Greening The Desert

Applying natural farming techniques in Africa

One of the articles in Sustainable Habitat (IC#14)
Originally published in Autumn 1986 on page 37
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute

Masanobu Fukuoka is another of the major pioneers of sustainable agriculture who came to the 2nd International Permaculture Conference. We spoke with him a few days before the conference while he was visiting the Abundant Life Seed Foundation in Port Townsend, Washington.

He likes to say of himself that he has no knowledge, but his books, including One-Straw Revolution and The Natural Way of Farming illustrate that he at least has wisdom. His farming method involves no tillage, no fertilizer, no pesticides, no weeding, no pruning, and remarkably little labor! He accomplishes all this (and high yields) by careful timing of his seeding and careful combinations of plants (polyculture). In short, he has brought the practical art of working with nature to a high level of refinement.

In this interview, he describes how his natural farming methods might be applied to the world’s deserts, based on his experience in Africa during 1985. Translation assistance for the interview was provided by Katsuyuki Shibata and Hizuru Aoyama.

What have you learned in your 50 years of work about what people could do with their agriculture?

Masanobu: I am a small man, as you can see, but I came to the States with a very big intention. This small man becomes smaller and smaller, and won’t last very long, so I’d like to share my idea from 50 years ago. My dream is just like a balloon. It could get smaller and smaller, or it could get bigger and bigger. If it could be said in a brief way, it could be said as the word "nothingness." In a larger way it could wrap the entire earth.

I live on a small mountain doing farming. I don’t have any knowledge, I don’t do anything. My way of farming is no cultivation, no fertilizer, no chemicals. Ten years ago my book, One Straw Revolution, was published by Rodale Press in the United States. From that point I couldn’t just sleep in the mountains. Seven years ago I took an airplane for the first time in my life and went to California, Boston, New York City. I was surprised because I thought the United States was full of green everywhere, but it looked like death land to me.

Then I talked to the head of the desert department at the United Nations about my natural farming. He asked me if my natural farming could change the desert of Iraq. He told me to develop the way of changing the desert to green. At that point I thought that I was a poor farmer and I had no power and no knowledge, so I told him that I couldn’t. But from then I started thinking that my task is working on the desert.

Several years ago, I travelled around Europe. It seemed to me that Europe was very nice and beautiful, with lots of nature preserved. But three feet under the surface I felt desert slowly coming in. I kept wondering why. I realized it was the mistake they made in agriculture. The beginning of the mistake is from growing meat for the king and wine for the church. All around, cow, cow, cow, grape, grape, grape. European and American agriculture started with grazing cows and growing grapes for the king and the church. They changed nature by doing this, especially on the hill slopes. Then soil erosion occurs. Only the 20% of the soil in the valleys remains healthy, and 80% of the land is depleted. Because the land is depleted, they need chemical fertilizers and pesticides. United States, Europe, even in Japan, their agriculture started by tilling the land. Cultivation is also related to civilization, and that is the beginning of the mistake. True natural farming uses no cultivation, no plow. Using tractors and tools destroys the true nature. Trees’ biggest enemies are the saw and ax. Soil’s biggest enemies are cultivation and plowing. If people don’t have those tools, it will be a better life for everything.

Since my farm uses no cultivation, no fertilizer, no chemicals, there are many insects and animals living there within the farm. They use pesticide to kill a certain kind of pest, and that destroys the balance of nature. If we allow it to be completely free, a perfect nature will come back.

Robert: How have you applied your method to the deserts?

Masanobu: Chemical agriculture can’t change the desert. Even if they have a tractor and a big irrigation system, they are not able to do it. I came to the realization that to make the desert green requires natural farming. The method is very simple. You just need to sow seeds in the desert. Here is a picture of experimentation in Ethiopia. This area was beautiful 90 years ago, and now it looks like the desert in Colorado. I gave seeds for 100 varieties of plants to people in Ethiopia and Somalia. Children planted seeds, and watered them for three days. Because of high temperature and not having water, the root goes down quickly. Now the large Daikon radishes are growing there. People think there isn’t any water in the desert, but even in Somalia and Ethiopia, they have a big river. It is not that they do not have water; the water just stays underneath the earth. They find the water under 6 to 12 feet.

Diane: Do you just use water to germinate the seeds, and then the plants are on their own?

Masanobu: They still need water, like after ten days and after a month, but you should not water too much, so that the root grows deep. People have home gardens in Somalia these days.

