Green Shoots: Permaculture Project in Cambodia

Muneezay Jaffery
Wednesday, 20th February 2019

Green Shoots has a new learning centre in Cambodia, using permaculture principles and design to encourage local people to earn a living whilst living in harmony with nature.

In December 2018, Green Shoots Foundation, a UK registered charity, established a training centre for horticulture and rural development on a 0.56 Ha (1.2 acre) piece of land provided by the Provincial Government of an isolated province in the NW of Cambodia.

This project has been in the pipeline for 18 months and follows on from horticultural programs in local schools for nearly five years with a Cambodian grassroots organisation, Community-based Integrated Development.

Below, Green Shoots Foundation Operations Manager, Muneezay Jaffery, shares her initial thoughts on the design and set-up of this project along with future prospects.

Whilst we have been working in local schools on horticulture training projects since 2013, having our own space allows us to be more creative. We can now push the boundaries of the techniques we employ and subsequent examples we set within the community. For us, it is a perfect opportunity to demonstrate and practice permaculture.

Our primary aim is to introduce practical skills, through workshops and training courses that can enable individuals to earn a living whilst working in harmony with the natural environment.  80% of Cambodia lives in rural areas and is engaged in agricultural activities, 70% of the population is under 35 and the lure of urban areas and border crossings is guaranteeing a steady outflux of people - many who return with cash but little skills and futures to cushion them. Most youth are disheartened by agriculture as a profession, viewing it as “old fashioned”, labour intensive and simply uncool - all resulting in a dwindling rural economy.

Green Shoots have always appreciated the fact that we are working in a culture with nature (as an aesthetic and as utilitarian) at the forefront. Until a few years ago many farmers were ploughing their land with bullocks. Unlike in the UK (and other urban areas), the driving force is always to “reconnect people with nature”. In the province, we are already in nature; a day of shovelling manure is not a novelty. Given this, we see our task is to entwine “permaculture thinking” with the day-to-day activities and skills sharing at the centre.

Practical skills 

To offer a true picture, I must backtrack to the last 12 months when we had started planning the site sitting in a South London office.

Green Shoots worked closely with Edward Dale-Harris from SAWA, who has recently acquired a PDC from Thailand and, together, this 1.2-acre site became our canvas to paint, plot and populate. Miche Till from Social Landscapes provided initial guidance on permaculture in practice and giving comments on the site plan. For our fundraising efforts and as an educational tool, we created our mascot The Permaculture Chicken - that has followed us from London to Cambodia and conveys the complete ethos of the site.

An overarching aim with this project is to repackage agriculture as an attractive livelihood option for young people and enable them to strengthen their rural economy.

The first way to “repackage” is to include low cost, affordable tech within the space. Our bottom line for decision-making for tech is always “is it replicable? How much will it cost? What are the benefits?” Ultimately we want to set examples that can be emulated at home. Some of them are:

  • Horticulture techniques
  • Earth block making
  • Rain-water harvesting and bio-sand water filteration
  • Eco-toilet with biogas. 

Hand in hand, we also began to conduct youth workshops, make outreach visits in neighbouring villages and organise open-days for interested people to visit the Centre. Prior to construction, numerous community consultations were conducted with local government, village residents and lastly, the youth. The purpose was to introduce the project but also get their feedback on design and use. 

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Mural displayed in the classroom in Cambodia of the permaculture chicken

One new technique we were keen to employ was earthblock making - primarily due to Cambodia’s brick making industry being rampant with bonded labour and child labour. As it stands, all the bricks used on site have been cast by hand by labourers or volunteers. The earth is reused from wherever we have dug ponds for our water management strategy. For the main structure the bricks are cement stabilised (tutorial video) but the remaining structures (such as the eco-toilet) uses only adobe bricks. All the structures are given a finish using cassava plaster. Our other main building material has been bamboo- especially for blinds and structures that can be reassembled or retrofitted.

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For the growing spaces, we sectioned off four plots: A home garden, a mini-intensive farm, a conservation agriculture plot and a permaculture garden.

In the early stages, our local partner felt that showcasing practical skills was more important than theoretical learning around permaculture principles. So we chose to design the green spaces thematically to convey specific learning outcomes and ascribe permaculture principles along the way.

Firstly, the home garden, or the USD 100 home garden: This plot emulates a typical home garden, mixing flower beds with easy to grow vegetables and ones that tend to have a shorter shelf-life. For reasons of demonstration, we call it the USD 100 (GBP 75) home garden, aiming to showcase what can be achieved with this amount of funds available and how quickly they can be recovered. The first harvest will include: water spinach, cabbage, lettuce, leeks, cucumbers and herbs used in day-to-day cooking.

