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Barkeeper-cum-permaculture expert, Rafael Luo, 32, is unlike most of his peers in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province in central China.
Rather than going to the city to find a white-collar job and settle down like most men his age, Luo has moved to the countryside and founded a community of like-minded individuals who are dedicated to “sustainable living”.
Luo calls the project Back to Zero Village (B2Z), which nods to a back-to-basics approach and reconceptualising the relationship between humans and nature. Other principles include productivity, self-sufficiency and building an environment in which humans live in harmony with the environment. At its heart is “permaculture”, a system of agricultural and social design principles to create ecosystems and communities that are resilient, stable and ecologically sound.
B2Z is an unusual project and his friends and family see Luo as a maverick. But the “Back-to-the Land” movement has emerged throughout global history. It refers to a pastoral search for the good life that often follows periods of intense urbanisation.
We spoke to Luo about why young people are becoming more interested in permaculture, anti-consumerism and re-establishing the connection between society and nature.
China Dialogue (CD): What was the inspiration behind Back to Zero (B2Z)?
Rafael Luo (RL): In August 2015, I rented a four-room courtyard and ten mu (6,666 square metres) of land in Lishan, to the west of Xi’an, and named it Back to Zero. It was an attempt at building a small, sustainable and ecological community through an understanding of nature, design and innovative ways of living and development.
I met Sam Trousdale [a British permaculture expert] in the winter of 2015, in Dali [a traveller’s mecca in China’s Yunnan province]. He became my teacher and my friend. At that point Sam was working on the Panya Project farm in Thailand. He first introduced me to the concept of permaculture.
CD: How many people are involved?
RL: Fifteen people have joined up, mostly my friends. They come back here in their free time and live here for a while, using their strengths to contribute to the building of the community.
CD: Why put permaculture at the centre of B2Z’s ethos?
RL: Through permaculture we can gain a better understanding of nature and of the planet, design healthier ways of living, and learn to live in cooperation with the Earth. Permaculture is designed to foster a sustainable environment for animals, plants and buildings; and ecosystem that serves humanity and nature in harmony. It’s both a science and a type of culture. Simply put, the philosophy is one of cooperation with nature rather than opposition to it.
This ethos is similar to my own approach to life, and I was very keen to find somewhere to put it into practice, so I rented this place, near where my family is from.
We have continued the agricultural traditions of the northern China plain combining them with permaculture and modern ways of living.
CD: The “Back-To-The-Land movement” has appeared in China over the past century as an uncoordinated but nonetheless purposeful attempt to return to a purer, more ethical, way of living in the face of urbanisation. Do you identify with other such communities in China or abroad?
RL: In the less than 300 years since the advent of industrial society [in the West], we have seen that currency and the economy are even more valuable than the soil and the air. Consumerism constantly encourages people to swap money for a better quality of life, while businesses gather natural resources to supply society’s needs.
This has become worse with the arrival of the internet. During times of inflation or economic hardship, the majority of people only know how to survive by earning money. They know nothing of the basic elements of nature – soil, air, sunlight, plants – much less understand how to find healthy food, water, dwelling and energy. We struggle to survive outside the constraints of ordinary society and so it is difficult to create new communities.
The majority of people are unware they can change their environment and their lives. But at the least we can try to understand the basic factors supporting our lives on this planet, so that when we are hit by financial crisis or inflation, we might still know how to get food, water and shelter from the environment as our ancestors did. The classic example is Cuba’s use of permaculture to respond to US sanctions.
CD: To what extent is environmental degradation in China prompting people to change their behaviour and seek out new, more sustainable ways of living?
RL: In the 21st century, environmental issues arising from China’s rapid economic growth became more severe and more apparent. More farmers moved to the city to work in labour-intensive industries, leaving behind fallow or abandoned land.
Traditional agriculture was replaced by industrialised agriculture, with modern technology, genetically modified (GM) seeds and the use of fertilisers and pesticides, which damage the soil. Chinese people now get most of their food from crops grown with chemicals and GM seeds; and millennia of traditional farming knowledge and techniques are being gradually lost. While this is happening, more-and-more people are becoming aware of air pollution and environmental problems.
We live in a time of unhealthy food, unhealthy air and unhealthy homes. China’s economic growth has slowed but we are still unhealthy. The incidence of cancer continues to rocket, and much of China’s new middle class continues to seek European and US standards of living, so it is essential for China to find a new way of life.
We live in a time of unhealthy food, unhealthy air and unhealthy homes. China’s economic growth has slowed but we are still unhealthy
CD: How do you make people more conscious of the need to live a more sustainable life and or change their habits. Is it through subsidies and economic incentives, public awareness campaigns from the government or grass roots action, for example?
RL: Currently, I use practical activities, as through these we can learn how to design our own sustainable lifestyles. Practice is the best way to explain fuzzy concepts such as ‘sustainable lifestyles’. By observing local natural and human environments; reducing use of industrial products; basing design on nature; establishing workshops; running Permaculture Design Certificate courses; showing people the joy of creation in their own lives.
For example, last summer we ran a workshop at B2Z teaching people how to build a “rocket mass heater” [a type of efficient wood-burning stove], a new form of heating which uses both modern and ancient technology.
Locals once made similar traditional heated beds using local materials such as clay, which is free and an excellent store of heat. Lots of people came to help us build it and were able to see the benefits of the stove first-hand. Hopefully, they will take those ideas and methods and apply them in their own lives. We’ll run more workshops like that in the future.
CD: What makes B2Z unique compared to other permaculture farms?
RL:All permaculture farms are unique, due to their different climates, plant life, sunlight, altitude, and so on. So they’re all designed in different ways and have their own unique characteristics. What’s unique about B2Z is that we still have lots of old cave dwellings which are great at regulating the temperature, they’re warm in winter and cool in summer.
Caves were the most common form of dwelling here in the past, but now most are abandoned or used for housing livestock. We’ve found they’re ideal for brewing beer, so we’ve been planning to turn them into a brewery and make beer and other alcoholic drinks. B2Z will never lack for a drink, a song and a party, as we want to turn it into a place that’s healthy but never boring.
It’s not just about living well, it’s about living beautifully.
It’s not just about living well, it’s about living beautifully
CD: How can the government help solve the environmental and social pressures you seek to avoid?
RL: Environmental issues are global problems, and China’s government has invested a huge amount in dealing with these and has seen some good but limited results. But with food safety you would need to change the entire system.
Photography and interview by Liz Hingley.
Words and editing by Charlotte Middlehurst.