Ed. note: This piece is a chapter excerpted from the book Climate Adaptation, published by the Arkbound Foundation. This chapter, Earth Rejuvenation, is written by Carol Manetta, and features the work of her organisation, Reap Goodness.
In the days gone by, all of Earth was quiet. Standing on a hilltop, the only sound you heard was that of the wind, birds, and the scurrying of small animals in the undergrowth. If you were near a water source, you could hear the peaceful gurgling of a brook or the roar of a waterfall. Today, let’s compare this to the cacophony of trains, cars and the screeching of brakes.
The purpose of this chapter is to look at these contrasts. Soon, all must merge into a peaceful coexistence among humans and nature; otherwise, doom will prevail in short order. This much we know from collective scientific opinion.
Let’s explore a new alternative. Human ingenuity needs to foster new forms of agriculture that emphasise protecting natural life, not just the outcomes of farm production. To those who see modern industrialised agriculture as a wasteland in the making, it is clear we need to forge alliances to go back to nature and embrace it with both arms.
By looking at cooperative ventures in many countries, we can learn that there are duties involved that mimic nature’s resilience. For instance, it is the premise of all cooperatives to support the community around them. This happens in nature quite regularly. As the tree provides seeds or nuts to the birds and small animals under its boughs, they take these forms of nourishment and deposit them back to the soil. This allows for a vibrant, living ecosystem that has no waste, and which replenishes itself.
Adjustment from that tendency is not needed. It has worked for eons to build nature as we understand it. Willingness to remain heartily alive is the spirit of nature. Thus, humans can imitate nature with their cooperative stance in assisting each other. By thoughtfully taking another step forward with this observation, we have the ability to combine cooperatives to enhance nature and humanity even further. While cooperatives do work with each other as a matter of chosen form, this is an arrangement to supply goods to one another and exchange them. As we learn more about trees, we understand that they cooperate with each other through communications under the ground. If there is a negative impact happening by certain elements or animals, the trees communicate with each other for lifesaving strategies. Peter Wohlleben wrote in his book, The Hidden Life of Trees,
‘we can describe this as the ‘wood-wide web’. All the trees are connected to each other through underground fungal networks, and also use them to communicate. They send distress signals about drought and disease, for example, or insect attacks, and other trees alter their behavior when they receive these messages’.1
In cooperatives, there is the same kind of mutual agreement to assist each other, in good times and bad.
Thus, cooperatives can benefit each other and the return is justified by the ripple effect of kindness throughout the community surrounding them. What they share is sometimes the decision-making as to where one cooperative’s ‘territory’ ends and another’s begins. This is also true of tree roots, for entanglement and competition among the roots for food and nourishment would starve both sets of trees and do harm in the long run. Instead, they cooperate by sharing resources such as tools and other equipment, together with knowledge based on experience and labour.
As humans evolved, they rose in self-importance due to abilities to hunt and collect materials for building, considering themselves superior to animals that could not. Therefore, they took over ever larger tracts of land for their own usage. It was nature and the animal kingdom that allowed for plants, including trees, to proliferate. This is still the case. As we humans have banished animals to small confines within patches of land, the world has suffered greatly.
Going forward, we must renew the landscapes that harmonise with Earth below them. The more we understand about the Earth’s biosphere, the more we understand about the entanglement process that is both beneficial and sometimes detrimental. In the case of dying landscapes, there is much to be learned about the survival process of tree roots, tiny animals and the microbes that support all complex life forms. It takes generations for forests to grow and prosper, while in a moment those forests can be decimated with logging, burning and acids from plant-killing chemicals. These attacks against nature are evident around the world, and yet humans have ignored such processes for multiple generations.
It is with hope we continue to dwell on this topic. We must face squarely the processes that cause harm and why they are generated in the first place. Unmitigated increase in material production, or ‘growth’, causes increasing destruction to Earth’s resources. As we trace the history of this movement of destruction, we also see the germination of an idea to right the wrongs and rectify the behaviours of the present and past.
In the Amazonian jungle, there is hope in replanting species that are native to the land, while forging new livelihoods. For instance, a new project was announced by Conservation International in 2017 to plant 73 million trees by 2023 – covering 30,000 hectares of land and involving local communities.2
These livelihoods of rainforest locals include selling a variety of fruits, nuts and small herbs for immediate gain by the farmers who plant them. As observed by the Rainforest Alliance:
‘When forests are managed responsibly, communities that live in and around them can cultivate thriving businesses out of a rich assortment of non-timber forest products: from honey to flowers and fruit. The Rainforest Alliance offers training in business planning to help forest communities build sustainable enterprises.’ 3
Wishing for the degradation to stop does not make it so. Instead, concerted efforts by regions and small villages are the future answer to deforestation and its disharmony with nature and all life. It is this same model that has inspired my organisation, Reap Goodness, to transform a barren North American landscape.
