Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Unknown Knowns

"There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know."
— Donald Rumsfeld, Press Conference on the situation in Afghanistan, February, 2002

There are also the unknown knowns, or rather those things known to some but not to others, including those who most may need to know. The possibility cannot be excluded that such unknown knowns apply to the Mexican flu.

We picked up a copy of the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal while passing through the desolate, echoing canyons of Nashville’s international departure lounge at mid-day on Saturday and felt a sudden urge to scream. A two-hour flight and the in-flight wifi system on Delta/Northwest offered a better alternative.

What prodded us to write, at 30,000 feet over Mississippi, en route to Mexico, were the fascinating connections between the four seemingly different stories on the Weekend Journal’s page A2. We started drawing arrows on the page with our pen. Top left was a story under the headline, “Memos’ release upended strategy on past” in which Evan Perez and Jonathan Weisman wander behind the scenes at the White House to parse the intentions of the Obama administration concerning prosecution of war crimes by their predecessors.

The Perez/Weisman story would have it that Obama is adamant in squelching Congressional truth commissions and Justice Dept. special prosecutors while providing full and infuriating disclosure through slow time-release of historical documents and photos. The nuance unreported is that by taking that stance, the White House deflects right wing political heat, including that of Blue Dog Democrats, while stoking the fires of litigation and international prosecutions that will ultimately provide justice for the perpetrators. The President also gets to watch his political opponents slowly twist in the wind, hoisted by their own “maintain the cover-up for the sake of the country” petard. In a nation addicted to breaking-scandal news cycles, that Blue Dog just won’t hunt.

Top right was a story under the headline “U.S. releasing Iraq, Afghan prison photos” although the actual release is still a month away. The release of part of the Pentagon’s trove of abuse photos was ordered by a federal court as part of a case brought by civil libertarians in 2003, pre-Abu Gharib. The decision to let them go public now is part of that fire-stoking thang.

Of course, what we, the scandal addicted, would really like to see is the secret photos that circulated betwixt congressional oversight committees in 2006, showing sexually-explicit abuses of women Abu-Gharib prisoners. Those may never see the light of day, any more than the abuse of children pictures or the CIA’s torture videos. Perhaps they can be viewed through plexiglass frames in a George W. Bush museum in Crawford, Texas, some day, something akin to the Dracula museum in Transylvania.

Lower left A2 was the headline, “Scientists fear people can spread new virus,” over a story reporting the World Health Organization’s concern that A/H1N1 flu represents “a cross of swine, avian and human viruses in a way that hasn’t been seen before” and a warning that it could augur a global pandemic similar to 1918, if not stopped.

Lower right was the continuation of front-page-above-the-fold: “Mexico races to stop deadly flu outbreak.” At press time, the Mexico City outbreak of H1N1 had infected 854 people, of whom 59 died within the preceding 48 hours. H1N1 was already showing up in central Mexican states, Texas and California, and the CDC’s acting director was saying containment was no longer an option. These numbers and locations have since increased, and rumors emanating from workers in Mexico’s hospitals say as many as 1000 fatalities occurred in a single hospital. People are fleeing the city, which has now closed schools, public buildings and places of entertainment. The official number in Mexico at this writing is about about 2000 cases and about 150 people have died.

What ties these four stories together? Donald Rumsfeld.

Rummy was the Stan Laurel to Dick Cheney’s Oliver Hardy in the Ford, Reagan and Bush Administrations, and not only knows where the skeletons are buried, probably did much of the spadework.

Like Forrest Gump, Rummy is an apex of historical confluence, whether bringing a pair of golden cowboy spurs to Saddam Hussein, selling nuclear reactors to North Korea, or reassuring us that weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq eventually. Whether Rumsfeld had a role in slipping superthermite girder paint past Marvin Bush at the World Trade Center, secreting nano-tefloned GMO anthrax from a national weapons lab and mopping up witnesses, or downing a light plane that carried Paul Wellstone and his staff, we may never know. Those are known unknowns.

A possible unknown known would be why the H1N1 outbreak came in Mexico City, which, coincidentally (?) was the location where an exposé, in Spanish, of the Rumsfeld Pentagon's secret program to create a bioengineered flu pandemic was published a month before the first case appeared.

