Joe Polaischer interviewJanuary 28, 2006
I interviewed Joe Polaischer this week (on my radio show). He is a permaculturist, born in Austria but living in New Zealand where he and his wife have created a model permaculture small farm with low tech solutions. There’s an article here that’s worth reading, or you can listen to the interview here. Joe has travelled widely and experienced many difficult 3rd world situations before settling in New Zealand and building Rainbow Valley Farm. He’s one of the people who figured out where things were headed a generation ago and started working on the problem back then. Anyway, I promised to get him to retell the story of a visit to a shanty town in Peru so here’s the transcript of that part of the interview.
I had this experience in 73 in Lima [Peru] where a person from this shantytown invited me and I said; ‘Yes, what is your address’ and he said ‘What address? We don’t have any street numbers or house numbers, I will actually have to get you from the edge of town – you can not enter the place where I live because people will rob you and kill you. You have to be walking with me – or you wouldn’t find me’
It was an experience for me. So I waited on the edge of the city and this person picked me up and we walked through this shanty town – you know what they look like with all sort of things built – houses out of cardboard and driftwood and corrugated iron and bits and pieces, And no sewers, with water and urine and faeces everywhere. You know, really contaminated. Children everywhere and the animals – it’s an experience!.
This person who invited me he said you’re invited for a family dinner so I thought; ‘Bring them something, they’re probably short of food!’. So I went to the supermarket and made up a little food parcel under my arm and we walked up these steep hills there and we ended up in a little shack and guess what I saw. The table was full of food so I felt really awkward with my food parcel and I actually just made it disappear under the table.
The family said; ‘Sit down and eat with us, this is our food’, The table was full of delicious stuff and I said; ‘Where did you get this? You shouldn’t have spent your precious money on me’, and I felt really bad and they said; ‘What? This is our food – OUR food, we grow it’, and I said; ‘No way!’ and then they took me into the courtyard and showed me how they intensively grow food there.
You know they had these guinea pigs up in cages (and rabbits and pigeons), on the wall – their droppings were immediately going into containers like car tires [which were] full of vegetables – they had all sorts of climbers and beans and so on, squash, all over the place in the courtyard. And the whole courtyard was full of food – they even had fish – Filopia* – which is bit of pig in the water, this fish, but it tastes delicious and the chickens were on top of the 200-litre barrels of water and the chicken droppings went in there and the Filopia was eating it underneath. So a total cyclic system and these people were actually not hungry and I got a real good… ahh, learning there seeing how you can actually grow food in the city
Aaron How big was the courtyard?
Joe Not big if I recall rightly, perhaps maybe 30 square metres or so but every space was used for food growing – I didn’t see any ornamental – well maybe cacti, one or two – but even the cacti you can eat the flower. So most of the stuff that I saw there was edible and that’s what we do in permaculture, creating edible landscapes. Urban permaculture is really an urgency because when you look at New Zealand towns like Auckland with all the green area, full of lawns that need maintenance – fossil fuels to mow it, noisy, polluting – we should have edible landscape instead of ornamentals and grow a lot of food like some 3rd world cities do. You look at Nairobi, I lived in Kenya for a while, Nairobi grows up to 60% of food in the town! – out of necessity out of poverty so there is hope – we can grow heaps of food right around us in containers, even on concrete or tar seal you can grow food, or up on a balcony. That’s what I teach in Urban permaculture.
Aaron So given this experience in Lima do you believe that Suburbia could be converted to be sustainable, self sufficient.
Joe Not completely of course with grain and so on – sure you can grow corn but to grow rice or wheat is really difficult. The research that has been done; to be self sufficient – if you’re a vegetarian its not too much of a problem you only need 100 square metres* in a temperate climate to grow all your food, and the grain included.
Aaron 100 sq metres?
Joe Yeah, 100 sq metres, this was done by John Jevons in the United States – the biointensive method. But I’m not a vegetarian so I would need a little more area, which is of course not an issue here in NZ with 4 million people with all the area that we have available.
Aaron So it’s interesting then, that at a pinch people with an average of 4 people per house needing 100 square metres – they probably have 400 square metres.
Joe A lot of people have and if they haven’t got it there is always the option of community gardens and community supported agriculture where you adopt nearby farms and growing areas and get into a barter and exchange system or a LETS system.
Joe also had this comment to add to a story I posted earlier about life in Austria after the war.
“The good thing was community, there as a real strong community feeling and we supported each other – and only when ‘afluenza’ crept in later on and we recovered. We became greedy again, and competitive. And envy came in again, but after the war people were very, very community minded, helpful and cooperative and I’m looking forward to this happening more…”
But he also said that we really need to build community BEFORE the trouble really starts; “Once you’re in survival mode you couldn’t care any more, then it’s not a question of protecting the environment – its survival that counts and I’ve been in many, many communities where that’s happened.”
And lastly this perspective from someone a generation older than myself.
“I’ve been to many places and I’ve found out one thing, I’ve been through 140 countries of the world and I don’t want to go back any more because where ever I go back to places that I have been to 30 years ago its all deterioration, its all downhill, I don’t want to see that.”
* For those that don’t know; one square metre is roughly the equivalent of 10 square feet.
* I have no idea how to spell the name of this fish – feel free to correct me.