Community ProjectsConsumerismDevelopment & Property TrustsEconomicsEthical InvestmentPeople SystemsSocietySoil RehabilitationVillage DevelopmentWater Conservation

Thoughts on Vocational Training Centers for Ecological Restoration

John D. Liu

I’m often asked “What can I do to help?” to restore the Earth. Over the years I’ve struggled with the answer.

Sometimes I feel like it is unfair to ask me what someone else should do because even if I told them what I thought they probably wouldn’t do it. I think that each person should look inside their heart and decide what they will do.

However, gradually I’ve come to see ecological restoration as the “great work” of our time — the one most important thing that all the people who are alive today need to understand and do together. I’ve come to realize that to do restoration at scale requires some very specific skills and also requires a type of lifestyle change. It also requires a change in the way we perceive work and the economy.

One of the highlights of my year was meeting and beginning to work with Geoff Lawton of the Permaculture Research Institute. We met in Jordan and then again recently in California and it has been eye opening to see the work that Geoff and other permaculturalists have been doing. Merging their work with large-scale ecosystem restoration can serve both local communities and the wider global goals of mitigating and adapting to climate change and achieving sustainable development.

Geoff and I publicly discussed these issues in “Green Gold” co-produced by VPRO and the EEMP and broadcast on VPRO in April. You can see the English version here:

Gradually I’ve come to consider what we need, to ensure that we have the skills necessary to restore the degraded parts of the Earth and have the type of collaboration and dedication needed to do this effectively together. The conclusion I have come to is that we need to build Vocational Training Centers for Ecological Restoration in every continent to serve as the vanguard for the Earth’s restoration.

In looking at what is the correct structure for such centers I have considered “Community Land Trusts” which essentially means that the members of the community own the center. This means that communities that voluntarily choose to dedicate themselves to long term, large scale ecological restoration would replace the type of 3- to 5-year projects that the development ‘industry’ has been promoting. These have shown some excellent methodologies but have often been too small and too short to bring about the type transformational change that is needed. Making vocational training centers for ecological restoration the purpose of community land trusts would mean that these centers would be permanent. While projects might come and go the overall center would absorb each project and grow stronger rather than end at the close of the funded period.

The types of facilities needed are seed saving and propagation, soil creation, water retention technologies, nursery systems and of course all the other requirements of successful communities such as culture, recreation, education, health care and permanent agriculture.

Geoff Lawton’s research farm in Australia shows many of the things that must be done and can be seen here:

The ideal situation would be communities that provide full employment for everyone in all the various aspects of restoration — the study of restoration, the training needed for restoration and that they “Live Well” in the sense that they have clean air, water, healthy food and strong families and communities and that they have substituted a more profound purposeful life for the materialism of the current global economic model.

This type of structure could be supported by management, technical support, human resources and capital arranged by the new Natural Resilience Initiative (2.3mb PDF) being led by Willem Ferwerda.

This could help merge the needs and aspirations of communities with global efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate changes, to restore ecological function to broad areas of the planet where they have been degraded by human beings over historical time.

Can we learn to live and work together for a common goal? Can we trade selfishness for collective security and sustainability? Can we work to ensure that the air, water, soils are clean and pollution free?

This is the way that I would like to live the rest of my life in helping to restore degraded landscapes and I believe that there must be millions more who would also like to do this.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.


  1. I am a psychotherapist, ecotherapist and career counselor and teach a class on “Career Opportunities in the Emerging Sustainable Society” at Santa Barbara City College. I’ve also taken the PDC and taught about careers at “Sustainable Vocations” by Warren Brush’s permaculture organization, Quail Spring. I have a slightly different take on this issue: every sector of society (the permaculture petals) now stands on a faulty foundation: the illusion that humans are separate from and superior to the rest of nature. So we need a permaculture redesign of all of these sectors, and this work expands the definition of “green jobs” far beyond the usual, offering many career opportunities for those with a wide variety of talents, including the arts, community building, law, health care, etc. I would be happy to communicate further on this if there is interest.

