So in natural science, it is the composite thing, the thing as a whole which primarily concerns us, not just the materials of it, which are not found apart from the thing itself. —Aristotle

I heard about permaculture back in 2016 for the first time, during a lecture on Sustainable Rural Development and New Towns by Professor Ralf Otterpohl at my university. During my journey as an environmentalist, the more I learnt about the concept, the more it intrigued me.

The capacity of soil to function is crucial for human survival. The debate on soil health is gaining national and international attention due to the rising pressure to produce food, fibre and fuel to cater to an increasing global population. On the contrary, the health of soil in most ecosystems is deteriorating due to lack of nutrients, resilience to drought or rainfall, and the extreme impacts of climate change. There is a need to be more open to comprehensive knowledge of soil health that will be better for regenerative and sustainable management of soil – using holistic and flexible approaches.

It is interesting how we got to this point. In a search to restore an ecological rationale into farming, scientists and developers disregarded the development of a self-sufficient and sustainable agricultural system, requiring a deep understanding of how the natural agro-ecosystems and their principles operate.

The term permaculture, which means permanent agriculture and permanent culture, was coined by Bill Mollison, also referred to as the father of permaculture, an Australian researcher, author, scientist, teacher and biologist, in collaboration with David Holmgren, an Australian environmental designer and ecological educator. Permaculture is the design and maintenance of ecosystems that are agriculturally viable. These agricultural fields mimic the diversity, stability, and resilience of a natural ecosystem. Moreover, it incorporates the landscape with people providing food, energy and shelter in a sustainable manner.

The concept of permaculture is based on the philosophy of working with nature rather than against it. It is built on extensive and thoughtful observation, which provides long term benefits rather than thoughtless, short term actions that lead to short lived benefits. Most importantly, the key element here is to look at systems with all their functions and integrations, instead of just one single, separated aspect and pushing it to produce only one yield over and over again. This stifles agro-ecological systems, hindering their ability to develop and demonstrate their own progressions.

The ethical foundation of permaculture is set on three principals: care for the Earth, care for people, and setting limits on population and consumption. The application of these principles intertwines everything on the planet such as water, plants and animals into an intricate, but balanced landscape pattern to supply food, energy, and shelter while recycling waste. What’s so beautiful is that within this system, the output of one component is a resource for another.

Layers are one of the tools used to design functional ecosystems in permaculture. Since plants grow to various heights, a diverse life community is able to grow in a moderately small space. Generally, there are seven to eight recognized layers in a food forest. These layers can be stocked with income generating produce such as coffee or olives, beans, potatoes, edible tubers, pea shrubs, berries, bananas, etc. Many culinary and medicinal herbs are also commonly planted.

Permaculture is an attractive option for landowners because of its numerous benefits allowing the production of more crops with fewer resources and reduced cost. It also ensures there is less waste due to composting, while also promoting the use of natural fertilizers and mulch, so that natural predators function as pesticides. Moreover, it adds to community values, contributes to self-reliance, promotes green living, resulting in improving environmental conditions. Lastly, it can be applied to an already functioning system. Permaculture also helps properties withstand the effects of climate change.

Over time, permaculture has proven to be a successful method to create sustainable systems, largely because it is adaptable to every climate and cultural zone, and fulfils the needs of growing population. It has also been used successfully as a tool to help indigenous communities meet their agricultural needs. Hegnstrup, an organic vegetable farm in Denmark is using permaculture for its diversity in habitats and cropping systems. Similarly, Gule Reer, a permaculture project also in Denmark, is successfully running for more than a decade by a group of citizens. However, to date, a large number of practitioners are only likely to be inspired individuals. This leads to a definite lack of wide ranging permaculture projects, and the need for more trained professionals to take it forward.

In Pakistan, the concept of permaculture was introduced in 2011-2012. The biggest struggle so far has been to convince people and farmers to adopt the system. However, over the years, after continuous efforts, training and practical application on the field, albeit slowly, permaculture is spreading in South Asia as well as all over the world. Pakistan Permaculture Designs in Islamabad are implementing the concept in the country successfully.

Sumbal Tasawwar is an environmentalist, with a special interest in sustainability, ecology and agriculture.