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Desert Food Forest and Organic Commercial Production in Three Years – Update on Wadi Rum Consultancy (Jordan)

Outside the fence

On August 6, 2010 Craig Mackintosh posted on my initial consultancy for the site I’m reporting on today. Three years and three months later, I can give an update on what has transpired since.


It is with great pleasure and excitement — which I feel for this project, the people involved and the people I know who are interested in its evolution — that I bring you all up to date on Rum Farm Organics, as it is now called.

Carrots, eggplant and chilli, melons and corn behind

First I would like to show my appreciation and thanks to Sirin Al Masri for having the desire to see this project established on the ground — the vision, insistence, and belief in my ability and the permaculture design system. This all began for me with another consultancy job for Sirin and we have since then come a long way. This may only be a small part of the larger Rum Farm, and a tiny spot on the deserts of the world, but it can do an enormous amount of good and give many people an enormous amount of hope when they realise what is possible.

Tomato and corn

The first thing the Rum Farm technical team did was to direct the machinery department to simplify this beautiful, subtle, wind-blown desert landscape and flatten the whole 5ha (10ac) site. When you are dealing with the forces of nature and natural energies there is no action without a reaction. This is typical of agriculture and anyone who wants to compromise with modern industrial agriculture too much. How much is too much could be the question you ask, and the question you should ask. Bill Mollison states in Permaculture — A Designers’ Manual, the definitive book of permaculture design: “We need to work with permitted function and not forced function”. The wind-blown patterns of the hyper-arid lands can be the destroyer of our systems if not well observed and designed to be beneficial as positive deposition systems of wind energy and nutrient capture.


In the first year I heard very little in relation to the project, as to how it was going in the initial stages of implementation. It was just after twelve months that I got a call while I was in Jordan to say the project was not working and was a failure. I was asked to explain myself and was told that I owed the company a free consultancy visit to the site.

More lettuce

On my first re-visit to the site, one year into establishment, I must admit it did not look good. The agriculture expert installed by the company said that they had not produced one single thing. I was also told it would be impossible to get these soils into production using organic techniques. It was obvious to me that many elements of my design had been ignored, left out and considered not necessary. It was also obvious that the agriculture expert, although well qualified in conventional industrial agriculture systems, had no real understanding of my emphasis on the specific inclusions and their specific positions, and why I felt so strongly that they needed to pattern the site.

Onions and carrots

My advice was to include the specific elements that had been left out — especially the density of legume tree support species, and succulent ground covers. Also, that they should keep flooding the swales on a regular basis until there was good vegetative cover and reasonable tree growth and ground covers shading the soil in the system. And, to employ one of my trained permaculture students with organic farming experience, and then and only then would the system start to work.

Eggplant shipment

They agreed but were very sceptical that it would really make any difference. Like most industrial agriculturists, they do not normally use any support species. Instead they have very academically qualified staff as advisors, big machinery, big irrigation, agricultural chemical inputs and minimum wage immigrant workers en masse.

More organic products (Abdullah at right)

My student, Abdullah Jabali, was my first choice to take the position — a farmer by heritage. Since taking his PDC in the year 2000 he has been farming organically in the Jordan Valley, and is a full organic promoter and permaculture supporter. We had also brought him to the PRI Zaytuna Farm in Australia on an intern scholarship. Luckily Abdullah was keen to take the job, despite it being a 4-hour drive each way once a week; but we negotiated a company car for the drive. Abdullah insisted on wanting to only be following my instructions if there were problems, and it was agreed that I would be an advisor at a distance.

Eggplant, carrot, chilli, cucumber, tomato, okra

It did not take long and photos started to arrive, so that I could make recommendations on how to keep the project moving forward. I could see quite clearly that there were still two major element placements which were very deficient. One was the number of legume trees as support species, and the other was the lack of dense succulent ground covers as support species. This is often the case when consulting to conventional agricultural situations — elements that do not have any obvious direct yields are often left out. This is usually because modern industrial agriculture is fixated on production per area, in a simplified form, for ease of marketing, without any secondary design approaches towards stability increase over time and reduced inputs through positive interactivity of elements linked to beneficial diversity.


This landscape of shifting wind-blown sand with a hot, extreme arid climate has its own specific challenges; production areas are usually levelled and heavily irrigated to plant large areas of monoculture. Centre pivot irrigators cover up to 200 hectares per circle using up to 18,000 litres of water per second. Our system, using swale soaks and drip irrigation, is hard to establish initially because of sand drift — without new fast growing nitrogen fixing trees. These essential support species not only provide wind buffering as well as shade and mulch while reducing evaporation and the rapid drying of soils, but also reduce the negative effects of shifting sands.

