Natural Health

Natural Health

Lessons in permaculture

part from this column for Education
World, I don’t get around to writing much because the older I become, the more I realise how little I know. That’s to say, the more I learn, the more I become aware of the vastness of the universe, and its infinite body of knowledge.

Therefore I recently took three weeks off for a crash course on permaculture — a farming system which derives its inspiration from the words ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’. Some proponents of this fast-track, new-age farming innovation describe it as a "revolution disguised as gardening". The site of study was Aapbotay village north of Darjeeling. I felt like a young girl going to boarding school. After a long time, I had a chance to completely immerse myself in a subject without worrying about anyone else, not even myself because all needs were taken care of.

Richard Zook, the US-born permaculture instructor put in great effort to ensure that our group of 15 students got a good grasp on the subject. He goes by the name Rico and you can learn more about him on his website In his lectures Rico touched upon concepts like the Golden Rectangle which isn’t exactly part of permaculture. But as he explained, learning perma-culture requires learning about everything that is part of nature. It is inclusive and encompasses other systems, which is its charm and cause of effectiveness. Immediately I discovered that my years of study of natural nutrition, bio-dynamics and feng shui will improve my implementation of permaculture.

In a relatively short period, since the end of the 1970s, permaculture has rapidly gained popularity and has fathered many success stories. Aapbotay and the other 14 hamlets surrounding it, form the Mineral Springs community with a population of 455 families. DLR Prerna, an NGO-based in Darjeeling has been involved with this community since 2005, and has worked wonders by introducing permaculture organic farming, converting the entire area into a chemicals-free zone.

Besides the famous Darjeeling tea, the crops grown in Mineral Springs are ginger, turmeric, cardamom and oranges. The tea is marketed by Tea Promoters of India (TPI). Enthused by high productivity and the clean environment of Mineral Springs, Prerna and TPI hosted the permaculture learning programme for naturalists from across the country.

The scientific principles of permaculture were first propounded by Bill Mollison after many years of experimentation. Since there was no system of natural agriculture laid down in any formal manner, Mollison made it his mission to research and propagate it. His manual is recommended reading for anyone even slightly interested in eco-friendly development and environmentally conducive farming. The Designer’s Manual is published by Tagari Publications, Australia, marketed by Permaculture Resources, USA.

To ascertain the great impact of permaculture upon societies, you could watch films on Curitiba (in Brazil) and Cuba and how they have benefited from permaculture and created sustainable human habitats. Permaculture is regenerative because it is concerned with increasing our ability to adapt if the external system changes. It teaches us to not just use, but also improve our ecologies by reinvesting surpluses. It also teaches us how to design our environments and habitats so that nature is in charge, and is allowed to do its job with minimal interference.

Permaculture is not just about different aspects of farming, it’s also connected with recycling of waste material on land, rainwater harvesting, utilising gray and black water, clean technology, building with natural material, deciphering different energy flows of land, and usage of animals to build sustainable habitats. The now popular roof gardens and vermin-composting are also an intrinsic part of permaculture.

During the course of the workshop in Aapbotay we learnt to make IMOs (indigenous micro organisms) through the simple use of old rice, bamboo, jaggery and water. We became acquainted with sheet mulching, harvested ginger and made a drain to flow into a mulch pit for the gray water of the kitchen feeding us. Other permaculture concepts like companion plants, rotating and inter-cropping, integrated pest management and the like were also explained.

The underlying philosophy of permaculture was also discussed and debated. Especially the concept of keeping money circulating within local communities rather than expending it on MNC products which drain communities. Sessions on ‘sale of yield’ and introduction of new systems of distribution to eliminate middlemen also aroused considerable enthusiasm.

In conclusion one can say that permaculture is a common-sense way of creating satisfying lifestyles based on natural and harmonious relationships between the earth, its flora and fauna, and homo sapiens. I have since returned to my farm in Alibaugh near Mumbai to discover that 5 percent of my rice crop has been eaten by crabs. But this time round, I’m not cribbing, knowing they are part of a delicate balance. Happily, I have learned it’s okay if animals eat a part of their rightful share!

(Kavita Mukhi is a Mumbai-based eco-nutritionist and director of Conscious Food)