  2. I’d be happy to hear your comments on this. It seems that the global agenda to mitigate and adapt to climate change could converge with the desire of individuals and communities to live more fulfilling and sustainable lives. We are all in this together and there is no us and them. There is just us. John D. Liu

  3. God Bless! Excellent documentary and work John. Keep up the excellent work.
    On a personal note I completed my Bachelors in Agriculture Science while working as a Correction Officer in a maximum security prison. It is still my passion to be part of this movement to green the desert.

    I find that many of these issues that are degrading the land can be stopped by privatizing and distributing plots of degraded land to the landless. This would be similar to the Homestead Act that Lincoln enacted. The difference would be in enacting numbers of trees that must be planted per acre, max. number of livestock that can be kept on the land, diversity of species planted, etc. If the land successfully is greened than the person allotted the land is given full ownership as long as he continues with the principles mentioned. This is a great way for prisoners to participate in restoring degrading land. Most would volunteer for the fresh air and time out of their cell. Most countries have this untapped source of labor that could help in both rehabilitation of the land as well as the offender. Currently in the US we have more prisoners than farmers.

    I hope to see some more of your videos in the future.


  4. To mr. John D. Liu,

    The model you are describing has been developed with amazing success in the Kerala rainforest. In some 30 years a small team of volunteers have trained themselves and a team of tribal women to grow back a sanctuary in the rainforest with over 2000 plant species. Starting from a single orchid, the team has worked on finding out what is life-giving. Their little known work needs to be transplanted to other areas. The knowledge what is needed to restore a complex ecosystem with full biodiversity rests on far too few shoulders. They want to become a parataxonomists trainings centre: field-trained biodiversity collection and ecosystem-gardening specialists recruited from local areas. The team is small and needs our help to make that happen.

    Theun Karelse, Amsterdam
    supporter of the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary.

  5. Where do I sign up? When can I sign up? This article mirrors my thoughts exactly. “I’ve come to see ecological restoration as the “great work” of our time”. Just exactly what I have been thinking. Aside from that there is a lot of satisfaction, excitement and joy to be found in setting up systems that restore ecological balance. To be involved in such projects beyond the backyard is a dream for me. I’d love to see a whole nation have it’s ecological balance restored.

  6. Valuable piece on your vision, John, and the potential role of the Permaculture Institute in a global movement. My question is: do the type of Land Trusts you mentioned already exist and can you give some specific examples, if so. It would be very helpful to be able to look deeply into how they got structured.

  7. John, your work is so big, yet so engagingly do-able. Don’t forget the power of enjoying mealtimes together.
    When people eat over projects, and become com-pan-ions, (breaking bread together) its changes the whole dynamic.

    I would love to help you. I can draw, and get peole together. I teach the ‘inside the home, inside our thinking’ side of generative, positive permaculture.

    Here in Japan, we have all this postcard-perfect land, loved and cultivated for centuries, now abandoned to radioactivity.

    It was so well-cared for.
    So sad.

  8. I’m all for these centers! I think every ecovillage and permaculture site basically serve as incubators for this new old-fashioned way.

    I’d love to be with you and Geoff in a room with Julious Piti and Willie Smits AND the funding folks from the World Bank to see what we could do…

    Julious Piti (Permacultural Facilitation in Zimbabwe):

    Willie Smits’ (Integrating Wildlife Refuges, Bio-Fuels, and Local Cultural Sovereignty in Borneo):

  9. Excellent idea but how to put it into practice. I for one would love to be able to contribute and volunteer. As an idea, if we could promote this to especially the older generation and people that are getting retrenched from their jobs and are unable to obtain employment again due to age discrimination. These people have skills and knowledge and would love to contribute and be active and help out but like myself don’t have the funds to re-skill / re-educate and still have bills coming in and debt to repay. What is the plan to get the financially challenged older generation, skilled and not specifically skilled in this field together and transfer their skills and knowledge to the younger generation that also don’t have the financial capacity and or employment opportunities but do have a social and environmental consciousness?

