Natural thinking made real. How an amateur gardener put his philosophy into practice and turned his land into an oasis of green in the hectic Ulan-Bator.
by Christofer Jauneau
THE INTERIOR GARDEN
Erdenenchuluun has a garden, a permaculture garden in the outskirts of Ulan-Bator, known as the ger area (ger is the Mongolian word for yurt). He is one these “doers”: he makes things rather than he talks about. He follows his principles, those he holds for true. He follows the laws of nature. Over the years, his land became the mind map of his interior garden, the two being closely intertwined.
Permaculture, that’s the name. Back from Sweden in 2004 where he lived a few years, Erdene and his wife began attending his father’s garden. “Recently I started reading books on permaculture and realized I had been doing this for 10 years. Now I am wondering if Mongolians can understand it. When I tell them about all the benefits of permaculture, they just don’t see the point, the think they already do it. I don’t understand my people”, he says.
Only dedication works. “It is hard to grow vegetables in Mongolia. It takes a lot of work for little results and sometimes I doubt that my actions are useful by any means”, he says. Despair, however, is not something the man is familiar with. “When I started, I just wanted to continue what my father initiated”, because it is his father who planted the first tree on the plot (or khassa) Erdene inherited. “Still today, this is a reason why I keep going”.
Mongolia is in a transition period. The country is facing tremendous issues and changes in people’s way of life, economy, and relation to the land. “In fact the nomadic lifestyle, typical of Mongolia, used to be a form of permaculture. It was sustainable, did not overuse the land, had a low footprint. But now people are stacking up in the ger areas and tend to live on the western model: coal mining, dumps and cars are the most visible symptoms.” Changes in nomads’ habits also led to a rapid land degradation when they started increasing their herds dramatically leading to overgrazing and using modern goods and packaging that they just dump in nature.
Global concern. Erdene is concerned not only about his country but the whole planet. “When I ask young people about the meaning of their lives, all they want is a big house, a car and a good position. But this is shallow. Life means experiencing nature and ourselves. It is about how to be a true human”, he says. “To me being a true human is to understand the necessity of preserving our environment. Other animals don’t care, they follow changes in nature, they don’t break natural cycles, they adapt. Humans must protect nature against their own destructive power; for their own sake. It is not a matter of nationality. With 7 billion people on the planet, it is harder than ever to protect nature. But there is nothing I can do for that.”
Permaculture may be the answer. We yet have to embrace it. “As Bill Mollison says, we need to stop being consumers and start being producers. People generally agree with that but they are not changing their way of life whatsoever. I used to live in a comfortable apartment in central UB and moved to the ger area, into a basic dwelling, to be closer to the land and gain autonomy. People must be brave to change their way of life. They must stop looking only for pleasure and be more responsible.”
Erdene’s garden is home to 28 species of trees, to birds, insects and worms that wouldn’t survive long outside this patch of green wedged between the barren neighboring khassas.
Trees are central. “I have black berries, they are resistant, easy to grow, provide nutritious fruits and they don’t take so much space. I also have non edible species like birches, lilacs and Mongolian Sakuras (cherry blossom). These trees are important for the birds and produce a large amount of dead leaves to keep the soil covered in winter.” To plant trees, he used to buy seedlings. Now that he has a sufficient variety a species, he tries to replant shoots and grafts the existing trees. Once planted and fed with compost, the trees live on their own. “My garden is not like a Japanese or English garden where everything is man-made. I leave plants grow in their natural shapes. Of course sometime I prune trees but most of the time I let everything grow. I like nature as it is”
Bees or not too bees. True to his holistic approach, Erdene is always on the lookout for new techniques and ways to improve biodiversity. “I plan to build a beehive but I can’t have many bees because my garden is small and in Mongolia the active annual period of bees is shorter.” The main problem though is that outside his place there are no flowers and very few trees. The bees will have to stay there. “So first I need to sow as much plants as I can to feed them. There are beekeepers in the favorable climate of Selenge, Northern Mongolia, but the location of my garden and its small size make it all the more challenging”.
Worms, break ground workers. They work underground all their lives for free. They make the soil fertile, and help it absorb rainfalls. Worms are vital nutrient recyclers, soil ventilators and fertilizers. To get the best chances, Erdene gives nature a little help : “I bought worms in Russia and keep them indoors during winter. I will release them later in spring. They reproduce quickly and eat everything. When you look at it, worms create soil, humans only destroy it.”
Make home a nest. Nomads are herders, which is obviously impossible in the ger area. So Erdene became a poultry breeder. “I have chicken and turkeys. I keep them warm in the house until late spring and release them in summer. Then they can wander freely through my garden.” He built a spacious chicken coop for this season, the size of a comfortable room. “I also breed ducks because their guano is an excellent fertilizer. They will go in the chicken coop later and I also dug a pond for them.” For now the eggs are incubating in a heated box. “I draw + and – signs on the shells to remember when to turn the eggs. In nature mother duck rotates the eggs regularly, so I do the same”.
