How Permaculture Is Helping Wildfire Survivors Recover

Volunteers prepare a space to plant a permaculture herb spiral at Pine Ridge School in Magalia, California, during the Camp Fire Restoration Weekend. Gerard Ungerman

By Dani Burlison

On a bright spring afternoon in late April, roughly 75 people gathered at the first Camp Fire restoration weekend at a farm 20 miles southwest of Paradise, California. The small private farm, nestled near a sprawling cow pasture that reaches east toward the burn zone, was safe from the Camp Fire. But in Paradise, signs of the devastating fire remain: burned-out vehicles, long lines of debris-removal trucks snaking toward the highway, billboards of encouragement (and insurance company ads) for survivors, and posters thanking first responders.

After the 2018 Camp Fire ravaged the small forested town — leaving just 10 percent of homes standing — residents were left with the enormous task of rebuilding their community. For locals, that means rebuilding homes and businesses. But it also means ecological restoration of the scorched Sierra Nevada foothills.

Matthew Trumm, founder of the Camp Fire Restoration Project, hopes his project will do both.

Trumm's friends own the farm where attendees of the restoration camp gathered for three days to launch the project, taking early steps in helping land and people recover from the deadly fires.

With the weekend camp, Trumm and a dozen other camp organizers wanted to bring people together to begin organizing for long-term recovery of Paradise. Activities provided training in regenerative design and ecological restoration, including a day performing permaculture projects at Pine Ridge School in Magalia, one of few schools left standing in the Camp Fire burn zone. On the final day of the camp, committees were formed to tackle ongoing needs to rebuild infrastructure for shelter, water, and energy.

Matthew Trumm, founder of the Camp Fire Restoration Project, directs volunteers at a work day at Pine Ridge School, one of the few schools spared by the Camp Fire.

Gerard Ungerman

As the campers arrived, set up tents, and settled in for the weekend, Trumm directed them to nearby composting toilets, a first aid tent, and an outdoor kitchen. Trees shaded a fire pit circled by straw bales, where the group would share meals and discuss the weekend's agenda. The farm was designed using principles of permaculture, a system of cultivation that creates permanent agriculture or horticulture by using renewable resources and a self-sustaining ecosystem.

Among the campers were Camp Fire survivors from Paradise and Concow, volunteers from nearby Chico, and some who drove several hours to help with the recovery efforts.

"This is an experiment," Trumm said to the farmers, builders, and community organizers who showed up to help. "Welcome to the experiment!"

Trumm's "experiment" is based on the work of ecologist and filmmaker John D. Liu, who documented the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project, a restoration endeavor that began in 1994 in a 250,000-square-mile region along the Yellow River basin in China. Liu went on to create Ecosystem Restoration Camps that have helped recover overly grazed and farmed land in arid environments.

So far, Liu has created camps in two countries. Since 2017 in Spain, a continual string of campers at Camp Altiplano have been working to rehabilitate degraded natural and agricultural ecosystems affected by long-term industrial farming. Camp Via Organica, near San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, focuses on providing campers with hands-on experience in ecosystem restoration and regenerative farming techniques. Through the camps, Liu aims to restore degraded habitats and improve the lives of farmers and local agricultural economies, while also providing hands-on training to those working on land recovery.

Liu's camps haven't yet addressed disaster recovery, nor have any been introduced to the U.S. The camp in California is the first camp in the U.S. and the first to apply Liu's principles to wildfire recovery.

Trumm first began studying permaculture 12 years ago, after leaving behind his life as a DJ in the San Francisco Bay Area and heading to his family's land in the hills southeast of Paradise. There, he began living off the grid and growing his own food, which eventually led him to complete a permaculture design course. Then, about five years ago, Trumm discovered Liu's work and emailed him to discuss some projects.

"He immediately offered me to be part of the council for the ecosystem restoration camps," Trumm says about their first phone conversation. "This is the first time I ever heard of the ecosystem restoration camps, and it was two weeks before the fire."