Early swale photo

Very hardy succulent ground covers also greatly reduce evaporation while having very little water demand themselves — their gel content reduces soil surface temperatures and also reducing the negative effects of shifting sands.

Early swale photo

Once these two elements are well established they also help capture fine colloidal dust in the air that drops out as quality nutrient — a crucial component of soil building in the arid zones of the world that need re-vegetating.

Swales developing

In this situation the flat bed formed swales kept collapsing after being flooded and I was being told the system I designed would not work because of this. This was a golden opportunity to point out that my design had not been followed closely enough, and to plant a fast growing legume tree in between each fruit tree, on both sides of the swales, and succulent ground covers at the base of every fruit tree, legume tree and grape vine.

Swales developing — flooding

Swales developing — full flood

This was an agreed strategy to do with my insistence and Abdullah’s dogged persistence to only want to follow my advice. Unfortunately the farm management only supplied leaucaena as a fast-growing legume tree, which is fine, but I would have liked a little more diversity. Succulent ground covers were also introduced, but only Aptenia cordifolia (common names sun jewel, sun rose or baby sun rose), which is okay, but smaller and finer as a succulent ground cover, and I had specifically asked for Carpobrotus edulis (common names ice plant, highway ice plant, pigface, hottentot fig and sour fig) on account of its edible fruit. Carpobrotus edulis is ideal for the larger functions required in dryland food forests and Aptenia cordifolia is finer and more suited to dryland garden applications. I was still pleased to get some functioning elements well positioned and as the photos continued to arrive I could see the system beginning to stabilise and kept encouraging Abdullah to keep persisting.


The crop production photos then started to arrive — squash, tomatoes, beans, hot peppers, eggplant, okra, capsicum, cucumber, carrots, potato, lettuce, broad beans, onions and parsley. Rum Farm Organics was proven — thanks to Abdullah we proved the soils would produce organic crops.



The main fertilizer was aged animal manure of chicken, sheep, goat and cow, with a mulch of alfalfa and shredded weeds. Putting extra time into composting was very difficult for the farm management to accept because of the lack of understanding of the extended benefit over time for the soil life and soil eco-system. There has always been an interest in compost and the larger farm has massive resources of compostable material that could go to be compost-extended through various processes, but it has not yet happened. We hope with the interest in the organic results that quality composting, worm farming; compost tea, bio-fertilizer, and poultry interactions will all be trialled. Even without these we have had a reasonable success which does show the resilience of our design.

Fruiting cactus fence replacement

Apricot with ground cover

As soon as we got a productive result, the farm management wanted more and faster — thinking only about production out to organic fertilizer in, and not wanting to wait for long-term productive stability. Polytunnel organic crop systems were proposed to intensify and boost production. The polytunnel systems used in dry lands work because they are sheltered from the hot drying winds which increase evaporation — a large proportion of the humidity created inside by irrigation condensates back to the soil and the light is defused and softened, even shaded in Summer when shade cloth is often added to the top. The big difference is that there are no extra bonuses in a polytunnel, compared to outside growing where you have positive outside interaction helping to build increasing stability and soil fertility. Under plastic, “what you give is what you get”.

Swale starts to stabilise

Swale getting cover

Covered swale

Shaded swale

I have seen polyculture designed polytunnel systems on permaculture projects in England, but this is not the kind of setup that was being proposed at Rum Farm Organics — rather, it was going to be monoculture, organic polytunnel production. The obvious issue with this type of system is that if monoculture is used then it is very likely to have problems with pest, diseases and fungus.

Over the canopy

What really needs to be understood from the ancient traditional production systems of pre-industrial agriculture that have remained fertile and stable for millennia, is the positive edge relationships of crop production areas. Consider the three major climates of the world as temperate with winter rain and summer dry, tropics with winter dry and summer rain and arid with yearly evaporation much higher than precipitation (which is rain plus condensation as every drop counts in the arid climates).
Traditionally, cropped areas that were sustainable were surrounded by productive forests which were beneficial for nutrient interactions towards the soils of the area being cropped, as well as creating shelter, micro climates, pest and predator balances. These crop fields changed in area, and hence edge effect, to climate and shaping to landscape profile hence erosion control and slope stability.

Crop field edged in dates and olives

Traditional gardens in the tropical climates average no more than two-acre crop clearings, 8000 square metres. Temperature climate crop areas could be a little larger, 3 acres, or 12,000 square metres, but not much more. The arid climates had the smallest crop field clearings, hence the highest edge:area ratio for beneficial effect, using partial shade in function to reduce evaporation, and were often no more than a quarter to half an acre in size, or 1000 to 2000 square metres. This means if we want to hold highly efficient productive fertility we can design and implement narrow bands of productive forest to crop fields on contour to gain the extra potential of passive water harvesting that can also recharge shallow aquifers during the very infrequent large singular rain events that occur in drylands.

