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Permaculture in Malawi: using food forests to prevent floods and hunger

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Pierre Moorsom in Mangochi/ The Guardian

As January’s floods showed, Malawi’s climate is challenging. We have seven to eight months without rain, followed by torrential downpours pounding our parched landscapes. Climate change may make things worse, but the pursuit of charcoal and firewood, and the wholesale destruction of indigenous forests in favour of maize, has left the country vulnerable.

Forests regulate water flow and protect topsoil. Restore the forests and you will go a long way to preventing flooding. Design the forests along holistic permaculture principles and you will achieve much more: water harvesting, fuel wood, high-quality timber, indigenous forest restoration and highly diverse food production. In a country where almost half the children under five are malnourished and chronic hunger is common, any holistic solution must consider food sovereignty.

One solution is forest gardening, an approach to food production based on the fact that forests are resilient and highly productive systems that has existed for thousands of years. Natural forests do not need pesticides or chemicals to ensure their yields, but rather exist in a constant flow of production and recycling. Permaculture has adopted this concept to create “food forests”, systems designed along the same principles as natural forests but with more of a focus on multipurpose plants and animals of direct benefit to humans.

A natural forest consists of roughly seven layers: the rhizosphere, ground covers, herbaceous layer, shrub layer, climbers, lower canopy and climax layer. While the species in a natural forest might not be of direct use to humans, in a food forest they are.

As January’s floods showed, Malawi’s climate is challenging. We have seven to eight months without rain, followed by torrential downpours pounding our parched landscapes. Climate change may make things worse, but the pursuit of charcoal and firewood, and the wholesale destruction of indigenous forests in favour of maize, has left the country vulnerable.

Forests regulate water flow and protect topsoil. Restore the forests and you will go a long way to preventing flooding. Design the forests along holistic permaculture principles and you will achieve much more: water harvesting, fuel wood, high-quality timber, indigenous forest restoration and highly diverse food production. In a country where almost half the children under five are malnourished and chronic hunger is common, any holistic solution must consider food sovereignty.

One solution is forest gardening, an approach to food production based on the fact that forests are resilient and highly productive systems that has existed for thousands of years. Natural forests do not need pesticides or chemicals to ensure their yields, but rather exist in a constant flow of production and recycling. Permaculture has adopted this concept to create “food forests”, systems designed along the same principles as natural forests but with more of a focus on multipurpose plants and animals of direct benefit to humans.

A natural forest consists of roughly seven layers: the rhizosphere, ground covers, herbaceous layer, shrub layer, climbers, lower canopy and climax layer. While the species in a natural forest might not be of direct use to humans, in a food forest they are.

Imagine a dense forest of mango trees, acacias, citrus trees, coconut palms, guavas, moringas, towering tamarinds and mahoganies. Climbing up many of these trees are passion fruit, air potato, loofa and shushu. Pigeon pea, cassava, the purple flowering tephrosia, hibiscus, amaranth and the big yellow flowers of cassia alata, occupy the shrub and herbaceous layers. Turmeric, arrow root and ginger grow in abundance. Aloe vera grows here and there and cow pea, sweet potato and watermelon crawl along the forest floor or edge. The ground is strewn with a thick layer of decomposing leaves which serve to build rich, healthy soils and maintain the link with microorganisms. A mass of flowering species create excellent environments for bees and other beneficial insects. The system is self-replicating, has great commercial value and is highly beneficial to the health of all creatures that interact with it.

Such forests can flourish in Malawi, and I believe it is our duty to provide these beautiful and plentiful systems for future generations. Indeed there are a number of successful examples of similar systems here already. Lukwe in Livingstonia is one of the best examples of well-established passive water harvesting systems in Malawi. Further examples include our work in Kasankha and Chowe villages in Mangochi district, permaculture demonstrations at Kusamala Institute of Agriculturre and Ecology in the Lilongwe area and Never Ending Food, a permaculture home and food forest in Chitedze.

We founded the African Moringa and Permaculture Project (AMPP) in 2012. We work with communities in Mangochi district, southern Malawi to create resilient and diverse food systems using permaculture to help rural Malawians overcome hunger, malnutrition and poverty. This year our focus has chiefly been on creating food forests on land owned by motivated community members in and around several villages.

Within these systems one of our dominant species is Moringa, a highly nutritious, fast growing and hardy tree, particularly useful for avoiding malnutrition. This year we will be branching out into household rabbit and poultry farming, while developing other income generating activities; primarily irrigated commercial fruit and vegetable production, as well as agro-forestry systems in village maize fields.

The diversity and quasi-natural quality of food forests guarantees the good health of those dependent upon them; eat a wide variety of fresh forest produce all year and you are unlikely to suffer from malnutrition. If we create such systems throughout Malawi with the people who need them most, we will go a long way towards eradicating malnutrition and food sovereignty issues while reducing flooding and providing many other benefits.

So why, if permaculture designed food forests are so fantastic, and the concept of forest gardening has been around for millennia, have they not been adopted by the mainstream?

Permaculture is not primarily a money-making venture and does not appeal to any self-serving agenda. It is based on ethics of sharing, caring for one another and cherishing our environment. These are excellent values to form the basis of any society but have often led to permaculture being dismissed as a marginal hippy movement, rather than a serious approach to development.

A further challenge is that of changing the mindset of the general population. Inappropriate land management practices, leading to environmental degradation, are deeply ingrained in the way people behave and changing this behaviour represents a serious obstacle.

As does a culture of donor dependency; 40% of the national budget is foreign aid. Such an environment can create a culture of disinterest unless monetary handouts are involved. Yet there are signs that positive change is afoot.

For one thing, there are many Malawians who respond with genuine enthusiasm to what permaculture has to offer, not only for designing food systems but in terms of ethics and principles of human behaviour. I have the privilege of working closely with several outstanding such individuals and believe that such people should be given all possible support if permaculture is to succeed; they are the future leaders of the movement.

If we are to fully support these exceptional individuals then more unity is needed in our efforts. Permaculture designers and organisations are often scattered, doing great work with limited means in our own areas but not working together as a unified force. The scope for permaculture advocacy in Malawi is growing fast. When the development sector and the Malawi government reaches out to the permaculture community, it must be met by a coherent and pragmatic force for change.

A clear-cut government mandate to scale up the work of permaculture designers to create food forests and water-harvesting systems, particularly in the highlands, would radically change the face of this country. As well as fixing so many problems, it would make Malawi a cutting-edge African nation, embracing genuinely sustainable solutions that are both innovative and traditional.

Pierre Moorsom is the director of the African Moringa and Permaculture Project. Follow @African_Moringa on Twitter.

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