Rumsfeld and Giulian at Ground Zero 9-11

As a former chairman and major stockholder of Gilead Sciences, Rummy stands to gain financially from sales of Tamiflu, which, by sheer coincidence, is one of only two anti-viral drugs that H1N1 appears to not tolerate, very odd for a pill genetically designed for avian flu, not swine flu. One might not unreasonably inquire whether the Former Defense Secretary might be building a war chest for his coming legal fees, once the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence starts releasing its findings to The Hague. Perhaps Rumsfeld hopes to stay out of prison long enough to enjoy his huge new fortune, but Tick Tock, old man.

Oh, and Carl Levin, Diane Feinstein and Arlen Specter? Those guys should really get some flu shots.

An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in Culture Change.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Island of Law’s Souls

"What is the law?"

Browsing the torture authorization memos released last week, and also getting confirmation that Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice-Tenet-Ashcroft-Gonzales-Addington-Bybee-Yoo-Bradbury-Feith-Chertoff-Rizzo-Muller-Hadley-Libby-Holder&your-name-goes-here tortured women and children, such as waterboarding Khaled Sheikh Mohammed 6 times daily for a month, forcing prisoners to stand up for 11 days, or forcing them to line up and masterbate for hours in front of female National Guard troops, or crushing young boys’ testicles, which really shouldn’t be that surprising, because it is just a continuation of the pathology that began when little George would stuff a firecracker up the rectum of a frog, light it and hang around for fun part. Which itself is just the Republican version of throwing a silver dollar across the Delaware, or chopping down the cherry tree, right? If you can paint Reagan as a cowboy hero you can do anything. But Reagan was just into old movies. Dick and George were into racier fare. Now that the CIA cleaned out their hot video collection — the boxed set — you have to go to Crawford, Texas or Jackson Hole to get the screaming in full surround.

Spoke President Barack Obama on April 16, 2009:
In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution…. The United States is a nation of laws. My Administration will always act in accordance with those laws, and with an unshakeable commitment to our ideals.
Okay, then, so what laws is the United States required to follow?

Geneva Conventions
Article 7. The official position of defendants, whether as Heads of State or responsible officials in Government Departments, shall not be considered as freeing them from responsibility or mitigating punishment.

Article 8. The fact that the Defendant acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior shall not free him from responsibility, but may be considered in mitigation of punishment if the Tribunal determines that justice so requires.
UN General Assembly Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984, ratified by the US Senate, placing it on a legal par with a federal criminal statute):
Article 2: countries under the Convention are obliged to “take effective legislative, administrative, judicial and other measures to prevent acts of torture.”

Articles 5 through 7: it is a well-established principle of state-conditioned universal jurisdiction that a state party to the Convention is obliged to either institute criminal proceedings against the torturer or to extradite the person to another state to stand trial there. The principles of jurisdiction based on nationality or territoriality do not constrain these precepts.

Article 7(1) imposes upon every state that is a party to this Convention a solemn duty to extradite anyone found in its jurisdiction whom is alleged to have committed torture or to “submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution.”

Article 12 requires the parties to the Convention to “promptly and impartially” investigate allegations of torture. Moreover, the state must investigate the prospect of torture practices within its jurisdiction if “there [are] reasonable grounds to believe that an act of torture has been committed.”

The prosecution of Donald Rumsfeld in Germany was halted by a judge who said that jurisdiction lay in the first instance with the United States, and absent any indication that the United States would not prosecute, the case was suspended. The German court is now being petitioned by international human rights organizations to re-open that case.

In Spain, the judge who prosecuted Augusto Pinochet this past week defied the Spanish political leadership and kept alive an investigation into whether Jay Bybee, Alberto Gonzales and other Cheney flaks broke international law when they crafted the illegal interrogation guidelines. High officials are far from exempt, and if you offer a particularly weak link — Gonzales, say — a lenient plea, who knows where it might lead? Defense from these prosecutions are now the rear-guard action Leon Panetta, Dick Armey, Eric Holder and others are frantically entrenching for.

