Permaculture in Mecca

Geoff Lawton reports from a consultation trip to what will become the Al Bayda Project, Saudi Arabia

The Al Bayda Project in Saudi Arabia aims to help rehabilitate a large area of land, roughly 35 x 20kms (700km2 in total) containing 9 villages of Bedouin people who have been settled for 20-30 years in very basic conditions. The main mission is to develop a sustainable design demonstration system for how they can develop their villages and manage their environment and quite large herds of animals. Traditionally they would move with seasonal conditions around good grazing range-land patterns of management. Now, in settled villages, they don’t have the possibility to manage good range-land grazing with the appropriate patterning, and so the environment is greatly suffering from over-grazing and cutting of trees for firewood. As this grazing is their cultural heritage, they are not prepared to let it go and yet they don’t exactly fit into modern systems of settlement either.

People drive far to collect firewood – and goats range far to eat up any
new saplings that might be trying to establish themselves

The Islamic world is very familiar with this area as it is in the region (and governance) of Mecca, where people of the Muslim faith the world over direct their prayers to 5 times a day. This project could provide a significant example of large dry-land area management and rural village sustainable design principles and is of the utmost importance because it could have one of the largest influences imaginable throughout the Muslim world, which makes up approximately 23% of the total worldwide population.

Some of the work that we’ve already initiated is choosing an area to set up as a demonstration site of land use using such techniques as gabions, swales and limonia to harvest the small amount of rainfall that they have, which is only about 80-90mm/year. There are only one or two large run-off events per year, sometimes none, but there is quite high ground water in the area at 20-60m, which can be sustainably pumped, as long as there is a good management of water harvesting techniques across the broad area to recharge the aquifers. A major example of this type of landscape regeneration through the use of forest systems is the Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) practiced by Tony Rinaudo of World Vision who has been working in Niger for the past 20 years. This is a successful system that we’ve posted on our website twice now. Tony is a student of permaculture and is now supplying us with all of his information as he extends this system across the world.

We’ll also be showing in demonstration some sustainable building techniques for more appropriate energy conservation, as well as stand-alone solar systems using the latest technology of copper, indium, selenium panels with no-maintenance gel batteries. We will include solar energy pumping techniques and state-of-the-art solar hot water techniques, grey water recycling and dry composting toilets, as well as home gardening methods for improved health via the diversity of locally grown products. Fruit, vegetables, herbs and firewood will all be demonstrated as possibilities for local people to engage in.

The main stocks of animals that people keep are goats, sheep and camels, kept for their meat and milk, and we’ll be working with the Al-Faisal University in Saudi Arabia on research to demonstrate how we can improve breed diversity through genetics towards better milk production. We hope to be able to develop cheese and dairy production as a local economy for people to engage in. Initially, we have performed a census to learn the number of animals in the area and will be funding the local people to pen up their animals, supply them with feed, and employ some of them whilst we demonstrate how we can repair the landscape by employing people to use the FMNR system, which we could also call Bedouin Natural Rangeland Regeneration (BNRR) to give them a sense of ownership of this process. The outcome of this will be to get back into appropriate patterns of grazing in relation to their settlement and increased productivity towards value-added products of milk, yogurt, cheeses, and meat.

The census that we performed also included all people, houses and land use and we’re now in a secondary stage of starting the earthworks to enhance the systems in place, having secured an area of land that will now be fenced so that the site will have no accidental mismanagement from grazing flocks that may not yet be penned. This demonstration site will also act as a permaculture education centre for local people and also visitors of the area, particularly visitors to Mecca, which is only a very short distance away and hosts the largest gathering of people on earth each year on a pilgrimage that all muslims pledge to take at least once in a lifetime.

We expect to be able to really raise the profile of permaculture project work throughout the Islamic world with this project. With it comes a huge potential for uptake and replication.

There are more pictures of the kind of terrain we’re dealing with below.

Further Reading: