How Permaculture Can Restore Ecosystems & Communities

Maddy Harland tells the story of the Shona African community who healed their damaged ecosystems. They restored their springs, rebuilt their soil, regenerated their agriculture and alleviated poverty and malnutrition. Permaculture farming has proven effective all over the planet.


In the rural Shona African community in Zimbabwe, five villages of 7,000 people have joined together to form the Chikukwa Project, named after their local chief. Twenty years ago their land was deforested, barren, and nothing would grow there in the summer months. When the rains came, they washed down the slopes taking the soil with them. The springs had dried up and the people were poor, hungry, and suffering from malnutrition.

The Shona decided to do something about it and sought advice from permaculture pioneer, John Wilson. Slowly, a field at a time, they built water retaining landscapes: terracing the slopes and digging swales to hold the water in the soil. They added composted manure to these terrace beds to build soil and grow food. They stopped grazing animals and foraging for firewood in the gullies where the springs rose and planted native trees there to hold the moisture in the soil. They also stopped untethered grazing of goats on the hillsides, allowing trees to regenerate, and they started driving their cattle to agreed grazing areas. They learnt new skills: specifically permaculture training, conflict resolution, women’s empowerment, primary education and HIV management.

Within three years, the springs began to reactivate. They saw that the yields from the plots with swales were bigger than the plots without them. Twenty years later, where there was once eroded soil and over-grazed slopes, there are now reforested gullies with flowing water, terraces full of vegetables, grains and fruit, and high ridges lined with trees for firewood. In the villages, there are home gardens, pens for hens and goats, water tanks to catch rainfall runoff, and a culture of cooperation that values people skills as much as horticultural techniques. The landscape is verdant and biodiverse, and the gardens and farms produce crops for the families and for market, bringing an economic yield back into the region. All this in one generation.

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