Contaminated soil, poverty, pollution and acres of pavement are just a few of the many things that make it difficult to garden in a large city. In San Francisco, Guillermo Vasquez is helping hundreds of people overcome such obstacles by calling on a surprising source of knowledge: indigenous culture.
“Our goal is to help teach people sustainable living in an urban environment,” he said. “And we draw on modern technology as well as concepts that our elders taught us.”
In 2002, Guillermo founded the Indigenous Permaculture Project. The group conducts permaculture classes for people in San Francisco. And they also have helped to establish and expand gardens in indigenous communities in South Dakota, El Salvador and New Mexico.
To honor Guillermo’s vision and dedication to helping urban residents improve their lives through gardening, Gardener’s Supply Co. has presented him with a Garden Crusader Award for 2008.
Guillermo is of Mayan descent and grew up in Central America. He made his way north and studied agroecology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He loves to farm and grow food, but he found himself living in San Francisco, in the middle of a crowded city.
Guillermo could see that the urban residents were hungry for the knowledge and skills to help them live more sustainably and more independently. “People have a relationship with the land, even in the city,” Guillermo said. “And people are very interested in improving their own haven in the city and also in improving their future.”
Each year, Guillermo welcomes a diverse group of students to his urban permaculture course. Students have included homeless people and architects. There is no tuition, but he does ask for payment.
“Everyone who takes the class commits to working on a community project of their choice,” he said. Students have gone on to establish community gardens, start school gardens, promote water conservation, reduce the amount people drive and much more.
Permaculture, which is also known as biointensive polyculture, is a modern way of describing traditional, indigenous farming techniques, he said. It is a holistic way of looking at gardening and the world, something Guillermo prefers to call cosmovision.
“It’s all related,” he explained, “food, energy, water, community. We want to help people grow their own food and also conserve water and energy. That helps the earth, helps people save money. And it helps people become more of a community.”
Much of the class is concerned with practical skills and information that is specific to urban concerns. A yard or site must be carefully studied to determine the best design. For example: the soil must be tested to see if it is contaminated with lead or other heavy metals. How much sun different parts of the yard get must be observed to determine which plants would thrive where. The amount of water that is available must be investigated.
These classes and projects have helped improve people’s lives by helping them to grow more of their own food. This helps to improve their nutrition and save them money. “We approached it from economics,” he said. “Many urban residents can save 40 percent on their food budget and on their transportation budget. At the same time it helps the earth.”
Guillermo’s organization also helps rural, indigenous communities build farms. For example, IPP helped build a three-acre farm, a drip irrigation system and a greenhouse at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
And in Sonsonate, El Salvador, they have enabled a Nahuat community to convert six acres of degraded land into a farm that produces corn, beans and squash. They also installed a composting toilet, solar panels, and a rainwater-collecting system. Five efficient stoves that they installed have helped reduce the amount of time the Native women spend working over open wood stoves.
Most impressively, Guillermo has accomplished all of this with very little money. The permaculture course costs between $5,000 and $8,000 to run. “And we don’t always have that much money,” he said. “But we make it happen, because we are passionate about it.”
For international projects, Guillermo and IPP raise as much money as they can for specific needs.
“We can do more,” he said. “The need and the interest is there. Our limit is funding.”
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