"I'm not going to put on a pair of rubber boots and go off and become a hippy. Look, I wear nail polish - and heels," says Nazik Moudden, showing me her bright red, perfectly manicured nails.
"We don't have dreadlocks, either," Gaina Dunsire interrupts with a laugh.
It may be said in jest, but it's a point that crops up repeatedly over the course of my conversation with the two Dubai residents. They are not your stereotypical eco-warriors - but that doesn't mean that they are not deeply concerned about the environment and the world around them. Hence their shared passion for permaculture.
We are standing in the grounds of the Dubai English Speaking College, next to what looks like an oversized sand pit. In fact, this is the site of one of the UAE's first permaculture projects - a former open-air amphitheatre that is in the process of being transformed into a full-fledged "food forest".
When a report suggested that students at the college could benefit from more shade, more fresh fruit and vegetables in the canteen and more local environmental and cultural awareness, Dunsire, who has worked at the school as a history teacher since 2009, came up with a holistic, permaculture-inspired solution that would address all these issues simultaneously. The 560-cubic-metre amphitheatre has recently been filled with a mixture of sand, locally sourced compost and cocoa peat, and the planting of a variety of trees and plants is expected to start imminently.
"Every single tree will have a function - not just to look pretty, although some will. It might be that a certain tree is improving the soil. So you'll have nitrogen-fixing trees or a certain tree will be a food source or will be a pollinator that brings beneficial insects in. And then around each tree you will have other layers, so that you almost mimic a forest effect, where each one shades the other and they all have a relationship with each other.
"Then we'll put lots of herbs and flowers around those so you are confusing the pests and keeping them away from the food items. I'm also introducing lots of local and traditional herbal plants, so there will be a few desert species that are not shaded. The science department can come and learn about traditional Arabic medicine, Islamic studies can come and study the Quran, which says you must be a steward of the land, and art can come and do life drawings, so it will also act as an outdoor classroom and it totally becomes part of the school."
The garden will be dominated by nine date palms, which Dunsire hopes will be sponsored by corporations. She will also organise a tree planting campaign and invite parents to adopt a family tree. This integrated, holistic approach to ecological design, where elements are multifunctional and interactive, is at the heart of permaculture, as are Dunsire's efforts to ensure that the community engages with the project. The forest will provide shade for the students, fresh produce for the canteen and an introduction to permaculture for everyone else.
Permaculture, as the ladies readily admit, is notoriously difficult to define. "Permaculture is a way of thinking. It is derived from systems thinking," says the half-Moroccan and half-French Moudden. "It's not a 'what', it's a 'how'. How to think. The scope is so large and you can use it for so many things; everybody has their own definition."
The term was first coined in the mid-1970s by an Australian ecologist, David Holmgren, and his professor, Bill Mollison, when global concerns about issues such as world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production and resource depletion were starting to emerge.
The term, initially a contraction of the words "permanent" and "agriculture" - which has since evolved to encompass "permanent" and "culture" - is defined by the UK-based Permaculture Association as being about "living lightly on the planet, and making sure that we can sustain human activities for many generations to come, in harmony with nature. Permanence is not about everything staying the same. It's about stability, about deepening soils and cleaner water, thriving communities in self-reliant regions, biodiverse agriculture and social justice, peace and abundance."
There are 12 basic permaculture principles: observe and interact; catch and store energy; obtain a yield; apply self regulation and feedback; use and value renewable resources and services; produce no waste; design from patterns to details; integrate rather than segregate; use small and slow solutions; use and value diversity; use edges and value the marginal; and creatively use and respond to change.
For many, these principles are seen as specific to organic gardens, farming or agriculture, but for Dunsire and Moudden and many others like them, they are all-encompassing. They can be applied to any number of situations and systems - whether it's a garden, a company, your family, your personal relationships or your health - to make things work more efficiently and sustainably. Permaculture is, fundamentally, about taking lessons from nature and applying them to life.
"Instead of seeing the world as linear, you see it as cyclical. You are able to see the connections between different elements and those connections become as, if not more, important than the elements themselves," says Moudden.
Permaculture could be as straightforward as investing in a Bokashi bin, buying local produce or supporting local businesses. "Even how you manage your money - you can choose to take it out of regular banks and put it in community banks. Or you can set up schemes where you are skill sharing," Dunsire points out.
"It's a way of life that is inspiring, motivating and provides solutions for change in your own life, your interactions with other people and the environment. It's a panacea for a lot of those issues."
Dunsire uses a simple example to highlight how the principles of permaculture can be applied to affect change at the most basic level. "Let's say you are feeling unhealthy. Stop and observe your life. There's obviously an imbalance and something needs to change. Look at your personal time, your work, your family time, keep a diary of your food and your exercise. Really look at the patterns. What can you change to re-exert balance?"
Dunsire suggests that instead of taking your family to the mall, buying some clothes and eating at a fast-food restaurant on the weekend, you walk to the metro station and take the metro to the farmers' market.
"Straight away, you're addressing health, exercise, family time and are using natural, renewable resources. You might shop at the farmers' market, so you're supporting local suppliers and buying nutritious food. You might then go home and make smoothies together.
"You're looking at all these different elements and combining them so that your outcome is improved health - mentally and physically. You've also had family time and you've supported the environment. This is not a land-based example, but you are using the same ethics and principles. You're making small changes with your lifestyle based on permaculture."
In their own lives, Dunsire and Moudden have made all the obvious changes: reducing consumption, using Bokashi bins to recycle household waste, buying local produce and putting filters on taps to reduce their reliance on plastic water bottles. But, as the food forest shows, these UAE-based permaculturalists have further-reaching plans in the pipeline.
In January 2011, Moudden launched a non-governmental organisation called Ouazzaniyat, which aims to empower rural communities in the northern Moroccan city of Ouazzane. The project is divided into five elements: the community, which is the primary stakeholder; a learning centre, because Moudden believes that education is the key to any form of development; a piece of land surrounding the learning centre, which, in keeping with the principles of permaculture, acts as a demonstration site and encourages the community to reconnect with the environment; voluntourists, who are invited to engage with the local community and benefit from cross-cultural interaction and shared experiences; and the organisation, Ouazzaniyat, which works to foster relationships between the various elements.
"The project is about creating local independence and community self-reliance, based on learning. Because without education there is no growth," Moudden explains.
It may be difficult to define permaculture, but for Moudden it all boils down to one word: hope. "It's the possibility of a better world and the ability to be a part of that."
"It's easy to say it's too big, what's the point, it's too difficult," Dunsire adds. "But if everybody does something, that's an awful lot of change. If you think about 10 years ago, who recycled in the UK? Now it's become part of the culture and people do it without thinking about it. It's just about changing your habits and making a cultural shift.
"Don't feel guilty - just be proactive and introduce small changes in your own life."
Gaina Dunsire and Nazik Moudden will hold a talk titled Permaculture: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share at Shelter, Dubai on February 10 at 7pm. For more info, visit www.shelter.ae
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