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Saudi Arabian Philippines (with Tropical Desert Possibilities) – Discovering the Cultural Edges

A Filipino garden — in Saudi Arabia!

Working in Saudi Arabia on a large project, in this case the Al-Baydha project, involving Bedouin People who have been resettled into villages for the past 20-30 years, is an interesting broad landscape affair as it covers about 700km2 and 9 villages. The culture of Bedouin rangeland management, with large herds of animals moving across the landscape, has been a stable culture that didn’t originally damage the environment, in fact it probably enhanced it, by good stock management and moving at the right time with the grazing patterns and seasons. The hoof prints of the animals would have accumulated manure, nutrient and seeds which would have germinated by the next rainfall, improving the landscape and therefore continuing the culture — but this relies on the people being able to move freely in a sporadic pattern that is responsive to the conditions; harmonious and regenerative.

Project manager Neal Spackman points out the
lower boundary line of the project site

Twenty years ago as the landscape was changing due to modernisation, with the building of cities and increased economy due to fossil fuel extraction, these groups of people were offered the opportunity to settle in villages and engage in the modern world, without any forethought or explanation into how they would continue to manage their cultural practices of herding in their new, limited setting. Now that they are locked into the modern system, they can no longer move their animals very far or range in relation to climatic patterns, so the landscape in each area becomes over-grazed. Yet, the people are subsidised to stay in the one spot, and they can no longer produce healthy animals with the limited grazing areas so they have to buy in bales of straw and alfalfa to such an extent that their situation is now uneconomical and it is actually cheaper to buy meat in town than to keep the animals, which are such a large part of their culture and identity.

A good sized surviving tree on the project site

Local Bedouin illegal tree cutters using a chainsaw to gather
firewood for cooking and for sale

A local observer on the project site gives
us the nod of approval

Our task is to give them a sustainable answer to their management, and a different way of looking at their heritage to help them understand that they can continue to practice their traditions whilst in a settled area — but in order to do this they will need to employ design. They can use this situation to their advantage if they design their land management practices, watershed, forage systems, grazing patterns, and start to create a diverse food supply by embracing gardening. This can only be achieved in small areas, as there is very little water available, but it can be enhanced with biological cleaning of the waste water from the houses, water harvesting earthworks, and solar pumping the aquifer (provided that we are recharging the aquifers with the earthworks, which can be measured to ensure that we are gaining and not losing water). We can set up water-less composting toilets, producing a bi-product that can be used to grow trees for forage crops, grey water reed bed systems to water crops and gardens, solar electricity in their houses to minimise costs of home energy and more. The houses can be designed with natural materials to maximise cooling with garden attachments that are beneficial to the house and microclimate around it.

Plastic rubbish impaled onto thorny legume trees by the local herdsmen
to stop the goats from eating it

Testing out our purpose built rock stretchers for building small gabions

All this we can do, but it requires a cultural acceptance of a new heritage-themed way of living, that anchors the culture permanently in the landscape with a sustainable future and creates a positive storyline of where you now are as a people and going forward with a future. For the most part, Saudi Arabia is now modernised, in some parts very wealthy, with the fossil fuel industry as a major economy. There are very well educated people in Saudi Arabia who are now beginning to realise that there needs to be a change for a sustainable future and a responsibility for energy and technological use. We’re in a situation where we have all of these possibilities at hand, can make these changes and use the economy to our advantage.

An earth mound on contour indicates moisture infiltration and retention after an
early winter light evening rain event — a happy little accident that provides a
great example to demonstrate the value of designing swales into the landscape

In amongst this traditional, proud culture there is also a high ratio of immigrant workers who are employed at a good wage in comparison to their home countries, but still a low wage within Saudi Arabia’s economic situation. There are many different nationalities there, but a great number of these workers are from the Philippines, working for a better life and doing a good job. In the Philippines people have a tropical gardening heritage, so given the opportunity to take up a little bit of land, they will garden. And these gardens produce a great deal of diverse tropical food, which can be grown in that climate (Saudi Arabia is in the Tropic of Capricorn) if there is adequate access to water.