  10. Dear All:

    Thanks for all your comments. I hope we can continue this discussion and that it can lead to setting up many of these centers so that everyone that feels called to do this can particpate. We need to put them near to and connected to large-scale ecosystem restoration projects. You might research the “BONN CHALLENGE” and we can see if we can get the support of one of the pledges to set the first center up. El Salvador comes immediately to mind. Rwanda is also a possibility. Geoff is also suggesting that Jordan and Yemen hold great promise. Note that in some places we are going to find high rainfall and others very brittle ecosystems. Each type of system will require specialized skills and expertise.

    We need to find a way to link those that wish to participate. I think that Craig Mackintosh who has developed this site might be instrumental in setting up a transparent registry of those who would like to be part of setting these centers up.

    There is a new “Nature Resilience Initiative” as yet seeking its name that is working to link restoration projects with capital and technical support and through this mechanism I believe we will be able to establish first one and then more of these centers in connection with existing or newly formed restoration projects.

    Thank you to all who have commented on this because it encourages me to continue. I look forward to meeting and working with all of you.

    Sincerely, John D. Liu

  11. “People want to go in to service to save the world…” says Geoff at around the 45 minute mark.
    I absolutely agree, and I am one of them. But I am finding I lack the opportunity and means to be able to fulfill this desire to serve the planet and its people.
    Where do we find the financial and political support to get these “BIG” jobs started?

  12. Carolyn: We need to converge various efforts. At the big international policy level, the global convention level, the community level.

    We have mitigating and adapting to climate change initiatives, protection of biodiversity initiatives, combating desertification initiatives, and food security initiatives. We also have permaculture initiatives, community land trust initiatives, eco-village initiatives and so on.

    What I see now is that if we can link the global and local levels we can access capital, technical and management capacity from the global projects but we must create the correct legal structures in the local initiatives in order to attract and maintain these external inputs.

    Below is a link to a conceptual paper envisioning the stimulation of the large-scale restoration projects.

    I think that the local community land trusts require more definition and we need to set a few up and have some success with them. Let’s all keep this thread going and find when are where we can create these linkages.

  13. John,

    Another excellent idea. Community supported restoration is the only meaningful long term way of restoring our landscape. We will do our best to support this idea in all of our work. Keep up the great work.

  14. John,

    We are organising a visit of Suprabha Seshan to Amsterdam next spring to speak on her work with community supported restoration at the GBSanctuary, with interested parties here. Perhaps this could be an opportunity for people on this list to meet, discuss the opportunities and start organising ourselves. I’d be up for finding ways to make this possible.

  15. John,

    I was very inspired to see your video and read the post. THe scale of the endeavor in China was very impressive and the vision you have is essential to promote and engrave indelibly into the consciousness of individuals, governments NGO’s etc. It is the “great work” of our times. I see it as the solution to so many of the problems we are facing globally and locally. Instead of making license plates prisoners could be rehabilitating landscapes and learning a level of security that crime can never provide, thus breaking the oh to common cycle of repeat offenders. This must become both urban and rural. we all must come to the restoring the respect and understanding of nature. I would love to lend a hand in whatever way I can. I speak several languages well, including Spanish, French, Italian and conversational Arabic and German and have completed my PDC also. I also run a weekly radio show and will be talking more about this vision.


  16. Dear Theun Kareise:

    Thanks for your comment. I’ve a new fellowship with the Free University (VU Amsterdam) critical hydrology group headed by Prof. Bruijnzeel. I’ll be in Holland in January to speak at the Healthy Earth Conference sponsored by ARCADIS on the 16th, 17th, and 18th.