Chipper and mulch

Leaucaena chop ‘n drop mulching

An interesting reference is Banded Vegetation Patterning in Arid and Semiarid Environments: Ecological Processes and Consequences for Management, Ecological Studies, edited by David J. Tongway, Christian Valentin and Josiane Seghieri. These naturally occurring bands occur through wind deposits, where wind and slope align and natural vegetation takes place in bands of trees and shrubs on contour. In the extreme hot dry lands this has often meant that a little bit more than half the total landscape needs to be covered in trees. This is a very beneficial interactive edge relationship that becomes more efficient, effective and stable over time, greatly reducing the needs for outside inputs and labour.

Mixed fruit tree rows

Crop field

Polytunnel preparation

The polytunnels went in regardless, and luckily no serious problems have occurred that cannot be addressed with natural organic methods. All the crop systems in the open areas between the swaled food forest belts keep steadily increasing in production with reduced inputs, as the soil steadily improves. Deep organic crop residue is now being added as mulch on the crops, instead of plastic mulch strips. Deep organic crop residue is also being added on top of the aged manure around the fruit trees, with a separation from the bark of the trunks as this can cause bacteria collar root especially in high temperatures. The drip lines are being moved closer to the canopy drip line of the fruit trees. The concept that tree roots constantly move through the soil away from the tree trunk is a surprise to people. I am trying to encourage denser and more diverse legume support tree plantings, Carpobrotus edulis to be planted as the main ground cover, compost en masse with compost tea and bio-fertilizer, and even the interaction of solar-powered electric net chicken tractors with self-feeding compost elements. We will see.


Chilli peppers

Hot peppers

There is also interest in extending the system, which can be done more easily now. Overall I think we have achieved a great result so far, and in an extremely difficult landscape.

We also have two years of production sales records that verify the system’s commercial viability.

Two years of production sales records

Red hot chilli peppers



Cucumber and chilli

Tomato polytunnel


Cucumber polytunnel


Tomato shipment

Mixed fruit tree rows

Crops between trees

Crop field spacing

Completely covered swale

Dates and olives in one row, mixed fruit trees in the next row

A happy farmer

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. another triumph for the movement Geoff! you must be proud but frustrated at the same time when humans by nature have so much trouble following a proven set of guidelines that MUST be followed are not adhered to?
    But gee you and your designer have certainly turned it around and succeeded, take a bow all of you! once again you have proven the system WORKS!

  2. This design is described in the Qur’an

    In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

    Surah Al-Kahf

    (31) Coin for them a similitude: Two men, unto one of whom We had assigned two gardens of grapes, and We had surrounded both with date-palms and had put between them tillage. (32) Each of the gardens gave its fruit and withheld naught thereof. And We caused a river to gush forth therein.

  3. Interesting project. Is there any possibility on turning to rainwater irrigation? Also would it help to cover the swales with plywood or such, at least until the the shading plants have completely taken over? This to reduce evaporation.

    Also I’d like to see stats on this (and other) projects. Such as production per acre, water usage per acre per year, water usage on kilogram of produce etc. I think that it would be important to make detailed statistics to further prove the effectivity of permaculture methods. Most of the demonstrations I’ve seen on the internet are of qualitative type: “Look, here is a beautiful and lush food forest” “It is so green” etc. Many of photos provided are rather convincing, but one cannot be 100% sure about the sustainability. By pumping wast amounts of ground water many things are possible on short term. I’d like to have the numberss, in order to be 100% sure that the claims made by permies are sound. It is a problem that it seems that many permies just don’t do numbers.

    Of course if BigAg is prepared to pay for permaculture consultation it is kind of a signal…Still that doesn’t make deep gournd water pumping sustainable. Of course it is sometimes necessary in transition fase, and it is better to use pumped water as efectively as possible.

    Regards, Aapo from Finland

  4. Hi Aapo,

    I’m in a temperate environment in the south east corner of Australia. Between October 2012 and the end of February 2013 it did not rain here. Not only was that summer one of hottest in recorded history, March 2013 (autumn) produced the longest sustained heatwave in recorded history here (records date back to 1870). I have 300 diverse fruit trees in a food forest, plus vegetables and herbs. The food forest itself did not require any watering during this period as I have several swales and other methods of getting water into the ground water table (when it does rain). I’m on tank water and have no other access to town water. This stuff works. Nuff said.


