The Chikukwa Project:

Local Permaculture-based alternative development in Zimbabwe.

Ted Trainer

10.12.2013

This is an inspiring demonstration of the alternative conception of development, making clear that there is a far better option than the dominant conventional capitalist trickle down way.  Over twenty years many of the seven thousand people in the region have cooperatively transformed their landscape to enable food security, ecological sustainability, water management, many committees and services etc., via their own cooperative community initiative and control. 

The following brief descriptive account is mostly made up of text taken from Terry Leahy’s account.  At the end I offer some comments on the contradiction between this general approach and the overwhelmingly dominant conventional approach to development.

It is extremely annoying that so little attention is given to the miracles this approach can achieve and the challenge it sets to conventional development theory and practice.  It is most encouraging that educational efforts are spreading these ideas to other villages in the region.

There are six Chikukwa villages with a population of approximately seven thousand people. They are stretched out over a 15 kilometre set of hills and valleys in the mountainous regions of Eastern Zimbabwe, near to the border with Mozambique. The project has now been going for twenty years. It was initiated to deal with agriculture and food security issues, but has since broadened its scope. The photos show the area of the Chikukwa villages in the early nineties as barren hillsides with only a few trees remaining and with erosion gullies common. The gullies surrounding the springs have been trampled by cattle. Interviewees gave an account of the situation at this time. The springs had dried up. They had to walk five or more kilometres down the hill to a more permanent stream to fetch water. During the dry season there was little feed for their cattle. The absence of trees meant a shortage of fuel wood. Harvests were very poor and hunger was common. During the wet season, rainwater poured down the hills causing considerable soil erosion. Houses were inundated by silt from above, reaching up to the window ledges.

More recent photos show a complex landscape of small farm households, each surrounded by orchards and vegetable gardens. The cropping fields are fitted with contour bunds topped by vetiver grass. Gullies and springs are surrounded by a lush growth of indigenous woodland. The ridges of most hills and some slopes are covered in a thick woodland of eucalyptus, acacia and casuarina species. These plantings are used for firewood and timber supplies. They ensure the infiltration of water in the wet season and its gradual release into the ground water throughout the year, enabling the springs to run continuously. According to the interviewees, the changes brought about by the project have been increased yields of cereal crops, as well as diversified nutrition, with more vegetables, fruits and animal protein in the diet. The impact was a substantial reduction in hunger and malnutrition. The resulting improvement in health is evident today and can be verified with recent photos of local people.

Origins, history.

The Chikukwa project was initiated in 1991. A German couple who had come to teach in Zimbabwe were key catalysts in the initiation and later development of the project. Eli and Ulli Westermann travelled overland from Germany to Zimbabwe and took a post teaching in the Chimanimani district in the mid eighties. The group helped to establish similar permaculture clubs in all of the six villages. They built the brick buildings of the CELUCT (Chikukwa Ecological Land Use Community Trust) centre. There is a kitchen to cater for people undertaking training, a dormitory in which they can stay, a number of open sided halls for meetings and instruction workshops and an administration office. At this time they also developed a catering department, which rostered people from each of the villages to come to the centre to provide meals for training workshops. A pre-school was also set up.

 In 1997 CELUCT started up food processing clubs for people to process their surplus production for sale. In 1998 there were social groups initiated for women to discuss problems in their lives. Also during this period an organization was formed to counter the stigma of HIV/AIDS and assist infected people – these clubs in the villages were called “talking circles” for HIV/AIDS. Each of these “departments” of CELUCT were represented by voluntary clubs in the villages that sent representatives to the central organization and by elected heads of each department within the CELUCT organization itself.

What has been established over this twenty year period is a completely new landscape for the six villages. The elements of this design are repeated in each village. Yet there has been no top down decision to implement this design. Instead, villagers have copied successful designs created by other villagers.

Permaculture design elements.

Each village has at least one spring, set about a third of the way from the very top of the hills. These springs are the water source for the village. The area around each spring has been fenced off by the project in order to protect the indigenous woodland that has been planted and has also sprung up with this protection. These fences have fallen into decay as the woodland is now sufficiently advanced to protect itself. The springs are regarded as sacred and the trees are local species which have significance within traditional culture. Each spring has one or more poly-pipes coming from a pond and going down the hill to a community water tank. The tanks have been constructed by community working bees, with bricks supplied in the villages and concrete and asbestos roofing paid for by the project. In turn each tank supplies water through a poly-pipe to taps in people’s household yards. There is a water tank committee that overseas the use of water to make sure taps are being turned off and that they system is not leaking.

