Column | The 4S of 'parambu' culture in Kerala: Syntropy, synergy, security & sovereignty

A 'parambu' in Kottayam, Kerala. Photo: Ann Rochyne Thomas

Industrial agriculture is structured on community exclusion and excessive resource usage. The global food system prioritizes profit over the diverse nutritional demands of various populations and the distinct food cultures of communities. Many human and environmental health issues may be traced back to conventional agriculture.

Ecological urbanism, which combines urban growth with environmental conservation, is critical in city planning and development because it promotes a sustainable food production system in a world that is becoming increasingly urbanised, polluted, and uncertain. It serves as a remedial approach for existing cities as well as a planning strategy for future cities.

Traditional farming practices are based on a dialogue with nature and help to preserve ecosystem services while ensuring community self-sufficiency. The success of incorporating time-tested participatory food production systems into the urban design will determine the future of urban food security.

The Parambu - Kerala's traditional homestead silvopasture (pastoral agroforestry) system is based on the integration of family-based agricultural and pastoral activities within a cohesive neighbourhood network. Syntropy in space and time, the synergy of ecosystem relationships, resource security and food sovereignty are the fundamental principles of Kerala’s Parambu culture.

Syntropy in the space-time continuum

Entropy, the tendency of ecosystems to lose energy and become disordered over time, is counterbalanced by syntropy, which integrates entropic residues into more complex structures. A parambu transitions through ecological succession, in which groundcover plants gradually give way to more complex vertical stratification of vegetation. It eventually results in the formation of a very diverse and complex climax community. The life of a young Parambu evolves from one of intense resource competition to one of stable mutualistic relationships.

Numerous species from different temporal and spatial strata coexist on a single Parambu, which can range in size from a few cents to a few acres, with larger Parambu predominantly found in rural regions. The seven different strata of a mature Parambu enable it to support a diverse community of lifeforms per square metre. A canopy layer of over 30 feet, a sub-canopy layer of 10-30 feet, a shrub layer, a herbaceous layer, a thick groundcover layer, an underground rhizosphere, and a climber layer, as well as their interactions, are all vital to a Parambu's self-sufficiency.

In a Parambu, a plant is in its optimal space or stratum at an advantageous time or phase in its ecological succession. Just as the fall of wild trees creates new niches in a forest, the harvest of long-term crops restarts the succession cycle in a Parambu.

In contrast to input-based conventional agriculture, which prioritizes yield, the primary goal of process-oriented Parambu culture is ecosystem regeneration. In conventional agriculture, soil quality deteriorates after each harvest necessitating the use of artificial fertilizers. Parambu syntropy increases soil and biomass quantity and quality in both time and space.

The regenerative nature and progressive abundance of Parambu culture fulfil inter-generational justice, which assures equitable rights between current and future generations.

Synergy in ecosystem relationships

A Parambu culture is based on a fundamentally different perception and interpretation of nature than conventional agriculture. Fallen trees are likely homes for a plethora of lifeforms. Fallen leaves are regarded as potential mulch, and weeds and pests as population control agents. Understanding the ecological interactions between species and the geophysical environment is critical for nurturing a Parambu.

A no-till strategy is followed unless absolutely necessary, which retains soil stratification and prevents soil carbon from being released while also preserving soil moisture. When roots are left undisturbed after the completion of each plant cycle and soil microorganisms are allowed to flourish, porous tunnels are formed that aid in soil softening. This eliminates the possibility of soil organisms asphyxiating in an anaerobic environment.

Since the leaves are never raked, they decompose in situ to generate rich humus and organically improve soil fertility without the use of fertilizers. This layer regulates the soil's temperature and moisture content and also helps control the spread of invasive species without the use of pesticides.

The temperature and amount of sunlight are regulated by the different strata, resulting in a favourable microclimate in the Parambu. This keeps houses enclosed by thick Parambu relatively cool even in the summer.

A network of micro-Parambu in a dense urban neighbourhood in Kochi, Kerala. Photo: Ann Rochyne Thomas

The Parambu self-regulates through a variety of interactions between organisms and their environment. These inherent synergistic linkages in nature are disrupted by human-centred industrial agriculture. Rather than attempting to control the ecosystem, the Parambu culture emphasizes letting nature take its course. It accepts that natural processes can be perfectly sustained by human inaction.

Food sovereignty that prioritises class conflict

Autonomy places communities at the centre of the food production system, allowing them to select which foods to produce, trade, and consume that are both environmentally and culturally appropriate as well as economically viable.

The humble seed holds power, and industrial agriculture usurps that power from families, the fundamental unit of society. It shifts control of the agricultural supply chain away from families and smallholder farmers, toward global corporations supported by elitist governments and pro-business policies.

A cooperative community with a flourishing Parambu around every household breaks down the structural barriers to achieving food justice. Plant guilds or consortiums for Parambu systems differ within the same climatic zone and even within the same neighbourhood, increasing local biodiversity and resilience.

Resource security that prioritises community resilience

A mature Parambu is a natural forest that can consistently provide adequate provisioning services - food, medicine, fuel, and timber, in addition to other ecosystem services. As agricultural, pastoral, and forestry activities are integrated into a single Parambu, it enhances their resistance to climatic changes, pests, and diseases. Bartering, selling and sharing of produce among community members helps to foster social cohesion, expand dietary choices, and reduce food waste.

The significantly smaller micro-Parambu are seen in urban household yards and in the shared open spaces of some apartment complexes in densely populated cities. Urban producers and consumers are formally and informally linked by this network of edible green infrastructure, in a mutually beneficial system. Edible landscaping is a productive use of land, unlike ecologically damaging lawns. A well-organized network of micro-parambu has the potential to partially meet the fresh produce needs of urban consumers across income levels, build social capital and ensure the long-term viability of communal food production systems. However, an urban micro-parambu is a human-dominated ecosystem and may have significantly higher requirements of resources for its maintenance than a large rural self-sustaining Parambu. Hence, it is crucial to customize its configuration to reduce ecosystem disservices or unintended negative consequences.

Parambu culture for a just transition

Homestead and participatory farming are transformative and inclusive approaches for a just transition from the destructive conventional food production system to one that is fair, regenerative and localized. The mainstreaming of Parambu culture around the world has the potential to restructure food systems in accordance with the distinctive production and consumption patterns of unique communities while emphasizing the efficient use of human, environmental, and financial resources.

The 4S of Kerala's Parambu culture—syntropy, synergy, security, and sovereignty— can pave the way for equitable, sustainable and resilient urban futures.

(Ann Rochyne Thomas is a bio-climatic spatial planner and founder of the Centre for Climate Resilience - a sustainability and climate change advisory.)

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