Revitalising a dead zone

Nicholas Netien moved to the buffer zone with his wife and three-year-old son in 2013, having been hired to revive four hectares of farmland through permaculture practices in an area that has been largely untouched since the 1974 war.

Founder of a consulting company in permaculture design, it was a year after 40-year-old Netien offered his consulting services on the barren land that he was hired by a local businessman to design an entire farm and plant, cultivate and turn 7,000 olive trees into a profit-making enterprise.

“As the results started showing we were asked to move permanently and we were hired full time,” French-born Netien tells me, as I ask him how it feels to be living and working in a dead zone.

“The farm is in the buffer zone; the house we live in is just on the edge of the buffer zone, we see the buffer zone; we work in the buffer zone every day, but we live right on the edge: we kind of like living on the edge,” he admits.

“The buffer zone is a very strange place, not only the buffer zone but the edge of it is full of military infrastructure. We have the Cypriot army doing a lot of manoeuvres around the buffer zone and inside the buffer zone we get checked by the UN. There’s this war feeling – even if it’s very quiet and nothing happens.

“It’s a bit strange in that sense. But because it’s been untouched for 40 years, it’s a very good place to see wildlife emerging, it’s a very interesting place,” says Netien as he reverts to talking about his passion, the practice and lifestyle which lies behind permaculture and its implementation.

Permaculture

In a nutshell, permaculture is an integrated design philosophy that encompasses gardening, architecture, horticulture, ecology, money management and community design. The basic approach is to create sustainable systems that provide for their own needs and recycle their waste.

For Netien, applying this philosophy in the buffer zone is ideal. “The buffer zone is an ideal place because it was untouched; this doesn’t mean that it’s fertile or that it’s good in any way, this is actually the worst place to farm in Cyprus. Where we are is one of the driest places, we have a lot of wind, we have no topsoil whatsoever, we’re farming on rocks, but because it was untouched, there’s no chemicals involved, it’s clean, it’s full of birds, which is helpful for our design and it’s also full of wildlife which is also good for us.”

Nevertheless, “the issue we could have with farming in the buffer zone is more of an administrative issue. Every time we want to do something, we have to deal with several administrations: the UN administration, the Cypriot administration and then the army administration. That slows down things a little bit. But it’s not that bad,” says Netien.

Netien began practising permaculture about 10 years ago, while travelling in Australia.

“I came to a permaculture farm not knowing what permaculture was,” he recalls.

First start

“I knocked on the door and a lady called Robyn Francis opened the door… she’s quite a famous permaculture teacher, we wanted to get roofing, work and get free accommodation as an exchange,” Netien tells me. And it’s once she began to try and explain what permaculture is about, a task maintained as ‘difficult to explain’ by Netien himself, that his life changed forever.

Perhaps one of the best ways to get to know permaculture and its complexity is by spending time around its practices. Following Netien around as he describes the details of what he does is what connects dots together and conveys logic.

“This place here, before it was planted, was just bare rock, no topsoil; nothing grew – only a few things like spiky pioneer weeds … there was very low diversity, with three or four species of plants growing; a desert basically,” he says.

“Three years ago, we installed a network of ditches and contours to slow down the water, to spread it around the landscape, to be sucked into the ground. And, of course, we stopped touching the ground.

“Now we have a huge diversity of plants growing, tons of plants that are way more sophisticated, most of them edible as well… there’s a big biodiversity, we planted aromatics on the contours, we’re creating soil – well, actually, they’re creating soil for us… We started with no topsoil whatsoever and now we have nice, good, really rich dark soil, full of microorganisms, full of life that’s bringing fertility to the whole place,” he says proudly.

Animal life

And beyond wildlife, there is also animal life. “I’m surrounded by bees, I’m surrounded by different weeds, flowers, we have insects all over the place; 90 percent of them are beneficial for our system, everything is getting balanced out, the ecosystem is being created and because it’s diverse, it’s stable. The more diverse the ecosystem is the more stable it is,” adds Netien, as we get deeper into his practice.

“That’s what we’re doing in permaculture: we’re adding life into our system, we’re trying to design productive ecosystems, we’re increasing biodiversity, we’re working with nature, everything goes back to the soil, we don’t disturb it, we don’t have waste and it works! Fantastic production, fantastic products, fantastic soil, happy bees, happy animals, happy farmer,” he smiles.

Admittedly Netien explains that the hardest the place in the beginning, the quicker one sees results and the easier the design: “That’s why I like dry environments; because I don’t have many options, it makes my work easier,” says Netien.

Eventually having soil which is protected and moist you begin to increase organic matter into the soil, “you increase the capacity of your soil to hold the water and if you raise just one percent, it’s 144,000 litres of water per hectare that you’re saving, so that’s where we’re storing our water, the more diverse, the more complex it gets, the more sophisticated our system is, the more fertile, the more stable,” he offers, an example to illustrate his point.

“The problem is the solution. Farming or any human activity can be either very destructive or the opposite: regenerative. That’s what we’re doing here, we’re doing regenerative agriculture, we are regenerating the landscape, we work with nature; we just speed up the process a little bit. We understand how nature works then we copy it and then we speed it up with our work,” Netien sums up.

Design science

As a design science as well as a philosophy, “we look at nature in every aspect, every function, every element, and we work with all these facts,” Netien tells me.

Through observation and working with nature, the science can then be applied to a farm, to industrial design and human systems. “We’re creating sustainability, we’re creating a culture of sustainability,” defines Netien. “It’s very simple, we can solve the word’s problem, just by working with nature, it’s very easy,” says Netien.

“When it comes to agriculture, as humans, we think that we’re very clever but most of the things we do in our daily lives is completely absurd; we’re growing our food using toxic products and we think it’s clever even though it’s completely insane,” he adds.

Reverting to his philosophy, Netien clarifies that “when you do permaculture, you are an expert in nothing but you can speak with all the experts, you have to touch a little bit of everything.

“It’s a knowledge-based agriculture, it’s a knowledge-based science and most of it really is observation. You really have to listen to the landscape, you really have to read the patterns in the landscape [and] start to understand a little about what’s going on and then when you apply changes you try and apply the smallest changes possible and then look at the feedback and then move forward.

“It’s a matter of observation and systemic thinking; we think in systems, we don’t think linear like you do in industrial agriculture were if you have a problem it doesn’t matter, you use toxic products to solve it. In permaculture, or agroecology or regenerative agriculture, whatever you want to call it, we’re adding life; we’re adding diversity into our system and through diversity comes stability.

Perhaps Nicholas has a point: bringing diversity to the buffer zone may also bring stability to the area, in a wider sense of the meaning. For now, and for Netien and his family, “being here is a good combination because my wife is from Petra, which is a village in the occupied areas just opposite us, we can see it from the house, so that’s were her roots are. And for us this is also very important, we’re in her place.

“Cyprus is a fantastic island in many, many aspects, and for our son it’s the nicest place to grow up, he’s a free-range, organic little boy and he’s getting the most beautiful upbringing.”

*** Published in the Cyprus Weekly Newspaper

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