  5. Hi Aapo,

    As you are in Finland, I would look back upon your history and note that there have been several historic occasions of wide scale famine in your country. If it has happened once, it will happen again.


  6. Love this and can’t get enough of it. I really wish someone would put a video camera on Geoff – would love for him to have a tv show about the work he does. I feel like I’d learn even more from video.

    Please update us again on this project!

  7. Thank you for sharing with us Geoff. This is brilliant success, giving us (as you said) more of an insight and hope of how we can improve similar landscapes!

    Thank you again!

    All the best,

  8. Thanks for the detailed update. I especially appreciate the problem solving aspects of the conflict over permi vs conventional thinking. In the five years I have been doing permaculture work and study I have found that problem solving becomes a way of thinking. This confirms it again.

  9. Hi, I like to know how much 5ha would cost in such country and how much it would cost to transform it.

    Because, I like to know if there is any business possible in buying barren land, then transforming it, and then selling it after 5 years.


  10. Hi Chris

    Yes, Finland has had severe famines in history. I am also conserned about the resilience in our highly technologized society.

    It is good that your fruit trees are doing well. The swale concept is among those most sense-making in permaculture. Also the overall idea of building systems where parts support each other is very sensible. Still, this just anecdotal and qualitative proof of permaculture, or your sites’ performance. We need comparisons to other non-pc farms in the areas surrounding permaculture projects.

    I’m not saying that permaculture doesn’t work. I actually believe that it has great potential to aid humanity to survive future crises. But in order to realize this potential permaculture need rigorous checking and renewing concepts, and a lot of critical thinking – including self-criticism. There are lot of naturalistic assumptions in permaculture, such as that non-native species aren’t harmfull, because “nature will always balance itself”. These might not be “official” permaculture concepts, but they are wide spread. Also we need get numbers on production per area, production per energy per area, water usage, man-labour hours, pest problems, biodiversity, carbon budgets. Permaculture needs to engage with “main-stream” scientists. Permaculture needs keep on evaluating it’s concepts and throw out such that don’t hold up to the evidence. For example, there has been a lot going on in the ecological science since 1980’s, and the writing of “Permaculture – A designers manual”. This new research must be taken into account and it’s implications deeplycontemplated.

    Also, many permaculture sites -such as Geoff Zaytuna farm – benefit from the many interns and volunteers helping them. Has anyone made throughly calculations about the man-labour hours spent in there? I’m not saying that the comparison would prove in disfavor of Zaytuna, but can we really know if we don’t take a good look.

    Also there is one permaculture key concept I especially want to rise into discussion: the concept that nature is based on collaboration and not competition. It is said the Designers manual that (not an exact quotation but the idea is this)”thus cooperation, not competition, is the basis of all life on earth. Only about 5 % of species are antagonist to each other”. Also we are often tought that weeds are only natures repair patrol, and that they are sign of nature and ecosystems trying to balance their self. This is a greatly disputable claim. Growth of a forest can also be seen as competition between different trees. Of course we can design systems that are mutually benefitting to some degree, and we can also balance the competition between organisms, so that they won’t cause too much destability. Concept of nature as a unity is under great debate. For sure we can say that there is no force driving nature or ecosystems into optimal states. Evolution, both of species and ecosystems, is very short sighted. The are lot of examples where a trait that brings evolutionary advantage leads to collapse of a population in the long term, when the trait gets more and more common.

    Overally, I see that what permaculture nows needs the most is rigorous inquiry into the methods and concepts, self-criticism and interaction with mainstream science.


    1. Well Aapo, it looks like you better get to work doing all that research, because I don’t think anyone else has time.
      A lot of research done these days is sponsored by people who want to see their product/systems promoted and justified. I think the research will only come when these systems have been replicated many times and in many locations.
      I think the research has already been done on the ancient successful systems permaculture seeks to mimic, if you have time please go and research the research for all of us and share it.
      There has been a study done on the Food forest system at Zaytuna, I think it relates to time spent establishing it and maintenance, perhaps you will find it over in the sidebar.

      As for your problem understanding that collaboration is the key to success, not competition, I think you need to think a little deeper. A forest is not about one tree species dominating and winning over another, it is about the interactions between all the layers, the fungi and microbes, soil and rocks, vast species and varieties of plants, and a myriad of animal. If they were all competing, in a last man standing type scenario as many would view the notion of competition, then the planet would be barren, all life would have competed itself out of existence.
      Please show me some evidence of the “Concept of nature as a unity is under great debate” really, who is saying that?