On the upper slopes and some lower ridges of the villages, there are woodlots of useful species. These are usually quick growing timber and fuel wood trees. As indicated, they play a key role in maintaining the health of the springs. They also help to prevent soil erosion and provide useful fuel and timber. At least some of these woodlots are owned by villagers who cull the timber and leave the stumps for pollarding, being able to sell wood to other villagers. On the other hand, these woodlots have also been established through a community process and are protected from clear felling by community control.

One of the great achievements of CELUCT has been to change practices associated with fire and grazing animals. A common pattern in Africa is to burn the crop residue after the harvest and woodlands may be also fired up to help catch mice to eat. Both these practices contribute to a loss of soil fertility by removing vegetable matter. This use of fire has been ended. Crop residues are collected for mulching and small animals provide adequate protein. Another common African practice is to move cattle onto the cropping lands at the end of the harvest and also to allow them free reign to graze around the villages. Goats are often free range in small herds, making it difficult to establish trees. In the Chikukwa villages, cattle are herded to specified grazing areas above the tree line. Goats are tethered to graze and otherwise kept in pens along with other small livestock.

There is a pattern of design common to residences which has also been achieved without any top down coordination but through the independent adoption of designs that have been shown to work. Water running off the roof of the house falls onto the hard packed apron of the yard which slopes gently to tip all of that water into the orchard, which is immediately below the front yard of the house, going down the slope. There is also a washing up stand situated in the yard near the orchard, so grey water can be thrown into the orchard below. The stand itself dries utensils so that germs are killed. If there is a tap it is on this yard in front of the house. Around to the side and behind the house are the various pens for small livestock. Typically, the species kept are chickens, pigeons, and goats. Also kept sometimes are fish in ponds, pigs, rabbits or turkeys. Below the house is an orchard. To ensure this is kept watered, there are often pits or contour bunds to trap water.

A common design is to have a cropping field next to the orchard, to one side of the house, with a contour bund and ditch (swale) running into the top of the orchard, to increase the collection of water for the household garden. Typical fruit species are banana, Mexican apple, mango, passionfruit, guava, papaya, pineapple, citrus, avocado. All vegetable matter along with manure from the livestock is piled up in compost heaps which are used to fertilize the vegetable garden and the orchard. Below the orchard, in an area which is not shaded by trees, is the vegetable garden. Typical crops are sunflower seeds, kovo (a kind of cabbage), rape, amaranth and scrambling small tomatoes. These are all easily grown trouble free vegetables that are not demanding in terms of irrigation and do not succumb to pests or diseases to any extent. These are inter-planted with legumes such as Leucaena and Sesbania. Weedy, traditionally-used leafy vegetables such as Bidens pilosa (Blackjack) are also promoted by the project (Ekesa, Walingo & Abukutsa-Onyango 2009). The cropping fields owned by the household are either nearby or in the flood plain down near the permanent stream. Good crops of wheat and maize are ensured by the use of cow manure and by the contour bunds which build soil fertility. Crop residues are composted and also used. Some families have cattle and use them to plough, but many use hand hoes. There are a few community nutrition gardens which are irrigated directly using poly-pipe from the springs. Each householder keeps their own plot and the vegetables are frequently given away to more needy local people. A pit toilet is the most typical form of sewerage.

What has been established over this twenty year period is a completely new landscape for the six villages. The elements of this design are repeated in each village. Yet there has been no top down decision to implement this. Instead, villagers have copied successful designs created by other villagers. Each village has at least one spring, set about a third of the way from the very top of the hills. These springs are the water source for the village. The area around each spring has been at some time fenced off by the project in order to protect the indigenous woodland that has been planted and has also sprung up with this protection. These fences have fallen into decay as the woodland is now sufficiently advanced to protect itself. The springs are regarded as sacred and the trees are local species which have significance within traditional culture. Each spring has one or more poly-pipes coming from a pond and going down the hill to a community water tank. The tanks have been constructed by community working bees, with bricks supplied in the villages and concrete and asbestos roofing paid for by the project. In turn each tank supplies water through a poly-pipe to taps in people’s household yards. There is a water tank committee that overseas the use of water to make sure taps are being turned off and that they system is not leaking. On the upper slopes and some lower ridges of the villages, there are woodlots of useful species. These are usually quick growing timber and fuel wood trees. As indicated, they play a key role in maintaining the health of the springs. They also help to prevent soil erosion and provide useful fuel and timber. At least some of these woodlots are owned by villagers who cull the timber and leave the stumps for pollarding, being able to sell wood to other villagers. On the other hand, these woodlots have also been established through a community process and are protected from clear felling by community control.

