Designing a Sustainable Future: Permaculture and Sustainability at CLOAAT, Tamil Nadu Essay

Published in The Earth Issue 002: IMPACT

“One of the most important things about permaculture is that it is founded on a series of principles that can be applied to any circumstance—agriculture, urban design, or the art of living. The core of the principles is the working relationships and connections between all things.” ― Juliana Birnbaum Fox

Over the course of thinking and writing about art and environmentalism, I’ve often found myself drawn to permaculture design– the application of principles which are simultaneously creative, functional, regenerative, and environmentally conscious. How does “permaculture thinking” bridge the gap between Self, Other and Nature, and how can we apply this, in practice, within the context of our day to day activities? Which types of processes are permaculture communities developing in order to live a more engaged life within their natural environments?

Wanting to learn more about the philosophies and methodologies underlying the permaculture movement, I went to visit my old friend, Karuna Jenkins, in hopes of discussing her work in education and appropriate technologies in South India. On a bright Sunday morning in May I set off on the road winding down into the Sholai valley, surrounded by a scenic panorama of forest and rocky grassland.

For the past six years, Karuna has been teaching at the Centre for Learning, Organic Agriculture and Technology (CLOAAT,) an entirely self-sufficient educational community nestled in the Palani hills of Tamil Nadu. CLOAAT was founded in 1989 by her parents, a year before she was born, and so she spent her early childhood living on the centre’s campus. During a period of absence while studying in Bangalore and Edinburgh, she became increasingly troubled by the devastating ecological problems facing our world, and returned to Kodaikanal to dedicate herself completely to her family’s life-mission. Her work currently revolves around wellness and bringing awareness back to the body and our connection to nature – she teaches Biology and Food and Nutrition to the senior students, and Organic Farming and Hatha Yoga to the whole school.

I arrived at noon and was struck by the familiar beauty of CLOAAT, which spreads over 100 acres of agricultural land, pepper vines, coffee bushes and rolling hills covered in fruit trees and meadows. Within a few kilometers lies a reserve forest that is home to a wide array of wild animals including elephants, gaur, various species of deer, birds and wild boar – in fact, some of these species can occasionally be spotted perusing the school campus. Karuna met me at the dining room, where students and staff were sharing a home-grown vegetarian lunch of rice, okra, sambar and cucumber raita. After an initial heart to heart about the years gone by, we began our walk through the hilly terrain – past the vegetable gardens, the stone classrooms, across the wooden bridge, over the stream which bisects the agricultural land. “The community’s primary commitment is to living consciously and in harmony with nature,” Karuna explained as we watched the river curl its way around rocks and roots. It had been raining heavily over the past week, so the water was turbulent and earthy. “We aim to honour this close connection to Nature by living abstemiously, deriving our energy needs from various eco-friendly Appropriate Technologies, employing water harvesting techniques, segregating and recycling our waste, eating vegetarian food, growing our produce organically and using farming methods that nourish and revitalize the soil.”

The educational model at CLOAAT is based on J. Krishnamurthi’s philosophy. In such, education is seen as the totaldevelopment of the human being – preparation for the individual to blossom and contribute to the collective blossoming of society. While many academic institutions narrow their focus to standardized milestones and objectives, a Krishnamurthi school starts out with the idea of inner transformation; working towards removing the limits of intellectual and emotional conditioning and cultivating awareness in one’s relationship to others and to our natural environment.

CLOAAT thus emphasizes the intrinsic connection between nature and humanity, attempting to nurture this bond through a hands-on teaching style which encourages exploration, curiosity and and developing a self-driven interest in learning. Aiming for a more holistic approach to education, the center encourages children to enjoy the learning experience while focusing on multiple facets of their self-development – creativity, intellect, emotional awareness, health, and ecological appreciation. Besides the regular academic curriculum, a typical day at CLOAAT includes activities that nurture emotional intelligence and environmental stewardship, such as segregating and recycling waste, morning meditation and music classes, yoga, organic farming, dance, theater, art, carpentry, and tending to the farm’s irrigation. The students are active and involved participants when it comes to the management of the center, from sharing the cleaning and care of the campus and it’s buildings, resolving issues that emerge over the course of the semester to applying their unique skills towards future developments. “Sholai is quite unique in that the relationship between the students and teachers is not bound to the time spent in class but also includes meal times, times on the football field or even just a walk together on a sunny Sunday,” Karuna said to me as we passed the woodworking studio, where much of the school’s furniture is designed. “As a result there is a deeper bond between students and staff and the teachers are able to understand and guide the students to grow academically, emotionally and to teach them to care for themselves in a holistic manner. In the same way the students learn to interact with the teachers not as authority figures but as human beings with qualities and complexes like their own. Thus we all learn together.”

