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The Jordan Valley Permaculture Project (aka ‘Greening the Desert – the Sequel’)

Here at the Jordan Valley Permaculture Project in Jawasari, we’re hard at work building the main facilities and enhancing the fertility of the site while we’re at it. Those who had the chance to see the system last summer may have had some pangs of fear looking at some of the fruit trees, nearly prostrate beneath the intense yearly roasts the Jordan valley experiences in last months of summer — last summer being particularly severe. But today, the system is strong and growing. Acacias, Prosopis, Tipuana tipu other hardy nitrogen fixers have shot up, and the formerly-moribund fruit trees are twice their size, growing healthily in the shade of the pioneers. Apart from one sickly palm, not a single fruit tree was lost, and we even have our first yield of fruit!

At the moment, the main focus remains the completion of the central building, which will hold the main classroom, the administrative office, and living quarters. As other authors have noted (here, here and here), the building is designed to showcase the thermal properties of straw bales and compressed earth bricks in an area filled with cheap concrete. Since the spring, the pace of building has been swift. While just a few months ago there was nothing but a single straw bale wall amongst concrete pillars, the outer walls are now completely built and the final coats of mud and lime plaster are being completed even as I write.


The western wall facing Jericho – before and after being smoothly
plastered by the PRIJ team

Looking back at when the plan for the work on this building started, I can scarcely believe what has occurred. It was only the summer of last year that a group of us at Entity Green had our first meeting with Geoff Lawton, to discuss composting and potential cooperation. Together we toured a banana farm, one of hundreds of such farms in the Jordan Valley, pumping huge amounts of water to support a crop that wouldn’t even be economically feasible without strong government intervention.


Myself, Hamzah, Geoff and Abdullah visiting a Banana farm
in the Jordan Valley. Photo by Anselm Ibing

From there, studying permaculture and getting involved in projects became a regular part of our lives. We took our PDC just months later, with Geoff and Nadia, and afterwards volunteered to start working on the building site on the weekends. Oftentimes, we would leave Amman early in the morning and would stay late into the evening, setting up electric lights to work into the evening hours. Sometimes it was a group of four of five, sometimes there were just two of us.


Farah, Hamzah & Anselm cobbing

We would bring friends, acquaintances and relatives to help mix and cob the western wall. And the work was slow at first. How many weekends did we work on just the interior of the western wall? I don’t care to remember, but gradually more and more volunteers started to join us. Soon we were officially organizing trips to work on our projects, and started getting volunteers from… everywhere. Apart from Jordanian & Palestinian volunteers we’ve met people from Russia, Japan, Cambodia, Australia, Estonia, Ecuador and the whole of the western world. The majority of our volunteers were from the capital city of Amman.

Amman, which is itself a nightmare of urban sprawl and traffic, offers few glimpses of nature besides the occasional garden terrace. Most of our volunteers, whatever their environmental convictions, wanted to get outside and work with their hands, to do something real. While the idea sounds cliché to most of us, it is a kind of reality here in Jordan — a sentiment we’ve heard verbatim from the mouths of many volunteers. Most Ammanis have a distinctly patrician attitude towards manual labor; it’s something better left to hard-working immigrants or the poor. By providing people with the opportunity to work and learn, we helped to bridge a huge social gap, and along the way initiated what was probably the first “work party” movement seen in Jordan.


Ahmad Abu-Handem, our local builder, & David Fairell, graduate of the
natural building course, who share great enthusiasm, as well as facial hair.

Now, augmenting our weekly flood of volunteers are the graduates from the natural building course, who return most every weekend to apply and sharpen the skills they’ve learned. Last Friday, anyone present could witness a human chain composed of locals and internationals handing freshly pressed bricks into immaculate lines inside the building. Initial connections we’ve made with volunteers have developed into much more — single acquaintances have become groups, groups networks, networks into communities of people who are familiar with our activities, connecting us with other enthusiastic volunteers, businessmen and women, and even members of the Jordanian Monarchy.


Volunteers and and the PRIJ team haul earth bricks inside

Meanwhile, Hayel & Galileo, the farm managers, have taken over full-time direction of the building process and helped produce thousands of the compressed earth bricks and dozens of batches of lime plaster. Even while the work is still being completed, everyone working on the site is already starting to feel the benefits of thermal properties of the straw & mud bricks. As it reaches midday, and temperatures begin to peak, the building remains cool and comfortable; the pleasant smell of fresh earth permeating the air of the room.


Hayel and Galileo sieving mud for plaster

One of the great benefits of the building process is all of the waste products from the building are straw and mud, which we use around the site to make new walkways, and for planting and compost. The local birds are also quite enamored of our new building, borrowing bits of straw to make their nests. We’ve been making plenty of compost with straw, native weeds, pigeon & goat manure, and food waste. We’ve been pleased to see the piles heat up nicely to 65°C within only a few days, losing very little water despite the summer heat.


.Mahmoud, a volunteer from Hebron, turns the compost


Our bacterial volunteers going to work for us

Meanwhile the recessed, double-reach beds designed by Nadia in Greening the Desert II for the Jawasarii Girl’s school has paid off. The school has twice in a row won the Jordan Ministry of Education’s award for best school garden, a rare honor for a rural school. The garden is thriving today.