  11. Hi Aapo, no body is coming forward to fund all that testing unfortunately although it would be easy to do with energy auditing, and we would love to do it. There seems to be no interest from large funders to provide the funds to prove a system that provides total environmental health, human health and complete independence with absolute abundance. Right now it is just a matter of living what we teach and demonstrating by results where we can.
    There are no other holistic design system alternatives to permaculture that cover all the needs of humanity, so we are the only real game in town, and game changer unfortunately.
    It is well known that it takes 10,000 hours to master a subject, so do not rely on interns and volunteers to be much help or benefit to an intentionally extremely diverse permaculture demonstration site that also an education centre, but it is an experiential service that is provided.

  12. Aapo – I think defining a standardized set of measurements, measuring tools and progress indicators over time would be very valuable – at the very least to have a history of the property in question. Measurements kept over time could be an invaluable learning tool and would highlight successes, failures and areas where there may be opportunities to track even more energy through a project site. And could be used as a comparative body of work for measuring up against the conventional methods of a region.

    I would also think that having data and information on how new concepts are integrated into a particular setting would be really interesting to have as well. How does an idea spread? What observable benefit or detriment does a project present? Many of us, who when we first attempted permaculture projects were met with resistance (zoning, disbelief, etc.), have years later, become an asset to the communities in which we live. How does this happen? How can we codify and measure it? What are the steps to be taken to gain acceptance?

    There many opportunities around this issue – it’s pretty exciting.

  13. I really enjoy reading about these projects in Jordan (viz. the Wadi Rum project and Greening the Deserts I & II).

    Can anyone help me to understand the functioning of the swale in the latest (Wadi Rum) design?

    The block has been leveled; and so that broad, flat, non-water harvesting swale serves only to distribute irrigation water from a deep aquifer. If I were to show this design to a vine or citrus irrigator in Renmark, Mildura, or Griffith (to non-Ozzies, these are towns in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin “foodbowl”) they would call this swale an “irrigation furrow”. Since the 1960’s, irrigators have phased out these furrows in favour of—in order of increasing water use efficiency—overhead sprays, low level sprays, and then various kinds of drippers.

    Throughout the Murray-Darling Basin, furrow irrigation systems wasted enormous quantities of water and leached-out nutrients. They also caused the recharge of groundwater, something that is often the goal of permaculture designs—BUT—unfortunately, this came in the form of a rising hyper-saline water table and often lead to a white carpet of crystalline salt forming on the top of the soil, and to dead or unproductive plants. As I understand it: many of the sediments underlying the Murray-Darling Basin are marine, and so the groundwater is often inherently hyper-saline.

    Since water use efficiency, salinity, and the depletion of aquifers have been a focus of Geoff’s projects in Jordan, I am wondering what the advantage is of having a non-water harvesting irrigation furrow/swale in the Wadi Rum design? I would guess that you would be putting more water down one of those swales than you would pump down 10 of the parallel dripper lines. And presumably the water running through the swales, which is effectively run-off over/through salted soils, is also getting saltier the further it moves down the swale?

    Since internet exchanges can sometimes lead to misunderstandings, I should stress that none of the above questions/observations are intended to be pointed criticisms of the design or the project; I admire these projects. I am just trying to get a grip on a set of principles: perhaps there are some aspects of this site such as the irrigation water, the sendiments, the groundwater or the water management practices of the broader site (e.g., sub-surface drainage) that explain the workings of the furrow/swale in this design?

  14. Mashaallah! Well done Geoff, thank you for sharing very informative knowledge. Is there any hope to see the efforts in person you have made?
    Parmaculture Research Institute Jordon is private or Government organization. Does this institute arrange Training programme? If yes please let me know the Schedule programme, Registration, Admission, Fees and terms and conditions. Waiting your reply. Thank you.

    Lateef Khilji Karachi, Pakistan

    1. Hi Lateef:

      You can see PRI projects and courses offered here: There are several opportunities in Jordan in 2014 including both PDC courses and hands-on internships. I’ll be attending the Oct 2014 internship – maybe I’ll see you there! Dead Sea Valley Permaculture Project (aka Greening the Desert – the Sequel) Internship, Jordan

  15. There are no words that can express my admiration for this project. Everytime we see permaculture in action is like a new miracle!
    Great to see that they are growing ocra. This is such a good crop for arid climates. We started growing it at our place in Mallorca one year ago and the results were amazing besides the exquisit taste of the pods. I love them!
    I have one question for Geoff too: What about moringa trees? They are a great crop and very good for half shade creation and mixing with the legume trees, palm trees, etc. Is the Jordan culture familiar with consuming moringa?
    Best of lucks!

