Al Rawiya

Being a Part of the Solution, One Garden at a Time: An Interview with SOILS Permaculture Association Lebanon

Foreword 

Harmonizing the interaction between humans, nature, and food systems is the very mission of SOILS Permaculture Association Lebanon. For the past seven years, SOILS has been working on introducing permaculture in Lebanon, organising workshops and apprenticeships in permaculture and other related topics such as beekeeping, as well as preparing informational material. In this article, Rita Khawand (one of the co-founders) shares with us the work that the association does, the importance and benefits of permaculture, the major challenges SOILS has been facing in Lebanon, and how the Lebanese diaspora can help SOILS in their efforts. A glossary has also been added at the end of the article for reference.




Before (left) and after (right) pictures of Qanayeh, Saida, transformed by SOILS in collaboration with Nohye El Ard.
(Source: Nohye El Ard)

 

Q: “Can you please tell us more about SOILS Permaculture Association Lebanon and how it started?”

A: “SOILS Permaculture Association was founded in January 2014 by a group of friends from different backgrounds who wanted to do something to help reverse the environmental degradation in Lebanon. Following the winning of a start-up fund within the framework of nabad, a social entrepreneurship competition, SOILS was created and registered as an NGO, with its headquarters in the small village of Saidoun in the south of Lebanon.

Our main work is focused around training. We conduct training sessions on different topics related to ecological stewardship of the land such as permaculture1, agroecology1, composting2, and beekeeping for different groups like farmers, agricultural engineers, and refugees. We also publish educational material in Arabic related to these areas.

In 2016, we started designing and setting up productive vegetable and aromatic gardens3, with the aim of regenerating abandoned or degraded rural or urban plots, and improving access to healthy food. This is proving to be particularly important especially given the dire socio-economic crisis in Lebanon.”

A SOILS beekeeping workshop in action.
(Source:
SOILS Permaculture Association, Lebanon)

 

Q: “What is permaculture and why is it an important practice? What problems does it solve? How does it benefit local communities and the environment in the short and long term?”

A: “Permaculture is an ecological design system, modeled very closely on natural ecosystems. It helps people design their land and communities to meet their needs of food and shelter, while relying on local and low energy resources without producing waste or producing only minimal waste if absolutely necessary and working in harmony with the climate and all living creatures. Permaculture aims to create edible ecosystems by forming beneficial relationships within a system.

An abundance of edible goodness ready to be harvested from Nohye El Ard community garden, co-designed by SOILS. Qanayeh, Saida.
(Source:
Nohye El Ard)

 

Although the term was coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia in the 1970s, permaculture includes many ideas that are not unique to it; some are traditional farming practices whereas others involve modern science. 

Its importance lies in its set of ethics: People care, Earth care, Fair share. Having the people’s needs at the heart of the design ensures that they feel personally engaged in a project which will motivate them to better take care of the land. 

A major benefit of permaculture is that it helps people be part of the solution by asking themselves “what can I do?”. Thus encouraging self-sufficiency and contributing to the creation of a more sustainable life with an improved ability to cope with challenging situations and crises e.g. financial difficulties, water or energy shortages, natural disasters, social unrest, etc. Below are some applications of permaculture in daily life:

  • At home
  • Trying to be more energy-efficient by reducing energy waste e.g. turning off lights when the room isn’t being used, relying on the sun to dry our clothes instead of using the dryer, and using energy efficient appliances.
  • Capturing and storing nature’s energy, e.g. using passive solar energy to heat the house or water, harvesting rainwater
  • Using local upcycled or natural construction material. 
  • In the garden 
  • Growing food and natural remedies as close to home as possible using local resources.
  • Using the output of a system as input for another system e.g. vegetable scraps can be fed to chickens, chicken manure can be used to make compost, compost can be used as a fertilizer to grow vegetables.
  • Making good use of microclimates4 e.g. growing sun-loving aromatic plants (oregano, rosemary, lavender) on a south facing wall or making use of a shady spot under a tree or behind a northern wall to grow leafy greens (lettuce, chard, spinach). Their wide leaves can collect a lot of light and the shade helps them not to bolt5 early
  • In our consumer habits 
  • Spending less, especially on things we don’t need.
  • Making more, buying less, exchanging second hand items
  • Spending more responsibly e.g. buying locally as much as possible, encouraging small local businesses, cooperatives and environment friendly and fairtrade products, and checking food labels for ingredients that contribute to deforestation such as palm oil.
  • In our community
  • Building lasting ties and relationships by sharing resources and skills.
  • Creating direct links between farmers and consumers e.g. via farmers markets or produce box schemes.