Unfortunately for them, Congress passed the Joint Resolution Regarding Opposition of the United States to the Practice of Torture by Foreign Governments in 1984. That law requires the United States to work with other governments and international NGOs to combat the practice of torture worldwide. It would include CIA surrogate torture cells at black sites in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Poland, Syria or elsewhere.

The prima facie documented evidence released this year shows that the ex-President and his Cabinet were directly involved in patently illegal activities, including torture and war crimes.

For the Obama administration to meaningfully reassert the rule of law in the United States, a full investigation and prosecution is required, however — and this is where it gets interesting — it is not necessary for the US to do it. It just can’t obstruct. Our judges have to extradite the defendants, regardless of who they are, to countries which do prosecute. That is what happened to Pinochet. It may be happening again now.

Personally, given the economic mess we are in, I suspect that show trials of historic significance (a la Nuremberg, the Nixon and Clinton impeachments and the O.J. trial) would provide an amusing divertissement that could rescue newspapers, take the spotlight off the Treasury bailout debacle, and maybe even pry a school-and-TV-dulled populace away from American Idol. If they can link in frequent trial updates with dramatic plot twists such as Diebold-rigged presidential elections, energetic-nanocomposite girder insulation, nanocomposite-weaponized anthrax, the mysterious death of Paul Wellstone, and White House death squads operating within the US and abroad, (no tinfoil hats in any of that, these are all matters of public record now), I might even go out and get a new TV myself. That’s entertainment!
Dr. Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to eat meat, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?
Dr. Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to go on all fours, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?
Dr. Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Choices and Voices

"That is considered wisdom, which,
describes the scratch and not the itch."
— Kenneth Boulding

We have been contemplating the direction this blog has taken and whether some kind of shift back to where we began might be in order. Maybe, we wondered, we should bifurcate the word-stream into two tributaries; one political, one practical. Maybe even three tributaries, to account for those wider, weirder occasional stretches of our imagination.

That led to trying to mentally verbalize what the role of this blog is, and in doing that we traversed some interesting territory.

A blog is short for weblog, the itinerary of a surfing safari: locales visited, the waves found there, rocks, shoals and crowds of co-kooks to be aware of, and then some in-gathering synthesis of the overall experience, punctuated with the rare revealed wisdom. Blogs adhering to this tradition are peppered with URLs and recursive notes to earlier safaris.

Blogs have morphed in recent years, slouching in the direction of link-less op-eds, and that trend is growing, not receding, as wood-based newspapers pack-up their greasy old chainsaws in favor of shiny gigawatt server farms (pardon our coal ash, nuclear waste, and salmon kill, nothing but paperless electrons here). At this blog, our electrons began as photons captured in a silicon amber agitating a nearby silver thread enough to disgorge a current of loose particles that moved up a wire to this MacBook our fingers now pound.

“Op-ed,” by the way, meant “opposite the editorial page” in a newspaper. The editorial page was devoted to the paid employees or owners of the publication, and the facing page was for the syndicated columnists and the unpaid opinions of more ordinary people. That blogs are now the dominant news-form speaks volumes of the paucity of wisdom emanating from the inbred journalistic caste. Our Sulzbergers, Ochs, Berliscones and Murdochs have simply lost credibility.

While we have frequently ventured into pristine unsupported opinion here, more often we have tried to leave behind breadcrumbs of web references so that our trail can be retraced by anyone. This is a good practice, and we will probably continue doing that, even if sometimes birds eat the crumbs.

Whether to have this space revert to something resembling an extended Post-Petroleum Survival Guide reference appendix in real time or to follow our Muse into Obamanomics, international torture trials, energetic nanocomposites of superthermite, or other fun subjects is really a false choice. It is all connected. We can’t just look forward, as the Magic President would have it, we need to also look backward and trace the mysterious, winding route that brought us here. Why? Because we may need to retrace that route to find the way out when the room suddenly fills with acrid smoke.

We may need to retrace along legal lines in order to restore the path of justice. Without justice there is no peace. Without peace there is no civil order, or even civil conversation.

We may need to retrace the origins of classical economics, predicated on limitless expansion and resource extraction to learn what limit-bound steady state economics are all about.

