Thoughts on Vocational Training Centers for Ecological Restoration

I’m often asked “What can I do to help?” to restore the Earth. Over the years I’ve struggled with the answer.

Sometimes I feel like it is unfair to ask me what someone else should do because even if I told them what I thought they probably wouldn’t do it. I think that each person should look inside their heart and decide what they will do.

However, gradually I’ve come to see Ecological Restoration as the “GREAT WORK” of our time. The one most important thing that all the people who are alive today need to understand and do together. I’ve come to realize that to do restoration at scale requires some very specific skills and also requires a type of lifestyle change. It also requires a change in the way we perceive work and the economy. One of the highlights of my year was meeting and beginning to work with Geoff Lawton of the Permaculture Research Institutes. We met in Jordan and then again recently in California and it has been eye opening to see the work that Geoff and other permaculturalists have been doing. Merging their work with large-scale ecosystem restoration can serve both local communities and the wider global goals of mitigating and adapting to climate change and achieving sustainable development.

Geoff and I publicly discussed these issues in “Green Gold” co-produced by VPRO and the EEMP and broadcast on VPRO in April. You can see the English version at the following link.

Gradually I’ve come to consider what we need to ensure that we have the skills necessary to restore the degraded parts of the Earth and have the type of collaboration and dedication needed to do this effectively together. The conclusion I have come to is that we need to build Vocational Training Centers for Ecological Restoration in every continent to serve as the vanguard for the Earth’s restoration.

In looking at what is the correct structure for such centers I have considered “Community Land Trusts” which essentially means that the members of the community own the center. This means that communities that voluntarily chose to dedicate themselves to long term large scale ecological restoration would replace the type of 3 to 5 years projects that the development “industry” has been promoting. These have shown some excellent methodologies but have often been too small and too short to bring about the type transformational change that is needed. Making vocational training centers for ecological restoration the purpose of community land trusts would mean that these centers would be permanent. While projects might come and go the overall center would absorb each project and grow stronger rather than end at the end of the funding period.

The types of facilities needed are seed saving and propagation, soil creation, water retention technologies, nursery systems and of course all the other requirements of successful communities such as culture, recreation, education, health care and permanent agriculture.

Geoff Lawton’s research farm in Australia shows many of the things that must be done and can be seen at the link below:

The ideal situation would be communities that provides full employment for everyone in all the various aspects of restoration, the study of restoration, the training needed for restoration and that they “Live Well” in the sense that they have clean air, water, healthy food and strong families and communities and that they have substituted a more profound purposeful life for the materialism of the current global economic model.

This type of structure could be supported by management, technical support, human resources and capital arranged by the new Natural Resilience Initiative being led by Willem Ferwerda.

This could help merge the needs and aspirations of communities with global efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate changes, to restore ecological function to broad areas of the planet where they have been degraded by human beings over historical time.

Can we learn to live and work together for a common goal? Can we trade selfishness for collective security and sustainability. Can we work to ensure that the air, water, soils are clean and pollution free?

This is the way that I would like to live the rest of my life in helping to restore degraded landscapes and I believe that there must be millions more who would also like to do this.

I like to hear your thoughts on this.

Best regards, John D. Liu

4 Responses to “Thoughts on Vocational Training Centers for Ecological Restoration”

  • Dear John,
    As one who has transformed a just 7 acre bare, unproductive eroding hills into oak, kurragong and pecan forest which feeds and shelters us and our livestock I share your quest to restore degraded landscapes. We have set uo a small nursery and produced hundreds of coprosma, avocado , sapote , Japanese raison tree seedlings. Planted on swales they have done very well in spite of a severely drying climate.

  • On your excellent idea of Community Land Trusts we propose to set up a company where partners will agree to a mission statement, a permaculture design for the property and basic rules of conduct on the shared land. Partners would purchase a share in the company . This would entitle them to several acres of land, where they may camp and plant food forests as often as they can, with a view to building a comfy home from local materials ( as I have done) A community kitchen and ablutions block ( with compost toilets and compost heated showers leading to biological water cleaning system then re- use to food gardens, would be centrally located. People would be able to sell their share ( if they must!) for the original cost of the share plus any improvements they had made. I would say a group of 5 families on 50 acres could achieve a great life style and buy a new property to revegetate eventually even with just the savings on home food production ? People need to get fit and smart and perhaps the start of this journey is good food ? The idea of communes isnt palatable for me nor many others but as you say we must find people we can live and work with and co operate across the generationsto do this vital work

  • Chris Smith:

    Dear John,
    I just watched your Green Gold video. It was great. I am a retired soil scientist and have been working on soil health as a necessary key to ecosystem health. The examples you chose were from from the warm regions. I live in New jersey and we have forests and grasses over much of our land. It appears to be just fine. However, in the soil we see the damage remaining from agriculture. A smooth surface, worms that eat the organic matter and thin the duff layer on the surface, compaction either at the surface or in the plow pan, maples trees instead of oaks, leftover Ca from lime applications, just to name a few. Granted it may not be as severe as the examples you showed, but it still is a problem. If one is growing grass in a region that could grow a forest then you are contributing to global warming. Soon the climate will adjust to fit the vegetation that is maintained. Vegetation is a soil forming factor and soil determines the vegetation. Likewise, climate is a soil forming factor and through the feedback mechanism, soil is a climate forming factor. If you are ever in the Philadelphia area I would love to discuss how we have tremendous runoff events like you showed in the desert, where the watershed is largely forested. Thank you for making the film!

  • Alex French:

    I think universities could be essential in the development of your Vocational Training Centers. Increasingly students are looking for experiential, rather than theoretical, education. If a university were to establish a long term relationship with Training Centers for Ecological Restoration then I believe it could open up many sources for funding. After the relationship and goals are established students may participate in fundraising, researchers may seek out grants, and alumni may be interested in donating/investing into the project. This is what I would like to do at Clarkson University, where I am studying. I’m in the process of setting up a travel course to a forest community in the Rift Valley of Ethiopia. Rather than the traditional top-down approach to development, I’d like to have students and researchers learn from the local nonprofits and villagers about the issues they are facing with sustainable development. (Traditionally I feel westerners arrive and arrogantly try to teach). As restoration projects are decided upon and carried out, students on the annual travel course can participate in monitoring ecosystem services and building a portfolio for the project. This would be very valuable for the universities and their students. This also has the potential to be scaled up quickly as other universities follow suit. I’ve spoken about this to some professors from neighboring universities and they seemed very enthusiastic about the idea.

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