  16. The swales work no matter of, natural form or flattened landscape form, create vegetative cover stop the damaging effect of the shifting sand, leading to almost total swale shade in summer and greatly reduced evaporation. Water is harvested to perched aquifers with the addition of rain run off from rock hill structures near by and the irrigated water to swales is already being greatly reduced. The soils are now increasing in organic mater, darker, retaining more water and reducing in salt content. Without the irrigated water additions to start this project the whole process would have be a much slower sequence of biological events and probably would not of happened because of the lack of economic value, instead it now serves as an example of what is possible.

  17. I’ve been rewatching the Food Forest video (this is the third time and I’m shocked at what I missed the first two times I watched it months ago!)

    I notice the design that Geoff did for this project didn’t mention all the layers of the forest. It mentions ground crawl and trees. Some of those like Pomegranate I guess might be considered bushes/shrubs. But nothing else. I’m wondering why? Was it to keep the design simple for them when consulting? Are they something to be added much later? Or was the project designed before Geoff got into layers?

    I think this article was one of the best learning tools for me yet. After studying Permaculture for the last 1 1/2 years, having a plan to study is exactly what I need. It helps me to formulate questions and see things I didn’t before as far as the design.

    I would love more articles on consultations he has done and the plan that he formulated.

    Thanks again for putting in the time to write this article

  18. If this was in a Mediterranean climate instead of an arid one, how would this plan be different?

    Would the number of nitrogen fixers be different?

    Would there be something like clover instead?

    Would the fruit trees be different? (I assume there would be something other than Date palm since we dont’ get the heat of the desert that is needed to actually get dates.)

    Any other changes?

  19. Regarding Aapo’s comments about competition/cooperation in nature and to what extent these are assumed in permaculture.

    There is an awful lot of BOTH competition and cooperation in nature—and so too, therefore, in permaculture—although the underlying biological process is fundamentally competitive. The weird thing is that in the process of gaining a richer understanding of that competitive process (i.e., through the elaboration of Evolution by Natural Selection) it emerges that cooperation is one natural outcome of competition. It is often forgotten that Charles Darwin wrote extensively about cooperation in both “On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection” and “The Descent of Man”.

    I find it helpful in this context to consider the kinds of interactions entailed in the parasitic disease toxoplasmosis. The protozoan parasite ( T. gondii) that causes toxoplasmosis has multiple stages in its life cycle. In one version of this cycle the parasite lives in a mouse, but then it needs to move-on to a cat to complete its cycle. The parasite nudges the cycle along by causing psycho-active molecules to be produced in the mouse that manipulate its behaviour; these result in the reversal of numerous aspects of mouse behaviour, e.g.: the mouse loses its fear of open spaces and it becomes attracted to, rather than repelled by, cat odours. So consider what is happening overall: the interaction is pretty much “nature red in tooth and claw” for the unlucky mouse, but it is probably a net benefit for the cat who gets access to easy prey, but at the small cost of ingesting parasites that then extract their quid pro quo by forcing the cat to finance the next stage of their life cycle.

    Recently we have begun to understand that the mouse, the cat—and even T. gondii, to some extent—each support their own ecosystem of organisms (their “microbiomes”) that live on and/or in them. Some of these organisms help their host, some hurt them, and some are neutral. The mind boggles when you consider that the same applies for virtually every organism within the broader ecological communities that sustain the cat and the mouse and there are multiple levels of interaction and organisation for all aspects of those ecosystems: It all gets impossibly complex.

    Some folks think all of the above sums to Gaia: the earth acting as a single organism that optimizes conditions for life to flourish. I think we are several hundred years away from being able to properly evaluate this question; by which time—if we don’t mend our ways—we may have killed off both ourselves and most of the biosphere.

    What I do know is that the fundamental process that started the whole show of life on earth began with a self-copying molecule (Dawkin’s “replicator”) and that competition between these replicators for energy and materials led, via Natural Selection, to the evolution of ever increasing levels of complexity and everything that flowed from it—including cooperation.

    Permaculture designs seek to structure and harness the cooperative AND competitive interactions between plants, fungi, animals, and various microorganisms to maximize the yield to humans within the framework of permaculture ethics which balance human needs with the needs of the whole system; giving a productive system that is also resilient, bio-diverse and—to my eye—beautiful. I believe the idea that we might be able to choose between friendly cooperation and ruthless, destructive competition misunderstands Nature.

    1. I will keep doing my best to get good examples on the ground when and where I can while we need to demonstrate what is possible.

    2. Dear abcd I would be grateful to know you real name if you have the courage to comment do you have the courage to reveal your personal details.
      Please let me help you walk your talk.

  20. @abcd

    Firstly, I’d recommend you read the article I wrote, linked to in the first paragraph of Geoff’s post above – it’s about ‘transition’.