 

Trainees sowing their newly formed no-dig garden beds in one of Noyhe El Ard community gardens, designed by SOILS in Qanayeh, Saida
(Source:
Nohye El Ard)

 

Q: “What types of crops do you plant? Where can your produce and other products be found?” 

A: “We set up a 2,000m2 aromatic garden in Saidoun, as part of our AFIR (Arabic for “beehive”) Beekeeping and Nature Discovery Center. We grow lavender, rosemary, and oregano (zaatar), which we then distill or dry. Some of the essential oil6 is sold as is and the rest of it is used to make natural soap. The aim of these products is to create income-generating opportunities for villagers from activities that are bee-friendly. We wanted to launch our first line of products in October 2019 in a farmers’ market, but the market got postponed and then there was a series of lockdowns so we ended up selling the products through AFIR’s Facebook page or via direct orders.”

 

SOILS’ AFIR aromatic garden in Qanayeh, Saida
(Source:
SOILS Permaculture Association Lebanon)

 

Q: “Which areas do SOILS operate in and why? Do you plan on starting projects elsewhere in Lebanon?”

A: “We have conducted projects in different Lebanese regions such as Bekaa, the South (including Nabatiyeh), the North, and Beirut. However, we are currently focusing our efforts in the South because it’s where most of our team are based. This makes it easier to develop long-term relationships and partnerships there and build on results of successful projects. We are still open to collaborations in other regions provided there is a local partner who can help by linking us to the community.” 

Q: “Can you please tell us more about the workshops you give?” 

A: “Since 2014 we have conducted a wide range of workshops related to sustainable land management and waste sorting at source. These workshops range from two-hour hands-on sessions to one-year apprenticeships. Below are some examples the sessions we’ve conducted:

  • Permaculture design 
  • Introduction to beekeeping
  • One-year beekeeping apprenticeships
  • Training of trainers on hot composting
  • Micro-gardening7 in refugee camps
  • Agroecology with a focus on vegetable gardening
  • Sustainable orchard management”

 

All smiles from participants who completed the Permaculture Design Course
(Source:
SOILS Permaculture Association Lebanon)

 

Q: “Who is most interested in learning this practice? And how do you get local communities involved?”

A: “There is a rising interest in agroecology and permaculture from people of different backgrounds, such as young or middle-aged individuals who’d like to take care of their family’s land, or city dwellers who want to reconnect with nature and learn how to grow part of their food right where they live. 

In order to get the communities involved, we collaborate with local partners and initiatives or reach out through our personal and professional networks. For example, last fall we were invited by the Nohye El Ard initiative  Saida to design a community garden and train a group of locals on growing vegetables. Once the garden was set up and turned into a lush spot in the middle of the city, it started attracting the attention of passers-by thanks to its central location. Consequently more people became interested in taking part in the project and so a second group was given a part of the plot to take care of. The project kept growing to the point that a nursery and a farmers’ market were added. The market makes the garden more accessible to a wider audience, helps raise awareness, and creates a community that can lobby towards the reappropriation of agricultural land in cities.” 

The first harvest from a community garden set up by Nohye El Ard in collaboration with SOILS being sold on-site in Saida.
(Source: Nohye El Ard)

Q: “What are the major hurdles that you have faced since you started SOILS?”

A: “The first challenge was building the skills of our own team while organizing training for others, as each of the SOILS co-founders have different educational backgrounds.

When our team started to expand and become more experienced, we started receiving requests for collaborations far more than we could handle since we were (and still are) a grassroots NGO with no paid employees (administrative work is done on volunteer basis and our technical team are hired on project basis whenever there is funding). We were thus faced with the dilemma of whether we should take SOILS to the next level or leave it as grassroots and allow space for the team to take on personal projects as well. Maybe we still don’t have the ability to reach a large number of people like other NGOs, but choosing to remain grassroots allows for lower running costs and more flexibility. We’ve also been able to remain functional under difficult circumstances because of it.” 

Training on how to prepare deep garden beds full of organic matter.  

(Source: SOILS Permaculture Association Lebanon)

Q: “Do these projects receive any support from government bodies?”

A: “We don’t receive any kind of support from government bodies. The only collaborations we had were during a pilot project (waste sorting at source) where we worked with the Union of Jezzine Municipalities and the Ministry of Agriculture which re-printed one of our sustainable agriculture manuals.” 

Q: “What challenges and roadblocks are SOILS currently facing?”

A: “As is the case with other NGOs and environmental groups active in Lebanon, we have to work in an exceptionally tough environment and retain a high level of agility and flexibility. This involves trying to continuously adjust our projects in response to the daily changes and challenges such as lockdowns, fuel shortages, issues with banks, bookkeeping in dual currencies, fluctuating exchange rates, etc., which is incredibly exhausting. 