CLOAAT’s foundation resonates with the 3 ethics and 12 design principles of permaculture,  centred around harnessing and replicating the patterns which occur in natural ecosystems. In the context of farming, this means shifting away from an exploitative view of the land, and towards a collaborative approach with nature. The first ethic of Permaculture, “Earth Care,” is intrinsically linked to the second ethic, “People Care,” since human beings are inseparable from their natural systems. The third ethic, Fair Share, is also described as the ethical stance of “Return of Surplus to Earth and People,” which recognizes that resources are finite and that humans must put a limit on their consumption. Fair Share also implies equity and social justice, connecting physical ecological resources to the social systems that structure their use. Sharing our surplus, whether it be a surplus or harvest or a surplus of skills, knowledge and experience, helps foster an egalitarian society and a stable, collaborative community.

All work at the school and on the farm flows from these fundamental ethics, including using local, biodegradable and renewable resources as much as possible, and raising awareness about environmental and social issues. It begins at the level of employment and admission, by providing long-term opportunities to local workers and students, and extends to the administrative processes regulating the community. “Many issues are resolved through developing new systems that will counter problems that arise. Within the school the students participate in the discussion, development and design of new and established systems. Observation of natural and cultural principles, general laws and those relevant to our particular region is an ongoing process that helps guide our actions.”

As we passed the science and engineering classroom, I took a peek inside. Anatomical posters hung on the stone walls illustrating the digestive system, the muscular system, the human skeleton. An assortment of measurement tools and microscopes lined the wooden shelves among a display of projects in progress. Karuna called my attention to a mattress on the floor, explaining that the school was looking into creative ways of disposing its non-biodegradable waste. As part of this project the engineering students had been experimenting with innovative ways of recycling plastic, for example, by transforming into a fiber from which comfortable classroom furniture would be designed, or by using it to build a road. I sat down on it and testified that it was, in fact, very comfortable.

Innovative recycling is just one example of how the CLOAAT community reinforces its position as a human system within a larger natural system, using the permaculture principle of self-regulation’ based on respect for the natural environment. “Permaculture brings attention to the relevance of systems in our lives,” Karuna explained as we approached the rainwater harvesting tank. “This insight recognizes human systems, natural systems and the integration between the two. No organism, no phenomenon is isolated or separate. Though distinct, everything exists within a web of interconnected relationships, systems within systems. With this understanding permaculturalists employ design principles in their work. This involves first seeking to understand the systems they are working with and the factors that influence each element within the system. Then systems are designed with the aim of establishing harmonious relationships between the elements and with the greater human and natural systems.”

As we made our way further up the hill towards the English and Math classrooms, I noticed a large vermi-shed with a ferro-cement roof. “That’s the vermiculture shed,” Karuna told me. Over the past decade, the students and staff at CLOAAT have been fine-tuning the process of decomposing organic food waste into a nutritious soil conditioner with the help of worms. Worms are, of course, naturally present in the soil and contribute to creating a nutrient-rich environment for plant growth. By replicating the natural process in a larger scale (by propagating worm populations in decomposing vegetable waste and vermicast) one can design an effective, organic and fast way of enriching agricultural soil.

