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No Longer a “Hippie” Trend: An Interview with Permaculture Chemist Jean Carlos

Environmental chemist Jean Carlos, intern for Geoff Lawton, permaculture enthusiast and advocate

To those slightly familiar with it, permaculture is a phenomenon that has earned an interesting reputation over the years. Currently, a lot of people may view it as a passing hippie trend, a movement that can be dismissed as too progressive and out-of-the-box. Overall, permaculture is not the most common idea out there right now. It can definitely be said that permaculture could use some more attention, some more awareness.

As for the definition, permaculture is formally described as the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient. This is done by analyzing the site, and applying the information of that site to your advantage - information regarding water flow, wind, wildlife, the soil, etc. It is a holistic review of the site, and a holistic application of that review in order to increase stability of that site, increase biodiversity, and develop resilience to climate change.

Here I introduce Jean Carlos, an intern for Geoff Lawton. Lawton is one of the most prominent permaculture experts in the field today. Since 1995, he has Australian has specialized in permaculture education, design, implementation, establishment, and community development. Safe to say that as an intern to one of the pioneers of permaculture, Jean Carlos has plenty to share regarding this important concept of permaculture.

Jean Carlos is 36 years old; he studied in Panama, originally on target for an industrial chemical career. His background in environmental chemistry originates from years of school, but he has adopted a more environmentally dedicated career, abandoning the potentially lucrative future that lies ahead of an industrial chemical career. His background stands out, since a lot of environmental chemists go on to pursue careers in billion dollar industries; rarely do they dive into the field of permaculture. For certain, he has a passion for the world around him, but this passion did not come overnight.

After studying chemistry, he took some years off to become more in sync with nature. He realized that a lot of occupations disregarded nature and did not value it as much as he did. He started a recycling NGO in Panama during those years, and he participated in various types of recycling including plastic recycling, recycling seeds, reforestation, etc.) Later, he joined Agua y Juventud, an Argentinian organization that was relatively larger in scope than his recycling NGO. Agua y Juventud focused on fighting for water rights, and other environmental rights.

His journey then led him to a conference in Argentina, where he was introduced to agroecology. In that setting, he began delving more and more into agroecology, where he learned about permaculture. He began integrating himself more; he lived on various farms as a volunteer, visited permaculture farms, and saw firsthand the integrative approach that is characteristic of permaculture. He earned his permaculture certificate in Argentina, met some mentors, and began networking. He first came across Geoff Lawton’s work online, which immediately garnered his interest. After studying up more on his permaculture expertise, he sought a specific internship in the Jordan Desert valley called ‘Greening the Desert’, which was his most recent adventure. It involved participating in a permaculture design consulting firm, as well as ongoing projects of actual design implementation in the valley.

Jean Carlos states, “The approach to permaculture is permanent; it lasts longer than just a lifetime.” He adds, “By mimicking what happens in real nature before human influence, we can make a system that lasts for a long duration”. In an ideal system, there would be less and less human interaction year by year; this represents the increasing stability of the system due to diversification of the area, since the more diverse, the more accurate to an actual forested area. In essence, the more you can mimic, the more stable.

Jean Carlos adds that there are seven strata in forests, with different canopies and layers; the more you have, the more resilient the area becomes to weather, outside circumstances and climate change. Now, of course, this can’t be done overnight. It takes months and years for the strata to develop in a given area, but when it is full, it develops a characteristic of resiliency that would be very difficult to match otherwise.

“Resilient systems are more important now than ever with present day climate change conditions. Increasing biodiversity incrementally is one example of a goal that could help in creating such a system - incrementing the species, the soil, the water”, he adds.

He also describes the problem with contemporary tendency: the prominence of monocrop lands. “Monocrop lands are problematic because they take from the soil, but don’t put anything back”, he adds. It makes sense - there is no diversification. The land is solely used to be stripped for all nutrients for industrial benefit, and this ends up leaving the land in a setback biologically, unstable and unhealthy. To them, “soil isn’t part of the equation. If you analyze some of the monocrop lands and the monocultivating farms, nobody takes care of the soil, since they can always buy more fertilizers and chemical enhancers”. Simply put, it is a direct exploitation of the soil. With the approach of permaculture to agricultural lands, Jean Carlos accentuates the effect of resiliency, the long term benefits, and the overall health benefit to the land.