Reap Goodness partnered with Tolani Lake Enterprises (a nonprofit business incubator of the Navajo Nation) who had need for food security by encouraging agriculture in the semi-arid high desert of Arizona at an elevation of ~1500 metres. After having completed the agreed-upon work with the Navajo people in developing hydroponics and greenhouse year-round agriculture production, the nonprofit’s focus changed to the degraded land and scarce water in many places around the world. Now Reap Goodness has aligned with Arizona State University to test the formation of a ‘trio of worker-owned cooperatives’, a model which could be potentially applicable anywhere on Earth.
The nonprofit and university have established a trial, the Heartland Trial, in an area of southern Arizona that has been decimated by animal agriculture. In the trial, one cooperative will store water on land via water catchment ditches, pond formation and rooftop rain capture from a roof as a set of rainwater harvesting systems.4 A second cooperative will plant and harvest from a food forest near the captured water sources.5 A third cooperative will focus on area water cleansing, while planting high-nutrient foods for local wildlife sanctuaries.6
In preparation for the Heartland Trial, a wide variety of students with different sets of knowledge are being invited to test a process that follows a typical formation of worker cooperatives around the world. This means that as one participant has knowledge in one area of Earth reclamation, such as rain capture, another participant has knowledge in an adjoining area, such as permaculture for food forestry, and so on. With each relevant participant contributing their knowledge, it harmonises the overall practices of the group, and allows for agreements to be made, just as they would be with any set of worker cooperatives. For example, each participant can contribute a certain area of knowledge that aids discussions during the planning stage. It is the recording of these discussions that is being collected throughout the trial, starting with pre-trial discussions online until each student is satisfied their participation is worth it.
As participants begin to plan, they must consider the territory in place. It exists in the semi-arid Sonoran Desert in the southern part of the state of Arizona, USA, at around 4700 feet ( just over 1430 metres) in elevation. Cattle ranching there has been the norm for generations, even though there has been extensive drought for 20 years in the western US. As the cattle have roamed freely through this cowboy land, they have eaten all the natural grassland and tree foliage, to the extent that there are no large trees in sight. At the same time, they have deposited seeds from elsewhere for new trees to grow that are native to the area – the mesquite tree. This nitrogen fixing tree has numerous uses, including providing food in the form of beans within their pods, all edible by humans and animals. The trees on this property and in all the land around it are no more than 1 ½ feet (half a metre) high. Even though they contain numerous thorns, the cattle have eaten their leaves and soft twigs to keep them very short.
To address this issue, the plan’s first consideration is fencing off the entire property, which is 40 acres, to prevent the cattle from obtaining access. This is an important part of the discussion process, since cattle are responsible for a large amount of land decimation. Once fenced off, the plans then turn to regulating water flow from nearby mountains. Close to the land is the only surviving river in the entire state of Arizona, the San Pedro River. Many nearby species rely on its water supply, including the cattle themselves. It is also precious to the wild animals that call this area home, either permanently or during migration.
The water flow can be partially redirected from its usual route to create a pond on-site, while leaving the rest of the water for the river. By creating a pond, it can enable support for the beginnings of the planned food forest on-site, as well as provide water for the wildlife who will visit to quench their thirst. It is the participants’ shared expertise that will help the entire group make a decision as to which methods can be used. This way they will all make the agreement together as to which will be the most viable source for water flow and retention, and how they will do this together.
Another consideration will be what foods to grow in the food forest. The participants have been granted approximately five acres upon which to grow a food forest by their own design. Knowing they have only one year in which to combine their efforts for this completed trial, the entire set of participants must agree on how to move forward. After their efforts in design and erecting the food forest are complete, they must decide on how the foods will be used within the community.
A key aim of the cooperatives is to implement adjunct decisions in agreement with the local people of these communities. In some places, these cooperatives will be members of the community who stay on after their initial work of reclamation and growth is in its mature stages. So the decisions made by this kind of cooperative trio will be somewhat different than by those who intend to stay, only to see the work of the cooperatives flourish and then be taken over by others. There is room for both kinds of trios around the world, those of people who remain a long-standing part of the community, or those who establish the physical improvements and then hand over the benefits, while the trio moves on to another community in need.
Jointly, the food forestry during the trial will be determined by those who understand harmony among plants in the format of a natural forest. The agricultural norm today focuses squarely upon monoculture, whether the food source is an annual crop or a single perennial crop such as orchards.
Credit: Backyard Abundance, Edible Agroforestry Design Templates, BackyardAbundance.org
Instead, food forestry depends on numerous levels of perennial crops, which, once established, requires only a few hours of maintenance per month to produce on-going crops for nearby residents. The beauty in this format of agriculture is the harmony given to the Earth’s soil, its reduced use of water and its ability to produce for many years without the need for regular hard labour.