    Perhaps you would have time on the 14th or 15th to talk about this? You can reach me by email at johnliu(at) Best regards, John D. Liu

  17. Dear Theun Karelse: I’ve just looked up a bit of the material on the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary. The main website seems to be down but there is much material from various sources. This seems like a wonderful initiative. I hope in the future it will be possible to learn much more and perhaps document the work. The materials from documentation could be useful both for the Sanctuary for their fundraising efforts and also perhaps as part of a broad campaign to show what is possible through restoration. If you contact me via my email provided in the last comment we could discuss this and perhaps also speak in Amsterdam in January or soon. Best, John

  18. Hello John,
    Given then centrality of China for many future trends, and the success of the Loess project, shouldn’t there be a central push for this sort of thing in China and India? Or is there already a push for rural biomass based power and biochar assisted land remediation/sequestration based development?

    BTW I’d be interested to learn if you know about the work of Chandran Nair &

    Basically Asia, but more specifically China and India cannot replicate the consumption based economic model and they -and we- need a new way at looking at development and meeting our needs.

    We can restore all the currently degraded land but business-consumption- as usual in other parts, would just see this as an exercise of offsetting while we degrade others.

    I know you have your hands full but it would be interesting to have that as a side discussion or have you meet up with Mr Nair.

    Warm Regards
    Simon Moffitt

  19. Dear Simon Moffitt:

    Thank you for this. Certainly agree with you. What I’ve been seeing is that if money were based on ecological function rather than production and consumption of goods and services then all human enterprise would be directed at conservation or restoration as that would the way to protect wealth and to grow wealth. This is what we need to ensure human survival and sustainability. China and India are bringing this to a head.

  20. Hello John,

    Thank you for the simplicity and clarity with which you (and Geoff) present the various ecosystem regeneration challenges and solutions in “Green Gold.” So many people want to be part of the solution. It seems to me, however, that finding or devising ways of helping people (individually and collectively) to get engaged with solutions to particular challenges in particular places is, in some ways, more challenging than the actual solutions themselves.

    My question has to do with approaches to leveraging the assets of existing organizations, in addition to the intriguing ideas outline in these comments so far. I am hoping to find ways of nudging local governments, the planning profession, extension services, and basically any other likely existing groups and organizations with reach into adopting permaculture principles into their thinking and decision-making. I hope, in this way, to help such thinking become mainstream.

    I am particularly fascinated by Geoff’s successes in Jordan along these lines. I welcome any thoughts you may have about this.

    Best regards,
    Cosima Krueger-Cunningham

  21. Dear Cosima: Thanks for your thoughts.

    I’m convinced now after many years of study and documentation that we must just begin to restore large-scale damaged ecosystems with whoever understands what is at stake and how to do it. All over the world there are wonderful individuals and organizations that are mobilizing to re-align human activity with the Earth’s natural functions.

    Vocational Training Centers for Ecological Restoration represent a way that many people can participate. There are capital formations, scientists, trainers, administrators, students who all have roles to play. Besides the biophysical restoration work these centers can also experiment with social organization that is sustainable. This means that the centers can organize around principles such as renewable energy, no cars in the living areas, sharing of tools and resources and an end to the consumer society driving everything.

    This will become more and more clear as we move forward. There is an expectation that many vocational training centers will be created to serve growing numbers of large-scale restoration projects. The first may begin this year, perhaps in Spain. There are also existing communities that could join this movement and receive support for soil creation, water harvesting, seed saving, seed propagation and nursery technologies which could speed the development.

    As these centers and projects develop I believe this will affect planning and policy much more than trying to convince politicians of something that they cannot see.

    Best regards, John D. Liu

  22. John,

    Thank you for your reply. I agree that there is absolutely no substitute for demonstration projects. Really successful demonstrations projects have the power to cut right through the negative conjectures, foot-dragging, “ifs” “ands” and “buts,” etc. that generally keep governments from taking meaningful actions themselves on critical policies and projects within meaningful time frames.

    I do feel, however, that environmental educators and permaculture pioneers must not neglect governments. I have seen talented permaculture folks flee from our community because they were ultimately not successful–on their own–in negotiating insurmountable land use code, zoning, statutory, and related government-imposed barriers to their continued operations. I hope to help to erode many of these barriers in my own community as a sort of demonstration project in its own right so that governments elsewhere will see the benefits of following suit.