    What you’re skipping over is the fact that much of the world’s ‘modern’ agriculture is based on the mass-externalising of costs, be they labour, or soil, water, pollution, etc. What Geoff is doing is significant, as it works in stark contrast to the nearby chemical- and irrigation-based farm owned by the very same people. Once success is seen with a holistically managed, biodiverse system, then it can spread – across that farm, and other farms. The very nature of these systems means that the management – and workers – involved go through a rather transforming educational experience. Anyone who studies natural systems, and begins to work in harmony with them, starts down a road which can and does lead to profound changes on a personal level. Studying natural systems, and the symbioses between soil organisms, plants and other elements, made a profound change in my own world view, and has lead me to see connections that have impacted my thoughts in areas I previously thought were unrelated, but now see are not – like economic, political, social issues, etc.

    I agree with Geoff’s oft-quoted statement, that “all the world’s problems can be solved in a garden”. Geoff is helping to plant a garden not only in the heart of Jordan’s largest mixed farm, but in the minds of all the people involved with it. The outcome in regards to the latter (the people involved) remains to be seen, but the potential is there for significant change in not only the kind of work these immigrant workers are doing, but how that work is managed also. The very nature of biodiverse farming systems necessitates a greater appreciation for the educated human element in the system, rather than the bright red tractor’s arbitrary input.

    If you have better ideas on how to make change, please share them. Until then, we will do our best to not just criticise and expose the current system, but also demonstrate how to begin to transform it.

  21. Re. comments by “STOP”, “stop2”, and Roger Savory (see the original posting of Geoff’s design in 2010), and also “abcd” (above):

    I don’t think it is either reasonable or wise to place an onus on permaculture demonstration projects to rectify every social injustice within the vicinity of the project site before the first seed is sown.

    Roger said:

    “…all people who have the power to veto your decisions need to be part of the group who create the context, so that what you are doing is socially, economically and environmentally sound both short and long term. … While it might seem like time wastage to some it is designed to prevent these type of human issues in the future. If the entire community had supported this farm and were all making decisions to fix the water cycle, nutrient cycle, carbon cycle, and were making their decisions based on how they wanted their lives to be i.e. their quality of life, then these types of anger based reactions would not be occurring…”

    I am impressed with the results of many of Allan/Roger Savory’s Holistic Management projects. However I believe that the above social process is often unwieldy and would certainly have been an unworkable showstopper for the Wadi Rum project.

    [I would also argue, incidentally, that Allan’s other ancillary concept, i.e., that humanity is somehow stained/blinded by the toolmaker’s ‘original sin’ of problem solving, is both invalid and (fortunately) superfluous to the real take-home message of his system. I don’t think Allan understands the degree to which the problem solving that he purports to reject—particularly science, mathematics, technology, and quite a bit of useful philosophy—perfuses every aspect of his management system, the implementation of his projects, and the world in which they operate.]

    In summary, I think Holistic Management gives valuable fresh insights that permaculturists can integrate with other related approaches like cell grazing, alley cropping/grazing systems, natural sequence farming, and keyline/Doherty’s new keyline iteration: BUT, Savory’s entangled social processes, and his rejection of problem solving are a mistaken and unnecessary complication of his core ideas.

    Getting back to Geoff’s Wadi Rum project: Most people—no matter whether they are the heads of giant conventional agribusinesses, or small-scale family farmers—will only understand the need to “fix the water cycle, nutrient cycle, carbon cycle”, (as Roger Savory puts it), when they see an example of what a healthy water/nutrient/carbon cycle can do for THEM. This is what Geoff’s Wadi Rum project is demonstrating (though I am still not sure his “irrigation furrows/swales” in this design are a good idea).

    There is a genuine dilemma at the heart of Geoff’s decision to associate himself with the Wadi Rum project, but I think Geoff/Craig clearly established the “YES” case in the original 2010 article; remembering, as Craig says, that this is about TRANSITION. Because of this project, there is now a richer set of possibilities available, not only to the managers of the Wadi Rum site, but also to their workforce and the displaced local people. Fortunately this possibility—permaculture design—has fair share eithics rusted-in to its core and consequently these designs are at their most productive when their human participants operate as observant, creative nodes in the system. What the local, regional, and national political processes in Jordan will reap from this new set of possibilities is up to them but I believe the chances of a better outcome—for both humanity and the biosphere—have been vastly improved by the tangible example that this project presents.

  22. Thank you, Geoff, for the great work and great description of the problems and solutions along the way. As a development worker and a new permaculture practitioner, I find your descriptions of project implementation incredibly useful.

    Now that this project in such an arid context has proven its viability, I am curious about several different aspects of expansion.

