Land Restoration – a New Story for the Earth

Maddy Harland
Sunday, 29th May 2011

Maddy & Tim Harland met permaculture farmer, Sepp Holzer, earlier this year and saw with their own eyes an amazing lake building project that is reversing desertification on the Iberian Peninsula, Portugal.

I awake in the deep velvety dark of the night and write this editorial. Everything is changing. My psyche feels an unravelling, a flexing of the new. It was predicted years ago, not always in apocalyptic terms because change opens to the possibilities of undreamt opportunity. I won't catalogue the recent societal and global changes – I am sure you know – but I sense that we humans are becoming ever more aware of how interconnected we really are, to both the human and planetary systems. As we force the envelope of our current modus operandi on this earth, we are experiencing greater and greater feedback. This makes us feel vulnerable, as though we are part of an endgame we do not control. There is another narrative, however, that does not deny the reality of unfolding world events, yet it does challenge the assumption that we are powerless to effect positive change.

I recently visited a project that opened my eyes to how radically effective earth restoration projects can be. This was not a big UN or inter-governmental programme, but one run by a small ecovillage community with the help of a relentlessly confident and visionary man, Sepp Holzer. I had heard he was building lakes in the arid Iberian Peninsula in Portugal. I imagined that they would be reasonably impressive after the winter rains. I had even watched a webcam of the first lake filling up last year. I had no concept of the scale of the restoration work, however. Sepp and the Tamera community have literally dammed a valley and stopped the rain and topsoil rushing down the valley and into the sea.

Ever decreasing yields in this depopulated, rural region have driven poor farmers to try and extract more from the land than it is capable of bearing. Sheep are stocked at such density that the pasture is destroyed. Nature responds to the overgrazing by growing a 'scab', the inedible rock rose, Cistus spp, often the first pioneer after wildfire. 90% of the remnant cork oak forests are dying due to soil compaction that destroys soil mycorrhiza. The rest are being felled as cork falls out of favour, replaced by eucalyptus, hungry exotics in a brittle landscape. With the oaks dies a unique, biodiverse habitat and the Iberian lynx and Bonelli's eagle are threatened with extinction.

Sepp and the Tamerans have reversed this process in their valley. They stopped the overgrazing and ploughing, focusing the community's food production on fruit and vegetables. There are raised beds everywhere full of annual and perennial veg. Fruit and nut trees line the banks of the lakes. The winterbourne stream is dammed and there is an interconnected system of lakes that flow into each other as the slope falls down the valley. It is almost unbelievable that in such an arid landscape, so much water can be collected. This is living water too, with rippling surfaces, filled with frogs and fish, to keep the balance between mosquitoes and humans healthy. Sepp cups his hands and tells us, "God gives us enough water. All we have to do is find a way of holding it in the landscape."

What has been achieved in just three years is astonishing. Early morning mists arise out of the lakes and leave their dew on the surrounding plants. Swallows swoop and drink. Otters have returned. New springs rise in the surrounding hillsides. The younger oaks are seeding and growing. Even a Bonelli's eagle has visited. Perhaps it will return this year with a mate. The whole landscape is being reaquified. My heart opens in the knowledge that we can restore the earth.

This story must be a part of our new narrative.


Sepp Holzer's Permaculture is now available in English in print and as an eBook