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From Degraded Land To Abundance: Bethel Business And Community Development Centre, Lesotho


Clockwise from top left: Solar drying in the greenhouse; Students of BBCDC mounting stands for 4 x 200 L high-pressure solar geysers at St Camillus childrens’ home in Mhoek, which was also built by the students; productive vegie gardens; and fresh baked rolls coming out of the solar oven; The productive gardens at BBCDC; Mounting of PV for street lights. Photos by Frances Howe


Outside the small village of Bethel, in the remote mountains of Lesotho, southern Africa, is a remarkable community. Surrounded by degraded land, characterised by heavily eroded washouts, is a verdant forest of food.

Tiny and landlocked by South Africa, Lesotho is a mountainous country where most people rely on subsistence agriculture, and around fifty-seven per cent live below the poverty line of US$1.25 per day (World Bank 2010 data).

In the past, Lesotho produced enough wheat and corn to feed its people and export grain. However, soil erosion, land degradation and a decline in soil fertility, combined with a HIV/AIDS epidemic, contributed to a steady decline in production. And agriculture is also vulnerable to climate variability.

Lesotho now produces less than twenty per cent of its food needs. More than a third of the population is food insecure (UN Food and Agriculture Organization 2014), making Lesotho heavily dependent on food imports and aid.

Twenty years ago Canadian Ivan Yaholnitsky arrived, wanting to help. He realised that traditional agricultural practices would only result in further land degradation. He met Bill Mollison in South Africa, and learnt about permaculture.

With initial support from the UN Children’s Fund and the local Roman Catholic church, Ivan began to manage some barren land to capture and retain water and topsoil, and build soil quality. Over time the Bethel Business and Community Development Centre (BBCDC) evolved, and it now boasts multiple houses, a school, accommodation facilities, greenhouses and workshops. These are surrounded by extensive productive vegetable gardens and orchards that feed its residents, employees and students. One orchard is routinely raided by local children, providing a much needed nutrient boost in a country where thirty-nine per cent under five years of age are stunted by poor diet (FAO 2014).

BBCDC’s buildings combine green-building design with traditional techniques such as cob. Electricity comes from solar cells and a wind turbine. Waste is processed to biogas. Homebuilt solar cookers are used daily, even for the bakery’s bread. Ivan also has plans to create an accommodation village for school students from all over Lesotho, and to reduce BBCDC’s reliance on expensive imported fuel, through electric vehicles recharged from solar cells. These projects await funding.

BBCDC runs a two-year study program with sustainability as its focus, including land management, food growing, green construction, woodwork, metalwork, solar power systems, sustainable technologies, food handling and business skills. In an environment of high unemployment, it provides young people with practical skills for their wellbeing and self-reliance.

BBCDC currently teaches around eighty young people, and more each year. Most are from poor rural areas, some with minimal literacy and numeracy skills. Students are encouraged to pursue their particular strengths and interests, through experiences and with fun.

The classrooms, built by students, include a teaching kitchen, technology lab, library and information technology centre. Students leave BBCDC better able to find employment, start a business or be self-sufficient; it provides a pool of skilled people, reducing Lesotho’s reliance on international help.

Mike Monakane, a former student, lives nearby, and in just fifteen years he’s turned an eroded, rocky hillside into a productive food forest. Using swales, mounds and rock walls to harvest run-off and topsoil, he now has an array of fruit and nut trees interspersed with vegies. He’s built a house from local stone, and a simple shop, from his profits from growing and selling produce and other supplies. And he’s established a taxi service, providing local transport and employment.

Mike visited Australia in the early 2000s and studied permaculture with Geoff Lawton in Queensland; a life-enriching event for a modest man from a remote African village. And now he’s shown how permaculture can work almost anywhere.

While many government and international aid interventions, over many years, have failed to create widespread or lasting improvement for rural Lesotho, permaculture offers an alternative. Individuals and communities can implement it themselves, with minimal inputs, and BBCDC demonstrates it as a practical tool for reversing land degradation and improving food security. However, uptake of permaculture principles by local communities is limited.

Poor communities are frequently risk averse: they resist something new, in case it fails; they may think permaculture techniques require more up-front work than traditional agriculture; or perhaps it takes time to change culturally entrenched farming systems. Approaches to overcome this caution include: identifying interested and progressive individuals as role models for their communities; and introducing time-saving technologies, such as solar cookers.

Wandering through BBCDC is uplifting: the stone and cob buildings sit charmingly among abundant shady trees, vines and vegetable beds. The strong aesthetic reflects Ivan’s idea that people are motivated by the practical, sustainable, holistic and beautiful.

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