We may need to retrace our scientific inquiry and ethical lines in order to avoid geno-nano doom, lest the Singularity be not wafting space fogs but a uniform bubbling grey goo covering our hot rock from shore to shore as it circles our star without us, perhaps waiting for that distant day when the microbes we seeded to Mars return as cosmonauts in search of the oily black line in Earth’s strata we call the Anthropocene.

We may need to retrace 10,000 years back to the development of plowed earth in order to reclaim a proper carbon balanced agriculture/silvaculture/aquaculture, in order to fend off a future otherwise filled with clathrate fireballs and/or the pervasive rotten egg smell sniffed by dinosaurs after the Chicxulub asteroid impact, a particularly odious way to go.

And when we go back that 10,000 years, we may discover that our ancestors took some other wrong turns along the way, and that was really when they left the garden and went into exile, and perhaps, by a process of exploration and rediscovery, we will experience not only our salvation from converging existential catastrophes, but an orders-of-magnitude improvement in our daily lives -- and the way back to the garden.

That, right there, was our punctuation point.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Earthquakes and Icebergs

We tend to look at earthquakes with surprise and fear, rather than as something with a moral dimension. We assign blame to the victims for living too close to an active fault, or to buildings too unsteady, or to fate. We don’t read headlines about the real cause of large earthquake fatalities, which is our population. Somehow prescriptions for that are left lying on the counter while days are spent re-living familiar discussions of building codes and rescue efforts.

With snow falling today back in Tennessee, we are reading about the end of this year’s Antarctic summer.

Satellite imagery from ESA tells the tale -- a final tendril of ice where the main Wilkins ice shelf grips Charcot Island shrinks and shrinks, and then in a death-embracing fingertip farewell, slides away into the deep.

Here, 11 years ago, was Mercer's prediction, in Nature 271:321-325 (1978):
“One warning sign that a dangerous warming is beginning in Antarctica, will be a breakup of ice shelves in the Antarctic Peninsula just south of the recent January 0°C isotherm; the ice shelf in the Prince Gustav Channel on the east side of the peninsula, and the Wordie Ice Shelf; the ice shelf in George VI Sound, and the ice shelf in Wilkins Sound on the west side.”
As other commenters have now observed, Wilkins was the last one mentioned. The rest are already departed.

Last month ocean scientists doubled their estimates for global sea level rise by 2100. Places in Northern hemisphere like New York, Amsterdam and London will be particularly hard hit due to uneven distribution of rising waters by currents, while places like Miami, Houston and Havana may have more time to prepare.

Shortly after this report, President Obama told an audience gathered at Prague:
"To protect our planet, now is the time to change the way that we use energy. Together we must confront climate change by ending the world's dependency on fossil fuels by tapping the power from the sources of energy like the wind and the sun and calling upon all nations to do their part. And I pledge to you that in this global effort the US is now ready to lead."
What the President was silent about was the population earthquake, although its foreshocks are warning us now, if we pause to listen.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Dawning

We read on Stoneleigh and Ilargi’s blog that:
“Americans are in a collective state of financial depression as many admit they could only cover their bills for two months at most if they found themselves suddenly jobless, a nightmare more and more worry may come true. The results of a bevy of surveys found a growing number of consumers are only a couple paychecks away from a household collapse even as many scramble to shore up savings. Rainy-day funds appear to be a distant memory as households burn cash to cover food and energy bills as well as mortgage and car payments. A large number of households say that even one missed paycheck would spell financial ruin. And even in households that remain well off, the surveys show a festering fear that financial problems are lurking.

“‘This is flashing so bright red,’ said Paul Ballew, senior vice president of Nationwide Insurance Co. ‘Roughly 60% of the population was ill-prepared (financially) before the meltdown.’ ... Twenty-nine percent of those making $100,000 or more a year said they would have trouble paying the bills after more than a month of unemployment.”

Elsewhere in the blog we are told that California's unemployment rate rose to 10.5% in February from 10.1% in January. For the Golden State that’s the highest since Ronald Reagan’s social network (based in Houston) tanked Jimmy Carter’s War on Energy in order to help move their guy from Sacramento to Washington in 1981. Ten percent out of work in a state where $100,000 is thought a fair wage is a big deal, although probably still only an early return, given the Long Emergency stretching out in front of us.