One of the great achievements of CELUCT has been to change practices associated with fire and grazing animals. A common pattern in Africa is to burn the crop residue after the harvest and woodlands may be also fired up to help catch mice to eat. Both these practices contribute to a loss of soil fertility by removing vegetable matter. This use of fire has been ended. Crop residues are collected for mulching and small animals provide adequate protein. Another common African practice is to move cattle onto the cropping lands at the end of the harvest and also to allow them free reign to graze around the villages. Goats are often free range in small herds, making it difficult to establish trees. In the Chikukwa villages, cattle are herded to demarcated grazing areas above the tree line. Goats are tethered to graze and otherwise kept in pens along with other small livestock.

Fossil fuel use in the villages is negligible. Only a few of the buildings of the Chikukwa villages use electricity and these supply residents with what they need to charge their mobile phones, to run the office, health clinic, schools and local shopping centre. There is almost no car ownership, the chief being the only person to own a tractor (which was a government donation). Industrially produced goods used in agriculture are minimal, including cement for village water tank mortar (but not the bricks which are produced from local materials and with wood fuel energy), poly pipe for dam to tank to household supplies of water, fencing wire for woodlots (mostly now fallen into disuse as better herding of animals obviates the necessity and living fences take over). Industrially produced consumer items are minimal but include such items as mobile phones and clothing – sometimes sourced through donations of second hand clothes from the rich countries.

Participation, community, cooperation, committees, working bees...

The Chikukwa project has always worked on the basis of participatory initiation of projects. The people concerned specify the problem and undertake the work. The role of the project is to assist people to carry out projects which they themselves have developed. … The origin story of the Chikukwa project stresses the initiation of the project in response to a real local issue, the drying up of the springs Villagers approach their relevant club with a problem which may then decide to take this to CELUCT and make a request for a project to be organized or for some kind of specific help with a problem. If CELUCT supports the request, they will organize assistance but the villagers themselves will do the work required – there is no payment.

Meetings are conducted properly and minutes taken. All accounting work is open to inspection by community committees … There is much about the organization of CELUCT that depends on non-monetary and voluntary exchanges. The key aspect of this is that people donate all the labour on their own land, they are not paid for this. They also donate work towards various community projects. In some cases they help with work on the land of other community members in a tit for tat arrangement.

It is clear that CELUCT is not just an organization focussed on food security and agricultural initiatives. A common perspective in the organization is that food security cannot be obtained unless the social context of agricultural work is harmonious. The Chikukwa project has been remarkably successful over the twenty years of its operation. As established, it does not just deal with agricultural issues, but intervenes in a multitude of village affairs.

 (Much of the economy takes the form of ) …a gift or compact economy in which there is no money, state, or paid employment.    (For detail on Terry’s thoughts on the gift economy see Leahy,  2011.)  Instead things are produced voluntarily by clubs and societies and distributed to implement the decisions of those who have produced them. Agreements and promises (compacts) stabilize this system  … CELUCT is particularly concerned to improve the productivity of this subsistence agriculture.

A large part of what CELUCT achieves is the result of voluntary work by villagers. This is work that they do on their own land and also work that they do for their neighbours or community or for CELUCT itself. This is not wage labour but follows the logic of the gift economy. On their own farms, the members of the community function as their own bosses – they are not employed to work on their farms to produce goods for sale. They effectively own their means of production both as individuals and as a community. CELUCT supports various processes of community decision making through workshops and mediations that determine the use of community land by participatory decision making. Yes, we will put in a rock dam here. No, we will not allow goats here. These decisions are not just about community land but also allow a degree of control over private land use. Where the needs of the community are affected, these can trump the property rights of individual land holders. This is not a matter of legally binding regulations enacted by a state but instead comes out of voluntary community processes of participatory democracy. For example, this ridge will not be clear felled.

(Several groups have been set up, including mediation, pre-school education, women’s consciousness, looking after old people, history and culture, anti-violence against women, as well as those for conflict resolution and Aids mentioned above.  TT.)

A gift economy; not a market/capitalist economy.

