At the association Terre & Humanisme agro-ecology contains two inseparable aspects: preserving the earth/soil that feeds us, our ‘terre nourricière’, and the awakening of humanism. Terre & Humanisme was created in 1994 under the name of ‘Amis de Pierre Rabhi’, Friends of Pierre Rabhi, in 1999 renamed Terre & Humanisme (hereafter T&H).
Main goal is to transmit agro-ecology as a practice and ethics aiming for the enhancement of human conditions and its natural environment. The main activities of the association consist of raising awareness and training people in France and internationally. The focus is on creating food autonomy, food sovereignty, and food safety for populations, as well as fostering traditional methods of food production and the ‘savoir faire’. Terre & Humanisme is also very active in the South, mainly Africa. It sets up programmes to support local farmers with their food sovereignty and creates local networks of farmers and trainers in ‘agro-ecology’ in order to stimulate local solidarity and ‘South-South’- cooperation.
Sharing a wealth of knowledge
As Pierre Rabhi once put it: “Facing a system that is depriving people from the right to nourish itself, cultivating its own garden is a political and legitimate act of peaceful resistance.”
At its main centre in the Ardèche, with a surface of 2500 m2, T&H cultivates a variety of gardens with vegetables, aromatic plants and fruits. This is a place to experiment and to exchange, not to produce. However, the production is largely sufficient for all the people working and passing at T&H. On a yearly basis between 120 and 150 volunteers and around 2000 visitors pass this site.
The project has a phytopurification system (with lots of frogs), dry toilets and collection of rain water. By the way, on average it rains as much here as it does in Belgium, but these dry lands have difficulty to retain the water.
The office, with the 12 staff members, is situated in the main building with the kitchen and training facilities, and storage and tool rooms. Employees, volunteers, trainees, and gardeners all lunch together. These lunches, with the vegetables, fruits and plants produced in the gardens, are prepared either by the volunteers or by the cook of T&H. This creates a very pleasant atmosphere full of opportunities for sharing knowledge and meeting new people.
And a wealth of knowledge there is at T&H!! I worked 10 days in the gardens with many other volunteers and this was an eye-opener on the tremendous richness that different plants offer.
The gardeners of T&H showed us different methods to grow vegetables, etc. There is the sandwich method. First open up the soil, then add wood shavings (gives oxygen and absorbs water) and then a pile of dry leaves and straw. And then stir it all and plant!
A successful method for growing potatoes is to place potatoes just under a cardboard and add lots of straw. Your new potatoes will grow out of that! The core knowledge of agro-ecology is about creating good mound and soil fertility. Layers of hay and straw are part of the trick here, as well as leave from trees. Or how to treat plants, parasites, fungi and insects with extracts from other plants. And of course how to apply crop rotation, in a rotation logic from plants that produce flowers, to fruits, to leaves, and to roots.
Different types of compost
Real gardening also means creating different types of compost and for different purposes. Raw vegetables, gardening waste, and the dry toilet waste are put in different composting processes, each taking its own time. The compost of the dry toilets is not used for food production. The point is that we don’t know what medication people take or what meat-eating habits (antibiotics!) they have. It is too risky to bring that into the food chain again through compost. It is possible to do, but then the composting process needs to take a lot longer.
To create these rich gardens time is of the essence. It can take, depending on the soil characteristics and previous usage, four to eight years to create a healthy and rich soil. T&H is working the soil for about 10 years now. “The earth here is very hard, dry and shallow, almost like concrete”, says gardener Eric. Not exactly the easiest conditions, but T&H show that it is possible even then to grow plenty of food!
Permaculture, biodynamics and agro-ecology
A rich vocabulary of alternative agricultural practices! On the Monday morning guided tour for visitors at T&H, gardener Eric explains. It needs to be said that these concepts include very similar principles that cannot always be distinguished or separated. The practices I have seen so far therefore often are a mixture of them.
Permaculture has its origins in 1940 in the natural agriculture by the Japanese Masanobu Fukuoka in the 1940’s, his principles were quite akin to those of permaculture. The idea of permaculture was formulated by two Australian ecologists, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, in the 1970’s. Permaculture observes the relation in nature and is based on the principle of efficiency, meaning, put in as little human labour and interference as possible. In other words: work with nature, to have nature do its thing! Permaculture also applies knowledge on the wider cosmos, such as the lunar system for planting, treatments, harvesting.
Biodynamics, based on insights of the Austrian Rudolf Steiner, is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, food production and nutrition. An aspect is the homeopathic treatment of plants, also applied at T&H.
Agro-ecology, as used by among others Pierre Rabhi (see French video interview with Pierre Rabhi on ‘agroécologie’ and T&H), is based on the agro-biology, or organic farming, but includes an holistic approach to sustainable agriculture, including the wider notion of ethics and humanism. This also means the revaluation of the role of peasantry in society, reinforcing local social networks and producing healthy food with local resources and accessible to all.
Trainings and further reading
At the core of T&H is training. Visitors can receive a guided tour every Monday morning. Furthermore, different levels of trainings and workshops are organised on agro-ecology, healthy cooking, the well-being and health of plants, beekeeping, permaculture, etc. The opportunities for sharing, exchange and transmission of know how!
The Terre & Humanisme website contains a wealth of information on practices on seeds, plants, alternative fertilizers, etc. (documents in pdf)
A must read is their publication on agro-ecological gardening: “Le Manuel des jardins agroécologiques”. The book can be ordered online – 190 pages full of practices acquired by long experience!