Secondly, the conservation agriculture plot and intensive farm: both employ the same techniques of drip irrigation; rice straw mulch and raised beds. However, in the conservation agriculture plot we employ a no-dig policy- to preserve soil fertility and showcase a less labour intensive practice. We will also observe a crop rotation pattern between these two plots. These plots will be fitted with a drip-irrigation system and we can compare the two to showcase the positive attributes of a no-till approach. The first harvest will include: sweet potato, long beans, salads with a live barrier of sunflowers.

All three plots will employ the use of green manures such as stylo and mung beans. 

The permaculture garden

After construction was completed many patches onsite were left wild and untouched. However, as the dry season commenced (December - April) a few grasses had to be cleared as they posed a fire hazard. This gave us an opportunity to think about planning a space that conveyed permaculture thinking.

I kept referring back to our need for themes - I wanted the permaculture space to convey a message, fit a purpose. I turned to forest gardening, a permaculture technique, which would work well as an educational tool given the high rates of deforestation in Cambodia. (7% of forest cover has been lost in the last decade.)

However I was more familiar with “woodland” forest gardening popular in Europe than one for tropical environments and I began to rack my brain for ideas. Ultimately it was the team’s obsession with learning the names of vegetables in the local language and English that led to our Eureka moment. So nestled between the swales and the teaching area, we focus our attention to convert this patch into a Cambodian Forest Garden.

Khmer cuisine is complex and we are lucky to be based in a small town where home cooked food and restaurant food are both a result of what is available in the market. Due to the Khmer Rouge atrocities, there has been a wipe out of traditional recipes and a Thaification of food, especially in the north. So I decided to theme the space according to forest environments and Khmer cuisine. It includes many roots (ginger, glang galang, fresh turmeric, jimica, fingerroot), herbs as cover crop and leafy greens. Other inclusions are bamboo, sugarcane; both that grow quickly and can provide a canopy. In the second year we can also include bees to produce honey.

As an educational tool, this small patch aims to pack a punch - we will have plenty of traditional “lost” foods along with an element of “forest management”. A large proportion of rural populations rely on non-timber forest products (NTFP) however there is rarely any indication of balanced management of these spaces. A very important step in establishing this space would be to involve our students and neighbours in sharing their day-to-day diets and analyse what the forgotten foods are. The space can also convey thrifty foraging skills in Cambodia. 

There is a wealth of rural bush knowledge around foraging for berries, roots, sour and bitter flavoured leaves and other tubers. Most of this knowledge is retained within community elders and through the forest garden it can be passed to the next generation and also visitors from the world over. 

Ultimately, the whole basis of the Agri-Tech Centre has been to design from patterns to details. It’s been an exciting process to see the culmination of traditional practices and ideas coming together. Besides bringing the community together, we hope it will encourage revival of activities such as seed saving, swapping cuttings and perhaps even compost swapping.

Since January we have been holding daily lessons in the morning for a class of around 12 to 15 students enrolled via outreach visits in the village. We started out with an introduction to integrated farming, permaculture thinking and  the lesson by playing the Web of Life. We hope to have around 200 students enrolled by the end of the year and their access to this space provides better prospects for the future.

Recipe for earth block

Below are the recipes for our earth-block mixture (SAWA) and the natural cassava plaster from OrganiKH Project that we have utilised in the project.

Earthblocks (adobe)

- Clayey Earth ½
- Rice-husk ½
- Water
- Small rocks and pebble

Add water to soften the clay in a large tub, stomping barefoot is an effective technique.

Once the clay lumps have broken down, add in the rice husk and continue mixing. The mixture we want to achieve should be a thick paste. Small rocks and pebbles can help with making the blocks stronger.

When casting into moulds, make sure there are no air bubbles and the tops have a smooth finish. After 10 minutes, give the moulds a tap and in twos, lift them up. The bricks will need to dry for at least 3-4 days (in a tropical environment).

Cassava plaster
(how to video here)

- Cassava flour
- Sand (sieved to fine particles)
- Rice husk (optional for texture)        

Cook the cassava flour in water for a thick gloopy mixture. Add sand/ soil. The reddish earth in Cambodia gives the plaster a nice warming colour. You can also use tapioca flour or normal white flour. Egg whites are also a costly addition to avoid cracks.

For a smoother finish, you can apply the first coat with rice husks and the second coat of just flour, sand and water.

Green Shoots Foundation is still fundraising for this project and if you are travelling through Cambodia and would like to visit, please email: muneezay@greenshootsfoundation.org

For more on the project visit www.greenshootsfoundation.org 

Useful links

What is permaculture: part 3 - design

How to build and design a forest garden: part 1 - surveying

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