Ironically, despite our tendency to industrialize and neglect our soil for economic profit, with all the knowledge that we as humans possess regarding the stages of succession from bare ground to full-grown forest, Jean Carlos believes that humans have the potential to be the most beneficial contributors to the environment. Starting from just bare rocks and fungi and clear land to full-fledged thickets and trees, while normally in nature it could take hundreds of years, with human intervention and aid this time frame can be significantly reduced to as little as ten years. This is not indicative of artificial insemination or adding chemical preservatives or fertilizers of any kind; it is simply using the knowledge and information about a given area, and using all of those features to maximize the restoration time. Jean testifies to witnessing firsthand the efficacy of this - with his experience in the Jordan Desert valley, he adds that he saw a bare rock desert valley develop into a small forest.

“Here in Panama we grow cashews, and there are big farms that monocultivate, like cashews. You can make better use of that land...produce other crops that can accompany the cashews - this is a beneficial plan”. However, this is far easier said than done. Jean Carlos, of course, understands this. Thus, he implicates the importance of a “demonstrative” appeal as opposed to a forced, aggressive appeal.

Like with many other progressive, big changes and movements, he understands that “the biggest issues are usually in the people - people are just used to doing something in a particular manner that when you try to move them out of their comfort zone, they become protective and defensive.” However, “when you show them that there are benefits to be had with a permaculture approach”, this demonstrative attitude could lead to people being more receptive.”

“It’s an economic challenge. We have to push in that direction, and fight selfishness. We don’t have to knock down doors - there are people with a conscience already, which is a starting point for demonstrations”, he says. To Jean Carlos, the key is a demonstrative, informed way of showing them how permaculture adds benefits to their lands and assets as well as helping the environment.

The permaculture approach is hands-on in the beginning, since there is a lot of applying information. Speaking of which Jean Carlos is confident: “the technology and information is there; it is just that more demonstration and implementation is needed”. However, as he has said before, the goal of this permaculture is to really establish a system where the site develops resiliency, biodiversity, and stability. Reforestation is certainly a good initiative, but it can be supplemented with a supporting plant ecosystem surrounding it that could lead to better tree growth and increased stability.

For site analysis, some of the factors that are included are the wind direction, the landscape location, the type of landscape, the water placement, etc.) Thus, some of the first steps in the permaculture approach involve applying such information to the site. Namely, setting up wind barriers, locating trees that need more sun, finding out how to redirect water based on its direction, setting up dams, incorporating selective planting, etc.) This sort of scientific, strategic integration of intervention, with the mentality of flowing with the forces of nature, is the crux of permaculture. It is a holistic review of the site, and optimization of stability by using the natural forces that already exist as an advantage. Rather than altering or changing the site, it is more like helping the site get in sync with the natural forces around it quicker.

Ideally, this permaculture approach involves less and less intervention as the years pass by. This may not be the case in every permaculture project, but it is for sure that there are sufficient populations worldwide where people are doing this already. “Permaculture projects are already in every country, with around 4000 projects around the world. Permaculture is global, although it may not be mainstream”, Jean Carlos replies.

To spread awareness, he emphasizes to “continue spreading the knowledge in areas that have not been reached yet - for speed succession for recovering lands”. He really stresses the point that “you can make a little forest in 25-50 square meters, and you will feel the difference. Life will appear, almost like nature is confirming that you are doing good. You’ll see biodiversity, and it could also open up possibilities in you garden, and increase the independence and resiliency of your backyard system”.

However, right now, it is known that permaculture does not have the most robust scientific following partially due to its reputation as a baseless hippie trend that emphasizes ambiguous synergy with nature rather than educated, informed application of information based on detailed site analysis and proven precedent. As of today, Jean Carlos elaborates that, “there are tons of scientists who have written papers on the topic, and there are people emerging from the field of agroecology. Agroforestry departments in US colleges have also been expanding and touching base with this approach as well.”

In conclusion, permaculture is a growing ideology. Jean Carlos has made this quite clear. However, just like every growing ideology, there are many barriers to overcome, one of which being the stigma surrounding it, as well as slowly getting people outside of their comfort zone to accept something new, accept change.

Fundacion Pro Eco Azuero as an organization has fully endorsed Geoff Lawton’s work and will be actively pursuing ways to implement this permaculture approach in their work as well - FPEA is also a participant in the growth of this ideology and approach! It is exciting to see the lands that could be restored and revamped in the future, in a reduced amount of time. Change is on the horizon.

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