Meet the Designer: Laura Kaestele

Laura Kaestele

Not many 20 year olds would be embracing permaculture, traveling the world and taking action to gain the skills they need for people care and ecological restoration. Laura Kaestele from Germany is an inspiring exception to the rule.

At 16 Laura moved into an intentional community, supporting it to grow from an idea into an established community, where she would develop a deep awareness of community life and what it means to be human.

My story is in parallel with humanity in general; growing up from being a teenager, not seeing the bigger picture, to being more responsible and caring.

As a teenager, permaculture was in the background of Laura’s life, as different courses were held at the community where she lived. She caught glimpses while she was still busy attending school. Finally she participated in a course and never looked back.


We are so tied to competition, consumerism, capitalism and oppressions. Learning about permaculture enables us to shift our mindsets. For me permaculture is not just a concept, but a lived reality in everything.

Like many school leavers, Laura took a ‘Gap year’. Except she’s still in the gap, and unlikely to set foot in conventional education again. She said she didn’t like the system, it felt neither comfortable nor appropriate, and she craved something more, that linked her passions for design, nature and community.

In 2012, Laura found Gaia University, an alternative institution focused on integrative ecosocial design. It sees design as the primary tool for accelerating social change and personal growth. Learning is self-determined by the learner or “Associate”, who completes a series of ‘output packets’ documenting their real world projects, reflections, design decisions and more. The whole model is based on an action learning pedagogy.

Gaia University has really inspired, empowered and challenged my passion for learning. There is so much freedom to really go for it, but just enough structure supporting me to be more creative, productive and impactful.

Laura has enjoyed being part of a global community interested in similar work. Documenting and harvesting her learning has been a new approach to grasp, yet she is thrilled about the quantity, depth and transformative power of what she learnt so far.

My current pathway is centred on building a right livelihood around what I’m doing and continuing to creatively explore my life purpose. How can I live my gifts and share them with the world in every moment?

Exploring these questions propelled Laura to visit permaculture communities around the planet. This summer she returned from Thailand, where she has been working with permaculture projects, collaboratively designing land-based systems and developing natural building skills.

Laura participated in the 2nd Thai Permaculture Convergence, where she observed the abundant edge between Thai communities and their traditional knowledge, with foreigners like herself. Laura also visited Cambodia, Italy and Portugal. She has also played an active role with the organisation, Be the Change, that aims to support young people to respond to the crises of our time.

Laura is now focused on developing her social permaculture skills, exploring tools like the Art of Hosting and Harvesting Meaningful Conversations, cultural mentoring, facilitation and group decision-making methodologies.

For people of any age exploring their life purpose, the permaculture principle of ‘observe and interact’, may be one of the most useful. In her travels abroad, and land and community-based experiences at home, Laura is learning how she can best interact with the world to make a difference.

Whatever the future holds for Laura, it is likely she will be a leader in the field, making permaculture second nature to the next generation.

For more information about Laura’s work visit her portfolio.

Meet the Designer: An Interview with Béla Beke (Australia)

This is the inaugural post in what will be an ongoing series where we’ll meet permaculture designers around the world.

Béla grew up in a village in the Hungarian part of Yugoslavia — a village where you had to grow all of your own food to eat, where bartering was the norm and where horse carts were the main form of transport.

Upon his arrival to Australia in the late 1970s, Béla heard of permaculture and instantly thought, “Wow, what a fab idea”. It was an idea that changed his life as he embraced all aspects of permaculture practice, building his family’s passive solar and mud brick house, creating gardens and re-learning skills for self reliance, including woodworking, metal casting, blacksmithing, tool making and repair and more.

“One of the jobs that I was always given growing up was to double dig the soil in my families market garden every autumn each year. When I learned of permaculture, one of my first thoughts was at least I can get out of all that digging!” said Béla.


In 1991, Béla convened his own permaculture design course, bringing together more than 45 people and in 2010 he completed a two-year full time Permaculture Diploma in Melbourne. In 2013 he enrolled in a Masters in Integrative Ecosocial Design with Gaia University to take his learning to the next level.

During his Masters, Béla’s project work has accelerated. “Without the Gaia University action learning and project-focused model, I wouldn’t have been able to focus on the variety of projects I am engaged with and gain a Masters at the same time.”