In terms of our own team, some are planning to go abroad to pursue education or a better future for their families. This will entail coming up with a new management strategy to keep SOILS viable and functional. It also means that it’s crucial to train new trainers and designers. This is proving to be a difficult task in times when Lebanese people don’t have the patience, perseverance, or luxury to learn advanced skills.”

Q: “What are SOILS’ main achievements to date?”

A: “We have trained around 500 people in agroecology1, permaculture1, composting2, and beekeeping. We have also designed 3 community gardens in urban areas and 1 learning garden for people with special needs. Moreover, we have published different educational materials in Arabic related to sustainable farming which are available to download from our website.”  

Q: “What message would you like to send to the Lebanese diaspora and how can they and the international community get involved and help?” 

A: “The Lebanese diaspora can get involved by joining efforts to help develop technical solutions to some of the problems that farmers are facing. They can also support emerging solutions such as the setting up of hot composting units in different areas to provide good quality local fertilizers. As far as donations go, we don’t accept them unless there is a specific project we need funds for. So if any expats want to support financially, get in touch with us and we can discuss areas of interest. Following that, we would then set up a specific initiative and can open the door for donations. Finally, they can support the export of ethical and sustainable agricultural products from Lebanon and help local farmers get their products certified e.g. Fairtrade.”

Learning all about hot composting in a workshop run by SOILS in Saida.
(Source: Nohye El Ard)

Glossary

1. Ecology, agroecology, and permaculture 

Ecology is a multidisciplinary field of research that studies organisms and their interactions with their environment e.g. other living organisms or non-living environmental factors such as temperature, soil, and water. More information can be found here

Agroecology uses ecological principles to conceptualize, design, and manage food systems for a more sustainable production. “Agroecology: Ecological Processes in Sustainable Agriculture” by Stephen R. Gliessman (1998) provides a comprehensive background on what agroecology is and how it can be applied to have more sustainable and ecological production systems. 

Permaculture “(the word, coined by Bill Mollison, is a portmanteau of permanent agriculture and permanent culture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people — providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. Without permanent agriculture there is no possibility of a stable social order.”  as defined by Permaculture News

2. Composting

Composting is “the act of collecting and storing plant material so it can decay and be added to soil to improve its quality”. Hot composting is a type of accelerated composting which produces heat that helps kill diseases and weed seeds. 

3. Aromatic gardens

Aromatic gardens are gardens with pleasant smelling plants which are usually medicinal.

4. Microclimates

Microclimates refer to environmental conditions such as sun, wind, soil properties, slope, etc. that are different from those in adjacent zones, oftentimes over small areas. Microclimates create very specific conditions where only certain plants can thrive. 

5. Bolting

Bolting is when plants (especially vegetables) “grow too quickly and start producing seeds and so become less good to eat.

6. Essential oils

Essential oils are extremely concentrated substances extracted from a specific plant species. They contain aromatic compounds, but do not always have a pleasant smell. They have a variety of uses such as soaps, aiding in the biological control of pests etc. 

7. Micro-gardens (mini-gardens) are small gardens located in any adaptable space (e.g., gardens, backyards, patios, balconies, etc) to grow vegetables. A guide to micro-gardens in refugee camps was jointly published by SOILS and Mercy Corps in Arabic is available on the following link. The concepts described here can be applied to adapt to any micro-garden.

Rita Khawand
Website | + posts

Rita Khawand is the co-founder of SOILS Permaculture Association Lebanon. A little under a decade ago, following a career in the cultural sector as a performer, project coordinator, and fundraising officer in Lebanon and Europe, Rita embarked on a personal and professional journey and transitioned to a lifestyle grounded in permaculture (permanent culture/agriculture). Since then, she’s been working closely with municipalities, organizations, and individuals to raise awareness of sustainability issues and promote best practices.

Rita studied with the late Patrick Whitefield (UK) and Daniel Halsey (US). In 2014, she partnered with like-minded friends to establish SOILS in her native village of Saidoun in South Lebanon and has managed the organization ever since, promoting viable local solutions to global problems linked to development in rural areas, ecosystem conservation, and sustainable agriculture. That same year, she put together and started running the first internationally-recognized Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course in Lebanon. In addition, she has led several projects across the country aimed at empowering vulnerable communities, including refugees, through building capacities in sustainable agricultural practices. Khawand has also facilitated numerous workshops and training in agroecology, waste sorting, beekeeping, and composting. In parallel, she has collaborated on different permaculture design projects in Lebanon, building a team of professionals with a proven track record. She is now managing all aspects of the AFIR Beekeeping and Nature Discovery Center, a comprehensive initiative involving sustainable agriculture, income generation, and eco-conservation.

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