Karuna explains how biomimicry plays a crucial role in all of CLOAAT’s farming practices, from irrigation to crop placement and pest control. “Observing Nature and her natural systems we find awe-inspiring intelligent design at work where each organism has a role to play in sustaining harmony and balance of the greater whole. Human beings are blessed with the gift of creative expression, materializing our ideas, our imagination and giving us the power to modify and alter our world. Unfortunately much of this has been a misuse of the imagination, imposing our ideas onto our world without consideration of the greater whole, the delicate balance and harmony of our ecosystems and the long-term consequences of our choices. Permaculture paves the way for a new way of being on Earth, to use the power of our imagination and intelligence to create ways of living that sustain ourselves whilst nourishing the well-being of all other life and the life of the planet as a whole. Since life is designed to sustain itself, understanding and applying natural design principles allows Permaculture to move beyond sustainability to creating regenerative systems that are automated and grow more resilient and stronger over time.”

It was now late afternoon and we decided to take a hike to the nearby waterfalls, accompanied by a new volunteer who had just that day interviewed for a position teaching math. The sun was beating down and the appeal of a cool dip in the river grew stronger as we made our way along the mountainside. As we walked, Karuna pointed out the different flora that compose the local ecosystem: lemongrass, jackfruit, “kachakkai,” guava trees, banana plants, pepper vines. We sat perched on a rock and waited for a 6 foot long rat-snake to make its way across the stream, before throwing our shoes across and crossing. “Non-venomous,” she reassured us midway.

By the time we reached the third waterfall the sun was sinking deeply into the valley, and the sky was filling with the rich hues of dusk. We jumped into the clear pool of water, clouds reflected in the water around us. The math teacher sat overlooking the lush expanses of jungle below, and meditated.

I asked Karuna why she choose her path in life – what drew her to working in environmentalism, and more specifically to eco-conservation in the Sholai Valley. “The issues closest to my heart all revolve around caring for the land. Over the years there has been an intensification of worrying trends that have significantly affected the landscape here. There has been an increase in hill burning practices that destroy young saplings of indigenous trees of the forest. As a result the forest cover of the hills has been reducing, this encourages soil erosion and over time more and more of the hills surrounding us are becoming bare. At the same time there has been an increase in the habitants of the valley, who do not follow practices that are sensitive to the local ecosystem and thereby destroy the local flora to create space for intensive crop cultivation. With the decrease in indigenous forest cover comes an increase in human-wildlife conflict as the wild animals are driven out of their natural habitat. In the last year two residents of the local villages were killed in tragic encounters with the Wild Elephants here. Although we have been fortunate with the rainfall this year, the last two years we had almost no rainfall and faced severe water shortages. All of these issues are connected to the lack of awareness about the importance of preserving the local flora, particularly the indigenous trees that are so unique to this place. Increasing awareness about this and developing projects for reforestation is what I feel is most important to focus on in the near future.  Recognizing the importance of our state of being in shaping the ways in which we interact with one another and impact the world, I also choose to work to increasing awareness of wellness.”

At nightfall, as we retraced our steps back over the dusky hillside, I reflected what it means to cultivate permaculture design principles in our work, our mindset, and our day to day existence. In a technology-consumed and often disembodied modernity, it is easy to forget that we are part of a larger ecological system, and that working with the patterns therein instead of pushing against them would benefit ourselves, our communities, and our natural environment. Instead of imposing ourselves on our environment, permaculture encourages us to observe the natural processes around us carefully, and to let them inspire our actions. The foundations of permaculture, Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share, are upheld by practical principles which can be applied universally, such as using renewable resources, creatively responding to change, observing, and interacting. By developing these practices we can embody the interconnectedness of life, and in doing so, our interactions with nature become more harmonious and meaningful.   

Get Involved

CLOAAT is accepting volunteers and has positions open for teachers and professionals interested in working in various departments including woodwork, mechanical engineering, building and farming.

If you would like to contribute remotely, donations would also greatly help support and develop CLOAAT’s current and future projects (for example, cleaning up the waste in the nearby villages, developing organic farming programs for the local farmers, and developing bio-fuel projects).

CLOAAT also offers a mature student program for individuals interested in learning practical skills such as woodwork, organic farming, electrical and mechanical engineering as well as intern as teachers. For more information or queries readers can visit the CLOAAT website and/or email and

“Permaculture paves the way for a new way of being on Earth, to use the power of our imagination and intelligence to create ways of living that sustain ourselves whilst nourishing the well-being of all other life and the life of the planet as a whole.”

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