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Water is life! Water is capital!
by Leila Dregger
2008-03-22 09:47:49
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On 21st February, the ecologist team of the Tamera Peace Research Center, near Colos, invited ecologists and specialists from the region, as well as from the universities in Lisbon and Evora, to show them the state of the renaturalisation project in the middle of the dry Alentejo region: a model for the ecological healing of the landscape applying the concept of "Holzer's Permaculture".

Sepp Holzer, mountain farmer, Permaculture specialist* and "rebel farmer" from Austria, was there and led the guests around Tamera's new Permaculture lake. He explained the principles and experiences of his nature-imitating agriculture that has made him well known in many countries.

dsc05541_400Fluffy clouds are flying across the sky. Fresh green shoots are sprouting on the lake bank's terraces. The team of co-workers and students is planting fruit trees, berry bushes, and reeds. Around 30 guests have come on this Thursday in February to get to know the Permaculture composition and especially Tamera's lake. On closer inspection, one sees that the densely growing leaves and shoots on the terraces are in fact edible plants such as radish, cabbage, turnip, lettuce, and old varieties of cereals, all growing here lushly. Not in straight lines and rows but higgledy-piggledy as Mother Nature would have sown it herself.

The participants of the tour are allowed to taste from this abundance.

This first impression of Holzer's Permaculture, which is presently being implemented in Tamera, is convincing.

Ana Firmino, Professor of Biology at the University of Lisbon is impressed, and her colleague, biologist Daniel Pires also from Lisbon, promises to help to choose the right fish for the lake.

The other participants of the walk, among them biologists and naturalists from the region and from Evora, want to use the inspiration and experiences for their own work and projects.

The excavation of this first water retention lake around Tamera's auditorium started in last August.

It is part of a comprehensive concept for the retention and saving of the winter rain, for renaturation of the landscape, for reforestation with mixed cultures and for food cultivation. The bottom of the lake is now full. In the case of heavy winter rains the water level can rise three or four meters higher – water which then, in the hot summer season, can supply the earth body with water.

Mountain farmer Sepp Holzer has been following unusual ways in agriculture for decades. In the last years he has had an extraordinary success in many more countries around the world. Tamera invited him last year to help with a comprehensive renaturalisation project.

The first time he came to the Alentejo he was shocked. "How this land has been treated is blood-curdling," he says. "Deforestation, misguided fire prevention, monocultures, overgrazing: the consequences are erosion, loss of fertility, droughts, tree deaths, and desertification. After decades of wrong treatment it´s not small steps which are needed, but bigger steps of correction."

The most important element for the regeneration of such a dry region like the Alentejo is water. "Water is information. Water is life. Water is the greatest capital," Holzer states. "If nothing grows in summer this is not the fault of the region but of those who work the land. There is enough rain, but the winter rain has to be retained on the site in the right way."

What is the right way? In Holzer's Permaculture the basic step is to build decentralized water retention basins in as many different forms as possible - pools, ponds, and lakes in different sizes - embedded in the natural shape of the landscape. Holzer did this on his own farm, "Krameterhof", which is situated from 1,100 to 1,500 meters above sea level in the mountains near Salzburg. There he also built and ponds and small lakes up to the high alps, and made use of their ability to store water and warmth for growing many different crops – including potatoes, cherries, and even kiwis.

Three years ago, in the Extremadura region of Spain he started the renaturalisation of a site with sick and dying Holm oaks (Quercus ilex). Since then, in the middle of a dry region a lake landscape has emerged which convinces even the most skeptical scientists: lush harvests of vegetables are made on the lake banks, the sick Holm oaks are recovering, and the biotope has become a home for birds and other wildlife.

Comprehensive knowledge is needed to design a water landscape with so many functions. A decisive factor is the variety of shapes, sizes and depths of the lakes.

"Look here, the wind washes the floating organic matter ashore," Sepp Holzer shows a shallower part of the shore where this matter drifts in the water close to the bank. "Here we are planting reed and bulrush. For them the organic matter is fertilizer which they filter out of the water and thereby clean it."

dsc05547_400The shore zones do not only serve the cleansing of the lake, but also tropical and subtropical will be cultivated here. For this many natural marble stones were given to the Tamera team by a local stone quarry - stones which otherwise would have been smashed into gravel. Now they are standing on the shore and in some shallow parts of the lake. The giants look wonderful – and they are useful as well. "They work like a tiled stove," the mountain farmer explains. "During the day the stones are heated by the sun, and in the night they radiate the heat to their surroundings. In this climate you can grow even bananas and avocados, as the warmth of the stones protects them from frost."