Volunteers replace classroom ramps.

Dani Burlison

When the fires ignited, Trumm says, he thought back to a phrase that Liu used in many of his restoration videos: "Let's gather around the campfire and restore paradise." The message clicked for Trumm; he needed to organize a camp to help rebuild the town of Paradise.

The Butte County communities of Paradise, Magalia, Pulga, and Concow have a long road of recovery ahead of them. In addition to the Camp Fire destroying more than 150,000 acres (240 square miles) of neighborhoods and much of the central town and numerous schools — nearly 19,000 structures in total — residents who have returned to unscathed homes among the ponderosa pines are dealing with toxic water. It is estimated that up to 173 miles of pipeline in the town's water system is contaminated with benzene and other volatile organic compounds.

As of late June, just over 50% of fire debris had been removed. Entering Paradise from the west is a heartbreaking reminder of how utterly devastating the Camp Fire was. Skyway Boulevard is lined with 85 memorial markers—one for each life lost in the disaster.

At Pine Ridge School, which is reached after driving through miles of the burn area that torched the surrounding forest and came within yards of the school's perimeter, Trumm is determined to create a safe place for students, while demonstrating the importance of community collaboration.

The small elementary school of about 450 students is one of the only schools that survived the path of the Camp Fire. About 5 miles down the road from the school is Paradise, where eight of the district's nine schools were destroyed. Some of the displaced students have been transferred to Pine Ridge.

In February, Pine Ridge was the meeting place of California Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials to discuss recovery funds for the area. After the fires, Pine Ridge added seventh and eighth grade teachers to the kindergarten through sixth grade school to accommodate students from other schools, many of whom bus in from new or temporary housing in Chico.

Community members donated native trees and fruit trees to be planted at the school.

Dani Burlison

At the school, flowering dogwood trees and pines still stand, scattered across the campus; most of the school was spared by the fire, aside from one small building at the edge of the campus.

During the restoration event at the school, campers and other volunteers from town removed old railings along walkways and rebuilt classroom ramps. Others planted native trees and shrubs and a small school garden near the entryway to the campus, providing a contrast to the miles of scorched neighborhoods students travel through every day on their way to school. And others dug a drainage ditch for an area of the school where water pools during the rainy season.

Throughout the day, the sense of community in the small hillside town remained strong as volunteers shared snacks and chatted hopefully about rebuilding their homes while working together on projects across the campus.

Though roughly 150 people turned out for the work day, including campers, school staff, parents with children who attend Pine Ridge, and a group from Stanford University, the project is small compared to the amount of destruction just outside its gates.

Trumm said they have to start small. And because it's in the center of the burn zone and has been used as a meeting spot for the community since the fires, the school is a central place to begin the rebuilding process, Trumm said. "In permaculture, we talk about zones," he said. "Zone One is the place right outside your back door, right? The thing that needs the most attention. It's where you keep your most valuable plant stock, valuable things, sensitive things. When I try to think about that on a large scale for a disaster area like this, that's my thinking behind [starting at the school]."

"Because you're bringing the next generation [into] thinking about this stuff, you're healing that next generation," he added.

Some question the advisability of rebuilding towns in fire-prone regions. These are regions that, according to the U.S. Forest Service, have seen an increase from 30.8 to 43.4 million homes (a 41% rise) between 1990 and 2010.

The area of Northern California where Paradise once stood is one such fire-prone region. As climate change continues bringing higher temperatures and lower precipitation throughout California, fire seasons are projected to get worse throughout the state, according to a new study.

But Paradise — and Butte County in general — is a largely working class region. According to a 2016 Butte County Health Assessment Report, the county's median income was roughly $43,000 and nearly 60% of children were eligible for free or reduced-fee school lunch programs before the fire. For many, moving into more expensive areas of California, where there continues to be an extreme shortage of affordable housing, is not a feasible option.

