Greening the Desert
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Thanks to Jeffery Newman.
GREENING THE DESERT
November 15, 2002
They laughed at him and said it couldn't be done. Nothing could be grown in
that salt laden dustbowl. But Geoff and Sindhu Lawton had other ideas. They
travel the world teaching others how to repair trashed environments that are
beyond hope of becoming productive.
In this story, Geoff talks about re-greening the deserts of Jordan. By
applying the principles of permaculture, they managed to salvage a heavily
salted environment and turn it into a green oasis.
Geoff and Sindhu live and teach at their farm near The Channon, a small
community not far from Lismore. Geoff boasts that despite not having a
police station or church, The Channon has some of the most tolerant and
friendly people in Australia.
So we went in and had a look and we thought "Oh, no!" This is the end of the
earth. This is like as hard as you can get. This is hyper arid. Completely
salted landscape. Four hundred metres below sea level -- lowest place on
Earth. Two kilometres from the Dead Sea. About two kilometres from where
Jesus was christened. Hardly got any rainfall. We've got temperatures in
August that go over 50 degrees. Everybody is farming under plastic strips --
spray, spray spray! Everybody's putting synthetic fertiliser on. Overgrazed
with goats! Just like maggots eating the flesh off the bone, down to the
bones of the country. Literally like maggots -- giant maggots eating it to
So we designed up a system that would harvest every bit of rainwater that
fell on it.
On ten acres, there's one and a half kilometres of Swale -- water harvesting
ditch on contour. And when they're full, one million litres of water soak
into the landscape. And they'll fill quite a few times over a winter. And
then we heavily mulched those swales with organic matter which was trashed
from organic fields nearby. We put that almost half a metre deep. So we
saved that and mulched our swales which were about two metres wide and half
a metre deep on the trench. And then we put micro irrigation on the trench.
And on the uphill side of the water harvesting trench we put Nitro fixing,
very hardy desert trees which helped shade and reduce wind evaporation and
also put nitrogen into the soil. And structure the soil for us. And on the
lower side of the trench we put fruit trees. Majoring in date palms as the
long-term over-storey in the end. And then we put in Figs, Pomegranates,
Guavas, Mulberries and now some Citrus.
Within four months we had figs, a metre high with figs on, which is
impossible. We done a course, male and female course. Trained up some
locals. And we got a translator whose working for the project. He had his
degree in agriculture, in the Jordan University. And he got onto his mates
in the agriculture department, "Well," he said, "you (said we) couldn't grow
figs. We got figs growing. We got figs on 'em. You better come and test the
soil because no matter what you say, we're either growing in salty soil what
we shouldn't be growing or we've desalted the soil! And we'd like to know
what we've done?" They came in and the salt levels were dropping. So they
became interested. The salt levels were dropping around the Swales. They
said, "You've must have washed it through." See, normaly you put this huge
amount of water on 'em and wash the salt to the lower levels which just
makes the ground more and more salty. In the end, you'll salt it twenty
metres deep if you keep doing that. And then it'll take a thousand years to
recover. And we used only one fifth the amount of water. So the water they
thought we've washed it all through, no -- we used one fifth! That really
got 'em. When they realized how much water we hadn't used. With the same
amount of water normally used on that much area, we could have done 50
Originally people laughed at us because we didn't put straight lines in. We
went on contour with these swales. They thought, "Why don't you -- you got a
bulldozer, you can flatten the desert, you can straighten -- " We said, we
want to go on contour, because we got a longer edge and we can harvest the
water passively. And then we planted more non-fruiting trees than we did
fruit trees. So they laughed at us. (They said) "You're planting
unproductive things more than productive things. What the point? You know.
In soil that won't even grow anything. And then we covered all the inside of
the swale with huge amount of mulch where they scrape all their organic
matter off and burn it, like most traditional agriculture.
In the middle of winter we got a funny email saying "We've got a problem.
We've got mushrooms growing in the Swale. Well they call it fungus, but when
we saw a photograph of it, it was mushrooms because they'd never seen
mushrooms, because they never had so much humidity in living history in the
soil. And when you open up the mulch, there's all these little animals
there, you know those little insects and the soil has come alive. And the
fungi net that's underneath the mulch, is putting off a waxy substance,
which is repelling the salt away from the area. And the decomposition is
locking the salt up and the salt is not gone. It's become inert and
So we could re-green the Middle East. We could re-green any desert. And we
could desalt it at the same time. And if we can do it on an insignificant
little bit of flat ten acres of depth desert, if you give us something with
catchment, or a Wadi, or a canyon or any of those erosion gully's, we can
turn it right around. Completely.
You can fix all the world's problems, in a garden. You can solve them all in
a garden. You can solve all your pollution problems, and all your supply
line needs in a garden.
And most people today actually don't know that, and that makes most people
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