Oregon's Permaculture Networking Site in Corvallis, OR
About an hour and a half drive from San Christobal into the rural hills of Chiapas, I visited a permaculture farm called Ha O Mek Ka (translation: Alpha to Omega), in a town called Tzajala . The farm, founded and run by Sylviane, a permaculturist originally from France now married to a native of Chiapas, was started in the 1980s, years before the Zapatista revolution. Because of the time invested, Sylviane's foreign origin no longer casts her as an outsider, and foreign visitors to the farm are not considered a threat by the surrounding community in the municipality of Ocosingo, home to many Zapatista activists.
Though my time at the farm was short, a mere four days, I participated in a wide variety of activities to contribute to and learn about its sustainable systems. In my brief stay, I harvested tomatoes, collected and cleaned seeds of mustard and tat tsoi, forwarded (harvested completed castings and laid a new bed of materials for) worm compost, cleaned out the mushroom growing room, tended sheep and goats, made tortillas from scratch (that is, starting from raw kernels of corn), bottled kim chi for fermentation, and prepared their garden compost pile for the rainy season. All this was accomplished with time to lay by the river on the property and forge relationships with the other workers on the farm.
CLEANING TAT SOI SEEDS
One of the most interesting projects at Ha O Mek Ka is the system of composting toilets. in its outhouses, the farm uses special toilets that separate urine (aim for the front hole) from feces (aim for the back hole) to more easily manage the finished compost. (A lot of urine mixed into feces makes humanure <human-manure> decomposition smellier and more anaerobic.)
The outhouses all contain a mixed bag of sawdust, cinder and lime, of which cup-fulls are thrown down the toilet following "manure contribution." This mixture is meant to dry the manure and add structure to the human waste as it matures into compost. The farm just started using the sawdust and cinder mixture this year after using only lime in previous years.
Sylviane explained to me that they had used only lime because their soil is acidic, and they were told that using lime in their compost would help to alkalize the soil, neutralizing its pH. This is a very common recommendation made to organic farmers seeking to improve the pH of their soils, but, as I will discuss below, the lime severely slowed the process of the manure's decomposition and is having a negative effect on their compost.
The garden compost pile (I specify 'garden' pile to distinguish it from the worm compost) consisted mostly of straw/woody garden trimmings and the humanure from the previous year when only lime was used in the composting toilets. Though the pile was over a year old, I noticed that the woody material was not at all decomposed and much of it was coated with white residue from the lime.
In my work with Dr. Elaine Ingham, at Soil Foodweb Oregon, I learned that too much lime kills microbiology in soil, drastically impairing the decomposition process. This compost is a very good example of what Dr. Ingham warns about. Seeing the error of overusing lime, the farm now uses ash, sifted from leftover cook stove char, and sawdust produced by various carpentry projects on the farm. These are mixed with only a small portion of lime.
Another thing I noticed about the farm's garden compost pile is that it sat directly on the ground, with no space for air to enter through the bottom of the pile. Southern Mexico has a long rainy season that quickly waterlogs the pile, and, although there didn't seem to be much life in this material, it is important for oxygen to flow through compost to support aerobic microbial decomposition. (Anaerobic decomposition favors some of the worst plant and human pathogens, especially in materials like human waste). For this reason, I constructed a bottom layer for the compost pile that would provide space between the pile and the ground, allowing air to flow through the entire pile and preventing anaerobic conditions. The first step was to move the pile off its site so that I could lay the material for the bottom layer.
FALLEN BAMBOO FENCE (LEFT) and HARVESTED THIN STICKS AND GRASS (RIGHT)
I laid the bamboo on the very bottom because it is hollow and therefore would provide the most aeration. I laid the banana tree trunks perpendicularly on top of the bamboo to create a grid with the heavy trunks as a solid base support for the rest of the pile.
Finally, I layered the original compost with the fresh cut grass back onto its original site, now over a grid of materials that will allow for the pile to stay aerated through the South Mexican rainy season.
While I hope that this pile improves because of my work, in retrospect, it might have been better to just spread the unfinished compost on the soil, allowing the lime to diffuse through a larger area, rather than keeping it concentrated in a pile that is not decomposing properly. This way, the acidic soil on the farm would be neutralized, and more microbes might have access to the pile's organic matter. On the other hand, such high concentrations of lime might impair all of the soils microbiology and hurt the farm's overall soil ecosystem. A difficult choice. The lesson here: do not over-use lime! Even though it is 'organic.'
My time at Ha O Mek Ka was educational for the exposure both to its innovation and to the mistakes they've made in experimenting. The people at Ha O Mek Ka are friendly and successfully living sustainably on their land. I highly recommend the farm for any permaculturist traveling to Chiapas. Ha O Mek Ka can be contacted through Sylviane at: email@example.com