Bidakanne School Permaculture Project
Living Ecology Advanced Permaculture Internship in International Rural Development 2017 with Aranya Agricultural Alternatives
During the social and environmental study part of the Living Ecology internship we met with a group of women who use traditional farming practices and are community organizers in Bidakanne village. We asked them what they thought was most important for us to do while we were there.
They spoke about how now was the time when the sons of the older generation have taken over the farms. The young men are mostly choosing to do cash cropping which is water extractive and chemically intensive and does not provide self sufficient food security for their families. At the rate the water table is being depleted in that area in 10-20 years it will be too far down to reach, creating a food crisis; as well as a social and economic crisis.
They said the children are going to school and are not learning about traditional farming, and they feel that is the most important thing for the village. The women said that it is important that the children who will eventually inherit the farm land know how to farm in a way that support the soil and water for future sustainability.
Brad Barber, an intern from Australia decided to work with the school instead of a village farm because he believes it will have the greatest impact. The school is at the entry to the village in a prominent location, and every family there has at least one child in the school.
When we visited the school it was obvious how incredible it will be to create a food forest there. The climate is very hot and there is only a couple of shade trees in the whole yard. The front porches of the school are made of stone and concrete which are too hot to sit on in the day. In talking with the headmaster, teachers and cooks, we also came to understand that poor nutrition is an issue among the school children.
Vegetables are a very small part of their diet. In talking with the children, we discovered that they only had one piece of fruit about twice per month, if they were lucky. The plan was formulated to include a manageable size kitchen vegetable garden, some fruit trees, which would supply some nutrition, and also give exposure to the joy and simplicity of growing vegetables for home consumption. We will include some traditional medicinal and culinary herbs as well. The food grown will supplement the nutritional value of the simple school lunches that are prepared there. The idea is that through exposure to growing different kinds of food as well as enjoying the fruits, more villagers will choose to include a greater degree of diversification in their fields and diets.
After talking with the stakeholders – teachers, cooks, caretakers, parents and children, we did a detailed site survey of the school’s landscape. A primary issue to be contended with is the village livestock – cows, water buffalo and goats which pass through the yard and are the biggest threat to cultivation. It is also used for open defecation by the villagers, as there are no toilets in the entire village.
The whole entire school yard is on bedrock with some top soil in certain areas but with a maximum depth of only a half an inch. Grey/blackwater is an issue during the monsoon from the open sewers through the school yard. Water is an issue and comes from the village’s main supply by pipe for an hour twice per day, but no tank is there to store water. This gets vandalized as well as the school grounds.
One resource is the large roof of the school for rainwater catchment, but an issue is money for a tank to hold the rainwater which only comes during the monsoon season. These are challenges that we as permaculturists, will come up with creative solutions for.
A key permaculture solution that we want to teach and model is that trees can be used to break up rock on even the most marginal, rocky piece of land to create usable farmland. The school yard, being an almost sheer piece of bedrock, will be a convincing example of what is possible.
There are some trees that are best for breaking up rocks in this area. Examples of that are gyriccidia, ficus species and mango seedling trees. The plan at the school is to drill holes through the rock and plant some of these types of trees as well as fruit trees and nitrogen fixing support trees. Their roots will go down and break up the rock and cultivate the soil that lies beneath.
Another example of these support trees is Moringa. It is a soil nitrogen fixer and its leaves are one of the most nutritious in the world and the fruit and leaves can also be cooked into a delicious curry. When these trees get chopped back, it produces a fertilizing mulch which builds topsoil.
Planting a food forest here will not only provide this much needed shade which will be a welcome microclimate change, it will also give the village varieties of food they do not currently have access to, as well as being a genetic resource pool for others to take from. The trees will provide habitat to beautiful pollinating birds we see at the Aranya Farm but are nonexistent in this village which is only 3 km away. It will also educate the farmers and children about the variety of fruit trees possible in their area who will hopefully do so using permaculture practices.
We met with the parent’s committee, teachers, and school headmaster many times during the planning process. Everyone was very happy and grateful for the idea. When asked about what they would like to contribute to the project they immediately responded by making a plan in which each household in the village with children attending the school would be asked to contribute 50 rupees (approx 80 cents). They also agreed to provide the labor to dig all the holes and put up the fence. They are happy to have the forest garden to use in the school curriculum.
The parents committee got to work immediately by measuring the spots for the fence posts using a knotted rope, and the children marking the spots using lime chalk. The very next day after the full perimeter diamond mesh fence was erected, we went to go check it out. Our hearts melted to see the school children already planting seeds and taking cuttings of other plants and planting them. They smiled, waved us in and offered a flower for my hair, excited to show us what they were able to do because of the gift of the fence. They knew it was finally possible to grow things with this new protection from the animals.
It was such an excitement for the children, and for us, to work together. Earlier when we used the bunyip water level to plan the rain water harvesting design, we took the opportunity to show the children how it worked. They caught on right away and gleefully shouted the numbers to us and reminded other children not to step on the tube.
Before we left we were invited to the school graduation celebration. We were offered beautiful flower mala necklaces and we shared a special meal together. Headmasters and teachers from neighboring schools attended and were inspired about the school food forest plan.
All the local villagers are excited about the idea. The Biddakane School Project was put into 5 different newspapers and we are so thrilled that the news of it is reaching out to inspire more people.
We have just arrived back with the monsoon rains to begin the planting part of all the projects we began. We will post updates as we progress. After the trees are planted, Aranya Agricultural Alternatives will come to support the school in how to manage their new food forest.
They will also create assistance in integrating permaculture into the school curriculum. With the upcoming International Permaculture Convergence that Aranya is hosting, we will host a Permaculture in Schools Facilitator Training taught by Robina McCurdy, a well known permaculture teacher from Australia. I am so excited to be back and to get this project growing!
Living Ecology permaculture teacher and director
Written by: Seva Nibley