Permaculture and Economics, Planning and Dung Beetles

Crispin Caldicott
Monday, 28th May 2012

Crispin Caldicott reports on the talks given at this year's Australasian Permacultural Convergence in New Zealand

Around 450 people from every part of New Zealand, and most parts of the world, attended the 11th Australasian Permacultural Convergence (APC11) held at Turangi in the second week of April.

Several internationally-known figures gave presentations, either in person or by video link, including Albert Bates, Susan Krumdieck and David Holmgren.

Permaculture and Economics

Economics was a major theme of the event, and there were several presentations detailing alternative exchange mechanisms. Bill Mollison, founder of the permaculture movement, has said many times - 'permaculturists have to become bankers'.

Nicole Foss, co-author of The Automatic Earth, gave an eloquent summary of the credit crunch and how it may affect us. Her message was simple 'be prepared, and go liquid early.' Concern at the debt levels of all countries seems to be raising fears of economic collapse, and many permaculturists believe they should prepare for the worst. People with land will be in a strong position if there is a collapse, but self-sufficiency knowledge is in shorter supply. Permaculturists are well-equipped to help others grow their own food and look after the basic requirements of life.

Permaculture and Planning

Northland architect Graeme North gave a detailed talk on his expedition to look at eco-friendly design and alternative technology, which included Machynlleth, Wales, and Denmark. Planning restrictions in New Zealand can be very restrictive. The biggest employers are the local councils, and they tend to absorb many builders and architects who of course have to make work to justify their existence.

'We are hamstrung by red-tape here,' says Graeme, 'and it prevents experimentation with various building techniques to establish their resilience.

'I am therefore setting in motion the "YIMBY" - YES in my backyard, idea – a place(s) to experiment, innovate and provide localised solutions for owner/builders. I have believed for years that housing is becoming unaffordable, and the only immediate solution is for people to learn the skills to build their own. APC11 was a great opportunity to launch my ideas.'

Permaculture and Death

Lynda Hannah from Nelson recently visited the UK and gave a talk on natural burials that was laced with much good humour and mirth.

'Our environmental impact through the funeral industry is very heavy,' she said. 'In the UK you can be buried in set-aside woodland, and only have trees planted on you, but there are only four NZ sites where this is permissible.

'The worst aspect of the industry is the use of Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF) for coffins laced with toxins destined for the worst possible place – the soil. Cremation is a most extravagant way of body disposal and releases all that formaldehyde into the atmosphere.

'Returning our bodies to the soil is the natural way of planetary recycling and the best thing we can all do in NZ is build our own coffins out of ordinary untreated pine.'

Dung Beetles and Ecosystems

The importance of dung beetles in the ecosystem were explored by American émigré, Betsy Kettle. Betsy has lectured extensively on the use of biochar – using charcoal to fortify soil and sequester carbon. Along with other enthusiasts she has been active in promoting the use of dung beetles to a rather conservative farming community. The biggest advantage of these beetles is that they live underground and only eat dung.

'They have, and do form, a vital function in the fertility of the farm, but of course they do not occur naturally here,' said Betsy. 'They need to be imported, and NZ has suffered greatly in the past from the importation of alien species. There is no doubt that dung beetles have been highly beneficial in countries such as Australia and Tasmania where they have been introduced, but despite their restricted diet people are naturally wary.'

In fact one noted and long-standing biodynamic farmer, John Pearce, had the beetles introduced years ago before regulations existed. They have been quietly living out their lives and purpose ever since without upsetting anything in the eco-cycle. Currently there is an advanced breeding programme for dung beetles at Lincoln University, and subject to various trials they will be released probably this year.

Permaculture and Nutrition

Kay Baxter, founder of Koanga gardens in the centre of Northland, gave a well attended talk on nutrition, in which she emphasised the need to measure the sugars in our vegetables, by means of a Refractometer. 'The Brix readings really tell us the nutritive value of our vegetables, and is the best measure of the health and fertility of the soil in which they grow,' she said.