Chimanimani is a district within Manicaland Province, Zimbabwe with a population of 135,000 in 32,578 households, where approximately 45% are less than 15 years old (2012 Census). Its varied terrain of mountains and lowlands hosts contrasting climatic regions, delivering areas of secure year round water supplies in the highlands and intense aridity in the lowlands. Economic instability and an unpredictable political climate have resulted in limited employment opportunities beyond smallholder subsistence farming, which occupies 60% of the population. There is widespread poverty throughout the district, as many struggle to meet basic needs of food and water, and 67% are without access to electricity. Malnutrition compounds HIV/AIDS, whose prevalence has fallen in the past decade to approximately 15% of Zimbabweans, despite a deteriorating public health system. The education system is also in a state of decay, as user fees have decreased accessibility for the poor, and colonial remnants coupled with declining quality have resulted in low pass rates. Ecological degradation due to soil erosion, free grazing, loss of traditional agricultural methods, and extractive industries leaves these communities vulnerable to future climate changes and unable to meet current needs. The combination of these factors results in biophysical and social unsustainability, where quality of life and standard of living are insufficient.
The distance to fresh water for family members in Chaseyama
Many of these issues are partially a result of previous "development" in the district. Chikukwa, one of Chimanimani District's 22 wards, experienced land degradation, soil erosion, heightened malnutrition, and dried up springs after international pressures instigated development projects encouraging monoculture crop production for export in the area. This led to community members seeking help from Fambidzanai, a permaculture training center outside of Harare, and forming a permaculture club which turned into CELUCT (Chikukwa Ecological Land Use Community Trust) in the early 1990s. CELUCT set up a community watershed management scheme and through ongoing projects such as the sustainable agriculture program, has transformed Chikukwa into an area of ecological regeneration and low malnutrition, to the extent that Terry Leahy claims it to be one of the most successful development projects in Africa. As other members of the District saw the progress being made in Chikukwa and requests for support from CELUCT grew, two additional local grassroots permaculture NGOS were established: TSURO (Towards Sustainable Use of Resources Organization) and later, PORET (Participatory Organic Research and Extension Training). TSURO, based in Chimanimani Village, runs sustainable agriculture and health programs across the district.
PORET, seeking to replicate the success of CELUCT and extend the work of TSURO into Chimanimani District’s lowveld as well as further afield, began in 1998 with the development of the demonstration site by Julious Piti and his wife Taurai, after the demand for a permaculture training program for farmers in the lowveld (also known as Chaseyama, the low rainfall area of Chimanimani District) was clear. Application of permaculture principles and techniques over time regenerated the land, reclaiming the once desert area and turning it into a “green oasis”. PORET has hosted the Chaseyama permaculture club as well as other informal trainings over the years, building capacity among farmers in the lowveld in order to develop sustainable livelihoods. The demonstration site has also been home to a local preschool, recently upgraded to a sustainable kindergarten designed by Anna Heringer, funded by Crossing Borders and co-ordinated by Margarethe Holzer. Officially registered as a Trust in 2006, PORET won the National Environmental Agency Award in 2006, and was one of the demonstration sites visited during the International Permaculture Convergence of 2009 in Malawi.
In early 2014, Julious began to collaborate with Robin and Sarah, who were able to travel to Zimbabwe thanks to funding from the University of Edinburgh’s Innovation Initiative Grant. There they developed project ideas together, culminating in the creation of PORET-Livelihoods, a subset of PORET Trust.