Regenerative Agroforestry.

Ernesto van Peborgh
3 min readJun 6, 2023

The Revolution in Sustainable Farming

PermaDynamics Photo

On a remote farmstead in Brazil in the early 1980s, Ernst Götsch sowed the seeds of a revolution that has since been quietly spreading across the world. Syntropic farming, an ambitious project of the Swiss farmer and researcher, is no less than an entirely new vision of agriculture — a vision of harmony, not domination, with the natural world. (see Previous Post on Ernest Gotsch and Pedro Paulo Diniz’s Fazenda da Toca)

At the heart of syntropic farming is a practice that many of us have long forgotten: observing before acting, allowing nature to guide our actions rather than bending it to our will. But this philosophy is not simply a return to old ways; it is an innovative approach to agriculture that has the potential to not only feed our growing global population but also to address some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time.

In a syntropic agroforestry system, a single plot of land can become a self-sustaining ecosystem — a kind of mini-forest where diverse species coexist, each contributing to the overall health and productivity of the system. But it’s not simply about cramming as many different species into one space as possible. As Götsch explains, “We copy what is happening in a forest, high density of plants, a high diversity, and what we want is a functional diversity. The overall production is always higher.”

This emphasis on functional diversity — the idea that each plant in the system has a specific role to play — extends to the concept of succession. In nature, one plant community often paves the way for another, each layer enriching the soil for the next. Syntropic farmers use this natural process to their advantage, carefully selecting plants that work together to improve soil health and fertility. In doing so, they are able to transform even the most barren, unproductive lands into thriving ecosystems.

One such transformation can be witnessed at PermaDynamics, a family-owned farm located in Matapouri, New Zealand. In just three months, they were able to turn an area overrun by Kikuyu grass into a flourishing food forest. With the help of friends, family, and community, they dug up the soil, incorporated soil amendments, and planted a diverse range of plants. Among them were annuals like cabbages, tomatoes, and potatoes, a variety of fruit trees, and over 200 native trees.

It’s hard to imagine, at first glance, how such a dense, complex system could work. But it does, and beautifully so. At the foot of a banana tree and a tamarillo, for instance, you might find cabbage, potato, and cucumber — plants that are harvested earlier. Interspersed among these, there could also be a kohekohe tree, a native canopy tree that will eventually form the forest itself.

Syntropic agroforestry offers a vision of a world where humans and nature are not at odds but in harmony. It offers the possibility of a food system that nourishes us while also nurturing the earth. And as the folks at PermaDynamics have shown, it is a system that is not only sustainable but also incredibly productive.

In the end, syntropic farming is about more than just growing food. It’s about shifting our relationship with the natural world, recognizing that we are not separate from it, but an integral part of it. As Frida Keegan, co-farmer at PermaDynamics, beautifully sums it up, “We can create human-inclusive ecosystems that we can be a part of.” And isn’t that a prospect worth striving for?

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Ernesto van Peborgh

Entrepreneur, writer, filmmaker, Harvard MBA. Builder of systemic interactive networks for knowledge management.