A permaculture garden is not just about organic farming

PUERTO PRINCESA CITY—Since March is Women’s Month, I thought it would be fitting to feature Filipinas who are promoting sustainable farming and dining.  For this week, I interviewed Sarah Queblatin, founder of Green Releaf Initiative, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that uses holistic systems like permaculture and ecovillage design to help local communities that are in transition. These include these include the farmers and indigenous groups who are recovering from Supertyphoon Lawin that hit Kalinga in 2016 and the families who were displaced by last year’s Marawi conflict.

It was actually through her work in Marawi that I first learned about Sarah. She was one of the speakers in a forum on the Marawi conflict, which was held last October in Ateneo de Manila University, and she talked about a permaculture garden that a group of internally displaced people (IDPs) living in an evacuation center in Iligan city. I’ve always been curious about permaculture after learning about it from a Bruneian entrepreneur and wellness advocate who told me that she hired a permaculture expert to design her home garden which is now supplying her with organically grown fruits and veggies. I thought that was one thing to aspire for as soon as I get my own small space for a garden.

Permaculture, which is a portmanteu of the words “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture,” is a system of agricultural and social design. Developed in the 1970s by Australian agriculturists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, its basic tenets include caring for the Earth, caring for the people and setting limits to population and consumption. Permaculture design aims to minimize waste, human labor and energy input by building a more holistic system. It was influenced by concepts derived from organic farming, agroforestry, sustainable development and applied ecology.

Sarah said that apart from providing food and water, the permaculture designed garden in Iligan city is also serving as a healing space for IDPs. This is not a novel concept for a certified permaculture designer like Sarah as she was mentored by Rosemary Morrow—a renowned permaculturalist who has worked in countries like East Timor, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Solomon Island to help communities recovering from war and natural disasters.

“This is beyond sustainable agriculture,” Sarah said in a recent phone interview.  Permaculture design is about life-cycle design and offers a preventive rather than reactive solution. It’s practical, simple and uses the resources that are locally available. She cited Green Releaf’s project in Iligan City. The project started during the third quarter of 2017 and, at that time, it was raining almost every day in Iligan city. The daily rains inspired the community to design a water catchment system, allowing the IDPs to use stored rainwater for laundry and cleaning.

But what attracted Sarah more to permaculture is its holistic and integrative approach to solve a problem. She realized the importance of such approach during the time spent working for various NGOs in Manila. She noticed that most NGOs tend to focus on a single sector or cause, forgetting the fact that everything is interconnected and, therefore, needs a more holistic solution. For example, it would be difficult to solve an environmental problem or work on peace building unless one understands the need for more livelihood or changing the community’s mind-set on how to relate with nature.

“I worked with disaster-affected and conflict-affected communities. It made me see that there’s a need for a more a holistic approach,” she said.

So Sarah explored not only the concept of permaculture but also the related concept of forming an ecovillage. An ecovillage is a community that is designed by its members based on four dimensions of sustainability—social, culture, ecology and economy—to regenerate social and natural environments. Sarah, who has always wanted to live in an ecovillage, decided to uproot herself from Manila to live in an ecovillage in Palawan in 2012. She lived there—on and off—for the next three years where she learned to live in harmony with nature and do some inner work following the death of her mother in 2013. Her grieving also gave her time to meditate more on her life’s mission.

“I realized my path is working with transitional communities into designing better systems,” she said.

By 2015 Sarah left the ecovillage and took up courses on permaculture design in Nueva Ecija, Palawan and Australia. It was also around this time that she worked as advocacy coordinator for the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN). She left GEN last year to focus on Green Releaf.

At present, Sarah and Green Releaf have expanded their work in Mindanao by designing a permaculture garden in an elementary school across the evacuation center in Panao, Lanao del Norte. Most of the displaced children go to this school and Sarah believes that this garden will provide food and a safe space for healing the children’s trauma. She’s also talking with the administrators of Mindanao State University in Iligan to build a permaculture site in the university. Green Releaf is also helping the Department of Education and a local community in Kalinga to design a permaculture demo site at the Balawag National High School.

And after living in Manila and Palawan for several years, Sarah moved back to her hometown in Cebu City where Green Releaf is also based. While she has no garden of her own as she lives in a condo, Sarah will apply what she learned in urban gardening by pitting up a permaculture garden demo site in a weekend farmers’ market just across her condo building.


Prime Sarmiento is a longtime business journalist who specializes in food, agribusiness and commodities-trade reporting. Her stories have been published in both local and international publications, including Nikkei Asian Review, China Daily, Science and Development News Network and Dow Jones Newswires.

Comments and ideas are welcome at prime.sarmiento@gmail.com.


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