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A visit to Tamera

Posted by Richard Perkins about 12 years ago

Taking a look at the water retention landscapes www.impermanencefilm.org

With water on our minds we headed north once again, set for Tamera where Sepp Holzer has been working alongside the community here to create a water retention landscape capable of carrying a large community into an abundant future whilst providing a blueprint for how intelligent earthworks and re- localized production can reverse the desertification process that the U.N. announced last year is now threatening 1/3 of the earths surface…
There is a lot going on at Tamera, extensive education programs including the summer university, a community of around 250 people, the experimental solar village as well as extensive fruit, vegetable and grain production.  Our interest was focused in on the water systems, and we were fortunate to have some dedicated time with Bernt Muller, head of ecology at Tamera.  To find out more about what is happening at this oasis check out the website here.

Tamera reached the finals of the Buckminster Fuller challenge this year, and the systems we observed certainly left a deep impression on us.  The site is around 80ha, with a catchment area of over 200ha.   The landscape has been carefully designed with “water retention” dams which slow the movement of water in the rainy months of the year and allow it to recharge the groundwater.  

Water behaves in mysterious ways and allowed to remain in this landscape can even wick uphill, with springs returning on site, some hundreds of meters from the dam sites.  Some locals initially objected to their share of water being “taken” in the rainy months, but as Bernt observed and clarified, actually there is now a perennial flow that is constant throughout the year and the destructive annual torrents that take the topsoil with them have ceased as the water is held in the retention areas high up in the landscape long enough to get it under control.
It’s a great example of good design for us.  It has proved challenging in the past to teach Permaculture Design to students in this Mediterranean climate, which is currently widely damaged and eroded.  It is difficult to visualize this landscape with, say, 3 or 4 % carbon in the soil, holding water without the need for extensive earthworks, etc.  The modern agricultures in this region of the world are typically bare soiled monocultures and so the ecology is going through a slow and torturous desertification process.

But these were not always “semi- arid” landscapes.  You can observe the landscape features and see that this was once a humid landscape, with rounded landscape features.  Indeed, the broadleaved deciduous forests here once rivaled even the rainforests of the tropics in terms of biological diversity.  And even today in what would be considered a brittle landscape the topsoil can be potentially recovered rapidly through tools such as management intensive mob grazing of cattle, keyline non- inversion deep tined ripping and water management.  On a small scale carbon can be built easily on a vegetable garden scale through good composts and mulch systems.  Biochar and biological teas are also very helpful in restoring the biology that will create and regulate the humus.  In terms of its potential I’m really excited by this landscape.  You can grow crops more commonly found in cool temperate climates, the typical local crops as well as some sub tropical plants.  It has been a hub of major civilization in the past and could sustain that again with the sort of work going on here at Tamera as a guiding example.

Bernt leads us up the site with examples of their retention areas spanning back from the earliest area 16 years old, at the center of the site with new additions leading up to the latest and most impressive retention area which will span some 2 ha of water when the rains come again this year.  The retention areas are essentially dams that are constructed with the local materials, the best clays being compacted into the dam walls as a “key” to create an impenetrable wall for the water to be held behind.  The actual retention area is a dam that “leaks” to recharge the aquifers around.  Bernt points out that enough rain lands on this catchment area to provide drinking water for 10, 000s annually, but ordinarily in this damaged land would rush off bringing the topsoil with it.  The topsoil is carefully removed first and replaced on contoured terraces, which can rely on wicking groundwater to negate the need for irrigation.  Whilst the low terraces around the dam sites had vegetables under irrigation, the trees were markedly different in development and health, clearly showing the benefit of having their feet in permanent moist soil.

We currently lose 24 billion tons of topsoil down rivers and watercourses every year, that’s 4 tons each per person on the planet every year!  The majority of this results from poor agricultural planning, design, practice and policy as well as water management and distribution.  The silting of streams, rivers and marine ecosystems is a sad side effect of destroying the single most important resource we rely upon.  1mm of topsoil loss is equivalent to over 10 tons per ha, and we’ve been seeing evidence of 25- 30mm soil loss around some of the older carob trees in Portugal.  When you stop and think about that it really smacks you.  30mm topsoil loss is around 300 tons of soil lost per ha, and it has mostly happened in the last 40-50 years of heavy mechanized, industrial based farming.  Astonishing!

At over 1800000 Euros the earth-working has not come cheap.  But if you factor in 250 people in a community, that works out at 7500 Eur each, which I would argue a very fine investment on the returns!  With the amount of public money spent on poorly designed/ un-integrated infrastructure, it does get me thinking. 

We leave mulling over the different combinations of techniques that could be used, comparing the approximate costs and situations they may be applicable in.  Tamera has added a really valuable approach to the arsenal of regenerative tools out there for creating abundance in challenging landscapes and I feel even more confident of the future of this special country.

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