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Permaculture in Mecca

Geoff Lawton reports from a consultation trip to what will become the Al Bayda Project, Saudi Arabia

The Al Bayda Project in Saudi Arabia aims to help rehabilitate a large area of land, roughly 35 x 20kms (700km2 in total) containing 9 villages of Bedouin people who have been settled for 20-30 years in very basic conditions. The main mission is to develop a sustainable design demonstration system for how they can develop their villages and manage their environment and quite large herds of animals. Traditionally they would move with seasonal conditions around good grazing range-land patterns of management. Now, in settled villages, they don’t have the possibility to manage good range-land grazing with the appropriate patterning, and so the environment is greatly suffering from over-grazing and cutting of trees for firewood. As this grazing is their cultural heritage, they are not prepared to let it go and yet they don’t exactly fit into modern systems of settlement either.

People drive far to collect firewood – and goats range far to eat up any
new saplings that might be trying to establish themselves

The Islamic world is very familiar with this area as it is in the region (and governance) of Mecca, where people of the Muslim faith the world over direct their prayers to 5 times a day. This project could provide a significant example of large dry-land area management and rural village sustainable design principles and is of the utmost importance because it could have one of the largest influences imaginable throughout the Muslim world, which makes up approximately 23% of the total worldwide population.

Some of the work that we’ve already initiated is choosing an area to set up as a demonstration site of land use using such techniques as gabions, swales and limonia to harvest the small amount of rainfall that they have, which is only about 80-90mm/year. There are only one or two large run-off events per year, sometimes none, but there is quite high ground water in the area at 20-60m, which can be sustainably pumped, as long as there is a good management of water harvesting techniques across the broad area to recharge the aquifers. A major example of this type of landscape regeneration through the use of forest systems is the Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) practiced by Tony Rinaudo of World Vision who has been working in Niger for the past 20 years. This is a successful system that we’ve posted on our website twice now. Tony is a student of permaculture and is now supplying us with all of his information as he extends this system across the world.

We’ll also be showing in demonstration some sustainable building techniques for more appropriate energy conservation, as well as stand-alone solar systems using the latest technology of copper, indium, selenium panels with no-maintenance gel batteries. We will include solar energy pumping techniques and state-of-the-art solar hot water techniques, grey water recycling and dry composting toilets, as well as home gardening methods for improved health via the diversity of locally grown products. Fruit, vegetables, herbs and firewood will all be demonstrated as possibilities for local people to engage in.

The main stocks of animals that people keep are goats, sheep and camels, kept for their meat and milk, and we’ll be working with the Al-Faisal University in Saudi Arabia on research to demonstrate how we can improve breed diversity through genetics towards better milk production. We hope to be able to develop cheese and dairy production as a local economy for people to engage in. Initially, we have performed a census to learn the number of animals in the area and will be funding the local people to pen up their animals, supply them with feed, and employ some of them whilst we demonstrate how we can repair the landscape by employing people to use the FMNR system, which we could also call Bedouin Natural Rangeland Regeneration (BNRR) to give them a sense of ownership of this process. The outcome of this will be to get back into appropriate patterns of grazing in relation to their settlement and increased productivity towards value-added products of milk, yogurt, cheeses, and meat.

The census that we performed also included all people, houses and land use and we’re now in a secondary stage of starting the earthworks to enhance the systems in place, having secured an area of land that will now be fenced so that the site will have no accidental mismanagement from grazing flocks that may not yet be penned. This demonstration site will also act as a permaculture education centre for local people and also visitors of the area, particularly visitors to Mecca, which is only a very short distance away and hosts the largest gathering of people on earth each year on a pilgrimage that all muslims pledge to take at least once in a lifetime.

We expect to be able to really raise the profile of permaculture project work throughout the Islamic world with this project. With it comes a huge potential for uptake and replication.

There are more pictures of the kind of terrain we’re dealing with below.

Further Reading:

Geoff Lawton

Geoff Lawton is a world renowned Permaculture consultant, designer and teacher. He first took his Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) Course in 1983 with Bill Mollison the founder of Permaculture. Geoff has undertaken thousands of jobs teaching, consulting, designing, administering and implementing, in 6 continents and close to 50 countries around the world. Clients have included private individuals, groups, communities, governments, aid organizations, non-government organisations and multinational companies under the not-for-profit organisation. In 1996 Geoff was accredited with the Permaculture Community Services Award by the Permaculture movement for services in Australia and around the world. Geoff's official website is Geoff's Facebook profile can be found here.