Generosity and kindness are key values of the CELUCT organization which fit with the economic requirements of a gift economy. CELUCT supports and encourages people to produce an agricultural surplus and to give some of this away to more needy members of the community or to exchange produce without charge, as required. Bottom up control of the resources of the CELUCT organization itself is achieved through the participatory structure of the various CELUCT departments … CELUCT is not a capitalist firm. It certainly has wage labour but there is no set of shareholders and no owner appropriating surplus value. CELUCT does not produce commodities for sale. The farms owned by the villagers are not capitalist firms either. Production is for use rather than to be sold. It is aimed at well being rather than making a cash income. Within the Chikukwa villages, CELUCT acts to use this distributed surplus to strengthen ties between villagers and look after the community and the environment. The local surplus of time left over after agricultural tasks have been completed is used by villagers to build their community. For example by building the CELUCT centre or by putting in swales that will improve their livelihoods. The CELUCT organisation is part of a diverse global economy in which charitable organisations and subsistence farmers operate economic forms which are not capitalist firms. As we have seen, CELUCT has been able to set up various kinds of participatory decision making process which mean that the organisation of production is negotiated cooperatively rather than being left to drift in the hands of each private farmer household. The effect has been to strengthen connections between the villagers.

Social ties are also strengthened through the process of conflict mediation, which allows stressful interactions to be negotiated through a process in which all parties are encouraged to see the perspective of the other participants in the dispute and come to a decision that all are happy with. The process involved depends on an acknowledgement of difference and the recognition that different people will have different values, practices, needs and interests.

What this project demonstrates is that it is possible to live a rich and exciting life at this level (.i.e., non-affluent, self-sufficient/subsistence, cooperative village, as distinct from consumer society…). The usual argument that we cannot lift the third world out of “poverty” without a continued growth economy industrializing the planet, and everyone reaching the material standard of living of Americans, is decisively refuted by the experience of the Chikukwa villages.

Taking control over local affairs.

… control over daily economic decisions comes about through a participatory process in which stakeholders get together to determine their actions. This is not a chore but organized to be entertaining. Good health in the villages is sustained by a health clinic, by the use of scientific medicine where necessary and by a scientific understanding of health issues, promoted and strengthened by the project. It also comes out of the project’s success with food security. The permaculture supply of food from and to the local villages is a good example of how to sustain a healthy life without massive use of fossil fuels and industrial machinery. The experience of building the permaculture economy is a creative, social and aesthetic experience – both work and an artistic and social expression.

(A lot of educational work is being undertaken by the project, especially hosting trainees from distant regions.  The above extracts do not adequately emphasise the heroic efforts of Elli and Uli Westermann, over thirty years, in initiating the movement and helping it to thrive. TT.)

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            My comment on conventional/capitalist vs alternative/appropriate development.

There is an enormous gulf between conventional development theory and practice, and appropriate development.   The conception of development taken for granted by most academics, NGOs, governments, aid agencies and ordinary people, is overwhelmingly only about capitalist development, which assumes,

… development can only be about those with capital coming in to invest in ventures that promises to increase their profits and wealth more than any other venture they can find anywhere else in the world, thereby creating firms,  jobs, export income, and taxes for the government which can be put into infrastructures etc. The country and its firms must compete to sell into the global market place, to earn money, to be able to purchase from it and to accumulate capital to invest in further development.  Development = getting the economy going, cranking up production and selling and purchasing. In the short run this enriches the rich few, but in time it is assumed that wealth will trickle down to raise all living standards.

The universal acceptance of this definition of what development is and must be is a delight for the rich and super-rich.  It means everyone must compete in the market place…where the rich do almost all the winning.  The three to four billion who are very poor end up with hardly any of the world’s wealth, including that coming from their own plantations and mines.  They are told that there is no other way. 

The Chikukwa project provides one of the surprisingly few instances which show that there is another way, and which point to the head-on contradiction between it and the conventional way.   Alternative/appropriate development is characterised by,

Focusing on building up as much self-sufficiency in production as possible, at home, village and national levels, i.e., prioritising subsistence production for direct use.

Organising production to meet needs directly and simply and immediately, not via earning from exporting into national or international markets. This maximises security; markets will dump you into unemployment and hunger as soon as cheaper produce can be bought elsewhere.  They are the main reason why four+ billion are seriously deprived and poor.  Develop your capacity to meet needs directly and immediately, e.g., via the gardens, not eventually after trickle down via foreign investment and exporting to create jobs.