Permaculture often involves animals, but not necessarily in the idyllic manner one may assume. “I kill my own chicken. I wouldn’t do it years ago but I read about permaculture and saw animals are part of the system. Killing is not an awful thing, it is part of nature. Before I couldn’t stand death now I understand it is part of life. Of course I try to avoid as much pain for the animal as I can.”
Wild birds are at home in Erdene’s garden, especially considering the scarcity of natural resources for them in the surroundings. Many wild birds like magpies, ravens, tits and sparrows nest here. Indeed, they find shelter and food. “I accept that I have to share with nature. For instance I leave fruits on the top of trees for birds and pick only the lower ones.”
Permaculture principles apply everywhere, even in a house. This is where saving natural resources and saving money patently bind together.
Poop is gold. Erdene and his wife use a compost toilet for a year. “I built it virtually for free. I only bought the lid. I used recycled wood to build the box, put the lid on it and the bucket inside. It is a salvage can of paint, something that people throw away in nature. The only thing I need is sawdust. I happen to have a friend working in a sawmill but anyone can have access to it. I divert urine from the toilet and use it directly to water the plants. It is full of nitrogen, potassium, etc.”
Compost toilets are essential . They operate without water or energy and unlike pit latrines they make the environment better. They provide fertile compost that one can use to grow their own food. Being far more hygienic, they can be used indoors like flushing toilets (convenient when it drops below -20°C outside). Eventually, pit latrines will make people run out of space on their plots as they have to dig a new hole every time the previous one is filled up. Obviously compost toilets can remain at the same place forever.
The last of the 3 “R”. Recycling non organic waste is difficult in Mongolia. The country has no sorting facility. Recycling points do exist though in the ger area. These private businesses are owned by a handful of Chinese who export the garbage to their country. It is a limited alternative since they only accept what is most profitable for them, namely plastic bottles and metal. Most of the waste cannot be recycled and ends up either burned in the domestic stoves, buried in landfills or just lying in nature.
So Erdene stores plastic bottle in bins before taking them to the recycling points. “It is a not so bad system; I get a bit of money for that”. But then a paradox gets blindingly obvious: why most people from the ger area don’t do the same? Erdene thinks: “Mongolians are recent city dwellers. Being nomads for centuries they just don’t think about managing their trash, even less getting money from it. I think many of them are lazy as well, they don’t want to invest the slightest effort.”
Water for free. Rainfalls are rare but not so scarce in UB, at around 300 mm annually. Collecting rain water (and snow) can save a lot of time filling the barrels at the kiosk, since the ger area is not connected to the water grid, and save a fair amount of money too. In fact water is 1 tugrik per liter in the ger area, compared to about 0.5₮ city center. Yet, people from the city center have running water and use 30 times more water than dwellers from the suburbs.
Surprisingly most people are not aware of the potential savings the skies provide, unlike Erdene. He created a system to use water without energy in his bathroom: “I store rainwater in tanks in the ceiling. Water goes down into an electric heater, then down to the shower and tap. It is all gravity fed. During winter I would collect snow to store it for later use in my garden. People look at me in bewilderment as they keep shoveling it away.”
Heating is no rocket science. Little by little, Erdene is working hard to make his permaculture ideal thrive. Yet one last hurdle remains on his path to self-sufficiency: energy. He and his wife use a coal stove to cook and heat. “There is no other way. Coal has a good heating power.”
The ger area is not connected to the central heating grid (which runs on coal anyhow), so households burn large amounts of coal in their stoves. Thus they also smolder a large part of their incomes since 1 ton of coal (about 3 months of heating and cooking) is 100 000mnt ₮, though prices vary depending on coal quality.
Solar power would be efficient here because despite being cold, Mongolia is nicknamed “the blue sky country” due to its extensive sunshine even in the coldest days of winter. Photovoltaic panels are expensive and still suffer from a limited efficiency; but solar heaters have proven to work in cold climate, are simply designed (can even be homemade) and can be relatively cheap. As of now, solar power is barely harnessed in the country.
Solar energy however is not the only option Mongolians have. Fuel burning devices like rocket stoves can be fairly efficient and cleaner than conventional stoves. Rocket stoves are an “open-source” design that anyone can build out of cheap material like bricks, clays, steel pipes and barrels. They use up much less wood than other stoves, produce less smoke and can be adapted to burn coal. “I would like to try it, I can even shelter volunteers to help with the build and the garden”, he says.
Sharing and improving must be the words that best describe Erdene’s approach to permaculture.