  1. For those wondering, the first picture is looking out from the top of one of the wadis on the demonstration site, the third picture is looking at the demo site from across the road, and the 4th is right before the wadi opens out onto that little plain.

  2. Wow! What a huge challenge and amazing undertaking! I’m sure we all want to follow the progress as this project evolves over time. Fantastic work Geoff and friends.

  3. It would seem to me the main challenge in the region is not nature but people. Nature is trying to heal the landscape and would succeed, were it not prevented from doing so. This project will have to deal with Bedouin culture first and foremost, which means working with those 9 villages and getting good cooperation. Succeed there, and the rest will fall into place very easily. That no one has previously succeeded in this regard should be a cause for caution.

  4. Peaksurfer,

    Hopefully when the Bedouins see a fenced off plot under the expert care of knowledgeable agriculturalists bloom with trees and food after a few years they will take serious notice.

  5. I hope that the Saudi Arabian government can be encouraged and educated to understand that settling people who live nomadic existences that need to allow their livestocks to roam in order not to degrade the desert environment further, is vital for the sustainabality and future of the region, and should be clearly understood for the sustainable future development of the Kingdom.
    I hope that this issue will be clearly understood elsewhere throughout desert regions of the Middle East, that being ‘modern’ does not necessarily give all the answers, when Western models from temperate rain rich climates are applied in areas that are not so water rich.

  6. “I believe that the 9/11 event raises disturbing questions about the failed responsibilities of those professions. Two reasons are: (i) a prominent modernist architectural symbol (the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center) was specifically targeted to be attacked and destroyed; (ii) the leading terrorists (Mohamed Atta and Osama bin Laden) had an architecture/urbanist/construction background. Writing with Michael Mehaffy, I earlier proposed that the third world — and the Islamic world in particular — feels a rage towards the United States, at least in part due to the modernist architectural and urban models we have introduced to those countries, which have destroyed their traditional built heritage. Atta was a professional planner who was said to be outraged over the desecration of traditional Islamic cities by modernist architecture and planning [1, 2]. Of course, Atta was a criminal, but how many ordinary people in traditional cities of the third world share those feelings?”


    I think it’s time we westerners start to realize what a destruction we have brought upon the world through modernism and industrial agriculture. That we have got fundamentalist Islam in return is not the slightest strange. I think the only way now to heal the wounds we have created in the Islamic world, to make us join forces for a sustainable future, goes through permaculture. I hope permaculture can help to reestablish traditional Islamic architecture, villages and towns, to ancient beauty.

    If any in the Arab world read this, I’ll strongly encourage studying the works of Christopher Alexander and Nikos A. Salingaros. The work of these two giants is mostly helpful to learn returning to your lost architecture and towns.

  7. Great work guys! Keep up the good work. I can’t wait to see how this projects develops over time as it really kicks off. It’s business time.

  8. Good luck to you, Neal, and everyone involved. Looking forward to hearing about & perhaps even seeing your results. You’ve got the training, skill and sincerity to get this going. I for one won’t be surprised if the outcome far eclipses your expectation.

  9. Hi Geoff,

    I hope you still remember some of our earlier communication.

    May I first applaud the intent of this project. This rejuvenation, I believe, should transcend beyond the physical nature of its implementation. There lies an opportunity to harness greater understanding of human predicament over the centuries, one of stewardship of all things on earth.

    Recent developments in Makkah (Mecca) was confined to the efficiency of logistics and accommodation for the hajj (pilgrimage) purpose. What’s missing is the environmental solutions to balance the immense pressure caused by human activities, excessive activities based on our modern requirements, in performing Hajj. as well as the off seasons. To have 4 million people in a small place within certain period requires immense management of time, resources and furthermore, human faith.

    On another note, I was recently introduced to an interesting documentary, called The Blessed tree which highlighted the special roles of our natural environment in providing shelters to human activities, in every sense of the word. Perhaps such concept can be rejuvenated in the regions.

