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Greening the Desert - 10 acres of hyper arid, salty dirt restored to productivity

Ten acres of hyper arid, completely flat, salted landscape 400m below sea level, over grazed by goats, hardly any rainfall and temperatures in summer that go over 50ºc.

That's about as hard as it gets.

I had heard about Permaculture before, and may even have a read a bit about it, but when I saw this a lot changed for me, and (though I didn't know it at the time) the course of my life would be changed forever.

By this point I had been wrestling with questions around whether "sustainability", especially around the production of food (which is of course a pre-condition for life) was even
possible. I had read and heard about a lot of technologies and approaches to life, living, building, energy and agriculture that were 'less bad' than the dominant ways - but hadn't been entirely convinced that we had a way out of the problems we had gotten ourselves into.

When I saw 'Greening the Desert' I led me to discovering that we not only had the knowledge of grow food sustainably, but that we could regenerate even the harshest, most degraded landscapes on earth - restoring them to productivity and abundance. This was game-changing in my view.

Geoff Lawton (with the help of renowned soil ecologist & microbiologist Dr Elaine Ingham), achieved something here that proves an important point, and shows what's possible. Aside form anything else, that has tremendous value - because once you realise what's possible, you can find ways to repeat it.

I think this video is a 'must-see' for anyone who wonders how the hell we're going to turn things around, and if transitioning our agricultural and land use systems to something that doesn't cost the earth is even possible.

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Here's a description of how this was achieved:

In 2000, Geoff Lawton was invited to Jordan by NICCOD, a Japanese NGO and the Hashemite Fund for Human Development.

On a ten acre site in the Jordan River valley, 10 km from the Dead Sea, he led a project to establish a demonstration site for sustainable design. Rainfall at the site comes in 2 or 3 large events and amounts to only 100 to 150 mm per year. Regular hot, desiccating winds contribute to severe evaporation on the site. The soil is very infertile with little organic matter and extremely high salinity. Soil to a depth of 30 cm was found to have 98.1 dS/m, and soil from 30 to 60 cm deep registered 101.7 dS/m, making it extremely salty. [A dS/m, or decisiemens per metre, is a measure of electrical conductivity which can be used to measure soil salinity. The United States Department of Agriculture considers soil over 4 dS/m to be “saline soil.” The soils at the Kafrin site are above this level by more than an order of magnitude!]

To capture every drop of rainfall possible, the site was surveyed to provide a detailed map of the site contours. Once the contour lines were identified, swales were planned for the site to capture as much of the runoff rain to allow it to sink into the ground where it is most easily stored for the benefit of soil life and vegetation. Nitrogen-fixing trees were planted and drip irrigation was used to help establish them, although the site used 1/5th the irrigation of the surrounding farms in the area.


Eighteen months later, the site looked like this.

Jordan 2

Geoff’s wife Nadia Lawton used similar permaculture techniques to design her family’s garden in Jordan. At the start, the site was very dry. They dug in a swale to capture rainwater and shunted greywater from the sinks into the swale. Before the trees were planted, the site looked like this.


The next year, the site was unrecognisable.

Nadia 2

[Description sourced from Douglas Barnes' post