The students of Jawasari Girl’s school holding their award


Working and learning in the garden

As part of the Permaculture Master Plan, the site aims to demonstrate and teach, among other permaculture practices, passive water catchment, polycultural planting, and sustainable waste management. Even before the facilities are completed we are already teaching — school children from Amman have come to learn about composting, and no one that sets foot on the site can help but learn at least a bit about permaculture design, nitrogen fixation, and water catchment. Jordan, as everyone should know, is on the front lines of the new critical resource: water. As summer starts the team continues to add new elements to the farm. The composting toilet block is nearing completion, our worm farm is thriving, and we’ve even started to add a few animal elements to the system, carefully. As the last light rains fall on the valley before the summer, the work continues. We’ve only the highest hopes for the season ahead.

11 Responses to “Dispatch from the Jordan Valley Permaculture Project (aka ‘Greening the Desert – the Sequel’) – April 2011”

  1. vincent

    awesome, always great to hear news from this project. Can’t wait to read more

    Reply
  2. Pneal

    nice write-up Dan. I’m afraid you’ve got at least a year head start on us up there, or we could race to see who gets their desert forest up first!

    Reply
  3. JC

    love this project and it’s what has got me started in all of this too. keep up the great work on it… there will be many who will come to learn from you. it is very very exciting!

    Reply
  4. Doug Weatherbee

    Hi, nice article! Great to hear of the work going on in Jordon.

    FYI on your compost temperature of 67C in the above photo of your ReoTemp. There’s recent research on aerobic compost and greenhouse gas emissions showing that a lower turn temp of 60C results in far less Nitrous Oxide (N20) and Ammonia (NH3)–and in some cases methane CH4–being released after the thermophilic (hot) stage of your compost. If you back off on your high Nitrogen inputs into the pile at start-up you’ll be able to have a lower high temp ceiling of 60C and therefore loose much less of your Nitrogen as the greenhouse gas N2O or volatilized NH3.

    You could still put the same amount of high Nitrogen inputs into your pile and simply turn at 60C instead of the above 67C but you’ll have to turn a lot more times over a longer period until an equilibrium between the high Nitrogen inputs (bacteria food) and the aerobic thermophilic bacteria numbers gets established. You’ll just have the same amount of high N food but be turning at a lower temp meaning it will take the thermophilic bacteria longer to eat all the (extra, not needed) N food you put in. No sense lugging extra high Nitrogen materials and dumping them into your compost only to have them blown off as volitilized gases.

    If you back off on the amount of high N inputs, just enough to get your temps above 55C and up to 60-61C over 10-12ish days you’ll get the materials in the pile fully pasteurized.

    Here are some refs for the research on composts and greenhouse gases in case anyone is interested.

    Amlinger, F., S. Peyr, and C. Cuhls. 2008. Greenhouse gas emissions from composting and mechanical biological treatment. Waste Mangement & Research, 26:47-60.

    Eklind, Y., C. Sundberg, S. Smårs, K. Steger, I. Sundh, H.Kirchmann, and H. Jönsson. 2007. Carbon turnover and ammonia emissions during composting of biowaste at different temperatures. J. Environ. Qual., 36:1512-1520.

    Shen, Y., L. Ren, G. Li, T. Chen, and R. Guo. 2011. Influence of aeration on CH4, N2O and NH3 emissions during aerobic composting of a chicken manure and high C/N waste mixture. Waste Management, 31:33-38.

    All the best with the efforts in Jordon.

    Doug

    Reply
  5. Dan Smith

    Hey Doug!

    Thanks for the compost info, always looking to add some more articles to the collection! We actually added some carbon to that particular one and returned, as we’re aware it was getting a bit too hot-especially for the second day. I used the photo because the ones I had of lower temperatures were a bit over-exposed. In general we aim for 55-60, and 65 max. What was impressive to me was that the pile was so active despite being uncovered and un-watered since the first day. We managed to finish that one in 12 days and it looked gorgeous.

    Best,
    D

    Reply
  6. Miles Durand

    Hi Jordan/PRI farm team .
    Doing great great work for the common good .Really impresive effort .My plan still to help/volunteer at the farm for the two weeks before the IPCN 10.
    Regards
    Miles

    Reply
  7. Robin

    Love reading updates about this (and other projects too). Amazing stuff!

    Reply
  8. Christian Douglas

    Great article Dan!! Excellent work down there matey. So good to see how far it has come on since leaving. You guys having been busting it out for sure. Now, comp in 12days…what green did you you guys use?? We’re you still on the straw and goat manure pile for carbons and N?
    I owe you an email..
    C

    Reply
  9. Dan Smith

    Just for the sake of documentation, our N sources were fresh plant matter (tons of it), goat and pigeon manure. And straw of course.

    Reply
  10. lauren

    Hello:)
    Just stumbled upon this website and had a couple of questions..I noticed that the prices were in Australian currency..Is it possible for an American citizen to take this trip? Where does the trip leave from? I am currently building an edible food forest on 3 acres in South Carolina, and feel that I would benefit from this trip tremendously! Please contact me at your earliest convenience at the email above.
    Thank you for your help!
    Lauren Helena

    Reply

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