What strikes us as odd, looking at this from our solar-powered laptop on a rough-cut wooden table in a Belizian jungle pagoda at the midpoint of a permaculture course, is how absurdly large that $100,000 per year was, and how easily and quickly that amount of money passed through the hands of those receiving it, year after year.

Seen through the eyes of a 2/3-worlder, being handed such a huge amount of money for banging nails or typing memos would be like winning the lottery, and — is it true? — those people in the North get paid that every year!

What on earth did they do with all that money, a Mayan corn farmer might ask — a million dollars every decade, four or five million in a typical working life? Did they lose it in Las Vegas? Build a marble palace for themselves? Buy the presidency of a small country?

A more forlorn line of inquiry, and the fodder of many a competing blog, tries to imagine what USAnians could have been doing with all that money if they had not been teetering about in Iraq and other places, inebriated in the delusion that foreign adventure was indefinitely sustainable.

Perhaps they could have been socking away permacultural wealth – in fruitfully abundant and constantly improving landscapes, arrays of solar cookers and durable wind machines, super-insulated zero-energy houses with rainwater catchment, carbon-sequestering Victory Gardens and bamboo groves, fish ponds and chicken coops, tidy repair shops full of useful tools, and fully-featured ecovillages and ecocities, instead of fluffernutter in the form of college degrees in Economics, MacMansion ARMs, and SUV loans from GM’s Quixotic credit division.

So who let these poor schmucks down? Was it their teachers, preachers and televised role models who filled children’s heads with dreams of lollypop consumer utopias, even while the Club of Rome, Worldwatch, and plenty of wise sages were cautioning their parents with warnings of immutable limits?

Was it the short-horizoned political-business-media cycle? Was it a steady diet of plastics and GM-high fructose corn syrup that turned their brains to mush and guts to flab? Well, it was probably all of the above, and many more things, if we wanted to take the time to enumerate them.

A better question is what is keeping them from waking up now? Hello? Do you hear us yet? We are talking about you. Yes, you.

Even if The Magic President shows that he can make a dead cat bounce a few times, it still doesn’t mean he can dribble with it. So, if the economy mends for a little while (a stairstep pattern called catabolic collapse), USAnians, and everyone else, should seize that moment to change their wasting ways, at least long enough to salt away some of the things they will need for the longer haul.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Going Deep, Part 2

"More avocados than can be eaten by one family"

Christopher pauses in the shade of a large avocado he planted in 1989. “More avocados than can be eaten by one family,” he says, pointing upwards. He plans to start a piggery and goat shed and feed the pigs and goats the surplus avocados. He wants to use their manure to make methane for his kitchen. He also plans a tank and pond aquaculture system.

After taking a Permaculture Design Course in 1991, Christopher put swales across his hillsides and added a number of ground hugging plants and vines to keep the soils shaded and protected from erosion. For him, cacao was the keystone plant in the system, and there was good reason that the Maya placed a high social value on it, beyond its health and nutritional qualities. The scientific name Theobroma means "food of the gods".

Raw cacao beans contain magnesium, copper, iron, phosphorus, calcium, anandamide, phenylethylamine, arginine, polyphenols, epicatechins, potassium, procyanidins, flavanols, and vitamins A, B, C, D, and E. Long before Belgium chocolate, the ancients mixed it with maize, chili, vanilla, peanut butter and honey to make beverages and confections. The Aztec and Maya cultures used the beans as currency, a practice that persisted out in the Yucatan until the 1840s. Given world prices in the US $1200 (industrial grade) to $5000 (fair trade organic) per metric ton range, the beans are a form of currency still.

When Mayan women go into labor they are given a big thick mug of toasted cacao, cane sugar and hot water. Because it is rich in calories and healthful, that big mug can see them through days of labor and the recovery afterwards.

While many of the world's flowers are pollinated by bees (Hymenoptera) or butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera), cacao flowers are pollinated by tiny flies, midges in the order Diptera. This makes cacao less vulnerable to some of the problems associated with other pollinators. Cacao trees do not require fertilizer or other agro-chemical inputs, and are only rarely attacked by blights, fungi and viruses in small holdings. Moreover, every time an old cacao tree falls over, it throws out a new main stem, so many trees in Belize that are now in production are original stock — centuries old.