A Filipino garden

I have the great pleasure of not only designing the recovery system, water harvesting/swale systems, house design, energy and waste management systems et al for a Bedouin cultural transition, but also the great pleasure of working with Filipino people and documenting their gardening techniques in the same location. It is amazing to be in the middle of a desert and walking around a lush tropical garden with bananas, sugarcane, loofah, snake bean, taro, eggplant, tomatoes, chinese cabbage, ceylon spinach, kang kong (morning glory), sweet potato and pumpkins in the rampant format typical of tropical gardens. These are usually small gardens, with a high shade of Moringa oleifera (horseradish tree), leucaena legumes, tamarind, papaya, mango and the multi-functional use of vines; with ducks and chickens bringing in manure, egg and meat production and pest control.

Basic design sketches of swale concept

It wouldn’t take much to extend the cultural interface between modern Saudi Arabia, ancient Bedouin rangeland management, small/perimeter urban agriculture and a complete transition into another world of abundance and food security which is truly achievable. A futuristic vision with all the potentials of sustainability….

Happy designing (in a changing world)!

Manure from penned up sheep and goats, ready to be well directed

Coppicing re-growth from illegally cut tree stump

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. This is delightful! I’m a Filipino, I love to garden, and I’m a Greening-the-desert fan. They say that wherever there is a Moringa tree growing, there is a Filipino nearby… I’m aching to take a permaculture design course and meet Geoff and Nadia. Maybe I should apply for a job in Saudi Arabia. Any vacancy for a physician/frustrated farmer there?

  2. Another thing- how did the Pinoys take to the waterless toilets? This is a very serious matter for our people, who think that it’s almost a human right violation not to be allowed to take water and our precious “tabo'” (water dipper)to the toilet.

  3. Hello Mr. Lawton,

    as comments from previous blog posts suggest you actually read the comments on your blog, and as you have not provided an email address, I’m using this to message you.

    I have 1 question: Have you considered combining the methods described by Kamal Meattle in this TED talk: with your methods, to not only improve the quality of the soil, but also the quality of the air?

    Although the plants named by. Mr Maettle are probably unsuitable for plantation as they are hydroponics based, it should prove easy enough to find suitable replacements for them, and the benefit of improved air quality should be quite noticeable, especially in Desert areas.

  4. Hi Jalynne we always provide wash water in compost toilets, both as and addition to toilet paper so both options are available for use, also of course a hand washing sink. The term waterless is a bit misleading and should really be called water flushless toilet, and a small amount of water added to the compost toilet chamber is actually usually a benefit to the composting process. The adjustments for a composting toilet that is well designed and built is usually in additions of shredded high carbon volumes.

  5. It is definitely a fact that vegetation cleans the air, forested deserts are wind deposition systems of dust and nutrients also potentially increasing precipitation by up to 80% by condensation over deforested desert landscape with only rainfall as precipitation.

  6. Ah, it’s very impressive to see at least some people in Saudia Arabia moving in the right direction, without employing the usual highly industrialized solutions !

    …and when are we gonna see a TED talk from you, Mr. Lawton :) ?

  7. i am just so happy and inspired reading this story. working in jeddah for more than 15 years, i am now discovering the beauty of container gardening and aquaponics in my small apartment balcony in jeddah. i am so eager to meet with other gardeners and make a difference helping others grow their own food…. would love to know others around

  8. Is it possible to really green the desert – like the entire kingdom of Saudi Arabia over the course of 50 – 100 years? What would it take? I am joining one of the larger companies in KSA in the next few weeks in a position that could be of some help. If it is possible, I can see jobs, education, food security, economic diversity, housing, cultural preservation and climate mitigation as being some of the obvious benefits. Can you please reach out to me?

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