A row of stacked rocks, prickly pear cacti, dispersed poplars, creosote and mesquite trees populate the property at La Union, a humble place, but one where a growing group of ecological designers are building a movement in the El Paso-Las Cruces area.
Robert Leal lives on the property. He grows herbs in sunken beds in the garden beside the kitchen. He and his friends tend to farming plots behind the site’s art space, a multi-story, barn-like structure of corrugated metal. They’ve built a wood-fired cob oven and hosted workshops and shaped the land to retain water.
In this way, the site itself is a reflection of what he and his fellows in the movement hope to promulgate: a design method whose organizing principle rests on observation and mimicry of natural ecosystems.
“It’s whole-systems design,” Leal explained. “It aims to unravel the entanglement of any system with an ethical filter—those ethics being earth care, people care, and reinvestment of surplus.”
Practitioners call the design method permaculture, and although its main principles reach back to pre-industrial times, its ideas are experiencing a global renascence, owing in large part to the pressing environmental concerns of the day, but more specifically to new, clearly articulated frameworks for understanding it and a burgeoning literature that testifies to its success.
“It’s a global movement,” Leal said of permaculture. “There are more on-the-ground permaculture projects than there are UN projects. Even the UN is recognizing this way of designing systems works. It’s combining the wisdom of our ancestors with the appropriate technology of today.”
Leal and his fellow organizers—Aaron Hawkman, Celisse Villagrana, and Anthony Rodrigues—hope to spread the permaculture idea and ethos locally. To that end, they’re organizing the La Union EcoSpirit Fest, scheduled for March 30-April 1 at the La Union site, 3125 NM 28, Anthony, New Mexico.
The festival features music, food and a wide variety of activities, from panels on indigenous peoples, food sovereignty and growing community, to workshops on water harvesting, natural building, and permaculture design.
Locally, the permaculture movement has already taken root, Leal said. It started several years back as an organic, ground-up movement, and remains so to this day. The El Paso Permaculture Facebook group boasts nearly 1,300 members.
“The movement is growing every day because of our current climate,” Leal said. “People are looking for solutions. Permaculture focuses on providing those solutions.”
Australian ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren coined the term in the 1970s, a portmanteu of “permanent” and “agriculture.” Their vision was a new type of interactive design based less on taking and more on reciprocity.
Permaculture’s foundation rests on preserving resources, minimizing waste and seeking efficiency—all of which can be achieved through long and thoughtful observation of natural processes. For example, a home might be designed with a roofline that blocks the summer sun, but also with south-facing windows which permit sunlight in the winter—thus mitigating heat in the summer, but allowing warmth in the winter.
Permaculturalists often point out that their systems go a step beyond sustainable; rather, they’re regenerative. A sustainable agricultural system, for instance, might keep soil health from deteriorating, thereby maintaining the status quo. Conversely, a regenerative system based on permaculture design would revive and contribute to the soil’s health, thus improving upon the land’s condition and fostering abundance.
Although permaculture principles most readily apply to agriculture and other land uses, Leal said the design methods fit a variety of structures.
“You could apply permaculture to any sort of system,” he said. “It can be used for agricultural purposes. It could be applied for organizing a school, business, or any sort of organization. It’s a way of looking at whatever you’re designing and doing it holistically.”
Often the immensity of the global climate problem leaves individuals feeling at a loss for what to do. Leal hopes that local, on-the-ground projects such as those advanced by permaculture can show people that there are solutions and that they can get involved.
“Permaculture was the one design system where I saw solutions presented for today’s challenges,” Leal said. “Food, shelter, water, energy, fiber and community connection—those are some things that we’ve been relying on large systems for for so many years. Those systems rely on fossil fuels, and fossil fuels were obviously found to be detrimental to our environment. Permaculture offers an alternative.”
For more information on the EcoSpirit Fest or to get involved, call 346.3373 or 204.9963.
***To view our previous story on Savage Goods, click here.
Editor’s Note: Green in the Desert is a new column exploring sustainability and conservation efforts in the El Paso/Juarez area. Previous Columns can be read HERE.
Writer Chilton Tippin works for Wondor and is pursuing an MA in Latin American and Border studies at UTEP. He likes to write, bike, ski, climb and explore. In 2015, he walked across America.