On the stones outside the kitchen, under the roof and out of the rain, Christopher has a bowl of cacao beans fermenting. They are left there for a week and grow a fine white spiderweb of hyphae as they incubate. He didn’t need any starter, the airborne yeasts did the job. After 7 days, it is rinsed, ground, and toasted.

When we first visited there in early 2008, the Research Farm was already fully self-sufficient. You could live quite comfortably on the breadnuts, avocados, corn, bananas, coffee, fish, beans and all the rest. You could drink from the river, although Christopher harvests water for the kitchen from a spring farther uphill. As I glanced around the open-air kitchen, the purchased cans and jars contained items like powered milk, granulated sugar, olive oil, foreign teas, iodized salt and baking soda. These are all part of a Western diet, but for the most part, not indispensable.

Most of the rain in Southern Belize falls in July and August — hurricane season — and tapers off to December. They get 100 to 160 inches in that period. The Research Farm has been known to get abrupt heavy rains in late February or June, so Christopher has learned to hold the permaculture design course well into March, when the dry season has established itself, the river is lower and tamer for taxi traffic, and the trails to Lubaantun are more easily negotiated.

Belize has 574 reliably reported species of birds. About half never leave the tropics. The chorus around us varied through the course of a day, but it never ended from dawn until dusk. At night the predators come out of the forest, so Christopher has to put the chickens into the coop and latch the door. They do well feeding on the leaf cutter ants during the day, but they are domestic creatures, and this is still a jungle.

Seventy-five percent of Belize is native forest and savannah, and 50 percent of the country’s land and water is in protected status of some form. This does not mean that these large tracts are uninhabited, like a big national park. Quite the contrary — Mayan and Garinigu villages are found inside most of the reserves.

For more than two thousand years the Maya of Central American practiced a milpa style swidden agriculture, something that has gotten a bad name (“slash-and-burn”) but was actually a very effective and productive way to farm in the tropics while building soil and sequestering carbon. As Toby Hemenway described in Permaculture Activist No. 51, milpa starts with clearing a forest plot, taking out most of the trees but leaving some nitrogen fixers, timber trees, or other valued species. The Maya, like the Amazonian creators of the terra preta soils and the Aborigines of Australia, fired the remaining brush, which had the added benefit of depositing char, nutrient-rich ash, and curing firewood and construction-grade trees. The short term annuals then fill much of the opened space for the first 2 to 4 years while seedlings of plantains, avocados, fruits and fiber plants are set in place and mulched, and leguminous trees and bushes, and cacao, are stump-sprouted. Over the next five to eight years the canopy closes and the farmers stop planting annuals and start training vanilla and interspersing coffee, ginger, allspice and other understory plants. Cattle and poultry forage between the emergent trees.

The managed-forest stage was typically 15 years, but could be double that time in a milpa of particularly fruitful serendipity. The managed-forest stage is the most productive part of the cycle. Then the land was cleared and the cycle and soils renewed.

In sharp contrast to traditional milpa, today’s farmers employ a modified milpa that burns the corn and rice fields every year, goes for the highest paying crops to the exclusion of nitrogen-fixers and wildlife habitat, and plants into steep terrain without swales or terracing. It is these kinds of farming practices that nearly erased the Maya Mountain Research Farm from the map in 2008.

On the evening of May 19th, Christopher and Dawn saw a glow on the horizon. The absentee landowner neighbors, the “Tropical Conservation Foundation” had allowed their tenants to burn off farming stubble, and two hills over, those neighbors had lit their annual fire to clear for rice. By the next night, the fire was only one hill away. The following afternoon, it crested the hill above them and began moving down to the classroom and staff housing. Buckets of water, machetes to chop firebreaks and hot, hard work without pause saved the structures. By 11 pm they ate and fell asleep, exhausted.

The next afternoon, the far end of the pasture caught fire. Floating embers ignited spot fires throughout the farm. By 3:30 Christopher and his fellow fire-fighters had to acknowledge defeat and evacuate to the river. Amazingly, though the fire then swept across the farm, the solar and wind-powered buildings and most cultivated areas were spared. Spot fires continued to spark up until, on the seventh day, it finally rained.