    Here in Colorado, for example, we are dealing with a complex body of Colorado Water Law that became entrenched 150 years ago under far different social and environmental conditions than what we now face. So for example, capturing and storing rain water on one’s own property in Colorado has been illegal! Some of the background to our state’s history of water policy and water infrastructure development–some of which is restrictive of large-scale ecosystem regeneration projects–is traced in this recent ASU video:

    I’m so glad to have discovered your documentary work and will look forward to seeing more of it!


    Cosima Krueger-Cunningham

  23. Hello John,
    I would like to see such a “Vocational Training Center for Ecological Restoration” to be established in China in the near future. I would like to join in the work in such a center in China.
    Best regards,

  24. Hi John

    I have only just recently seen your film of the Loess Plateau in China.
    A colleague of mine, Prof Haikai Tane has been informing me of the work being done there since I first meet with him in 2005.
    At that time I started working with Peter Andrews, originator of Natural Sequence Farming. See
    Australia is the oldest, flattest, driest inhabited continent in the world yet it produced megafauna.
    And since the 1788 settlement by the English its landscape has been deteriorating rapidly.
    Everywhere, wherever SOIL based agriculture has been practiced and ungulates overgraze these systems have been degrading.
    But what the Loess Plateau project shows is a water based farming system. It is living water moving throught the regolith (terraquaculture)~ not aquaculture which is water based only.
    This sysytem of sustainable farming has been a part of the cultural intelligence of the East and Oceania for millenia and it is the only way to true sustainability and restoration.

    In our training program we have a simple motto:
    Slow the flow and
    Let ALL plants grow
    But be careful where the animals go!!

    Recently, I reviewed a number of TED talks from among those promoting sustainable agriculture (soil based farming). Like the search for the Holy Grail, they are pursuing an impossible mission ~ based on the latest research and according to UN agencies, agriculture is a fundamentally flawed farming system. As the world is learning from a wealth of experience and hindsight, pastoral agriculture is a profoundly dysfunctional farming system threatening the planet.

    English speaking countries believe soil farming (agriculture) is the main farming paradigm world wide. Further, they presume that the key indicator of farm production is crop yield. From international farming perspectives, they are rather confused and wrong on both counts.

    Maximising crop yield field by field is one of the fastest ways I know to reducing total farmland productivity…the reason is simple! In ecology, maximising one part of an ecosystem comes at the expense of overall ecosystem productivity. Maximising crop yield is only achieved by reducing total ecosystem productivity. Consequently, maximising yields is a misguided and unreliable indicator of farm output or efficient production. It pays to remember total farm productivity generates the farm’s income not the highest yield of any crop.

    While westerners have focused on maximising agricultural yields by farming soils~ Easterners have traditionally focused on farming water flowing through the terrain using polycultures to optimise farm productivity. Farming living water flowing through the terrain is best know from the pond-padi, tiered terrace and food forest farming systems. Over millennia, watershed based natural farming systems have proven much more productive, more sustainable and more profitable farming systems than western agricultures. Unlike pastoral agricultures which deplete soil and water resources and generate desertification, Eastern watershed farming systems enhance the performance of watershed ecosystems by expanding floodplains, wetlands and water bodies.

    Unfortunately, western cultures have not yet acquired the cultural intelligence needed for watershed farming systems with living water seeping and surging through the terrain..Indeed they have not yet discovered living water and still imagine that water is only a physical resourced to be privatised, sold and separated from its home territory ~ the living watershed.

    Raised among the desert fringe Kooris near Broken Hill, Peter Andrews gained superior geospatial intelligence allowing him to see living water processes. As a result he is one of the first westerners to see and show why natural farming is the world’s most advanced and only truly ecologically sustainable terrain based farming system. Natural farming is not part of the agriculture soil farming paradigm ~ it’s scientific name is terraquaculture ~ meaning farming living water seeping and surging in seasonal cycles through the subterranean regolith. It is the traditional polyculture farming paradigm of Asia-Oceana.

