The Permaculture Living Laboratory, PermaLab, is a 600 square metre permaculture research garden that is physically and socially integrated within the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Lisbon.
It started in August 2015 as a project of HortaFCUL, an 8-year community permaculture project of young researchers that focussed on the discrepancy between the ideals of sustainability and the physical reality of universities as sources of pollution and resource inefficiency.
From this came the idea of having permaculture design experience and gardens as a research topic and field of experiment.
Integral to the design of PermaLab was how to create a solid community doing meaningful research while at the same time answering local needs and using local resources.
After gaining permission to use the facilities and land from the faculty board in February 2016 PermaLab rapidly gained students, researchers, professors, technicians and guest visitors and started scientific experiments in collaboration with the biology department.
PermaLab is providing innovative topics for master and PhD theses (there are two PhDs based there now), improving the environment for all faculty members, and providing food and flowers for humans and our fellow species (such as bees, worms and birds).
The PermaLab uses the methodology of Participatory Action Research in the field of agroecology. We are improving and testing agroecological solutions whilst at the same time providing training for the people who are working with us so there’s both teaching and learning.
In order to do effective permaculture all three – participation, action and research – are important but generally there’s less research and more participation and action. In PermaLab we are trying to give equal attention to research.
The PermaLab includes two greenhouses, one big compost facility, nine plots of soil testing different crops and soil associations, one pond and four rows of swales. There are now technical staff working part time in the PermaLab.
When talking about permaculture it’s always difficult to start splitting things but there are three areas of focus at PermaLab:
- It’s about storing as much water as possible such as in the swales and plantings and taking advantage of things such as prunings that are coming from the faculty.
- It serves as a place where PhD students can test techniques to do with farming such as growing maize with or without mulching, looking at survival rates, fruit or seeds, looking at cereals and measuring nitrogen content. It is interesting to have this work permeating the academic sphere.
- Composting is another area. There’s a PhD student looking at whether it’s possible to design a composting system that takes care of the faculty’s grass clippings, tree prunings, non-cooked food waste and potentially cooked food. We’ve already proved that this is feasible, saving €1000s per year.
By providing compost and fertiliser we are reducing the faculty’s costs.
Our future plans are to create more food and science, while recycling nutrients, storing water, sinking carbon and growing the community involved in order to gain resilience.
Our project is based on volunteer-researcher interaction; however, there is always the challenge of creating enough personal commitment to start new projects. Also, while there are many helpers and interested people around, the transient nature of the campus is a challenge and an opportunity in itself, as it creates a high turnover of ideas and thoughts, which sometimes need more time to evolve than the people physically stay at the university.
Another big challenge is the funding needed for data acquisition and infrastructure, especially in terms of spaces we can use freely, the equipment we need to do things such as soil analysis and the simple tools we need for the people who want to work in the garden.
The lack of funding also leads to the challenge of academic recognition, as most scientific papers want new and state-of-the-art data to excite their readers and publishing in open-access journals is costly.
Finally, we are committed to the creation of a new approach to science by mixing otherwise separated scientific fields, such as for example sociology, economy, life sciences and other fields considered less/non scientific such as the arts, to cover the vast field of permaculture and its adjacent grassroots movements culture.
Apart from the student community of biology, computer science, fine arts, psychology and medicine, we get a lot of input from cantine staff, professors and campus gardeners. The extra-faculty community is also actively involved in advancing and planning ideas. Physically, we’d love to naturally reduce visual and noise pollution from the roads.
Socially, we would love to increase the interest in permaculture throughout the community, as well as beyond the university.
Gil Penha-Lopes, investigator and lecturer, Faculty of Sciences, University of Lisbon