Permaculture, by its very nature, generally seeks to avoid the destruction of existing ecological systems, even while at the same time replacing them with wholly natural, albeit man-made ecological systems in their stead. Perhaps however, the time has come to replace this thinking, not only in terms of regulation and restrictions, but in terms of acts and actions.
If nothing else, the food forests will be substantially beneficial in creating a more symbiotic and mutually beneficial existence between plants, the animal kingdom and humanity. One thing for certain about human nature, is that unless there is a real and tangible benefit for humanity, humans are likely not going to continue taking the sustainable path.
The key to sustainable development therefore, becomes creating it in such a manner that it actively promotes human participation or Social (Sociological) Sustainability.
First and foremost, it is important to note that sustainability is not truly sustainable unless and until it is systemically sustainable. The short version of this merely indicates that the system or development must be economically (and financially), environmentally and socially sustainable.
This of course, requires a comprehensive and definitive understanding of what “Sustainability” means in reality. These days, it has far too often become little more than a clever marketing slogan or a means to attract more and larger investors, without providing any real benefit to humanity or the environment.
Sustainability is best defined as the ability to provide for the base necessities and the basic desires of the current generation without the introduction of impediments for future generations to do the same.
Generating less waste on a construction site while still leveling forests and literally stripping away mountains to mine the requisite materials does not constitute “Green” construction or “Sustainable Development” by any stretch of the imagination … at least not for anything other than marketing and sales. While these projects may be economically sustainable, they are generally not environmentally sustainable and only occasionally socially (or sociologically) sustainable in design and implementation.
Social sustainability is perhaps the most difficult and most commonly ignored aspect of systemic sustainability. In reality however, it can be boiled down to a very simple approach for the purposes of implementing systemically sustainable developments. The provision of a direct and tangible benefit to the people in general should be sufficient to create a desire to ensure environmental sustainability.
Economic sustainability, being a current motivating factor for most of the population of the world, should be secondary in nature already, though there is always room for improvement through more adaptive and innovative systems.
One of the most prevalent needs of humanity, and in fact, one of the greatest concerns for the future of human growth and development, is the need to feed all of the people currently populating the earth. One great concern in regards to agricultural security is the ability of the current methods of monocrop farming to produce a sufficient level of food for all of the people of the earth.
Part of this stems from the fact that many of the current farming techniques are hundreds, or in some cases, even thousands of years old. Monocrop agricultural production does work relatively well in regards to grain crops, but it is not sustainable as it will invariably kill the soil … and yes, dirt really is alive.
There are a great many advances already being made in terms of semi-hermetic hothouses and greenhouses, vertical farming and other similar techniques and methods, but the food forests stand out far above anything else to date. While it is imperative that these additional technologies and methodologies continue to be funded and researched, the food forests have literally thousands of years of history showing that they will continue to provide long after they have ceased to be maintained.
In 1975, Geoff Lawton came across an ancient food forest in Southern Morocco. The best estimates to date put the area of original planting back some two thousand years … more or less. Given the estimated age of the food forest and its survival not only through the Dark Ages, but also through the Crusades and Medieval Times, it is probably safe to say that there have been expansive lengths of times when this Food Forest was left unattended by humans altogether, perhaps even for hundreds of years at a time.
Date palms, pomegranates, olives, figs, bananas, guava, citrus, mulberries, tamarinds, carobs, grapes and other species continue to grow and this Oasis supposedly supports some eight hundred people who each contribute a very small amount of work.
Unlike “traditional” and “modern” methods of farming, the food forests survive and thrive because they are completely natural ecosystems, albeit man-made. Being a complete ecological system, the food forests provide everything that is necessary for nature to thrive.
The soil is constantly regenerated from the death of old growth, and the constant, year round (depending on the location) provision of seeds and ripe fruit fallen to the ground, ensures the continuation of the natural ecological system and the ongoing production of fruit and other produce.
Certain levels of the old growth can additionally be cut out and removed for use as timber or lumber without harming the environment … although there are better alternatives for sustainable timber and lumber, though those may be best covered in separate articles.
In many places where mining takes place, entire mountains are destroyed. When the destruction is complete, little more than grass and a few trees are planted where once a mighty mountain stood. While traditional permaculture may not provide for the replacement of existing ecosystems with those that are every bit as natural and do provide a more direct and tangible benefit to humans, there should be no controversy about the introduction of food forests where reforestation and reclamation are already an absolute necessity.
Landfills are yet another area wherein more work needs to be done on the reclamation. Ideally, helioconverter technology would expand to the level wherein very little of the Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), wastewater effluent or other organic waste would ever need storing. Since this is not yet a possibility on a large scale, is there really that much controversy to be created by utilizing food forests for landfill reclamation?
Add in some gas traps to capture the methane that is going to be produced as a result of the bio-degradation within the landfill, and there is now a viable source of natural gas for fuel, refrigeration and other uses, making the entire food forest not only sustainable, but largely self-sustaining, even to the extent that it may be used for social assistance programs.
In some cases, most notably where illegal logging takes place, little to no effort is given to reforestation, making these practices all the more devastating. However, even in some areas where reforestation does occur, it is improperly managed or left completely bereft of any management at all. In these cases, the damage can be equally devastating as can be seen from the reforestation efforts in the Quezon Province in Region Two of the Philippines.
The Paulownia Tree is truly an amazing tree … so much so that in the Philippines, it has earned the nickname of “Sa Cahoy ng Buhay” or the “Tree of Life”. The many varieties of the Paulownia tree are (justly if not rightly) considered an invasive species. However, the same properties that give it this notoriety also help to make it an extremely viable option for sustainable timber and lumber growth.
Unfortunately, in the case of the reforestation efforts in Region Two, these trees were planted and left alone. The end result was the Paulownia trees ultimately taking over entire natural and native ecosystems resulting in losses, some of which can never be replaced.
In all of these cases, the introduction of a food forest in place of the morass left behind as it was, would not only have been environmentally sustainable, but socially sustainable, providing a direct and tangible benefit to the local, more impoverished population.
Furthermore, excess production, through the utilization of a select few, paid “gatherers” (as opposed to more traditional farmers), could have been utilized to provide for those in need. In the case of the Philippines, the requisite system for distribution is already in place through the local Barangay Halls (neighborhood government offices) and the officials from the Department of Social Welfare and Development who are already responsible for the distribution of subsidized goods from government programs.
If the production from the food forests provides more of a surplus than the local area residents in need require, excess production can always be sold on the open markets or otherwise provide a direct benefit for the people, either producing positive cash proceeds or reducing costs to the government. Some examples of this can be seen in feeding programs for schools, distribution to the elderly and infirm, or a host of other means by which this excess production can be put to use in a systemically sustainable manner.