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Permaculture Samoa

by Tamlyn Magee (Tamlyn is living and working in Samoa on a Permaculture education and demonstration project with local NGO, METI)

Ualesi and Tavita are satisfied to be using waste as a resource
– building the first earth-tyre construction in Samoa

Coconut trees are possibly the first thing you think of when you hear the words tropical island. Right? Well, there are good reasons for that. The coconut, along with taro, breadfruit, papaya and banana has always played a vital role in shaping the lifestyles and cultures of islanders, dutifully producing incredibly versatile, nutritious and prolific fruit, as well as many other important resources. Coconuts are rich in healthy fats, Vitamin C, iron and lauric acid, which is known for its antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal and immune boosting properties. Some species will produce a fruit yield in as little as 3 years from germination. Juice from the young coconut, nui, is one of the highest known sources of electrolytes and is officially reputed, at least by me, to be the most refreshing drink in the world. Samoans process their daily coconut milk at home (and almost every traditional meal contains coconut in some form), and there are local facilities for extracting oil (the healthiest oil you can eat) and making soaps and balms. The husks and shells are burnt for fuel and used for cooking. The shell is decorated in many ways and makes beautiful jewellery, as well as cups and bowls. The trunks of the trees can be used as supports in building, not to mention great trellis supports in the garden, and the fronds are weaved for multiple uses. You can use the sterile juice of the young coconut as an intravenous drip for goodness’ sake! For the tropical designer, the coconut is an invaluable element in any sustainable system.

Here you can see 5 of 12 plants
in a 5m diameter circle

In Samoa, for many generations, families have farmed coconuts for communal use and local sale on a relatively large scale. The model plantation is a few acres of trees planted 10-20m apart, usually in a semi-intentional polyculture and sometimes with cattle grazing underneath. But this month a new chapter in the story of the Samoan coconut began. The METI team took to the fields (2 acres of disturbed forest) and planted a brand new dwarf coconut plantation – in clumps. 12 plants to a clump, 9 clumps per acre – this gives us 108 trees/acre which is the same amount of trees in a bit over half the space of the grid-planting system. Of course you can imagine the difference at harvest time, with all the nuts falling in one place rather than being evenly dispersed across the whole field. Perhaps the biggest benefit is the clumping system’s capacity to accumulate mulch and self-fertilise, thereby automatically increasing production. Or maybe it is the fact that now the area can be effectively interplanted with other productive trees, since the coconuts are only taking up about 40% of the total area. Either way, the logic of this way of planting is hard to deny, and it is this type of simple achievement I am hoping will resonate with Samoan people to demonstrate the unending benefits of intelligent and ethical design.

Propagating bamboo, with the
fantastic chicken domes behind

I am currently working with Matuaileeo Environment Trust Inc. (METI), a local NGO, to put together the first Permaculture course ever delivered in Samoa. We aim to train 300 Samoan farmers and their families, from right across the country, within the next 2 years. The 3-week course incorporates one week of Life Skills Training, a program which teaches effective problem-solving and encourages critical thinking, self-reliance, creativity and integrity in individuals. The METI team have seen astounding results on a recent project delivering Life Skills courses across all of Samoa. Since the primary and secondary education system focuses mainly on rote learning and repeat-after-me style classes, training in creative thinking is key to the success of the Permaculture training. Most importantly, we aim to explain that Samoans already know inherently, or have access to all the knowledge they need about natural farming. It is already within themselves and within their communities and environment. Abundant, sustainably maintained systems are still common in rural Samoa – the challenge seems to be not exactly teaching about natural systems and farming, but encouraging the renewed appreciation of traditional methods and the informed rejection of unsustainable Western influences.

Vailele used to be a pig farm – now bamboo
flourishes ready to be given out to village
co-op members

The hardworking team at METI are in the process of developing a demonstration site, where the courses will be held with village groups staying onsite. Along with a 3-year old bamboo plantation of multiple valuable species, and a bamboo nursery, the Vailele plot features very well-designed bamboo ‘chicken domes’, existing pig pens (to be used periodically to collect manure for vermiculture) and many productive plants such as banana, papaya, pele (tree spinach), mango, nonu, taro, breadfruit, koko Samoa, pomouli (for fast, straight timber) and silky oak. There are extensive areas yet to be developed (with the help of hardworking pigs and chickens which we haven’t yet acquired) into food forests and vegie gardens. We are in the process of building an earth-tyre mushroom-growing shed, using free discarded car tyres pounded with sandy soil. The mushroom compost (usually a waste product) will become the main food source for our chickens.

An example of the diverse abundance
possible in the tropics. In this lightly
maintained food forest, just south of Apia,
I discovered an area of breadfruit and
pomouli, with banana, taro, cocoa,
pineapple, and ginger all flourishing
together in the understorey

There is a worrying prevalence of chemical agriculture and low eco-literacy in Samoa, as well as an increasing reliance on imported commodities. Our project recognises that Samoa is a country at a crossroads – its people seem still to have a choice: Do we want to develop sustainably and ethically, keeping the integrity of our communities and families intact, maintaining morality and spiritual awareness, and the abundance of natural resources, or would we prefer to strive towards the western model of affluence, following the disempowering path of illusionary wealth and consumerism, inevitably poisoning our land and culture? A real opportunity to make this choice is what aid organisations, as well as local government and NGOs, should be aiming to provide.