Volunteers dig a drainage ditch at the school.

Dani Burlison

One person who wants to rebuild his home — and who attended the restoration camp this weekend — is a man known as Pyramid Michael in the Paradise community. A 70-year old veteran and construction worker turned massage therapist, Michael spent 10 years designing and building an energy efficient, passive-solar-powered home in Paradise. He recently did a "permablitz" — a comprehensive permaculture project — on his property that included planting a garden and small food forest, and installing a rain catchment system.

"Then the fire came through and wiped it all out," he says. "But I've been homeless many times in my life, I know what it's like to be without nothing or starting over again. But I'm still healthy. I have strength, and I have intelligence. And I have a vision. And I know how to work with those."

Michael hopes the volunteers' efforts will help the school become more viable, continuing to act as a hub for community organizing while families rebuild their homes. He also hopes to create a safe space for the kids to recover from the emotional impact of the fires.

Using permaculture for climate disaster recovery isn't new. Activists used mycelium to consume and break down environmental pollutants in post-Katrina New Orleans and again to address toxic runoff in burn zones after the 2017 fires in Sonoma County.

Koreen Brennan, owner of Grow Permaculture in Brooksville, Florida, and a board member at Permaculture Institute of North America, saw permaculture applied to disaster relief after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Brennan traveled there with a small group to help build compostable toilets after the disaster as a way to address sanitation issues and also create fertilizer for gardens.

"Bringing the community together to take these small steps helps … increase the capacity and fortitude needed to take the larger steps … to rebuild."

"I think an important component of permaculture disaster relief is the hope factor," she added. "We were able to literally use garbage and the waste stream of the area, such as sawdust, to address multiple problems, while creating beautiful, valuable soil in the process that could help people eat better," Brennan says. "It gave [people] a way to start putting their lives back together, where they didn't need to wait for external help or resources."

Pyramid Michael is hopeful for something similar in Paradise.

A dogwood tree grows in a neighborhood devastated by the Camp Fire.

Dani Burlison

"The whole town of Paradise has an opportunity here. We have a real wide focus; it's a complete level playing field. There's been total destruction and we have an opportunity to actually do something different. Something that is more sustainable. Something that works with the Earth," he says. "The thing that just stresses me is that we lost 85 people's lives. One person I did know, but they were all part of our community. And I don't want to see that happen again."

The financial cost of the Camp Fire damage has been tallied at more than$12 billion, and some estimate that it will take years for cleanup to be complete and for rebuilding to begin because of a local labor shortage and massive insurance fees. And it may be at least two years and $300 million before water in the area will be safe to drink.

"We need to increase our understanding of how we are interconnected with each other and with ecosystems, in order to make better decisions about how and where we live. The result would be resilient communities that are more supportive, and have more abundant natural resources for the foreseeable future," Brennan says.

Back at Pine Ridge School, Trumm says he believes that recovery is possible and that it can start with simple solutions like planting native trees and teaching skills for resilience.

"The important thing about this," Trumm says, "is that I'm just an average person that was able to learn these skills over a short period of time, and everybody can do it."

Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.

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Brazilians living in The Netherlands organized a demonstration in solidarity with rainforest protectors and against the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro on Sept. 1 in The Hague, Netherlands. Romy Arroyo Fernandez / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Tara Smith

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.

Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.

Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.

From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.

Historical Precedent

Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.

Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.

Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?

Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.

When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.

The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.

The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.

But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.

Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.

This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein speaking on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2018. Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Natalie Hanman

Why are you publishing this book now?

I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.

The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?

When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.

What's stopping the left doing this?

In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.

Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?

I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.

That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.

This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.

One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?

When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?

I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.

This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.

In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?

In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.

Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...

Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.

Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?

I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?

Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?

It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.

What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?

One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.

You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?

I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.

This story was originally published by The Guardian, and is republished here as part of the Covering Climate Now partnership to strengthen the media's focus on the climate crisis.

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