    Traditional natural farming amplifies the performance of natural habitats and watershed ecosystems by focussing on the heat/water cycle and recharge/discharge processes. Invariably natural farming is a zero grazing farming system which has no need for costly, unproductive gates or fenced fields.

    Alan Savoury is promoting the opposite scenario with his mega feed-lot factories for huge herds of hard hoof cattle. I found him ignorant of the role heat/water cycles play in managing climate; he ignores the damaging impacts of ungulate herds on wetlands, aquifer bioseals and recharge/discharge cycles; and he was unaware how aquifers play a key role in maintaining the health of watersheds (much more than surface waters). Simply stated Alan does not understand atmospheric energetics or aquifer dynamics that govern the performance of rangeland watersheds; and he ignores or misrepresents the essential role they both play in maintaining healthy watershed ecosystems.

    Auditing watersheds in India and China over the past decade has demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt, that the introduction of western agriculture to Asia Oceana has proven an unmitigated disaster culturally, ecologically and economically. FAO and UNESCO have identified farmland degradation generated by pastoral agricultures as among the main drivers of climate chaos and desertification worldwide (Livestocks Long Shadow et al). Australia and NZ are listed with the very worst countries worldwide for farmland degradation and human induced desertification…

    Assessed by UN A21 criteria for sustainable farming, traditional natural farming systems in Asian countries produce more food and more livelihoods/ha while storing more water in their watersheds than any other farming system worldwide. The secret to their success is farming living water not farming soils ~ with no fences, no gates and no open grazing by hard hoof animals compromising the natural sequences of watershed systems. Only then can net farm productivity achieve 30-50 tonnes/ha/annum without the need for imported energy or agrochemicals…while generating more than one sustainable farming livelihood/ha (and often 6 or more).

    You can read why in UNESCO’s digital online Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems in the Food and Agriculture volumes ~ Habitat and Riparian Management in Rangeland Ecosystems (author Haikai Tane).

    We are teaching ALL of these principles in our education and training program. See and we like you believe that this is really mankinds greatest solution to the myriad of problems presenting to the world due to a lack of understanding of ecological principles.
    I trust that we may be a small part of the solution to the rest of the world…..

  25. Dear Duane:

    Greetings and thanks for all the great information in your message. You might be interested in following the facebook discussion at:
    where there is a growing awareness including the the U.S. about the need for Research, Training and Innovation Centers for Ecological Restoration. Feel free to contact me directly if we could collaborate more closely. We have many films that are specific to various countries and they show overwhelming evidence that functional ecosystems are more productive than degraded ones.



  26. Duane touches on an aspect that is a bit like not seeing the forest for the tree that your nose is touching. There is no “one size fits all” approach to ecosystem restoration. Duane’s work seems to be centered in SE Asia where the rice paddy/duck/forest farming paradigm arose. The region is a closed canopy forest, with no mega herds of ungulates. Allan Savery, on the other hand, has been based in Africa and the American West, were mega herds of wild ungulates were the norm. I’m pretty sure that Allan has not suggested that holistic grazing management be applied everywhere, only where the vegetation co-evolved with the large herds, and developed a symbiosis with them.
    John, I have a germ of an idea; For the past 6 years I have taught Biology at International Baccalaureate (IB) schools throughout Asia. My students have always shown intense interest in the work of Dr. Mae Wan Ho, Geoff, Paul Stamets and of course your documentaries. The IB is a global education organization. As a self-proclaimed leader in education I’m thinking the organization could play a role in creating student-led demonstration sites on campus’ around the world. Project-based learning at its best. Perhaps we could discuss this more via email? Mine is anthony.cook (at) stonehill (dot) in

    All The Best,


    1. Dear Anthony:

      I think it is a great idea. I’ve been working with the Global Issues Network (GIN) for many years. I know Geoff and Paul and consider them good friends.

      Let’s figure that out.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Check Also
Back to top button