Sunday, 21 June 2009

Survey on watermills

I have started the social research bit of my watermills renovation thesis. If you have a watermill and have a few minutes to answer some questions, have a look here.

Of course mostly I have to go and ask people this stuff directly, which takes hours, days. Weeks in fact: to locate the owners, find out what time/where they are. Introduce the issue, me, the survey, what, why. for whom and so on... As I made so many changes to the survey (Monica being the master editor) I didn't have time to translate into Portuguese, so I have to explain each question with my fairly basic grasp of the language. It has seemed to work, albeit with several promptings in some cases.

This couple in the picture are in their 70s, still working away on the land, and running one of the remaining grinding mills in the region. What quality of flour! What simplicity of technology!

Such interesting results. Most owners are over 65 years old, live on the land, have let their watermills go to ruin because there's no longer a market for milled corn or wheat. Nor much of local production of these products, except to fatten the pigs. In fact, we usually ended up talking about the demise of local agriculture, how there are so few subsidies or support from the state. Agriculture in general is, they think, at the bottom of the Government's priority list.

Most people hadn't heard of climate change - at least in terms of dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emissions; urgent need to reduce emissions or global climate will go haywire and all that. Instead they were familiar with local changes over the course of their lifetime, "it used to be much colder in winters", or, "now there's a changable climate - it's sunny in winter, can be pouring in July" and so on.

I also had a bunch of questions on peak oil. Despite the huge oil price rises last year, almost none of those interviewed had heard that global oil production could soon fail to meet global demand, leading to price instablity, economic and social chaos, etc.

This seems odd, given the potential severity of the situation. Probably the highest profile report so far on this was by Robert Hirsch, for the US Department of Energy (DoE) back in 2005 or so. The DoE apparantly shelved his report when it first came out because of his fairly alarming conclusions. His report can be seen here.

Further, the impact of peak oil on agricluture and food production is seriously disturbing. Surely any rural community should be worried, and getting ready for less fuel-hungry food systems. Richard Heinberg, probably the best known author and speaker on peak oil, describes our current food supply predicament in his usual eloquent and concise manner in this article.

But all this was a kind of background context to the watermill questions. It forms part of my thesis introduction into watermill renovation, so I thought I should add it to my survey. Anyway, upshot of survey is:
  • almsot all interviewed showed interest in mill renovation
  • didn't know you could generate electricity or hot water from the mills
  • would be interested in knowing more about the options
  • don't have much money to invest
  • would be interested in partial investment if Govt / EU / whatever funds could help
  • are interested in using mills as part of a new eco-tourism watermill trail (cheap shelter, cleared river access routes for mountain biking or walking).
More later

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Skateboarding in Afghanistan

Great post here on new skateboarding training project in Afghanistan.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Transition in the Minho

Last Saturday we hosted a small gathering around our new table. It was organised by José Morais, a local landscape gardener entrepreneur / permaculture pioneer from the neighbouring town of Valença. We’ve been sharing ideas for months; he has plans to open a permaculture training centre and is part of a regional network that includes North Portugal and Galician permaculture projects and practitioners.

We had agreed to meet this day to widen our discussion on possibilities for an abandoned bit of local mountain (Mount Faro) and to see who else might be interested. He said he’d invite a few fellow visionaries. Many came, including:

José, the catalyst. Well tied into to local Government, business and the media.

Hugo, Portuguese chartered accountant, business consultant and advisor on EU grants and funding streams;

Miriem and Boghi, from Equador and Galicia (respectively), recently relocated from the city to forge a new life in the country, building a home with natural materials, teaching yoga and exploring new ways to live from the land;

Henrique, local businessman and entrepreneur, running a furniture shop and involved in a variety of interesting sustainable land-development initiatives;

Eurelio, Henrique’s friend, also in business, along to find out more about our discussion;

Juan, from just over the water in Galicia, works with steam turbines, should really be a professor of economics and social transformation;

David, Galician landscape gardening business manager;

Peter, Dutch and living in Portugal for almost 20 years, working in the local transport/metro company in Porto. Also enormously well read on straw bale construction and micro-renewables;

