Ushering in a New Era of Permaculture at Paititi

posted by Faanito on November 20th, 2012

My journey at Paititi Institute started six months ago, right after I spent a life-changing 3-month stint at the home of PRI,  Zaytuna Farm, completing both a PDC and 10-week internship under the tutelage of the masterful and inspiration-oozing Geoff Lawton and his amazing team.
Immediately prior to this I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in ecology from Stellenbosch University and was intent on continuing with my Master’s degree right after I completed what was then planned to be a 1-year hiatus immersing myself fully into permaculture praxis.

So as my time and visa in Australia slowly trickled away into entropy I casually one morning made use of that amazing gift that is to hone in on my next destination.

Like Christopher McCandless’ long-standing infatuation with Alaska in the book/movie ‘Into The Wild’ (and of course the reality the aforementioned was based on), I had been dreaming and intending of exploring the majestic wilderness that is the Amazon jungle for far too long. Perhaps it was due to the accumulated effect of many a light night exploring the Jungle to the soulful tune of Uncle David Attenborough’s soothing voice, or perhaps it was a direct calling from my Paleolithic archetype, but for some unknown reason, the river, area, ecology, civilizations and cultures associated with the term ‘the Amazon’ has being plucking the chords of my heart so strongly that I had no other desire but to point my compass in that direction So I went clickety-click-click and inserted the simple criteria – it had to be permaculture, and it had to be located in the Amazon.

For no real apparent reason, I felt more drawn to the Peruvian Amazon, and as the embedded Google Map on the permacultureglobal website reached the level of displaying individual projects my cursor would so happen to fall on a place called The Paititi Institute.

So as fate, synchronous guidance or perhaps sheer random and meaningless co-incidence would have it, Paititi appeared to offer not only what I happened to be looking for, but something beyond what I would have even dared to hope for. This article is however not promotional in nature, so I’m not gonna be singing praises and expounding virtues, at least not here and now.

As I mentioned above, I was on an 1-year permaculture hiatus, and apart from visiting the PRI and receiving first-class education, my goal for the year really was to gain as much first-hand practical permaculture experience, primarily by spending time working on different projects and bathing in the enlightened ecological auras of some seasoned permie-pundits. However, what I arrived to at Paititi was, as far as first impressions go, a near-blank canvas with infinite potential. So though the permie guru and his ecological enlightenment I had secretly sought after was nowhere to be found, the realization soon set in that I was privy to be gifted the full attention of my favourite teacher – myself, along with inspiring support, encouragement and resources.

Above I say “near-blank canvas”, but really that’s only stating the situation in relative terms. You see, Paititi is situated on nearly 100 acres of Amazonian lowland jungle (known locally as Selva Baja), and though it already has various established agroforestry systems, which includes bananas, papayas, coconuts, annonas (a close relative of cherimoya), cacaos, mangoes, caimitos, nonis, approximately 1000 pineapple lilies and a plethora of various indigenous medicinal species, the potential for expansion and further development was, as far as I could tell, infinite. And so it was with great zeal and gusto that I, along with my amazing partner Stella (who I had met at Zaytuna Farm), took up a spot behind the permaculture helm to develop and realize the multi-faceted potential that lay before us, all the while receiving nothing but unwavering multi-level support from the Paititi founders and core members.

Right here is the point where I strategically and poignantly go off on a little tangent: for those of you that are not aware of the prevailing topsoil characteristics in this part of the world, I will use this opportunity to succinctly educate you – there hardly is any. As the rate of subterranean biomass utilization far exceeds that of above ground deposition, primarily due to this environment’s specific thermodynamic characteristics (heat + moisture = busy microbes), the Amazon jungle and most tropical regions in general have only a paper thin veneer of that precious humus-laden chocolate cake our plants love to immerse their roots in. And as many other Geoff Lawton PDC graduates will be able to tell you, compared with temperate regions, which may have 60% of the biomass in the soil and 40% as living plant matter, the biomass distribution for humid tropics is somewhere around 10% in the soil and 90% above it. So with little-to-no topsoil, or anything resembling a friable growing medium, what we basically have here is good old, rock-hard, low pH, poor-draining clay. Though great for building cob ovens, as our good friend and permie-extraordinaire Rick Pickett can tell you in an article posted on his epic blog, it unfortunately is not suitable for cultivating the vast majority of annual vegetables we’ve all come to love.

Fortunately, not only am I a self-admitted soil geek, but I also came to Paititi armed with the potent knowledge and experience I had acquired during the 1-week soil- biology and building course at Zaytuna Farm under the eye of the brilliant and humble Paul Taylor. I’m afraid that if I’m going to go off on how ridiculous beautiful and environmentally super-charged this being is I may never reach the crux of what I’m trying to communicate to you dear reader, so again, I can only implore you to give his website a visit, or better yet, if you happen to find yourself in Australia, book a course with this man NOW. The two words that come to mind are enlightening and empowering, written in bold.

