialists that will work effectively to understand and create design possibilities that will far surpass than what we are achieving now.

Structures our traditional houses, Cow dung covered walls and floors, House made of mud, coconut leaves and Bamboo sticks.

In our mainframe design, we consider where and what type of structures we wish to have placed. Our house, and other buildings, are placed in relation to smart water and access design. This efficient approach to designs saves many difficulties in the future. The site does not necessarily have to be constructed in this order as the house might come before some of the water features, or access across the site has been constructed.

Designing in this format, however, with consideration for the entire site provides foresight that enables expansion to happen intentionally and consciously. We do not just place our house where the best view is, as is so often the case where we see houses perched precariously on cliff-tops, or on mountain tops. These houses inevitable become incredibly inefficient as they must rely on mechanical sources to bring pressure water to the top of the hill. The cost of placing and maintaining a road up a hill is also incredibly inefficient and a huge suck of resources’.

Permaculture designs houses to climate-specific protocols suit to Kalavarsham and Thulavarsham. When we understand our local climate, our orientation to aspect, our local wind patterns and we have a good sense of how our water and access features are to be planned then we can design incredibly beautiful and functional houses. It is absolutely possible to design houses that require very little input for heating cold winters or cooling hot summers if we understand natural principles.

House design by principle is not difficult. Our ancestors had no choice but to design effective housing because pre-fossil fuels, a poorly designed house in an extreme climate could very seriously mean death. We know these things, they are within our genetics and contemplating in this manner can become a highly enjoyable use of our applied, realistic Imagination.

Sector Analysis

Sector analysis deals with the consistent incoming energies to our site. These energies are unavoidable, meaning they are not controlled on the site and rather occur from outside or are forces of nature.

These types of energies include sun, wind, rain along with flood Zones, fire danger, noise, chemical pollution from neighbouring sites, unpleasant views, pleasant views, wildlife areas, and so on.

As intelligent designers we design with all of these is mind. We consider which direction our prevailing winds come from, we understand the summer and winter sun angles, we have awareness of which direction potential natural disasters may occur, we observe the interactions with neighbours and wildlife. In short we pay a lot of attention to what is going on around us both from nature and other human interaction.

A lot of it is available though as historical records with council, online and …if possible…a friendly cup of black tea, or curious chat with local neighbours who have loved in the area for a long time. Often these long-standing residents, particularly those whose families have lived in an area for generations, have a very good understanding of the local weather and disaster patterns. As humans we are naturally attuned to thinking about the climate. It is, after all, probably the most widely talked about topic around the world and the greatest influence of our day to day comfort and survival.

Once we have identified the different energies that may be present on our site, often starting with sun angles and prevailing seasonal wind directions, we can place these on a concept map of our site as it is emerging. We will absolutely have to design strategies for working with all these energies.

The sun aspect is of considerable importance as it will determine much about our design possibilities. In most climates it will determine where we wish to situate our houses as well as grow the different varieties of crops or trees we may wish to produce.

Prevailing winds in some areas are going to be a huge factor influencing our comfort levels and Permaculture other elements may require design features to mitigate or create safety buffers from. For example we may need to design fire breaks, or an assembly of fire retardant plants in a sector that is particularly prone to fire dangers.

Zone 0

This is our main living space. It is where, as humans, we are likely to spend the majority of our time. Usually we will be sleeping, eating, relaxing, and perhaps engaged in different forms of work here. This is our ‘locus’ from and attention which will permeate the site providing the functional interactions needed for flourishing sustainability.

Zone 1

Usually thought of as our energy-intensive gardens and is likely to include a mixture of frequently used herbs, salad and kitchen gardens, well-pruned and prized fruit trees like Mutti, Jack, Mango, Tamarind, Banana, Pineapple, etc. and perhaps some ornamental plants like Thetti, Manthavam, Pitchi, Tusali, etc. for smells and aesthetics.

Gardens are usually located in direct contact with our Zone 0 and the gardener will invest considerable time, proportionally, to the rest of the site. Full mulching and spot composting techniques will be utilised as well as dense and diverse planting for organic farming.

Gardens can be very beautiful locations with assortments of circular, spiralling and waving patterns throughout the space.

Our Zone 1 area may also include rain shelter, naturally ventilated greenhouse or shadehouse structures attached to the house for climate-specific cultivation.

Zone 2

In this area, we expand out locationally from our centre of focus. Our Zone 2 areas will still receive daily attention, yet a percentage wise will often occupy a broader area of land and require less direct maintenance. These areas may include more extensive kitchen gardens, diverse multi-species layered orchards (also called ‘food forests’ in Permaculture), chicken houses, a milking shed for dairy animals (Eruthil), aquaculture dams (Neerazhi) and fish/duck ponds, and so forth.

Generally speaking, areas that still require consistent daily monitoring and attention, such as animals (for egg collection, feeding, milking, etc.) and prized fruit trees are locationally ‘placed’ in this Zone.

Zone 3

As we extend our attention and energy further away from our centre of habitation we might wish to include, and not all sites do, a Zone for more commercial-scale production.

This Zone may include pasture for free-range grazing animals, main-crop production for bulk starch or local vegetables and grain crops, and more extensive fruit or nut orchards like Pepper, Banana, Pineapple, Cashew, Coconut.

Ideally the attention given here can be a little ‘rougher’ in that if the cropping or orchard strategies are done right it may only need investments of a day or two of labour at peak times of the year such as planting or harvesting.

Zone 4

Our last major Zone to be considered on a Permaculture site is Zone 4, often thought of as ‘farm forestry’. This Zone is often placed, locationally, the furthest from our Zone 0 habitation area and once set up should require minimal yearly maintenance and attention. These areas may even receive attention only several times a year like Kavu, Bamboo, Teak, Aanjali, other forest trees, climbers, medicinal plants under cover.

Components included in a Zone 4 area may be more extensive, minimally maintained pastures for grazing animals, and/or areas of forestry planted to timber or trees for fire wood. Many of the trees selected for this area will be left to grow for years, even for future generations, before selective logging. An intelligent designer plans for the possible expansion of years, or even future generations, in advance.

Again not every site will require or have space for a Zone 4 and it is not essential to have all of these zones in a design for it to be Permaculture. More so that the understanding of these broad categories allows us to plan the placement of components in relation to our personal habitation and energy capabilities.

Zone 5

Lastly is Zone 5 or our ‘wilderness’ zone. Once again a site may or may not have a wilderness area and this can be naturally wild such as an untouched native or native regeneration area on the site, or a small constructed wildlife habitat in a more urban site.

Here as designers we give space for nature to teach us. These places are for observation, relaxation and meditation. We do not expend energy to maintain these areas, rather we allow ourselves to be the student and learn from the possible gifts nature may have to offer us if we are still enough to see.

(Author is Vice Chancellor of DY Patil Agriculture & Technical University, Kolhapur)

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