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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Permaculture in Macedonia

Air Date: Week of

Cindy Shiner reports on the Rudina Rehabilitation and Permaculture Project in Macedonia. The demonstration site is the first of its kind in Eastern Europe, and currently, the largest in the world. The project aims to rehabilitate a tract of land, recently used to house more than 45,000 Albanian refugees, using the principles of permaculture.


TOOMEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians fled the war in the former Yugoslav republic of Kosovo last year. Nearly 50,000 of them camped near the northern villages of Cegrane and Forino in neighboring Macedonia. After the refugees returned to Kosovo their camp was left in shambles, but international aid workers and local residents decided to rehabilitate the site and give it a new mission. It will soon be a facility to teach the principles of something called permaculture, a design for living that makes sustainable use of the land and its waste. Cindy Shiner reports from Cegrane, Macedonia.


SHINER: Workers at the Rudina mountain site are laboring feverishly in the dry midday heat. Some are assembling the frame of the new library and teaching facility.

(A chainsaw revs up)

SHINER: Others are perched on top of the building's skeleton, cutting wooden beams down to size. They're rushing to finish before an upcoming party to celebrate the end of phase two of the Rudina permaculture project. When Albanian refugees left the 125-acre emergency camp last year to return to their homeland, tent poles, wire, and scrap metal remained as monuments, both to the refugees and to the money spent to house them. Now, with donations from CARE International and other organizations, a plan is underway with a few goals in mind: to rework the land, establish a permaculture demonstration and teaching center, and foster local economic development.

(Water flows)

SHINER: Standing next to a man watering one of thousands of fruit trees planted on Rudina , National Manager Patjim Saiti is inspecting the mountainside through dark rectangular sunglasses. Trees are growing, grass is sprouting, vegetables are flourishing….


SHINER: …all in an area whose name means "dry mountain."

SAITI: This might have been dry for centuries, I can say, and no products have been produced here. With our working less than eight months, now we have our products, and we have changed the history. We are proud of that.

SHINER: Permaculture is a concept derived from the words "permanent" and "agriculture." Ecology is used as the basis for designing integrated systems of food production, housing, technology, and community, that can continue without degrading the environment. Since the idea was developed in Australia in the 1970s, hundreds of permaculture sites have sprung up around the globe, including the United States. Environmentalist Dave Clark wants to spread the word about permaculture. He says it's necessary to help offset damage caused by conventional agriculture, or monoculture, whereby the soil is depleted of its nutrients.

CLARK: We're losing our soil at an incredible rate. It takes nature, in a good situation, maybe 100 years to build up a couple of inches of topsoil. And the wheat fields of west Australia and other parts of the world are losing soil at the rate of an inch a year. That's 1,000 tons to the acre per crop. The production of sugar, for every ton of white sugar that goes on our tables, we lose 53 tons of soil forever, into the sea. This is obviously not sustainable.

SHINER: Permaculture, he says, can help. Through mulching and planting a diversity of vegetation, a couple inches of soil per year can be saved.


IZAIRI: Behind you.

SHINER: Xhemile Izairi is a leader of one of the women's on-site teams. Here, she plucks weeds from around frilly heads of lettuce in a flourishing garden that makes use of the permaculture techniques of companion planting and curved garden beds. In companion planting, different types of plants growing together help one another, sort of an agricultural democracy. The strong scent of marigolds wards off some pests, and the roots of one plant harvest the nutrients another needs. Few women had ever held jobs in the Muslim community around Rudina before this project began. Many of them were already good gardeners, and the high pay was something their husbands couldn't ignore. Improving gender relations was an unexpected social benefit of the permaculture program.

(Gathering straw)

SHINER: Recycling is another key component of permaculture. Straw, for example, is a waste product of agricultural production. Here at Rudina, it's baled and used for building, because it's big and easy to handle. This makes for thick walls, which help with energy efficiency. Something important in a poor area like Macedonia, which has bitter winters and scorching summers.


SHINER: The bales are secured with cement and chickenwire. Architect Samantha Smith says all of the buildings on the site were built with recycled material, including some of the thousands of blankets donated during the war.

SMITH: One of the big parts of this project was to find a use for this junk. For the roofs, for example, in those roundhouses is old fencing wire that's not good for fencing any more, and refugee blankets dipped in concrete and strung out over the frame. And then we cover them in thatch to make them look pretty, because while using the refugee blankets was a good idea, though it wasn't very pretty.

SHINER: But it was economical. Each year hundreds of millions of dollars go toward relief efforts around the world. Emergency refugee camps are often built on poor-quality land. And grading it for temporary housing damages the ground further. Reversing that costs money. Some international donors see Rudina as a model for how to respond to future refugee crises. Patty Culpepper is with the U.S. Bureau of Population Refugees and Migration, a key funder of the Rudina endeavor.

(Milling voices)

CULPEPPER: This project is, basically it's a benchmark of how you can use what's available in a former refugee camp. Used in a positive way to build something lasting for a community that used to be a host community. I think the important thing that I've seen in this particular project is how the project leaders have sought to ensure that the local communities feel that they are participants in the project, and that they understand what's going on, and they are part of the decision-making. And that sort of grassroots decision-making, grassroots democratization is really, I think, something that sometimes is overlooked.

SHINER: And in a politically volatile area such as the Balkans, that makes the potential benefits of permaculture that much more striking. Rudina Project Coordinator Brooke Watson says permaculture is about working together and improving lives.

WATSON: We've got recycling and we've got harvest reduction and education courses, and all of these things are ways in which the community can make money on an ongoing basis. So our idea is to try and empower the community, not only to deal with their own issues but to help other communities deal with their issues.

(Milling voices, laughter, shouting)

SHINER: Hundreds of people from the communities surrounding Rudina pass through the site's gates to celebrate the permaculture project, and remember the refugees. The guests dip their hands in blue, white, and green paint, and leave their hand prints on two entrance walls: a symbol of working together and the refugee plight.

(Music plays amidst the voices)

SHINER: The crowd files past the gardens, fruit trees, and straw bale buildings, and settles back at the site's amphitheater. Among the guests are two mayors from rival political parties. All here to enjoy the progress of this permaculture community.

(Music continues)

SHINER: For Living on Earth, I'm Cindy Shiner in Cegrane, Macedonia.



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