    My best wishes to you and the team at the Institute for the demo project.

    BTW, may I expound that Muslims around the world collectively pray towards Makkah (Mecca) not exactly 5 times a day, but every moment of the day, in turn. But perhaps you already know these.

  10. “Prince Charles has written the Preface to this book, declaring Salingaros to be “an intriguing, perhaps historically important, new thinker”. Prince Charles’ detractors may be surprised to find that this book is not at all about Classical architecture. Like Prince Charles, Salingaros is a great admirer of Islamic architecture, and the design theory he presents is claimed to be equally valid for Classical, Islamic, or any other vernacular or traditional architecture. [4] Salingaros’ book presents a very different view of architecture and design from the teaching texts used for courses in architecture schools during the past several decades. He criticizes present-day architectural education for continuing to rely uncritically on models that he argues lead automatically to non-adaptivity and unsustainability. If one can get beyond the natural reaction to such criticisms, then designers will find much useful material for a new approach to architectural education.”


  11. with all thats going on at the moment in arabic countries…we should start sharing the knolege and hellping people feed them selfs more efficiently and organikly with diversity as fast as possible …..yeah gentlemen well done…..

  12. This seems very promising. Any chance of visiting the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho? The conditions are quite harsh, and the land overgrazed with a lot of nutrients leached out by the heavy rainfall.

    Keyhole gardens, though encouraging does not cut it for feeding large families sustainably. HM King Letsie III would be most receptive and supportive.

    Any chance of a visit, Geoff?

  13. Aloha sweetest community,

    Geoff — We met in Feb 2005 in the NZ EcoShow parking lot, when I was so excited to meet you, I walked up to you and your Beloved and introduced myself after you spoke on the Permaculture panel and I asked: How does Permaculture Design inform peace on earth?

    Here, I have my living, growing, thriving, beautiful answer. So well done!!!

    This is my dream-come-true and why I became certified in 2003. Please send me any contacts for organizations n Egypt and Israel and Beirut where I can offer to work sharing KLARITY Permaculture Design & Earth Art & Architecture Introduction workshops, children & adult trainings and Hands-On designing and building workshops, as well as Living Blessings Core Regeneration and Illumination workshop facilitation.

    I like to close the loop on the Zones and introduce Zones 0-8 — Zero being the body, so healing addiction, alcoholism, etc, embracing Body Ecology Diet & lifestyle for optimal inner ecology, and Zones 6 being Community/Family outside Zone 5, Zone 7 being our Global Family, and Zone 8 being the INFINITY of Allah/The One God, and how Love expresses through each life, bringing it back to Zone Zero…..ta da.

    I am so grateful I could pass out the link to “Greening the Desert” video these past 7 years when teaching, especially last Wednesday, when 35 people came to the Makawao library on Maui, in Hawaii, and the question was asked by my Scottish cousin: Is it too late or is there any hope in bringing life to deserts? Life is Love.

    Claire Kellerman,
    Maui Permaculture Network, Founder & Director
    KLARITY Permaculture Design & Arts, Artist & Owner

  14. I have been reading up on the Al Baydha project, and am very impressed with the great efforts of Mr. Neal Spackman. I understand that the first priority lies in getting the water management systems right. Overgrazing is of course one of the problems and perhaps causes of problems in this area. Have you ever thought about joining forces with Allan Savory, once erosion has stopped and plant life has begun growing? It seems the most logical next step for a herding community, though perhaps a bit of a step too far at the moment?
    When I saw Bill Mollison’s videos of Global Gardener, I was struck by how African people love to work together, singing as they work. Neal writes how the community factor in Al Baydha has been a struggle, because of lack of this culture of co-operation. Even more something he deserves my respect with.
    Intrigued with the idea of greening deserts, and firmly believing now that it is doable, I have been reading up on it. One finds all kinds of (sometimes silly) technological solutions, but I believe you have shown the way: it can be done, (if we would just stop spending money on wars, for heaven’s sake!) with low-tech efforts coupled with a huge amount of knowledge and insight. Thanks to you Geoff, to Bill Mollison and all of you pioneers, for shaping our future. Wish it could go a lot faster!

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