This uncontrolled milpa fire burned an estimated 300-400 acres. Of the 70 acres of MMRF, a little over 50 acres were completely burned, leaving mostly ash and open sky. The fire spared MMRF’s cultivated areas, which had been surrounded by fuelwood-managed sectors that deprived the fire of fuel and held moisture in the ground, but they lost coconuts, cacao, pineapples, some large teak trees and many other species. The fire burned the natural remnant forest and destroyed thousands of young timber trees that had been planted. With the canopy opened and the native habitat destroyed, wildlife were forced to migrate elsewhere for food – toucans have since been coming right inside the kitchen to eat bananas. Jaguar, brocket deer, peccary, ocelots, tayra and other animals that had used the forest cover to access water in the dry season became threatened and left. When the rains came in July, the soils washed downhill, silting two small creeks and displacing still more wildlife.

Restoration after the fire is ongoing. Five acres of corn were planted and a mix of other plants followed between corn patches, including timber species, leguminous species, fruit trees, and bio-mass accumulators. Christopher says no one on site has experience in restoration of tropical eco-systems devastated by fire and he would welcome anyone with interest or expertise in this area. Seeds for reforestation are being generously provided by Trees for the Future.

Pioneer species like banana, vetiver grass, pigeon pea, corn and a mixture of timber trees have been seeded out into the areas adjacent to the buildings. Christopher wants to replace the flammable heliconias, which were part of why the fire traveled so easily. Thousands of linear feet of vetiver rows have been planted on contour to control erosion in a part of the land that was damaged. Thousands of trees and pineapples were planted out between the rows of vetiver.

Swales and terracing have stopped the worst effects of erosion during the rainy period and when we started the course March 20 we were well into the dry season again. There will be lots of opportunities to seed out fresh milpas, and plenty of food ready to be harvested again.

Last night Christopher gave a chalk talk on chinampas, the aquatic soil-building technique used by the Aztecs, Maya, Inca and many others in the Americas to create a system of agriculture so sustainable that its fertility persists even after the earthworks at its core were discontinued 400 years ago. Such systems require considerable labor to establish, but have huge net EROIE and caloric profitability annually thereafter. When we think about the swamp that Washington DC was built upon, it occurs to us that the Obama family could do worse than to design the White House Victory Garden with milpas and chinampas, making biochar from bamboo on the South Lawn, and using the blackwater from the West Wing to add nutrients to the system.

Whether you already have a permaculture design certificate or diploma, or are just interested in coming back in touch with the inner heart of nature, give a thought to traveling back to beyond beyond with us. Back to the source. Our mother needs help there, and you will be in good company.


Alcorn, J.B., 1990. Indigenous Agroforestry Systems in the Latin American Tropics, in Agroecology and Small Farm Development, Altieri M, and Hecht, SB eds.

Hemenway, T., 2003. Beyond Wilderness: Seeing the Garden in the Jungle, The Permaculture Activist No. 51 Winter 2003.

Nigh, R., 2008. Trees, Fire And Farmers: Making Woods and Soil in The Maya Forest, Journal Of Ethnobiology 28(2) Fall/Winter 2008.

This article was originally published in The Permaculture Activist No. 71 Spring 2009 and then updated for posting today.




The Great Change is published whenever the spirit moves me. Writings on this site are purely the opinion of Albert Bates and are subject to a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 3.0 "unported" copyright. People are free to share (i.e, to copy, distribute and transmit this work) and to build upon and adapt this work – under the following conditions of attribution, n on-commercial use, and share alike: Attribution (BY): You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Non-Commercial (NC): You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Share Alike (SA): If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one. Nothing in this license is intended to reduce, limit, or restrict any rights arising from fair use or other limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright owner under copyright law or other applicable laws. Therefore, the content of
this publication may be quoted or cited as per fair use rights. Any of the conditions of this license can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder (i.e., the Author). Where the work or any of its elements is in the public domain under applicable law, that status is in no way affected by the license. For the complete Creative Commons legal code affecting this publication, see here. Writings on this site do not constitute legal or financial advice, and do not reflect the views of any other firm, employer, or organization. Information on this site is not classified and is not otherwise subject to confidentiality or non-disclosure.