So tangent completed and background information relating to environmental characteristics transferred, let’s get back to the part where I arrive at Paititi. Now, where one might be tempted to see the lack of topsoil as an insurmountable constraint, instead what we saw was an opportunity to put our newfound knowledge, passion and insight regarding the great mystery that is soil to good use. Using Paul’s BioVital composting method, though slightly adapted to suite our unique set of conditions, desires and available materials, our first three months here were primarily spent engaged in the blissful activities of collecting grass, cow manure and developing seriously ripped biceps, all to the tune of our very own musical composition – “flip the compost, flip-flip the com-post.” Six months and approximately ten tons of compost later, we’ve now had so many interested locals and other ex-pat permies popping bye that the first free demonstration class is in the pipe for mid-December, expect an article and videos on this soon!

Besides for all the furious flipping, we also couldn’t resist actualizing another lesson from Paul lurking in our subconscious – phospheto. Now call me crazy, which many before unwaveringly have, but there’s just something about building a pyre with animal corpses and then putting it through a ‘rocket launcher’ that resonates with the alchemical necromancer in all of us. Our first batch laden with 100 chicken corpses is already percolating down to the rhizospheres of many happy plants, and if you’d like to find out more about the process either have look at this blog article I wrote a couple of months ago, or contact me at [email protected] – I would love nothing more than to pay this knowledge forward and help it spread like an Australian bushfire.

So once topsoil became available we were right on track to unlock all the ecological goodness we’d been dreaming of since our arrival. Right where we wanted to be, Stella and I finally started doing what we love best – building gardens and propagating various edible species.

After spending two days alongside the help of many skilled hands constructing a large nursery, or ‘Casa de Plantas’ as we’ve come to call it, we naturally pointed our arrow in the same direction any permie would – zone one. Constructing, uplifting, retro-fitting and reinvigorating the kitchen garden and the aptly named spiral garden that are now only a couple of months old, I’m proud to report that we now have daily salads fresh from the garden, which includes malabar spinach (Basella alba), moringa leaves (Moringa oleifera), daikon radish (Raphanus sativus var. longi), sweet basil, tomatoes and one plant I’ve only recently discovered and come to absolutely love – quailgrass (Celiosa argentea), also known variously as Cock’s comb and Lagos spinach.

The “work” to date has been intense and extremely satisfying, and in accordance with my usual modus operandi I took the head-down, hard work approach in order to manifest the permaculture paradise floating in my mind’s eye.

After more than 5 months toiling with the greatest of delight under the Amazonian sun, a certain set of circumstances and events inspired and allowed me the opportunity to take a one week isolation retreat in a cabin nestled away in the luscious jungle foliage. Though this might paint some romantic picture in your mind, I was adhering to strict self-imposed austerities regarding my dietary intake and physical activities, and after a couple of days of quieting the mind, insights regarding multiple aspects of my life started flooding in. Thus the proverbial step back proved to be fertile ground for a myriad of realizations, many of which were personal, but relevant to this discussion, one pertaining directly to the permaculture work I’d been doing at Paititi, and more specifically how I’d been going about it and how that was all about to change. Thus the aim of this article is to share the how and why of the implementation of my realization, and hopefully get an epistemological discussion going regarding people- systems and structures of existing permaculture projects.

The realization is essentially as complex as people systems themselves, thus I can only attempt to really communicate the message properly through an elaborated and systematic style. Please bare with me, and if at any point I make no sense and you feel that either you or I have lost the plot, just read on and share your thoughts at the end.

Now that I have the little warning out of the way I’m going to jump right to it and build from there. My realization, at its core, is this: as I had gone about in my official capacity of head-permie for the last couple of months at Paititi dishing out various jobs to volunteers based on the picture in my head of what I think is best, and how we should go about it, I had unknowingly reproduced and installed the bane of the archaic revival and the achilles’ heel of the house of cards known as corporate-driven industrial globalization– a classic top-down system.

My “error” realized, I spent much time pondering the human dynamics involved in conceptualizing and implementing permaculture projects on the macro-level, and how I should proceed in organically rectifying this over the coming months. Again I’d like to stress and reiterate one last time that this is an initiation of an open-discussion, and as these are only thoughts I happened to take the time to verbalize and share please do not hesitate to deconstruct, criticize or contribute to any of the following ideas I am about to share, I promise I will not be taking anything personal.

Thus, as of a couple of weeks ago, my attention and intention regarding permaculture at Paititi Institute will now be focused on establishing an ecologically-rooted, self-driven, open-source, bottom-up permaculture project that may be viewed as an experiment on how to bring various people with various ideas and experience together in such a way so that the non-overlapping potential of all involved will be maximally realized and utilized. Of course, I am not discrediting nor disregarding the importance of having a leader in any permaculture project. It is naturally of paramount importance to have a helmsman in any such operation, yet I feel that a real leader is not someone who knows the most and puts others to work according to his knowledge and experience, but rather someone who can facilitate the creation of a semi-autonomous system that optimally employs and integrates the knowledge, experience and creativity of all involved so that the project will manifest regardless of whether that leader remains directly involved or not. Simply put, a real leader is somebody who can give birth to a project that will have a life of its’ own, a project that very soon will be able to continue to function without that leader’s direct involvement.

