Peter Cornish talks urban gardening and sustainability with Tanya Meftah. Photo by Romain Garrigue.

You first came to Vietnam to study but returned to take on the role of MD with local non-profit, Smile Group. Can you explain about the work you were doing with them?

We were developing programmes to help empower children that are victims of HIV. When I saw the need for continuity with these programmes for the older (18 +) children, I and one of Smile Group founders, Leslie Wiener, had the idea to teach the kids how to build urban gardens as a possible career option.

You’re recognised as one of the pioneers of the growing environmental permaculture movement in Vietnam. How do you think this movement has progressed in recent years, and what direction do you think it is headed?

Since the inception of GYC (the Green Youth Collective), I have watched tons of new small urban gardening businesses “sprout” up along with some more general environmental sustainability movements.  I think that sustainability is growing amongst young people as something they find very important. 

It’s very exciting to see it become such a widespread movement over a short time.  I think, following the trends of the world, environmental sustainability will be at the forefront in business in Ho Chi Minh City in the next few years.

In 2013 you co-founded the Green Youth Collective, one of HCMC’s first urban garden initiatives. What was your vision for GYC when you started it and what are they doing now?

My vision for GYC was twofold. The first vision was to create a collective of environmentally minded people and to be a resource to empower those who were interested. Secondly, we wanted to make urban gardening a respectable and viable business opportunity. 

We wanted to share this opportunity with street youth in particular, and help provide them with careers related to urban sustainability.  We wanted to push back on the negative view that “farming is for the poor” by demonstrating how empowering a permaculture lifestyle can be in many ways.

The three core permaculture ethics are described as ‘people care, earth care and create surplus’. Can you explain this means and how you put this in to practice with the projects you work on?

The core permaculture ethics refer to the idea that everything is connected.  You cannot have one without the other. Permaculture design is more of a framework in which to approach things, whether it’s the flow of your new apartment or building a eco village with friends. 

You must incorporate the care of the community (people care) and the care of our earth and all its living beings. In terms of creating surplus- this refers to energy created and used when doing a single thing. 

We want to create extra energy, whether it’s designing your garden beds higher so you do not have to use as much back muscle to take care it, or chop and drop composting in your beds so you do not have to spend lots of time constantly applying fertiliser- I am constantly thinking about how to create these connections in my designs.  How to reduce input while maximising onput!

More recently you have co-founded Wholistik, a consultancy group that helps clients design sustainable permaculture and urban gardening systems. Can you explain what this means and share some of the projects you have worked on?

Wholistik is my new consultant company where we help our clients set up closed loop systems that create positive energy output.  “Wholistik” is a play on the words whole and holistic because we like to look at the whole picture and target all areas to create holistic systems that consider all aspects.   

We believe that by targeting all areas as opposed to one isolated area, such as waste management, we can create a culture of caring. Once we do that, the systems will begin to sustain themselves and a few years down the line, they will work for you, without needing much maintenance. 

We also place a high emphasis on education, working with our clients and the community to share and exchange knowledge so we all can be empowered.

Some of my most recent projects were a food forest and permaculture landscape design in the USA where I placed an emphasis on native plant restoration, mushroom inoculation, food forest design and implementation, low use water systems working with the contour of the land, path making, and building spaces for the client to relax in nature. 

My current large project is working with International School of Ho Chi Minh City who have hired me to come in and set up a large scale holistic system. This includes growing food, developing comprehensive waste programmes, getting students to use their hands to build connections with nature, it’s a full integration into the curriculum and lifestyle at ISHCMC.

As the urban gardening movement continues to grow, what advice would you give to people wanting to get involved in sustainability?

Sustainability isn’t just a series of actions, it’s a form of consciousness.

It’s great that so many people are passionate for the environment, but real steps need to be taken and a lot of them are not easy. Truly developing a sustainable system takes so much time, energy and effort. It’s not just avoiding plastic and turning off your lights, its developing a lifestyle that is now enhancing the environment rather than extracting from it. 

To do that we (as a human race) would have to make major changes to our way of living.  This is challenging.  I think if you are interested in sustainability one of the first things to do is take time to build something.  See how long it takes, how hard it really is.  Then decide if you want to be sustainable.  

For more details about Tanya’s work, or to contact her, please visit www.wholistikpermaculture.org.