While consumerism has begun to cast somewhat of a pall on the capital, Apia, it is no match for the tropical sun which enriches this land and its people. Samoa is an especially exciting – and important – place to practice Permaculture today. The potential for sustainable communities, given the already strong village structure and communal mentality, is thrilling – as is the marvellous diversity of life, the delicious wild foods growing in rampant abundance and which Samoans have such skill in mastering, the incredible history of Samoan tribal culture and its familial, culinary and creative traditions. Come on, let’s just take it easy on the many challenges for now and smile with appreciation for the divine blessings of the Pacific.


  1. What an excellent project. It amazes me the rest of the world doesn’t look at ‘developed’ countries & either laugh or weep. With the effects of peak oil already emerging & world-panic just a decade away, projects like this will become utterly invaluable & the 300 people you train worth more than their weight in gold. They will have the knowledge to lead communities into a sustainable existence & make people able to survive a life without oil. All that ‘wealth’ & those ‘cheap commodities’ will be no more. Lessening our demands on food-systems by going local seems to be the only intelligent & ecological way forward.

  2. Hiya Tamlyn! Am glad to see you decided to go for it after the PDC last year, congrats, it sounds like you are having a great time :)

    Pete (NZ)

  3. Thankyou – I couldn’t have mustered the guts to get here if not for the support of so many switched-on people. I’m meant to be here for just one year, but they’ll probably have to drag me kicking and screaming from this place and project.

  4. Go housemate! Great article, I didn’t know you could write!

    However, I don’t agree that affluence necessarily poisons the land and the culture. If it wasn’t for Western affluence, you wouldn’t be in Samoa practicing permaculture, as your position is funded by the affluence of the Australian Government.

  5. Wonderful work Tam! So glad to see there is some news of your project on the webpage- I know one day we will see you on the world stage.Your diverse skills and energy are evident in your writing. i will be blowing your trumpet louder & prouder! I’m not surprised you have fallen in love with your current home. I’ve got to say I am a bit worried about all that bamboo being propagated- I’ve seen what happens when it ‘gets away’ but of course I know you will be doing your best to eat your way through those yummy shoots.

  6. Don’t worry Rose – we are only using clumping bamboo species – there is no running rhyzome, it’s only the running types of bamboo that become invasive. Clumpers shoot annually, and can only grow from the single point, so the clumps can expand but never produce two plants. If we planted runners in this climate we would certainly have a big problem. Thankyou for your comment!

    Susanne – I’m having some trouble figuring out exactly what you mean by your comment – it seems to me that the two statements you gave do not fit in the same scale.
    Are you defending western systems in general, or hinting at hypocritical behaviour, using government money to teach something that ultimately makes centralised government redundant?
    We work under the paradigm where we can reach the most people, to move towards an ethical, empowered society (and away from centralisation). In Permaculture we chose to work from disturbed systems, to help natural laws bring damaged land, and systems, back into harmony. Government aid is certainly not a long-term element in sustainable communities, and the western culture of affluence has nothing to do with sustainability except that it has provided the opportunity for itself to be shown as fundamentally flawed.

    The fact is that many people benefit from Western affluence, and many more suffer and are killed to pay for our commodities and comforts. I was born on the side of the equation that ‘benefits’ (at least superficially) and as such I have access to very priveledged resources and opportunities – which I will use carefully to encourage health and harmony. I will not continue to justify and defend such a senseless human equation.

  7. susanne, very glad that you visited this site, really.
    Are you aware that. Fact: Using modern agricultural methods, locally, requires heavy subsides from government or overseas aid. THIS INCLUDES all developed countries. Australia, currently subsidises all farmers nationwide with billions of dollars annually, with which farmers struggle with increasing difficulty to remain economically viable using inefficient and unsustainble systems. This situation is fundamentally unsustainable. is this not obvious? we are living on borrowed time. literally. those who refuse to see the facts as they are, remain forever ignorant of the real world they are living in and as a result remain forever dependant on resources outside their control. wake up. There are people in the world RIGHT NOW who are living a 100% self sufficient life, with happiness and comfort. this is possible with much less effort than we think. if you believe that it is viable to rely on money alone to support your life, you are living in a dream. wake up and start learning something of real value to your life.
    if someone want stats on any of this they can be posted.

  8. What an incredible project! I am so happy I stumbled upon this in my research to Samoa. Tamlyn, I will be in Samoa for 3 weeks with my boys aged 12 and 15 in July/August. Is there any chance at all to visit? I know this might be not be possible. I couldn’t resist to at least ask, because it would be an incredible opportunity to learn and understand so much about sustainability in farming and in international aid. For me and my sons! If this is at all an option we’d be incredibly grateful!

  9. Monika, I would love to meet you and your sons, you would be more than welcome. Drop me an email – I will give you my contact details and we can work out what will be going on with the project when you are here. Permaculture as a movement should always greet the good intentions of interested visitors with open minds and arms!

    [email protected]

  10. To say that wealth and consumerism is the same as poisoning land and culture (whatever that means) is atrocious logic as guilt by association. Developed countries lead the way in eco-consciousness and green technology. It’s less developed countries that use disastrous environmental methods such as slash and burn agriculture. You can’t claim that that is something reflective of Western methods either. Certainly communist countries in particular have consistently produced outright disasters-a convenient omission. As countries become more developed, they have the ability to create sound environmental regulations and educate people to be more aware, like the author who is a product of such societies (the irony is lost apparently) – LOL.

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