Avoiding the market as much as is possible. Markets allow the rich to take everything and they develop industries that produce for the rich.  They do not lead to the development of the most needed industries.   (But appropriate, alternative, subsistence development can involve private farms and firms and some buying and selling via village markets.) (See TSW: The Case Against the Market.)

Building Economy B underneath the national market economy.  Don’t define development and progress in terms of being able to enter the national economy and succeed there, to earn incomes there.  Focus on developing your alternative local “Economy B” to meet as many unmet local needs as possible, from local resources. (You will still need to be involved in Economy A to some extent.)

Organising collectively to identify needs and to set up arrangements to produce to meet them.  Cooperate.  Develop commons, e.g., forests, ponds, orchards, gardens. Have village assemblies and committees to work out what most needs doing.  Organise working bees to do those things.  Individual welfare depends mostly on how well the village is working, not individual wealth.

Doing it yourself if you possibly can.  Organise working bees.  You can do miracles re meeting basic needs, e.g., getting your ecosystems into sustainable order capable of providing food and materials, building good cheap and simple houses for everyone, eliminating unemployment and destitution, setting up cooperative enterprises to supply basics.

Doing it simply, in rough and ready fashion. Build houses and shops and stores with mud brick and timber and stone. Never pay commercial firms to do things like this for you.

Taking the initiative, taking control.  You decide what you want and then do it.  Don’t wait for or depend on governments.  (But by all means try to get assistance from them…for what you want to do.) Ordinary people decide what is to be developed, via village meetings.  Development is not determined by some distant corporation or World Bank.

Rejecting the myth that you must build up export industries to earn the money to import and to accumulate capital for development.

Rejecting the myth that a lot of capital is needed for development.  Appropriate development needs little or no capital; it needs working bees, cooperation and the right vision and goals.  The most important goals are to do with simple things like planting food forests and building swales to hold water and organising working bees to get the local ecosystem into sustainable and productive shape.  So if at all possible avoid having anything to do with loans, corporations or banks. 

State and national governments enabling village development.  Even if raising the GDP and succeeding in the globalised world economy remain their top priorities, get them to allow you and to help you to build your local capacity to meet more of your local needs.  If governments genuinely want to assist their people they will make sure they can have cement, fencing wire, poly-pipe…and land.  But be warned; most governments will try to wipe out Appropriate development.  They are told by the IMF, World Bank and all economists that real development means competing in the global market, attracting foreign investors, borrowing lots of capital, looking for something to produce for export, and waiting for trickle down.  National and global elites want to eliminate subsistence and force everyone into the global market place, where the rich can then do good business and get access to everything.   It’s no good for them if you are keeping land and labour out of the global market, producing for you.  The Structural Adjustment Packages and World Trade Organisation agreements prevent governments from prioritising local needs. Their economies must be fully geared to competing in the global economy and giving foreign corporations and banks the freedom to come in and buy and develop what will maximise their global profits. 

Above all, rejecting affluent lifestyles as the goal of developmentBe content with what is sufficient.  Material lifestyles must be frugal.  Seek life satisfaction from community, leisure, gardening, arts, preservation of culture, etc., not consuming.  It is totally impossible for all to rise to rich world lifestyles, and the quest to do so is the main cause of global problems.  Reject the vicious myth that development = growing the GDP.  Ask “What do we want developed around here, to ensure a good quality of life for all, on very low levels of consumption.”

For a more detailed account of this critical perspective see Trainer, T., “Development; Their Way and Ours”, http://socialsciences.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/DevEggs.htm

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Leahy, T., (2013), The Chikukwa Project, (This is the full 19,000 word account.)   www.gifteconomy.org.au

Leahy, Terry (2009) Permaculture Strategy for the South African Villages,PI Productions, Palmwoods, Queensland. www.gifteconomy.org.au

Leahy, Terry, (2011), ‘The Gift Economy’, in Anitra Nelson and Frans Timmerman (eds) Life Without Money, Pluto, pp. 111-138.

Leahy, Gillian and Leahy, Terry (2012) ‘The Chikukwa Project Trailer’, 20 minute film available at http://vimeo.com/33761246

Leahy, Gillian and Leahy, Terry (2013) ‘The Chikukwa Project’, 50 minute documentary.

For the above account by Terry but containing many valuable pictures,  www.thechikukwaproject.comhttp://permaculturenews.org/2013/08/15/the-chikukwa-permaculture-project-zimbabwe-the-full-story/

TSW;The Case Against the Market.  https://socialsciences.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/MARKET.htm