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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
By Eva Perroni
Transitioning to more sustainable forms of agriculture remains critical, as many current agriculture practices have serious consequences including deforestation and soil degradation. But despite agriculture's enormous potential to hurt the environment, it also has enormous potential to heal it. Realizing this, many organizations are promoting regenerative agriculture as a way to not just grow food but to progressively improve ecosystems.
Drawing from decades of research, regenerative agriculture uses farming principles designed to mimic nature. To build healthy soils and fertile, thriving agro-ecosystems, this approach incorporates a range of practices like agroforestry and well-managed grazing. Benefits of these practices include richer soil, healthier water systems, increased biodiversity, climate change resilience and stronger farming communities.
To celebrate the ongoing work of individuals and organizations dedicated to healing agro-ecosystems around the globe, Food Tank is highlighting these 17 organizations building a global grassroots movement for better agriculture.
Aranya Agricultural Alternatives organizes and strengthens rural farming communities in India to achieve food and nutrition security through permaculture farming practices. Sanskrit for "forest," Aranya promotes natural agricultural practices based on forests' self-regulating ecosystems. Aranya runs permaculture design courses and workshops as well as community-based projects focused on watershed and soil management, tree-based farming, diversified cropping, animal integration and seed saving.
Grounded, an organization based in Cape Town, South Africa, partners with farmers across sub-Saharan Africa "to develop regenerative businesses [that] establish a healthier and more profitable balance between nature and agriculture, while shortening the value chain between producers and consumers." Their projects include restoring the natural biodiversity in the biodiversity hotspots of Madagascar, the Langkloof and the Baviaanskloof, as well as restoring natural migration routes of elephants in Zambia. Grounded is actively working to improve soil quality, increase the vegetation cover and add to the water table in these regions while promoting sustainable and profitable farming models.
Kiss the Ground is a California-based nonprofit working to regenerate land and reverse climate change through rebuilding healthy soil. They create educational curriculum, campaigns and media to raise awareness and empower individuals to purchase food that support healthy soils and a balanced climate. Kiss the Ground also works with farmers, educators, NGOs, scientists, students and policymakers to advocate for regenerative agriculture, and help drive brands and businesses to develop more sustainable supply chains worldwide. Locally, they operate a community garden in Venice, California, demonstrating urban permaculture to volunteers and homeless youth.
RegenAG is a community-based family enterprise providing farmers, professional organizations and communities with education and training to learn from the world's most innovative and effective regenerative agriculture practitioners in a wide range of fields. Their on-farm consulting and extension services teach farmers the knowledge and skills to significantly reduce inputs and effectively manage and monitor farm fertility though beneficial microbe capture and reproduction, water cycle repair, soil building and other holistic management strategies. RegenAg also holds courses, workshops and field days to showcase the success and trials of farmers who have adopted regenerative strategies on their farm.
Regeneration International (RI) provides information and resources that highlight the connection between healthy soil, regenerative agriculture and land use, food, health, healthy economies and climate change. These include a multilingual website and social media networks, an interactive online portal, consumer campaigns, events and international conferences. And every year, RI brings a delegation to the U.N. Climate Summit to raise awareness about the links between soil and climate. RI also engages in farmer training, through partnerships with Via Organica and its teaching farm and the Main Street Project's regenerative poultry project.
The Rodale Institute is known for pioneering and continually advocating for the use of regenerative agricultural practices. Founded in 1947 in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, by J.I. Rodale, the Institute has transformed 333 acres of formerly degraded farmland into highly fertile and productive land growing a variety of organic crops. The farm forms the basis for Rodale's research, education and outreach, and it is home to the longest-running comparative study of organic and chemical agriculture, started in 1981.
The Savory Network is a global group of entrepreneurial innovators and leaders working to advance regenerative agriculture, reverse desertification and combat climate change. With more than 30 hubs around the world, the Savory Network advocates, trains, implements and facilitates Holistic Management and regenerative agriculture practices in their own global and agricultural contexts. The network is an initiative of the Savory Institute, which has the broader goal of informing policymakers, establishing market incentives and increasing public awareness to support the ecological restoration of grasslands worldwide.
8. Soil Capital
Soil Capital is "a company committed to scaling and sustaining regenerative agriculture through market-based solutions." Using proven farming processes and adapted technology, they focus on maximizing farm profitability through increased soil health, resilience and the natural productivity of the farm ecosystem as a whole. Through partnerships with experienced farmers who demonstrate resource-efficient and sustainable operations, Soil Capital assists other farmers in transitioning from conventional to regenerative agricultural practices. In doing so, Soil Capital seeks to scale and replicate holistic and healthy agricultural projects worldwide.
Soils, Food and Healthy Communities is a participatory, farmer-led organization which uses local indigenous knowledge and agroecological methods to improve food security, nutrition and soils in Malawi. Their Malawi Farmer-to-Farmer Agroecology project uses farmer-to-farmer teaching about agroecological farming methods to sustainably manage soils, improve agricultural and dietary diversity and improve incomes of 6,000 farming households in central and northern Malawi. Through the use of grains and perennial legumes, farmers fix nitrogen, nutrients and organic matter directly into the soil, improving soil fertility and enhancing environmental and food security.