In all honesty this vision is, at this very moment at least, much more conceptual than comprehensively and practically defined. Naturally I have however developed a few pragmatic ideas of how I shall go about developing this system over the coming months, and I would like to share these with you now.

 1. The creation of a project-specific manual – a “Master Plan”.

I have however decided to title ours a little more creatively – ‘The Paititi Permaculture Sutras’. In a sense this will form the backbone of the system I intend to manifest and will be my main non-labour focus for the immediate future. I elaborate further… I have started to create a virtual document that will encompass absolutely everything regarding permaculture at our specific location. It will be part theoretical, explaining the background, philosophy, ethos and vision of the project and land it is based on. By background I mean not only why and how the project came about, but also an record of all work that has taken place according to a rough timeline. The philosophy will entail the why and how of strategies employed by the project – for instance why it was decided to employ a bottom-up system and how it will be realized and maintained. Ethos will act as a kind of glue by sharing the motivation for the work and the premises they are based on, thereby also setting the necessary parameters wherein the project operates and ensuring anyone that may potentially become involved is fully aware of it. The final part of the theoretical section, currently titled simply ‘Vision’, will give a complete breakdown of the ultimate vision/purpose of the project and define it in terms of goals, sub-goals, sub-sub-goals etc. This allows all involved in the daily activities to understand and realize how their work and effort slots in and contributes to the higher and ultimate aspirations of the vision. The essence and meat of the manual will however be encapsulated within the practical section. Serving as an extension of the vision, the practical section will be initiated with a system’s theory inspired graphical representation of the project and all the elements that constitute it, all the way down to the lowest level – representing an actual physical object, task or idea that is realizable by an individual act. Thus it will define for the reader the total make-up of the project and all tasks involved. This will be followed by a systematic breakdown of every task in the form of well-defined and standardized written instructions, accompanying photos, and in the majority of cases a link to an instructional and educational video hosted on the world wide web.

The document will essentially be dynamic and non-rigid in nature, thus it will we open to be perpetually updated and rewritten by anyone directly involved in the project.

Furthermore, it will also be available as a free download from the Paititi website, so that anyone at any time will be able to know exactly what has been done, what is being planned and how it will be achieved vis-a-vis permaculture at Paititi. In essence, the manual severs to create well-defined, standardized and yet fluid models of operative structures regarding the permaculture work at Paititi.

The creation of such a document is simple, but the crux and critical part is that it be both transparent and heritable – thus I wish to empower people versus instructing them. Thus, for example, if I teach (and not tell) X how to prep seedling trays, X is immediately empowered to teach Y the same, and then Y to Z, ad infinitum.

 2. Assigning caretakers for various elements.

As any permaculture project is composed and constitutes multiple elements and divisions I feel it is essential to distribute the responsibility of these elements among the various permaculture volunteers residing at Paititi.

This has already largely been implemented in recent weeks, and is aimed to empower volunteers by putting them in charge and control of the operations pertaining to certain elements.

At the moment we have caretakers for bees, ducks, the kitchen gardens, the food forest, the nursery, seed sojourn, rehabilitation project and soil building hq. So for example the person taking care of the kitchen garden knows exactly what’s growing there, make’s sure there is sufficient mulch, that it’s watered when dry, weeds, and controls what will be grown there by linking up with the people propagating. Of course this is just scratching the surface, as it also includes any potential further expansion, it may go much deeper.

These positions may or may not be permanent (to an extent), and as mentioned each week during the class (see 3 below) each caretaker gives feedback on his element, which ultimately slots in to the bigger goal/s and allows everyone to know what’s going on. In this way responsibility and information is more balanced and thus will not only lead to a more stable project, but because people are personally involved/responsible for an element it will cultivate a greater sense of interest, passion and commitment.

3. Thursday classes

Probably the most profound new development regarding permaculture at Paititi however is the implementation of a free 3-hour class every week for volunteers. Tentatively held on Thursdays (depending on circumstances), we’ve already hosted 3 classes, with the 4th on taking place in 2 days time.

Classes roughly constitute a 1-hour “classic PDC-esque” lesson, a 1-hour session on more practical orientated information regarding permaculture and information contained in the ‘Master Plan’ (composting, rocket stoves, propagation etc) and a 1-hour session where a specific future permaculture project at Paititi is discussed, brainstormed and decided on by all. Ultimately I feel these classes will elegantly serve to create a more lucid and transparent project, instead of me dishing out orders based on a picture in my head, that is what I think is best, we all get together, share all info, ideas and decide on what to do together – what we think is best.

I hope the above-mentioned ideas I have shared gets you as excited about permaculture’s future at Paititi as it does me. I envision Paititi becoming, in addition to it’s already golden reputation as a shamanic and healing institute, known for an amazing self-organizing permaculture educational facility. I envision volunteers coming here in the near future specifically for this reason – to be part of a bottom-up permaculture project of legendary status. My goal is nothing less that achieving this within 6 to 12 months.



Giving a tour to recent PDC participants. (photo by Alexandria Preston)

Stella and I presenting a compost class. (photo by Alicia Fox)

Teaching the soils class as part of our most recent PDC. (photo by Alicia Fox)