Inside a spare hotel room, on one of the most northern places on earth, something magical is happening. Plants are growing, worms are composting waste, and people are feeling re-connected to food in a world of mining and monetary extraction.
Meet Benjamin Vidmar, Director of Polar Permaculture Solutions. Benjamin has been working on creating a permaculture system in Svalbard, part of a group of Islands in the Arctic Ocean. A maze of bureaucracy and complexity, with contested land use and a transient population, are some of the challenges he is facing.
Benjamin’s passion for food runs deep, going to culinary school aged 19, then traveling his way round the world by cheffing on ships.
“For a long time, I felt like I had been practicing permaculture, but I didn’t know it was called permaculture,” says Benjamin.
In August 2013, Benjamin finally signed up for a permaculture design course, with Whole Systems Design in Vermont. Soon enough he was hooked, enrolling in the International Diploma of Permaculture Design in September 2013 with Gaia University.
Since beginning his diploma, Benjamin has been focused on developing closed-loop systems on the Island. Its ecology is fascinating. Home to 3,000 polar bears, for 3.5 months of the year there is 24 hour daylight. For 3.5 months there is total darkness.
The busy season between February and May consists of people visiting and playing with dog sleds and snow mobiles. In June and July cruise ships visit the Island. There is a town, school and shopping centre, which everyone goes to. Imported vegetables are in plastic and there is no fresh food.
Everything here is flushed down drains. Nothing can stay here. All the rubbish needs to be shipped back down to Norway and then sent by trucks to Sweden. There is so much energy and resources tied up in simply dealing with our waste. — Benjamin Vidmar
Benjamin is experimenting with some of the ways to close the loops and save energy and resources. His experiments started with simple coffee grinds, and growing mushrooms on them in a spare hotel room. Having imported hydroponic resources to grow fresh salad, Benjamin, once again challenging the logic of it all, decided to try to make his own compost instead. Now he has wormeries eating the food scraps from the hotel, and slowly but surely, he is creating a medium to make the production more sustainable.
“It’s like living on the moon,” says Benjamin. “We don’t have anything growing; no trees, only rock and snow. Grass and flowers grow in the summertime but you always feel like something is missing. You get depressed and you miss what other people take for granted.
Everyone makes so much money but people are still not happy. People walk around like zombies in this tax free place. The only things that are cheap are the bad things — alcohol, cigarettes and so forth. Good food is very expensive. I’ve asked myself, "Why are we not happy here? I think its because we’re out of touch with Nature."
Benjamin describes that moment of joy when kids come and see his worms, feeling and re-establishing a connection to the earth.
Learning about permaculture has helped me to focus my energy. Now I observe more and watch and wait before making decisions. Before I would just want to dive into everything so quickly. I can see now that everything is patterns and it can take time to put things in the right place.
Benjamin wants to convene a Permaculture Design course on the island and his long term plans are to develop a Permaculture Research Centre, that could experiment with how to make the island, and other similar places, more sustainable.
I’ve been here six years and fallen in love with it. Its such a magical place. Everything is extreme, there is no in-between. It makes you appreciate life.
For more about Benjamin’s work visit: https://www.lyr-svalbard.com.