Founded by leading international soil microbiologist Dr. Elaine Ingham, the Soil Foodweb Institute (SFI) provides expert analysis and advice to empower primary producers to take control of maintaining the health of their soil. SFI analyzes soil micro-organism activity and creates management plans tailored to farmers' specific soils to achieve a sustainable, productive and low-input farming system. SFI Laboratories have extended across the globe, providing services to thousands of farmers to improve the health and productivity of their soils.
The mission of this nonprofit organization is to "preserve the environment by partnering with families to improve well-being through sustainable farming." They work in Central America promoting sustainable alternatives to slash-and-burn agriculture. Through their multi-year program, participants receive tailored training and technical assistance. Former Peace Corps Volunteer Florence Reed founded the organization in 1997 after realizing the potential for training in sustainable agriculture to help farmers provide for their families while engaging in restorative practices.
Terra Genesis International is a regenerative design consultancy that includes engineers, permaculture design experts, agro-ecologists, foresters, carbon scientists and financial analysts. They help large-scale agriculture and business clients that use natural ingredients in their products to redesign their supply chains and incorporate agricultural practices that regenerate soil, increase biodiversity and boost business.
The Carbon Underground acts as an umbrella organization connecting academia, businesses, organizations, schools, governments and the general public, communicating and educating about the power of healthy soil to combat climate change. The Carbon Underground coordinates a globally interconnected set of research groups working to demonstrate the impact of sustainable agriculture, land management and regenerative enterprises as principal tools for sequestering carbon. Through their focus areas of corporate impact, education and training, policy and communications, The Carbon Underground aims to facilitate the widespread transition of farms, ranches and grasslands from industrial into regenerative enterprises.
The Ecological Farming Association (EcoFarm) is a nonprofit organization that connects farmers, ranchers, distributors, retailers, activists and researchers for education, alliance building and advocacy. They run an annual Ecological Farming Conference that features more than 70 workshops, intensives, exhibitions and special events including seed swaps, film screenings and organic culinary fare. EcoFarm also offers a free mentoring program for apprentices and beginning farmers as well as a range of online farmer resources. EcoFarm is a broad network of grassroots leadership and has facilitated an exchange of knowledge for more than 60,000 people across the U.S.
The Land Institute focuses on developing perennial grains, pulses and oilseed crops. Their crops are grown in "ecologically intensified polycultures" that mimic the diversity of natural ecosystems. The Land Institute breeds new perennial crops and develops ways to productively grow these crops in diverse polyculture mixtures. Led by a team of ecologists and plant breeders that partner with multiple organizations worldwide, The Land Institute works to develop an agricultural system that can produce ample food while minimizing or eliminating the negative impacts of industrial agriculture.
The Timbaktu Collective works to protect, manage and restore degraded ecosystems in rural Indian village communities. The Collective works in 172 villages within the Anantapur district, reaching and serving approximately 21,000 marginalized families. Their work in ecology includes the restoration of wastelands through planting locally adapted indigenous varieties of trees, reviving traditional water-harvesting structures to conserve water, and rejuvenating soil health through organic farming practices.
The Traditional Native American Farmers Association holds an annual Indigenous Sustainable Food Systems Design Course, providing training in ecological design, natural farming and earth restoration. The course is a holistic indigenous approach based on traditional knowledge and practices. These practices help improve air and water quality, ecosystems, nutrition and community health. The Traditional Native American Farmers Association also holds workshops and training on seed saving, beekeeping and growing medicinal herbs to enhance biodiversity and increase seed and crop vitality.
Eva Perroni was a Research & Writing Fellow at Food Tank and a freelance researcher-writer and activist focused on promoting sustainable food systems. She holds an MA in Development Studies from the University of Melbourne, maintaining a strong research focus on global food security and food and agriculture politics.
- Regenerative Agriculture Can Save the Planet ›
- How Carbon-Smart Farming Can Feed Us and Fight Climate Change at the Same Time - EcoWatch ›
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
WHAT: Sustainability Symposium
WHEN: Feb. 4, 8 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
WHERE: Cleveland Botanical Garden, 11030 East Blvd., Cleveland, Ohio 44106
Back for its seventh year, the Cleveland Botanical Garden's Sustainability Symposium is focusing on something we all require for a healthy life: healthy food. Each year, the goal of the symposium is to focus on protecting resources related to people, the planet and prosperity. By eating healthfully, we protect our most important resource—ourselves. This symposium is taking a cue from the growing field of permaculture—the science of designing productive landscapes that integrate plants, people, animals and land resources into self-sustaining ecosystems that yield crops.
Keynote speaker will be Dr. Michael Roizen of the Cleveland Clinic.
For more information and to register, click here.