Donald and Eleanor, from Scotland and Phillipines, here for over 17 years, a former vet and teacher respectively. Living in a bit of rural paradise in a forest near Valença, virtually self sufficient, with hoards of animals, eco-buildings and innovative projects on the go;

Louis and Illiana, from nearby Camninha (Portuguese side of the river), mechanic and crafts/leather-worker extraordinaire, accompanied by their charming daughter;

Me, from Scotland in Portugal since last August with wife and kids, starting eco-renovation of ruin,. Former humanitarian aid worker, now finalising post-graduate studies in renewable energy and natural building systems.

Our Agenda

We decided to discuss:

- Abandoned land and resources

- Local development

- Local food production

And also to present on, and discuss where relevant:

Ø Ecological / sustainable construction

Ø Renewable energies (I was supposed to present on the watermill thing)

Ø Biological agriculture

Broader Context

Discussion launched into local agriculture and food supply. It’s clear that the majority of people working the land in this area are now well past retirement age. Food, in general, comes from far away. The Government has, we are told, not actively supported local agriculture. This area is known for growing wine - not producing food, despite its near-ideal location: ample rainfall, plenty of sun, fertile soils, few frosts past February. Agriculture, I kept hearing, is a forgottern sector. What is produced en masse is monoculture plantations in the South: cork, fruit, wheat, olives. I'm not sure of the statistics of how much food is imported versus exported, this would be useful to know.

That said, all my neighbours seem to have their own little plots. I doubt everyone does, but a passion for locally grown tasty food is still alive, and the necessary knowledge to generate healthy yields are still here.

Use of pesiticides and fertilisers in both the vineyards and kitchen gardens is widespread, but really because they are seen as cheap and effective. People do like to point out when something you are sampling has “nothing” added (ie, don’t worry it’s not covered in toxic dust).

The building industry

In terms of local construction, there has been a clear victory for the cement marketing board across the region. Everything is built with cement: walls, floors, almost all roofs. Builders claim this to be cheaper, and more “resistant”. Well, I guess it’s not going to rot, but everything inside the house may well rot first, as these cement-lined homes cannot easily dispel water vapours and other gases generated within a home.

Houses designed like this will need to rely heavily on a ventilation system to reduce indoor condensation. Imagine mid winter, when the rain doth fall and the steamy showers and soups are many, this is when people usually shut the windows.

Insulation is now mandatory for new buildings by local building regulations, and the cheapest and most common is a blue polystyrene product, about as far from natural as it’s possible to get. I’m not sure what went into the production of this stuff, but it’s probably off-gassing various toxins, and without doubt caused pollution somewhere in its manufacture.

In short, the construction industry here, like everywhere else, is reliant on heavily polluting man-made materials. Materials that could be replaced with local, renewable products which perform just as well, if not better. All that’s needed is to reduce the environmental impact of all construction materials, return to traditional techniques of working with lime, earthen plasters, locally grown wood, stone and other natural materials.

We discussed straw bale construction (as Miriem, Boghi and ourselves are planning on using this system, and the Galician straw bale network has been involved in several others). Straw is unknown in these parts as a wall-fabric, especially load-bearing (where the roof is actually supported by the straw-bale walls, rather than a timber frame). When I see how many layers of different materials conventional building has to add to a wall to achieve the thermal performance of a straw bale, it seems bizarre.

Surely it’s more expensive to buy all those different products (bricks, insulation, more bricks, cement mortars, non-permeable plastic lining, timber frame wall for plasterboard, plasterboard, internal plaster, paint). Straw, on the other hand, requires nothing more than an earth plaster made from clay from a few hundred meters away, some sand, some local fibres, and water. You can use either lime or clay-earth render on the outside – known to be highly weather resistant, once dry (or cured in the case of lime). Miriem and Boghi will use lime. We’ll probably go for earth. We will monitor outcomes.

We were being distracted by talk of straw. There is so much more to ecological building than straw, but we decided to take it up another time. We had an agenda to stick to, insisted José, brandishing his “talking stick” (you had to wait your turn).

