While searching for fruit trees in Portugal, the algorithms behind search engines delivered the TreeYo website to a new client of mine. He found the work I was doing interesting and contacted me not even knowing what permaculture was some months ago. His original interest was in fruit trees but the messages were tinted with bigger goals and plans. He sent me satellite images and professional topographic maps, descriptions and even self made videos, all which helped me to get to know the land in advance. We exchanged numerous emails and we worked out finally a time to meet at his land as he is currently living out of country.
That was in mid February 2015, in the warming spring air of Alentejo. The land is just outside of Ourique, a small agricultural region that boasts to be capital of the black pig. This pig is famous for its meat and is a vital link in the montado, which is the savanna like landscape of Iberia with the overstory of Cork and Holm Oak. Unfortunately due to many interlinking connections of social, environmental and economic reasons the montado is dying out. Furthermore, having worked at a similar size project last year in Alentejo only about 50 Kilometers away near Odmeira, I was quite happy to return and explore another region of this beautiful and often forgotten part of Western Europe.
The land was quite stunning upon my entry, 132 HA of rolling hills, very gentle in their nature with soft curves and ancient oak trees. Mainly they are the Holm Oak which is the best oak for feeding pigs and even humans with its large acorn and only slightly bitter taste. On this land they were spaced quite far but the large dams that had already been built were incredible sites to see how the contour of water snaked around the landscape. You could see moist valleys and beat up landscapes that simply screamed help! The help was obvious even before i arrived from this pictures and maps: integrated land regeneration techniques that follows the Permaculture Development model seen below:
The most obvious need was to take care of the water resource. With no running springs on the land, the size dams that were built were an obvious decision to the amount of water that was screaming down the valleys due to the poor land management done by the conventional farmer leasing the land as well as other past land use history. However starting further up the watershed with keyline and other regenerative earthworks was written all over this landscape during my extensive walks alone and with the client. Also the land was green but nowhere near the green it should be at this time of year which says how poor the soils have become, devoid of organic matter all but under the Oak trees. The green ring around the tree tells of the power of trees and their energy transactions. So the obvious pattern recognition is that the soils need a stimulation of their food web, mainly getting the fungus out there so the full food web could develop.
Of course biodiverse plantings would ensue but the client quickly understood that the building of the large valley dams near the bottoms of the watersheds was simply not enough to regenerate the land. Much more work was needed and the planting of trees should’t be rushed. It was a delightful dialogue with no struggle as he really did his research about things like Keyline once i mentioned it to him by email. Thus this planting part of the development model will be extensive but water, access, structures for now. He totally got it with his farming background from his youth, as he kept saying lets wait and set up more infrastructure and make a big push once the framework is in place.
He also mentioned the building of tourism and commune infrastructure on the site despite his older age. His focus was to bring a similar demographic in, those who want to retire early, are still sprite and want to bask in the southern European sun and garden and enjoy large lakes so they can stay active and healthy. These buildings would have to be of natural materials using integrated appropriate technology and a local municipality administrator reinforced this point saying how the governments were becoming more strict on this facet of development. We also met with a solar pump installer during my time there as we are looking for ways to move the valley dam water around the site as their volumes are quite astounding.
Another aspect that will have to be worked on is the relationship with the farmer who is leasing the land and has nearly 90 head of cattle on the properties (it’s actually a 132 HA and 133 HA project, split by a street and about a half a kilometer). They lands are ranched conventional and adhere not to pattern thinking thus the land continues to degrade as no beneficial animal system was created. Holistic management and its use of pattern recognition and its subsequent application is needed and the client understand this again from his agricultural background and his original intention many years ago to open a safari park. In the end we were joking that maybe it was bison that should be roaming this land, a blend of the past idea of a safari and the current use as a ranch.
Well its obvious that creative, not degenerative, human interaction must take place on this land to regenerate it. Its obvious that some of the oaks are dying or are dead, its obvious the life blood of the land, water, is simply gushing from its veins, and its simple that the land doesn’t breathe as its compaction from machines and poor management of cattle is unrelenting. Combining ecological design with creative human interaction, well the land is sure to bounce back, for pastures to be green longer, for feed costs to go down, for biodiversity to flourish, for water to infiltrate, for microbes to return, for nutrient cycling to bring resilience to the plants and animals. It’s a simple pattern at the end of the day and i am quite excited to take next steps on land regeneration- well lets keyline it and get some compost tea and a cover crop out. But first the ecological design must make a plan. Without a plan, there is no commitment, hence no accountability.