    Beyond the benefits to soil fertility and local moisture accumulation, do you find that oases like this one have a positive net effect on the humidity in the surrounding microclimates? If you were to expand this project, would you try to leverage this established moisture bank by expanding along the path likely taken by evapotranspiration in the locally prevailing winds?
    Is there an arid climate version of the rain machine that Willie Smits talked about in his TED talk on restoring a rainforest, and, if so, what strategies are there to help a starter site like this one become a seed for regional transition?
    Thanks again for sharing such strong work.

  23. Hi Monsieur Geoff Lawton,

    First of all “BRAVO” and thanks a lot to give us all, hope and guidance …. But all the experiences you r talking about have been With groundwater or aquifer soil. How to do in desert mountains like for example the south morrocco … (Taroudant my area and by the way Biosphere UNESCO ). Hope U’ll Accep my apelogize for my english. My challenge is to green this poor land and to save the secular trees… with just the rain in desertic land … How to do, is there a web site, an institute, course or some other experts in Morocco … You ??? How ???

    1. Hi I too would like to duplicate the permaculture work in Wadi Rum in the south of Morocco, near Tinghir. We have a barren parcel of land with not such a generous water supply as Wadi Rum to start off the swales. Please give us any info as to any similar projects starting up or existing in Morocco/dry land permaculture experts. My facebook is ourti-culture, I am gathering information for our project.
      The traditional way of cultivating the land in the southern oasis lands is to flood irrigate small squares of land in between the palms and trees and this is then planted. If I have understood correctly the swales are to encourage the top tree layer growth, which then in turn will provide shade for the cultivated areas. If we wish to convert an existing oasis garden which already has mature palm trees, we do not need to create swales? Rather than flooding the cultivated squares which is the traditional practise, should we move to drip irrigation and longer cultivated areas? The use of artificial tunnels in your opinion is not to be encouraged as the tree layer provides a healthier micro environment? Best regards, Katharine


  25. Hi Geoff,
    i am an architect/urban planner with a project of an 18 square kilometer site near to the saudi border in the uae, 6 kms of seafront and 3 into the desert.
    We would like to make the pitch to the owner (his highness) that the site becomes more than just your usual lip service to an ecological gimmick…much more…many of the perma culture ideas such as education and community participation are required for this project, along with a relatively small resort component ( 40 villas)
    we would like to consider the whole site as test case and the villas as a part of the demonstration etc…if this sounds of interest drop me a line…
    i am somewhat familiar with the permaculture practice having been involved with the UNSW ecogardens for a number of years which were based on the same…doing something on this scale and with the limited water resource particularly that’s a different game…
    Your greening desert projects are fascinating…particularly the practice of making the salt inert …
    my number can be found from our office contact +971 43466550
    just so its clear, we have been invited to submit a proposal to the ruler for this site…this will happen this week and we would like include you and your system as the way forward for site identity…we still get to design the villas and work with you the strategic masterplan etc…i know this is short notice but its kinda how it works over here….
    Scott Jezzard
    Senior architect, Master planner

  26. Hi I am interested in developing a site that would comfortably cater to the needs of say 10,000 people how much land would I need to to feed that many people?

  27. This is a fantastic testament for dryland temperate polyculture. I’m curious whether and to what extent animals (e.g., paddock rotations of chicken or sheet, etc) have been integrated into this landscape

  28. Can increasing humidity in the food forest be harmful to the date palms? I’m planning to plant Mejdoul date palms that require a dry climate and a palms’ expert told me that planting fruit trees between palms will increase the date palms’ pests. Is this true? And are there bad companions for the date palms? The site is in Bahariya oasis in Egypt, a very hot and dry climate, precipitation is almost zero

    1. Hi Salma quite the reverse, less date palm pests because of the natural predator pest balance created by the natural oasis environment, which were naturally slightly more humid than surrounding desert.
      Allelopathy ( is want you want to avoid, like planting eucalypts in amongst productive trees.
      Beneficial diversity is the key to a truly sustainable permanently productive system and an expert in one species (date palms in your case) will not understand this. Quite often they will not want to understand it, because it undermines their specialised expertise.
      You can make your own study of the the date palm over storey food forest oasis of the world, many are 1000’s of years old. In 2015 I will be taking a filming trip through many of these ancient systems in an effort to make people aware of their importance.

  29. Hello,
    In an arid climate such as this, if you had a choice of contour directions to maximise shading, would you prefer the swales running north/south or east/west? Id imagine it would be easier to shade out the swale with the trees on the mound running east/west, but if your planting trees on both sides (like I see in some of the above photo’s) I can see some advantages in running them north/south (ie helping shade the inter swale crops from the harsh afternoon sun).
    Thank you

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