New Economics

Things got interesting again when Juan talked about the collapse of our current economic system, how it is doomed to collapse due to its very design, how the current economic crisis is only the beginning. How society based on constant growth and debt cannot be sustained. How alternatives are needed, and our need to create something new, based local resources and systems that do less damage to the biosphere. (More on this subject later).

José reminded us that we could be a network of self-supporting projects, that provide examples of alternative models, that offer regional initiatives like Agenda 21 some capacity to do something.

Agenda 21 in the Minho is the officially adopted forum for discussing “sustainable community” issues. Pamphlets are printed, priorities highlighted, but it would appear that little meaningful actions are taken, if our measure is, say, to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2020, or to reduce pollution in local rivers. We discussed this, and wondered if their problem was capacity to implement, after all few of the people attending these meeting have the time, money or resources to really implement something substantial, in the right direction. Our objective then, is to join these meetings and offer suggestions.

Boghi and Miriem, who are already “doing” this shift, suggested that we need to just get on with our projects first. After all, our projects already consume our entire energy, time and resources. And we should make sure they are done well so they are positive examples. Otherwise we’ll be all theory and no action. We agreed, but also agreed that others need to be informed too.

Abandoned Lands

There are many rural areas out there – valleys and mountains once inhabited, now empty or in dilapidation, sometimes under pressure from over-eager tree-felling policies (José spoke of an ancient woodland that recently fell victim to such devastation). Another problem is fires in summer that rage over dried out undergrowth and dead trees, areas which used to be kept clear by local communities collecting firewood and their herds of goats eating away the small plants before they dry out and become fire hazards. .

Something must be done, we agreed, but how – we ask José who certainly has a vision for a grand plan. How? When we are few and the scale of such projects so enormous? How do we mobilise the people to embark on these kind of initiatives on a largely voluntary basis?

Someone pointed out that most young people these days are motivated by cool phones, consumer gadgets, better cars and jobs in cities that will pay for these consumer lifestyles. Others countered that this may be a trend, but it’s not true of everyone. There’s increasing interest in something more meaningful and… real (at least I think that’s what was said, my Porto-Galego is still a bit rough).

Davide, said there’s more people doing this type of thing now than you think. Should they be brought together then? What happens if we all remain independent, unaware of each other?

Nothing wrong with that, essentially. We all get on with our things. However, if we all want to achieve a broader shift, if we all believe our current system is heading for a fall then we need to get prepared. Create something different.

Informed as we are, at least partially, of the converging energy and climate crises, then we need to mobilise. After all, together we are stronger than by acting alone. Revolutionary talk, almost. Except we’re not challenging any political party. On the contrary, we talked of helping local communities and councils, schools, students and businesses of having a chance to see another perspective.

We realised, after some debate, that a first step is one of raised awareness of the external crises and pressures. After all, what motivates us to seek alternatives. Is everything fine? Can we continue to consume what is left of the planet’s natural resources in a world of never-ending limits?

No! there are limits: limits to fresh drinking water, to greenhouse gas concentrations before we cook our planet; limits to how depleted our over-exploited soils can become before they blow away in the wind; limits to oil and gas supplies, to fish stocks and natural habitats for species above ground and under water. Limits to growth in general.

Gradually we agreed that others need to hear these stories. This can be our first move. Ge the info “out there”.

My story

I looked up at some point and saw a copy of Rob Hopkins’ Transition Towns Handbook I’d brought along.. It reminded me of Davie Phillips, a good friend, who back in 2004 showed me the film The End of Suburbia, one of the first about Peak Oil.

I was shocked – it took me weeks, if not months to process the fact that our entire modern world is completely dependent on oil and other fossil fuels.

I had just started working in the Maldives with the UN on post-tsunami recovery projects, advising the Government there on how to deal with the thousands of displaced people (my line of wok for the past decade and half or so). I started seeing things in a whole new light. I saw communities of islanders now firmly addicted to oil like the rest of us – for their energy (every island has a diesel generator), most food was imported, most of it made with fossil fuels. Their transport, most of their drinking water, their entire way of life reliant on an ever-increasing flow of that black gold.

