Bellamar Gardens is one of the exctiting new major permaculture projects in Cuba, located near Matanzas, just a hundred meters from the famous Bellamar Caves. I was invited to consult on the project when I visited Cuba in 2009 when the land had quite recently been secured by FANJ (Foundation for Nature and Humanity), Cuba’s major environment NGO and key initiator and supporter of permaculture projects in Cuba. I spent several days with Sebastian and Amarilys looking at the Bellamar site, discussing their needs, hopes and aspirations, and exploring practical ways they could achieve them given their limited resource base. I was also treated to a personal tour with Sebastain, Cuba’s leading speleologist, of some of the unique caves not open to the public.
The following article contains extracts from my original report, design recommendations and photos from my visit, and a recent letter and photos from Amarilys updating me on their progress.
This is a unique environment
To create a permaculture demonstration and education centre for the local community, to showcase permaculture to the many tourists visiting the Bellamar Caves and provide facilities for overseas speleologists visiting the caves.
This area is exceptionally rich in beautiful limestone caves with unique formations, many kilometres of underground wonderlands. I discovered that these are sensitive environments, the stalagmites and stallagtites and crystal formations are growing things and vulnerable to changes in hydrology, humidity and the erosive impact of humic acids leaching down from surface landuse systems. Many caves aare just a few meters below the surface, and there are galleries of them, one below the other, extend deep down into the bowls of the earth.
One of the key objectives of the Bellamar Gardens project is to demonstrate environmentally sensitive and sustainable development above these fragile systems.
The key elements of the design brief were to include:
Entrance public area:
- Tienda – Kiosk for selling fresh farm produce and information products
- Training Centre – including office, training room/gallery/information displays, kitchen and storage
- Bathrooms: two separate structures, one with 2 dry composting toilets, the other with 2 showers
- Car park for staff and visitors
- The first of the production areas has already been planted as a food forest and area for annual and small crops adjoining the residential hamlet. Other proposed production areas will include the following:
- Multi-functional utility area for composting, worm farm, tools, processing and storing crops and farm materials
- Water storage and reticulation for irrigation
- Animal systems integrating farm livestock with plant production
- Intensive vegetable production
- Mixed food and forage forests
- Natural area conservation reforestation
- Camping area and student accommodation to include toilets and showers
- Open space – multifunctional grassed area for sports, events and open space activities
- Gazebo – raised gazebo incorporated into open space for performances
The site and design considerations
The land is an abandoned chicken farm with 7 long rectangular sets of concrete footings which once supported the intensive battery sheds. Removal of these footings poses major issues, however they are a resource that can be repurposed in the permaculture design for new infrastructure, animal housing, raised intensive gardens, main crop systems and other functions. The chicken farm ceased production some 20 years ago and one of the families that had worked there continued to live on the property doing some mixed farming. The family is now happily involved in the permaculture project.
The site is well situated on the main road to the Bellamar Caves and a little over 100m from the Caves entrance and tourist facility. The Bellamar Gardens project and the existing Bellamar Caves facilities have potential to compliment each other in a mutually beneficial way.
The proposed use of existing site infrastructure from previous chicken farming is practical, however in some locations creates a challenge in terms of the optimum design solution as the structures run across the contours thereby restricting the use of contour-based water management and planting.
The site is covered in mainly woody weeds. Vegetative growth appears healthy and is protecting the soil. The continuation of the current practice of clearing only when an area is to be planted is recommended, however selective pathways into undeveloped areas could be cleared to allow strategic planting of fast-growing pioneer and legume trees to provide some shade and shelter prior to undertaking the final area development. These plantings could include fast growing tree species and thatch palms for future construction use.
Cave Protection and Conservation
The location of the caves under the site is an important consideration, especially as the caves are only 15m below the surface in some parts. A list of unsuitable species such as large Ficus spp needs to be confirmed to protect to caves from damage by invasive root systems. The health of the caves also depends on infiltration of water through the topsoil and subsoil strata, thus the design needs to exercise caution with regard to changes in surface hydrology and the leaching of humic acids into the caves from rainwater soil infiltration systems such as swales , banana circles and soak-pits.
Key concepts for project development and landuse
Sector and Zone Planning
The location of the main building, internal road and residential hamlet are key considerations influencing the zonation and relative placement of elements in the system for the convenience of public access and for maintenance. Another critical consideration is aspect, in particular providing afternoon shade to reduce heat accumulation and utilising the prevailing wind direction from the North East to maximise air movement and breezes for natural cooling.
The initial production area adjoining the residential hamlet is practical in terms of the proximity aspect of zonation for maintenance as the community will be the main people working on and managing the site and production activities.
The commitment of the residents is a wonderful asset to the project and it will be important for long term success to invest in the training and capacity building of the active members of the community. They are very excited about the project and to learn more about Permaculture and have a long term interest in the development and future of their surrounding environment – it’s a rare treasure to have a permanent resident community of people keen to be involved and for this reason alone there is potential for a mutually beneficial outcome and success for the future of the project if this relationship is developed in a consultative manner and a spirit of partnership.
To this purpose 5 key landuse areas have been identified:
Area 1: Entrance and Public Facilities
Area 2: The area between the main building and initial food forest to the west of the main internal road is being proposed as the main intensive vegetable production area, mainly due to the logical flow in terms of zonation.
Area 3: The area adjoining the residential hamlet in the South West is well situated for the currently proposed usage being farm maintenance utility infrastructure, food forest and main crop production. This area would also be suitable for integrating some small livestock, in particular poultry and rabbits.
Area 4: The area to the east of the main internal road has been identified as the most suitable for the social functions of the centre including the open space facility and camping/accommodation area.
Area 5: The area to the South East is proposed to be developed as integrated animal and food-forage forest systems. This area is also identified as the most suitable for pig production as it presents minimum impact of noise and odour to staff, visitors and the residential area due to location and prevailing winds.
Late 2012, Amarilys sent me the following letter with photos of their progress.
“Dear Robyn, .
We are always thinking of you. Your teachings are the best we´ve ever received.
If you could see our Bellamar Gardens! Trees are growing so fast: we already planted 5 Ha with more than 60 species. Now we´re building with local materials the house for communal activities: it´s composting toilet is been used successfully since last January. The main access to the building is through a “ranchón”, you know, a rustic cabin made of wood and palm leaves, entirely open, with no walls: this is a space for meetings, conferences, and also for resting, sleeping, parties, etc. Around the ranchón there´s a lake for collecting rain water from the roof of both buildings.
Since last year we have received volunteers from France and Canada. Also, groups of speleologists have camped, bringing color and joy to the area.
The pictures really tell the story….
Visiting French speleologists volunteer during construction of the “ranchon”
School children participated in a tree planting day at the gardens.
The Bellamar Gardens is on the agenda of permaculture projects to be visited during IPC-11 in Cuba Nov-Dec 2013