The deepest point of the lake will be more than 12 meters. "Deep and shallow zones serve as temperature regulators. In winter they will stay warmer and in summer cooler. Thus, many kinds of fish will find their different ideal climates and can survive, be it trout, carp, or catfish when optimal biotopes for the different fish have been created in the shallow and deep zones."

The differences in temperature lead to water movements which carry oxygen into the lake and aid the thriving of fish. In co-operation with local ecologists, Tamera will grow domestic and endangered fish species. They can spawn and later be returned to the local natural waters: an active participation in nature conservation.

The bank terraces are used as cultivable land, tree nursery, and recreation areas. "Edible landscapes" is a term which makes the mouths of some participants of the walk water. In many places the mixed cultures which were sown last year are already growing. Sepp Holzer: "We don´t use highly cultivated varieties but as much as possible original ones. Only those plants will later sow their own seeds by themselves. These plants – salad, radishes, and original cereals – are helping plants. They don´t serve only as food but consolidate the structure of the terraces, keep the soil covered for the whole year, and support the growth of fruit trees and berry bushes. In nature it is the same as with human beings: community is better than solitude."

Soon water lilies and other water plants will follow, and then also the first fish cultures. "How will the terraces be irrigated?" a participant wants to know. Sepp Holzer: "The water of the lake soaks the body of the soil during the whole year and increases the morning dew. The coverage of the ground diminishes the drying additionally. Therefore we need much less irrigation, and for that the lake is close by and the irrigation can be made with pipes easily."

The terraces of the first lake will be designed completely as edible landscapes and tree nurseries. On the shady side, between the light cork oak forest, different trees and bushes have been planted. When they are bigger they will be used to reforest further parts of the site.

dsc05617_400The construction of this first water retention basin since last autumn has been made in six weeks with four excavators which moved 100,000 tons of earth. A public road has been rerouted. A gently rising dam with overflow and an outlet discharge structure, which regulates the water level and makes the populations of water plants and fish controllable, belong to the security installations of the lake.

"The local authorities have been extraordinarily cooperative and understanding of the situation", Holzer says. "In this first step we have felt supported in our wish to build an ecological renaturalisation project for the Altentejo."

Beyond its task of ecological regeneration such a water landscape can become an important economic factor. The sale of water lilies, ornamental and edible fish as well as vegetables and fruit, plus the organization of seminars offer various possibilities.

"It is an interesting thought, which, however, is not our first task," Silke Paulick explains, one of the project facilitators. "Our most important wish is to give a contribution to the healing of the landscape and to create a model for a sustainable high-quality food supply for several hundred people."

* Permaculture: This term is composed of permanent and culture and was first used by the Australian Bill Mollison. Permaculture is a nature-imitating method of cultivation where not single crops are cultivated but whole mixed cultures and biotopes. The idea is that once it is designed a biotope rebuilds itself, that the plants resow themselves, and that all the different elements of the ecosystem support each other – just like in nature.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-03-22 12:53:37
Interesting concept which may save the planet from the barbaric devastation going on. What I find intriguing in the concept is that it is tied to an ethical principle: that of peace and harmony. Indeed there was another time in the West when such a principle was under siege by the barbarians of the north who were ignorant of it or simply ignored it: the Dark Ages which are misnomer however, for they do not encompass the whole millennium of Medieval Times but at best two centuries: the 6th and 7th. The Benedictine monks of Montecassino (6th century AD) saved agriculture in Europe by teaching the barbarians that there was a better way to live than by plunder and destruction of other humans and of nature. They did not set out to do that on purpose; it was a mere byproduct of their belief system. At their point of major influence Europe counted 57,000 Benedictine monasteries. Let us hope that the Tameras of this world continue to multiply and reach the same number as that of the Benedictine monasteries, and that the concept of peace and harmony remains tied to that of respect for Gaia. Indeed, even a goddess can save us if the new barbarian, that of the intellect, is taught to prary. But prayer has to be understood not as asking Santa Claus for toys but first and foremost as an aspiration of the human heart for justice and peace.

Nunobark2008-03-23 01:01:40
I have a dream that someday permaculture will be used everywhere instead of intensive agriculture. Most farms nowadays seem more like factories in disguise. I was born and live in Portugal and I am very happy to see this kind of project taking place in my country, specially in the region of Alentejo, one of the most dry of Portugal, mostly because of agricultural policies that came from the time of dictatorship (Alentejo was called "O celeiro de Portugal", in English "The barn of Portugal", because of the intensive cereal farming in this region). Indeed water is life, water stops the desertification of the land in southern Europe. I think that permaculture is the best solution for the environmental problems we are facing all over the world today.

Nunobark2008-03-23 01:11:50
I hope someday I will be a part of something like Tamera, a project that tries to make the world a better place. I like the vision of E.Paparella, indeed we must pray for this earth which is, after all, our common home.

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