I looked at our collective efforts to help people rebuild after disaster and realised we were just reinforcing that very vulnerability. Instead of building some form of local self-sufficiency. And why? Because local Government, the UN, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and other organisations didn’t know about the potential peaking of world oil production.

This led me to return to school to learn more about it all, about what alternatives might be out there. So into the Green of Wales I went to the Centre for Alternative Technology to do a Masters in Energy and Environment Studies. A privileged position to be in indeed – to be able to afford time off work to learn and read and debate, an opportunity I feel I have a responsibility to do something with.

Actually I’m convinced now that the most vulnerable folks to the combined climate and energy crises are those in developing countries, and one day I want to find a way to share my new found knowledge with them. Towards this end I helped set up RESET while in Wales (but that will have to wait for another time to explain further).

To Portugal

For now we’re in Portugal, in the river valleys of the mighty Minho, engaging in this fine community we have chosen to call home.

Here, like the sparkling Maldivian islands, there’s limited awareness of a rapidly approaching decline in cheap oil and gas. Like everyone, we consume and enjoy as if these “good times” will go on forever in a collective belief that the life-blood of modern civilisation – oil – will continue to flow to meet rising global demand.

One of our biggest concerns should be food production. Oft-quoted research says that it now takes 10 calories of energy to create 1 calorie of food. When you add-up the various inputs it makes sense: first we plough the fields using diesel-fed tractors, then add fertilizers which are produced with natural gas. Then we add herbicides and pesticides, made from oil-based products. We harvest these foods with even bigger machines, also running on diesel fuel. Then ship them around the world and process them in energy-hungry factories, and move them around further with still more fuel. Our food is virtually made from oil.

Most of our world’s biggest fields are so exhausted, depleted of the complex life forms that provide soil nutrition indefinitely, that we are forced to continue this cycle. This system also causes enormous damage to local rivers and oceans. Dead zones” are now appearing in oceans near industrialised agriculture areas where everything is dead. These are linked to agricultural fertilisers and pesticides. So even if we weren’t running out of the raw material to continue this madness, it will destroy more and more of our land, river and oceans.

In terms of peak oil there is a compelling array of ‘experts’ on the other side – assuring us that alternatives are just around the corner, that new oilfields are ready for the picking as soon as the oil price rises a bit. And maybe they’re right. Though as I read and learn more on the subject I suspect they are running a high stake risk – largely based on un-verifiable data from a handful of the world’s largest producers. This map shows how many countries have already past peak, and when.

Davie Phillips, Rob Hopkins, Vandana Shiva, Richard Heinberg and many others have decided it’s time to start a process of transition to a society based on locally produced food, energy and economics. To create communities more resilient to these global energy shocks. We can learn from the Transition Town Movement and other initiatives around the world who have already started down this road. No point re-inventing the wheel after all.

The nice thing is that this transition can actually lead to more fulfilling and pleasant lives. Why pay to go the gym or expensive organic foods – asks Indian activist and campaigner Vandana Shiva – when you can get both by working your own garden? Why not save money and the planet by localising our heating and power sources. It’s all possible but it takes enormous collective effort...

In conclusion

So under our bamboo shade in late April we agreed that we need to get existing materials and media out there, in the local language, expose more people to these issues. They can do with this information what they will, of course. But at least they’ll have the choice: continue on our current trajectory or get together to design our local form of transição – for our own bit of future security.

It was clear from the meeting that we had people from around the river Minho region. A bio-region you could say (defined by our common river valley, the Minho) and anyone else in the surrounding areas that wants to be involved. There’s certainly interest and motivation to create something dynamic and practical, that moves us in the right direction. Let’s see where it goes.

Notes on above

Much of this is my own musing, and doesn’t entirely reflect the discussion. These aren’t minutes after all. I’ve also decided not to rant on about climate change and how vital and desperate that whole situation is. There is so much known about this now, and so much information available, but there isn’t space here. Suffice to say that Transition is about tackling both crises, about creating a low carbon society – one that produces far less cabon emissions because it is dependent on local, renewable sources for food, energy and transport.