The third cooperative has before it a daunting task: the reclamation of polluted waters due to animal agriculture, crop agricultural runoff, golf course runoff, manufacturing wastage and roadways runoff. Joining forces with the other two cooperatives, they will select and plant local water reclamation plants for the pond, and begin a new process that can be replicated worldwide.
This process is related to roadways around the world, which are a source of vast pollution of streams, rivers and eventually the ocean. It is caused by the worn, microscopic parts of vehicle tyres that, while initially found in roadside ditches, inevitably find their way into rivers and then oceans.7
Since roadside ditches can be planted with plants well known for their water cleansing properties, the local cooperatives will have great effect on pollution reduction. As part of the reclamation process, a variety of plants – including water hyacinth, calendula officinalis and Salvia splendens – can remove pollution from stationary water. Other useful species can be cultivated to attract local small pollinators and beneficial insects for keeping in balance the needs of the food forest.
To reach agreements prior to the Heartland Trial the test participants will be imitating planning within a community, but from disparate sources, made necessary due to the need for distance during the COVID-19 pandemic. All of the planning meetings will be recorded. That way, as the plans begin to unfold, the community will have a record of what the plan was, so that they may adjust them as they go through their work together. That is also why the trial will be recorded on video and used as a teaching tool for subsequent cooperative trios. As we consider recordings, we have a plan to record them in a number of formats, starting with e-books.
The second format will look into the potential to access the trial via virtual reality (VR) content. This VR overview is being done specifically because it is highly portable on cell phones and does not require Wi-Fi anywhere in the world. Instead, all that’s required is a functioning cell phone and the installed virtual reality conversion app, plus the information file that explains the work. It will be developed so that people in rural areas in developing countries will understand what they see, mostly by visuals and audio translations. Highly visual posters can accompany this VR overview with trained facilitators interacting with the people of the land in their own language.
The third format will be a documentary set of videos disbursed via YouTube. These shorter length videos will describe the process from beginning to end, with our trial participants taking part. YouTube provides the ability to have subtitles in many different languages.
So, from the very beginning of our Heartland Trial, the decisions made by a trio of cooperatives can be of comprehensive benefit in local communities anywhere in the world. It is hoped the new model is learned and understood by many people as quickly as possible, as there is no time to waste. Action taken now can be replicated with the decisions of small groups of people in harmony for the immediate and beneficial future of land in their own community, nearby communities through teachings, and for children.
It is the children who are important to talk about next. They are the future.
The children are the crux and focus of all Reap Goodness’ work. With species disappearing every day, future generations are being robbed of the opportunity to reach out to and study all these beautiful creatures. In restoring the land and waters, these children of today and in the future will have what is their right within a lifetime.
With this cooperative model being observed by schoolchildren of all ages, they will know what to do – not only to survive, but have a rich life for themselves and the other beings who create a robust experience for all during their lifetime.
It is the intention to create curriculum insertions regarding cooperative trios and how Earth can be made rich once again for the next generation. Furthermore, they may one day choose to become a member of one of these trios. If so, they will know exactly what to do to continue the process.
Those who choose to pursue this line of work will understand localised decision-making for the Earth’s survival and bringing back species that are on the brink of extinction. Furthermore, everyone outside of these cooperatives will be additionally grateful for their existence, for the goodness that is extended to everyone will be shared by all of life.
1 Wohlleben, P. (2016) The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How they Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World. Vancouver: Greystone Books.
2 Vander Velde, B. (2017) Conservation International. Available at: https://www.conservation.org/blog/massive-reforestation-effort-puts-downroots-in-brazilian-amazon (Accessed: 19 May 2021).
3 The Rainforest Alliance (2019) Our Mission to Protect the World’s Forests. Available at: https://www.rainforest-alliance.org/articles/our-mission-to-protect-theworlds-forests (Accessed: 19 June 2021).
4 Pacey, A. and Cullis, A. (1986) Rainwater Harvesting: The Collection of Rainfall and Runoff in Rural Areas. London: Intermediate Technology Publications.
5 Crawford, M. (2010) Creating a Forest Garden: Working with Nature to Grow Edible Crops. Cambridge: Green Books, Ltd.
6 Sharma, S., Singh, B. and Manchanda, V.K. (2015) Phytoremediation: Role of Terrestrial Plants and Aquatic Macrophytes in the Remediation of Radionuclides and Heavy Metal Contaminated Soil and Water, Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 22, pp. 946-962.
7 Boucher, J. and Friot, D. (2017) Primary Microplastics in the Oceans: A Global Evaluation of Sources. Gland: International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
Teaser photo credit: Velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina) in the Sonoran Desert. By Adbar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32120883