In December 2018, Green Shoots Foundation (Green Shoots), a UK registered charity, established a training centre for horticulture and rural development on a 0.56 Ha (1.2 acre) piece of land provided by the Provincial Government of an isolated province in the NW of Cambodia.
This project has been in the pipeline for 18 months in partnership with Cambodian grassroots organisation, Community-based Integrated Development (CIDO) and Green Shoots leveraged the support of collective SAWA along with architect firm Squire & Partners for the construction.
CIDO and Green Shoots have been working in this area with local schools on horticulture projects since 2013. They had already established 42 school vegetable gardens and trained teachers to run school curriculums around those spaces. Now, having their own establishment provides opportunities to be creative and experimental. With CIDO, they can push the boundaries of the techniques employed and subsequent examples set within the community. For them, it is the perfect setting to demonstrate permaculture.
Green Shoots primary aims with this project are to introduce practical skills, and be living examples of resourcefulness and employing a closed loop as taught by permaculture.
We can achieve this by having earthcare, peoplecare and fairshare at the core of the project. That is, by running a demonstration site for the community and organising workshops and training courses that can enable individuals to earn a living whilst working in harmony with the natural environment.
We have always appreciated the fact that the society we work with has nature (as an aesthetic and as utilitarian) at the forefront. Cambodia is a predominantly agrarian society, 80% of the population lives in rural areas and is engaged in agricultural activities. However, 70% of Cambodians are under 35 and the lure of urban areas and border crossings is guaranteeing a steady outflux of people - many who return with cash but little skills and futures to cushion them. Most youth are disheartened by agriculture as a profession, viewing it as 'old fashioned', labour intensive and simply uncool - all resulting in a dwindling rural economy.
To approach this challenge, we saw our task was to entwine 'permaculture thinking' and 'top up learning' with new concepts and techniques.
Green Shoots worked closely with Edward Dale-Harris from SAWA, who has recently acquired a Permaculture Design Course from Thailand and, together, this 1.2-acre site became our canvas to paint, plot and populate. In June 2019 we won Collaboration of the Year Award for this project at the Architecture Journal awards ceremony.
To achieve our aims we have to repackage agriculture as an attractive livelihood option for young people and enable them to strengthen their rural economy.
The first way to 'repackage' is to include low cost, affordable tech within the space. Our bottom line for decision-making was always “is it replicable? How much will it cost? What are the benefits?” Ultimately we want to set examples that can be emulated by the community.
Secondly, we have also begun to conduct youth workshops, make outreach visits in neighbouring villages and organise open-days for interested people to visit the Centre. Prior to construction, numerous community consultations were conducted with local government, village residents and lastly, the youth. The purpose was to introduce the project but also get their feedback on design and use. This included techniques such as earth block making, bamboo and timber treatment and also model-making. Curently, around two school groups and 10 farmers are attending the AgriTech centre for learning.
For our growing spaces, we have sectioned off four plots: A home garden, a mini-intensive farm, a conservation agriculture plot and a permaculture garden. To close the loop we have installed a biogas system, which allows us to process toilet waste, prepare compost and (in the future) use the gas to conduct cooking and nutrition demos.
The USD 100 home garden: this plot emulates a typical home garden, mixing flower beds with easy to grow vegetables and ones that tend to have a shorter shelf-life. For reasons of demonstration, we call it the USD 100 (GBP 75) home garden, aiming to showcase what can be achieved with this amount of funds available and how quickly they can be recovered. A typical harvest includes: water spinach, cabbage, lettuce, leeks, bitter gourds and herbs used in day-to-day cooking and we use this for gatherings at the centre.
The conservation agriculture plot and intensive farm: both employ the same techniques of drip irrigation; rice straw mulch and raised beds. However, in the conservation agriculture plot we employ a no-dig policy, to preserve soil fertility and showcase a less labour intensive practice. These plots will be fitted with a drip-irrigation system and we can compare them to showcase the positive attributes of a no-till approach. The first harvest will include: sweet potato, long bean and salads with a live barrier of lemongrass. Harvest from this garden is being sold in the market.
The permaculture garden: We wanted the permaculture space to convey a message, fit a purpose. Forest gardening, a permaculture technique, would be suitable given the high rates of deforestation in Cambodia (7% of forest cover has been lost in the last decade).
As an educational tool, this small patch aims to pack a punch - we will have plenty of traditional 'lost' foods along with an element of 'forest management'. A large proportion of rural populations rely on non-timber forest products (NTFP), however there is rarely any indication of balanced management of these spaces. A very important step in establishing this space would be to involve our students and neighbours in sharing their day-to-day diets and analyse what the forgotten foods are. The space can also convey thrifty foraging skills in Cambodia.
There is a wealth of rural bush knowledge around foraging for berries, roots, sour bitter flavoured leaves and other tubers. Most of this knowledge is retained within community elders and through the forest garden it can be passed to the next generation and also visitors from the world over.
Green Shoots Foundation was one of the 20 finalists for the 2019 Permaculture Magazine Prize.
Prize finalist: Bioremediation and regeneration in Oil-damaged Ecuador