Some good links for more information:


The Oil Drum

Transition Culture

Wake Up Freak Out

New Economics Foundation

Portugal Permaculture Network

All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil and Gas (UK)


The Party’s Over

Peak Everything

Twighlight in the Desert


Six Degrees

Films (will finish links later!)

Power of Community

End of Suburbia

The end of the line

Farm for the future


Age of Stupid

Crude Impact


Climate Safety

Zero Carbon Britain (Now we need Zero Carbon Portugal)


The Hirsh Report

WEO World Energy Outlook 2008

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Ozzy BBQ and clay

AJ visited on his way round the world, and like every Ozzy I've ever met is obssessed with grilling food on an open fire, a BBQ. So when AJ saw our emerging kitchen he insisted his first job be to build one of these.

First, a bit of background, here's how the "transit camp" has come into being:

Last year, when first arrived it looked like this:

And then when we got started in March this year, with Ruth and Paulo, like this:

Most of the walls were falling apart, so that took a fair bit of work to put them back together again. Local dude, Vitor, is a virtuosso with a tractor and a piece of chain: the rocks obeyed.

Then stone mason João and his apprentice came to show us how to rebuild the main walls (though he does like his cement for "strength"). My friend Jon Aguilar, West Coast Americano stone builder would be shocked and always insists that dry stone is the Way. I agree Jon, I agree! Still, João is a scream and we have a good crack.

here's João in front of the collapsed wall. That's the planned back wall, or shelving zone of kitchen.

Then came the yurt (as per earlier posts

Paulo's groovy boogey / strip-tease moment while my mum potters around in semi-nakedness in background. Shock-horror. Best thing about yurt is the keystone thing in the middle:

Then we realised we needed a table

Former paratrooper Machado knows how to deal with these granite posts that seem to grow out of the ground in this region.

All this time the kitchen was a sad ground floor affair, where we'd get soaked under a pitiful tarpualin when it rained. Rain + kitchen without a roof = misery. We needed a roof to build the kitchen under, so enter carpenter and local story teller, Merush

A kitchen needs shelves, Natalie helped with these.

Manuel from the local granite works gave us loads of off-cuts for free (as long as we sampled his various intoxicating beverages).

Enter AJ: to help finish off the kitchen sink.

He was so stoked that we managed with nothing more than a chainsaw and a level, he insisted on a picture of what we had to work with. Old sink donated by Merush !

And of course - the real test, the spirit level:Needless to say we were seriously impressed with our skills /luck

Still, AJ pointed out, we lacked the most important element of all:
The Ozzy BBQ, so it was back to Manuel's granite yard / spirits emporium to load 1 tonne slabs into van, wheel barrow and onto a new site we'd prepared.

International work force or what !

This orange looking stuff is our first venture into non-cement grout or mortar. I need to actually read the books I've got on earth plasters and mortars, but I know it can be done, so we thought we'd give it a try. We go to the local forest here where someone's dumped a bunch of earth from a building site. It's red, and clay-rich. For this mix we used:

- a couple of barrel loads of this clay/earth mix
- half a bucket of cement (Machado needs to move gradually into the world of natural building
- half a bucket of lime
- 2 buckets of sand
- Water to "taste"

We didn't really have any idea what we were doing, but this invention turned out amazingly well. It took a while to dry, didn't crack, seemed to stay quite elastic for a while, then went really hard. I reckon we could do without the cement, but we'll need to try different blends to find out.

Next we fired the puppy up (AJ was particularly keen on this bit)

We're trying out a few different systems here. Not in picture is the grill thingy, but I like this idea of using a metal plate (for mushies and eggs, etc.). Though this one warped. Need a chunky piece of iron instead. Now thinking using the space to build a rocket stove-oven-grill combo that Paulo has a design for. Don't worry AJ, we'll be sure to leave a bit of open grillage for you :)

Couple of shots here of our new chunk of metal we found - with hole already made for pans, and space for frying eggs. Think we'll incorporate it into one of those fuel efficient wood stoves. More on that soon...