Ecosystems’ regeneration is about making natural patterns our allies: here is a reflection on how to manage complexity, integrate horizontal and vertical diversity, and work with time.

(this is the second report on the Ecosystem’s Regeneration Design Course delivered by Gaia Education and Ecosystem Restoration Camps)

Managing Complexity

Module 2 was very informative, with a rich balance of knowledge and wisdom delivered from direct experience and a sense of practical realities.

Patrick Worms’ introduction narrative: ‘Feed the World’ gives a good understanding of the complexity of events that led to today’s Agro-industry model failing us while presenting Agro-ecologic models of food production as a silver bullet solution to tackle climate change, environmental pollutions, and economic & humanitarian crisis. It was useful for me to deepen my understanding of how the different dimensions of regeneration (economic, politic, social, individual, ecologic) are interwoven into one fabric. This is empowering in the sense that it allows for a unified story to emerge, a lifestyle alternative that takes all dimensions into account.

The Trophic Pyramid that Patrick Worms, Rhamis Kent, and Joost Wouters describe in the relative fields of Agroforestry, permaculture, and seaweed production was also very inspiring to me as it explains another form of complexity: ecosystems are made by a myriad of actors all playing a specific role in the resilience of the ecosystem: successful restoration efforts not only take all of them in consideration, they design the vertical integration patterns to maximize the benefits of each.

Last but not least, I have been humbled by Precious Piri’s holistic grazing model: her mastery of the element of Time by designing beneficial succession is amazing and I am very grateful for the pdf she shared.

While I focus on natural ecosystem restoration in this article, you will find that all this wisdom also applies to our inner ecology!

Designing interactions through integration

The take-away lesson for me is about design: while I have been developing intuition of natural systems over the years, I feel that I am stepping into a bigger game – that I am committed to taking into module 5 and the planning of my project in Northern Thailand: that of designing proactively the horizontal, vertical and time integration.

I loved Rhamis Kent’s class on Permaculture Ethics and Principles and how they can frame our reflection on any system we design. The Triple Ethics (Contribution to Nature, Humans, and Fait Share), as well as the 12 Principles, give good guidelines to rethink our projects from an eco-centric perspective.

The vertical integration of functions and horizontal integration of dimensions in a system allows maximizing the outcomes and the services while limiting its dependency upon external inputs.

Horizontal integrations

Horizontal integration is about taking the wider context of our project: not only the ecosystem regeneration, but the social impact, the economic opportunities, the political landscape, and the psychological and cultural context in which we will work.

A successful restoration project must not only regenerate a degraded ecosystem: it must guarantee that the wider context also benefits from it and creates the right conditions for the regeneration to continue and be supported.

  • Economic Context: the regeneration must meet, ad minima, produce enough resources to guarantee the livelihood of the people working in the project. While the first years of investing can be supported by external donors and/or grants, the project must look at financial viability.
  • Social Context: understanding the social context and history gives us many elements of the WHY the ecosystem was degraded. This social context must be changed in order for the practices to evolve. This is linked to the creation of economic opportunities and feeds into changing cultural habits and beliefs.
  • Political Context: the political situation must also not be forgotten for it could present massive obstacles or immense incentives.
  • Personal Context: all of these flow down onto the individual context: how all the stakeholders see themselves be a part, or not, of the regeneration effort.

Both Patrick and Rhamis pointed out the lack of cohesion in the regeneration movement: we don’t agree on a name or a common branding… We need a unifying and unified narrative that integrates all the diversity of practices and benefits into one myth around which to rally.

Vertical Integrations

Vertical integration in agricultural production, even in arid conditions, it makes very obvious how diversity creates not only abundance but also resilience and support. A multi-layered food forest indeed creates better conditions for different crops and biomass to improve the soil.

Joost Wouters’ seaweed farming was also very inspiring because of all the interactions he is trying to design into his farms. I believe in his vision of integrating seaweed farming in more aquaculture systems (including fish and seashells) because are mutually beneficial.

Vertical integration of functions and benefits in the design process is another key for success. All the speakers showed a great depth of understanding of their ecosystems: from the smallest bacterias and insects in the soil to the keystones species, all the interrelations can be understood and mapped.

I found Rhamis Kent’s ecosystem degradation chart (from vegetation degradation to soil disruption to water crisis) very clear. We are living this same scenario in my valley and I will use it more to describe how burning tree leaves affect the water cycle of the whole mountain.

The rotation and integration between 3 Sisters, legumes, and pigeons peas described by Patrick was also a brilliant example of successful integration.

The research I did on syntropic farming and integrated seaweed farming for filtration really made me realize that, as we stack functions vertically with diverse species, we also create a wider range of resources, and multiply our outputs. In a market economy, this translates into more potential income; in an economy of sustenance, this means more resilience by producing more types of foods at any time of year.

Mastering Time: designing succession

The other design element that most inspired me and that will deeply affect my practice is Time. Precious Piri’s holistic grazing framework was fascinating to study… and a bit intimidating as well! Proper observation of the cycles of nature (seasons, growing rates, succession) makes working with time an Art.

How to fit so many questions in one framework is such a wonderful tool: the numbers of animals, their appetite, the capacity of the plants to grow, their capacity to allow water to penetrate the soil, the way they move the soil, the amount of manure they leave behind…

Rhamis Kent’s knowledge of the nutrients cycle (mineral and biologic successions) was also a determining factor in the success of the Green the Desert project as it allowed him and his team to know what to do when to maximize success.

I personally find mastering Time to be the most difficult element of design.

Conclusion: a masterplan for 2022

This element of Time was more of a Eureka moment for me which will change the way I design my project in Thailand. I have always been too intimidated or lazy to take the time to design a map of the production and restoration effort over the coming year.

But this will be my takeaway from module 2 and my commitment for 2022. I will propose a project for module 5 that will emphasize the design element and map a maximum of the interactions and their evolution throughout the year.

Rather than be intimidated by the complexity, I want to make it my ally. Change the mindset from ‘this will mean more work for me’ to ‘this will maximize the natural services for all’.