Why is the Human Dimension Essential to Permaculture Projects?
Lamiaa Biaz, the founder of Captain Forest, met Zineb Benrhamoune Idrissi in 2020 to visit her permaculture farm in Rabat, Morocco. What struck her most in Zineb’s project was the importance of the human dimension. Permaculture is not about gardening or using sustainable methods but about building harmony between humans, society, and Nature.
In this exclusive interview with Captain Forest, Zineb explains why the human dimension is essential to any permaculture project.
Q: Can you tell us what got you into permaculture?
At first, I never really looked into permaculture; I didn’t even know the term. I was disappointed with how agriculture was practiced, and ecosystems were managed. These disappointments triggered something within me.
When I visited an agroecological project in the region of Montpellier and read Pierre Rabhi’s first book, “From the Sahara to the Cevennes”, it reconciled me with the agricultural world and reinforced my convictions.
This is how I started to look for a piece of land. I was animated by the will to re-establish a harmonious connection between the human and plant, and animal worlds.
Q: What was it, in particular, that disappointed you?
I occasionally participated in impact studies as a botany and forest ecology specialist. We produced many documents, but I noticed that little was put into practice in the field.
I also saw that in the agricultural world, there was, on the one hand, traditional agriculture, which was arduous work with minimal yield, and on the other hand, conventional agriculture, which maintained a form of arrogance where science and technology considered themselves above the living: use of pesticides, war on “weeds”, monoculture, mistreatment of animals, etc.
It was as if capitalism was also applied to Earth and Nature.
Q: How did you learn about permaculture?
I didn’t know any techniques except planting by hand or watering. Apart from botany and forest ecology, which allowed me to do landscape readings, my only skill was field anthropology (thanks to associative activities for a few years). Also, my sense of observation allowed me to analyze and work while imitating Nature. Finally, I have always been very close to humans, which is essential.
I had no technical knowledge; I only had a love and passion for Nature and human beings.
After a few years, I was invited to participate in permaculture training, and that’s when I realized that I was practicing it without knowing it.
Q: Tell us about how you started your project and how you trained along the way?
I had bought a sloping piece of land in a rural area. Usually, people prefer to farm on a flat piece of land. It was a real challenge, but I liked the slope because it allowed me to collect as much rainwater as possible.
From the beginning, the issues of trees and living soil were essential to me; my first action was to plant trees to recreate an ecosystem.
In 1998, there wasn’t any information on social media (Youtube, for example), nor were there developed studies and literature on permaculture. I learned over time through experiences and the magic of encounters.
In particular, I had the chance to meet Pierre Rahbi in person (may he rest in peace), thanks to the President of the association “Terre et Humanisme” Morocco, Fattouma Djerrari, who had suggested that I participate in the training of Moroccan facilitators in agroecology.
During these pieces of training with the “Terre et Humanisme” teams, I reinforced my practical knowledge of market gardening techniques and how to run a vegetable garden, even though I was myself a professor teaching landscape reading, ecology, the place of the tree, and the importance of living soil.
At the same time, I received as a gift Fukuoka‘s amazing book, “The One-Straw Revolution“, which relates the philosophy and principles of permaculture.
Accumulating knowledge is essential, but what counts in permaculture is experimenting.
Q: What do you mean by that?
I like Einstein’s sentence, “Knowledge is acquired through experience. Everything else is just information”.
I often meet people who can repeat word-by-word videos they have seen on permaculture without ever being in the field. Reading books and watching videos could be a first step, but learning is about experimenting in the field, day by day.
Q: Can you tell us about the social dimension of your project?
The human dimension is essential in any permaculture project. My experience was not easy because it was necessary to be patient, sometimes hard, for the process to evolve and for the project to succeed.
The first step was to find teammates. Very quickly, I recruited a young shepherd from the neighborhood, Mustafa Souaada, who later became my spiritual son, accompanying the project from the beginning until today.
This young man knew traditional agriculture techniques but needed to learn sustainable methods. Therefore, I trained him to use the permaculture approach while learning with him through practicing in the field.
In reality, creating a bond with the neighborhood took work. Everyone watched this “educated” woman, neither a farmer nor a city dweller, who practiced neither traditional nor conventional agriculture. Therefore, the second step was to “impose” myself in the neighborhood and show them results to become a source of inspiration.
Over time, I set up shared governance of a community project. This was a real challenge and a long process to implement because it was first necessary to get the representatives of vulnerable rural families to join the project individually.
They had to understand that the successes and failures of the project were shared. If the work goes well and the crops are bountiful, everyone benefits; everyone is responsible if there are losses.
This dimension of the social solidarity project was essential to communicate. Moreover, once the rural families understood this approach, our relationship and the project changed. Indeed, they took ownership of the project, which was the third step of my permaculture project.
Moreover, having been an activist in a women’s association, I have always insisted that men and women should receive the same salary. So, I have always ensured that wages are equal between men and women.
Q: How do you define permaculture?
Beyond being a part of agroecology, permaculture is an approach to life. The human dimension is fundamental: caring for the human and sharing the surplus.
The second important thing in permaculture is the observation of Nature to imitate it later. The notions of observation and experimentation in the field are essential. It is a question of adapting as much as possible to the eco-biology phenomena.
Finally, permaculture is defined primarily as the culture of sustainability. In this culture, there is an evolution because everything adapts permanently in space and time, and everything is a continuity from one state to another.
After several years, the system becomes almost self-sufficient. It can produce its own irrigation and natural fertilizers and manage all difficulties and diseases. It will only need some maintenance from the farmer.
Q: What advice would you give to people who are just starting?
Permaculture can be practiced everywhere, in the countryside and the city, because it is a philosophy of life where humans live in harmony with Nature.
Before starting a project in permaculture, I advise being formed obligatorily in design to consider the data of the environment, the available resources, and the people implied in the project. Also, each project must have an intention, depending on the manager’s capacities.
Q: How would you like to conclude this interview?
Usually, when people see a successful project, they don’t realize that it took many failures to get there. I have fallen and had to get up more than once to continue my journey.
It is also important to have a holistic approach and look for meaning in what we do and in our projects.
Moreover, we must take care of the Earth and humans to restore humanity.
Finally, we humans need to share this Earth with the animals and the plantation world, and we must do so with love and peace to receive the blessing and the baraka of the Divine.
What about you? Do you think the human dimension is essential to permaculture projects? Please comment and react.