Many people envision a world in which our food supply doesn’t depend on large corporations. In order to make these seedling visions germinate it takes self-education, the willingness to drop degenerative activities and the desire to connect with one’s community. For a certain group of El Pasoans, the solution to the disconnection of man and nature is “permaculture.” Thus sprouted the El Paso Permaculture Group (EPPG).
Although the word permaculture, which stands for “permanent agriculture” or “permanent culture,” was invented in the ‘70s by two Australian naturalists named Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the roots of its design goes back to the practices of our ancient ancestors.
Today in the U.S., we see agricultural farms that use enormous amounts of land for only a few plants. Industrial agriculture has led to the increase of pests, therefore the need for large amounts of pesticides. Much of the produce we buy comes from miles and miles away, compromising their nutrients as they travel to grocery stores.
But once upon a time people grew plants in and around their homes and used them for medicine and food. As foragers and gatherers, we didn’t need to shop at superstores to get our fruits and vegetables. EPPG’s goal is to help the community go back to those indigenous yet sophisticated ways of life. Permaculture runs on these three main values: caring for the earth, caring for people and the sharing of surplus.
Two years ago, Carlo Mendo, an activist who owns the Loft Light Studio on 315 S. El Paso St., met Robert Leal, a permaculturist and yoga instructor at The Root Yoga Studio.
“He had this book called The Permaculture Way and I asked him to tell me more about it,” said Mendo. “Believe it or not, permaculture addresses every single issue, from health to economics to the environment. I always wanted to start a community garden and Robert has so much knowledge, so we immediately connected.”
While living in Watsonville, Calif. several years ago, Leal heard about permaculture and how it differs from modern agriculture; which adds more damage to the environment with its use of fossil fuels, chemicals and wasteful systems such as irrigation. Permaculture utilizes biological resources instead of industrial technology. It calls for people to study patterns found in nature and use them for their own gardens. By growing diverse native plants, harvesting rainwater and using natural supplies to create rich soil, permaculture is an approach that counters the uneconomical and damaging results of monoculture.
In the beginning, the idea of using and spreading the knowledge of permaculture posed a challenge for Leal. Some of its unconventional methods aren’t supported in many urban communities.
“At first, I wasn’t ready to take it on,” said Leal. “I still had this insecurity about everything, but as I started to work on myself through meditation and different holistic practices, I started empowering myself and recognizing that I could make a positive impact.”
The first thing Leal did when he moved back to El Paso was work on his mother’s garden. She wasn’t too happy about the idea of him digging into the beautiful lawn she worked so hard to maintain, but like many supportive mothers, she allowed him to do his thing. Within months, her quintessential garden turned into a food forest filled with tomatoes, squash, peppers and dozens of other edibles.
Leal later teamed up with Mendo not too long after they met and created the El Paso Permaculture Facebook group. Within a short amount of time, EPPG accumulated enough members to make it a hands-on, structured organization.
Starting in the summer of 2011, several members worked on creating their first garden in a downtown alley behind Loft Light Studio. Since then, they have taken a permaculture design course and shared their knowledge with several schools. It’s one thing to help incorporate gardens into school grounds, but it’s been an inspiring, fulfilling experience to watch the kids light up as they throw vegetable scraps into the sunken garden beds, chanting, “Nitrogen! Nitrogen! Nitrogen!” (Vegetarian food scraps are high in nitrogen, which is needed for composting.)
While many might imagine that EPPG is comprised of mostly patchouli-wearing college kids, its members are quite diverse. From teachers to City of El Paso employees to artists, these people come together to turn lawns and unused land into food forests.
But like many other movements, the avocation of permaculture faces some obstacles. Earlier this summer in Drummondville, Quebec, the town authorities ordered residents Josée Landry and Michel Beauchamp to remove most of their kitchen garden because it took up more than 30 percent of their front yard (a code violation). A successful petition helped them keep their garden, however. In Jackson County, Oregon, a man named Gary Harrington was sentenced to 30 days in jail for harvesting rainwater on his own property, due to a 1925 state law against private water collection.
Even EPPG has faced some challenges, such as finding space to use for a community garden and permaculture hub. Originally, City Council granted the group the 10,000-square-foot empty lot behind City Hall for that purpose, but the Triple-A ballpark stadium to be built in that area put an end to that. Nevertheless, the council is looking into more areas for the group to use, particularly 494 W. Missouri Ave.
For now, the group continues to build foundations for gardens, most recently a kitchen garden at the Holy Trinity Retreat Center on 14548 Simpson Road. Collaborations with the center might include holding workshops at the site and creating a farmer’s market. Mendo said that EPPG also plans to become a non-profit and reach out to children by teaching permaculture through cartoons and other media. With the continuous enthusiasm of EPPG’s members, their message of creating a regenerative environmental society has not fallen on deaf ears.
To learn more about the El Paso permaculture movement, visit ElPasoPermacultureGroup.com.
Text & Photos: Victoria Guadalupe Molinar