The project started with the help of UNESCO with a large amount of money, but there are only a couple of people doing the experiment right now. These young people from Tokyo don’t know much about farming. I think it is better to send seeds to people in Somalia and Ethiopia, rather than sending milk and flour, but there isn’t any way to send them. People in Ethiopia and Somalia can sow seeds, even children can do that. But the African governments, the United States, Italy, France, they don’t send seeds, they only send immediate food and clothing. The African government is discouraging home gardens and small farming. During the last 100 years, garden seed has become scarce.

Diane: Why do these governments do this?

Masanobu: The African governments and the United States government want people to grow coffee, tea, cotton, peanuts, sugar – only five or six varieties to export and make money. Vegetables are just food, they don’t bring in any money. They say they will provide corn and grain, so people don’t have to grow their own vegetables.

Robert: Do we, in the United States, have the type of seeds that would grow well in these parts of Africa?

Masanobu: As a matter of fact, I saw quite a few plants including vegetables, ornamentals, and grains here in this town (Port Townsend) this morning that would grow in the desert. Something like Daikon radish even grows better over there than in my fields, and also things like amaranth and succulents grow very well.

Robert: So if people in the United States and Japan and Europe wanted to help the people in Africa and reduce the desert, would you suggest that they send seeds?

Masanobu: When I was in Somalia, I thought, if there are ten farmers, one truck, and seeds, then it would be so easy to help the people there. They don’t have any greens for half of the year, they don’t have any vitamins, and so of course they get sick. They have even forgotten how to eat vegetables. They just eat the leaves and not the edible root portion.

I went to the Olympic National Park yesterday. I was very amazed and I almost cried. There, the soil was alive! The mountain looked like the bed of God. The forest seems alive, something you don’t find even in Europe. The redwoods in California and the French meadows are beautiful, but this is the best! People who live around here have water and firewood and trees. This is like a garden of Eden. If people are truly happy, this place is a real Utopia.

The people in the deserts have only a cup and a knife and a pot. Some families don’t even have a knife, so they have to throw rocks to cut the wood, and they have to carry that for a mile or more. I was very impressed by seeing this beautiful area, but at the same time my heart aches because of thinking about the people in the desert. The difference is like heaven and hell. I think the world is coming to a very dangerous point. The United States has the power to destroy the world but also to help the world. I wonder if people in this country realize that the United States is helping the people in Somalia but also killing them. Making them grow coffee, sugar and giving them food. The Japanese government is the same way. It gives them clothes, and the Italian government gives them macaroni. The United States is trying to make them bread eaters. The people in Ethiopia cook rice, barley and vegetables. They are happy being small farmers. The United States government is telling them to work, work, like slaves on a big farm, growing coffee. The United States is telling them that they can make money and be happy that way.

A Japanese college professor that went to Somalia and Ethiopia said this is the hell of the world. I said, "No, this is the entrance to heaven." Those people have no money, no food, but they are very happy. The reason they are very happy is that they don’t have schools or teachers. They are happy carrying water, happy cutting the wood. It is not a hard thing for them to do; they truly enjoy doing that. Between noon and three it is very hot, but other than that, there is a breeze, and there are not flies or mosquitoes.

One thing the people of the United States can do instead of going to outer space is to sow seeds from the space shuttle into the deserts. There are many seed companies related to multi-national corporations. They could sow seeds from airplanes.

Diane: If seeds were thrown out like that, would the rains be enough to germinate them?

Masanobu: No, that is not enough, so I would sow coated seeds so they wouldn’t dry out or get eaten by animals. There are probably different ways to coat the seeds. You can use soil, but you have to make that stick, or you can use calcium.

My farm has everything: fruit trees, vegetables, acacia. Like my fields, you need to mix everything and sow at the same time. I took about 100 varieties of grafted trees there, two of each, and almost all of them, about 80%, are growing there now. The reason I am saying to use an airplane is because, if you are just testing you use only a small area. But we need to make a large area green quickly. It needs to be done at once! You have to mix vegetables and trees; that’s the fastest way for success.

Another reason I am saying you have to use airplanes is that you have to grow them fast, because if there is 3% less green area around the world, the whole earth is going to die. Because of lack of oxygen, people won’t feel happy. You feel happy in the spring because of the oxygen from the plants. We breathe out carbon dioxide and breathe in oxygen, and the plants do the opposite. Human beings and plants not only have a relationship in eating, but also share air. Therefore, the lack of oxygen in Somalia is not only a problem there, it is also a problem here. Because of the rapid depletion of the land in those parts of Africa, everyone will feel this happening. It is happening very quickly. There is no time to wait. We have to do something now.

People in Ethiopia are happy with wind and light, fire and water. Why do people need more? Our task is to practice farming the way God does. That could be the way to start saving this world.