Béla is currently searching for a site to build a community demonstration and teaching garden, where people could come to develop their skills and access plants and design support to create their own gardens at home.

Picture of a permablitz at Churinga,
a disability support service.

Béla is also collaborating to start a Community Supported Agriculture project on nine acres of land in Melbourne, to be used as an education space and permaculture social enterprise. This is all at the same time as forming a group to start creating Béla’s dream of living in an ecovillage.

When not gardening, building or crafting, Béla works with adults with multiple disabilities. In his 12 hour shifts he says, “I have tried to bring in more gardening and cooking together at work and the result is that we are all learning more about permaculture ideas and practices.”

Coming from Europe, Béla is passionate about fruit. He is in the process of creating a database of acclimatised non-native fruit in Australia, brought in by Greeks, Italians and others. He is planning to create mother trees which can support cuttings for plants long into the future.

He is also part of the Darebin Fruit Squad, a group of volunteers who harvest excess fruit from households in the Darebin municipality. The fruit is given to food security organisations who distribute it to people who most need it.

Despite all his activity, Béla still feels frustrated with the permaculture movement:

People don’t feel the urgency. Many people are too comfortable in their own lives and permaculture is more a social scene than a movement.

Béla craves action and wants to see permaculture applied across the planet. Doing his MSc was one way he could access that global network of permaculture practitioners, that could support each other in achieving this goal.

In 1998 Béla decided “Permaculture is what I want to do in my life”. 16 years later, he is as committed as ever, with still so much to learn and do.

For more information about Béla Beke’s work visit, his website: Fertile Oasis Original Designs.

A World without Prisons, Red Pepper Magazine

Read my latest article in Red Pepper magazine:

A world without prisons

Inmates in California began a hunger strike in July, sparking renewed debate about the use of solitary confinement in US prisons. Nicole Vosper offers a personal response and a vision for a world beyond bars
September 2013

On 8 July more than 30,000 prisoners refused meals across California state prisons. Twenty days later, 1,000 were still on hunger strike. As of mid-August, at least 200 remained who had fasted since the beginning. One of their main demands is to end long-term solitary confinement, a practice that fundamentally dehumanises people and is proven to irreparably harm an individual’s ability to socialise. Other demands include access to adequate and nutritious food and an end to the use of ‘gang member status’ to control and abuse prisoners.With worldwide media attention, the strike has brought the prison system – by default invisible – to the forefront of people’s awareness. As one prisoner put it, ‘Rot can’t grow where there’s a bright light shining.’However, rot does grow and shadows still stalk a growing prison complex in the UK. On 21 August a BBC news story brought to light the story of a woman who has been in solitary confinement for more than six years at the prison HMP Bronzefield, where I served my three-and-a-half-year sentence from 2009.‘Her prolonged location in the segregation unit amounted to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment,’ said Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, ‘and we use these words advisedly.’

The UK prison system

There are currently 85,690 people in prison in the UK, not including people detained under the Mental Health Act, in secure children’s homes or in immigration detention. The statistics provide a whirlwind introduction to the system. Twenty-seven per cent of the adult prison population has been in care, and almost 40 per cent of prisoners under 21 were in care as children. The great majority suffer from two or more mental health disorders (72 per cent of males and 70 per cent of females). People from minority-ethnic backgrounds are imprisoned at high rates, representing more than a quarter of the prison population nationwide.

The gender breakdown is also striking. The women’s prison population has risen by 33 per cent in the past decade, with two thirds incarcerated for non-violent offences. More than half have suffered domestic violence, and one in three has experienced sexual abuse. Sixty-six per cent have dependent children under 18, leaving an estimated 17,700 children separated from their mothers. Self-harmers in prison are 11 times more likely to be women.

The government’s Safety in Custody Statistics report for January–March 2012 records 211 deaths, 5,611 self-harm incidents and 3,725 assaults in the previous year.

As an ex-prisoner, I’m fully aware that the harm of the prison system isn’t just inside the grey buildings and huge walls. Its web of violent interrelationships entangles prisoners, their families, lovers, friends and communities the world over. It is a sprawling complex of social control, described by organisers in the US as the ‘prison industrial complex’.

The prison industrial complex

The ‘prison industrial complex’ is a term used to describe the overlapping interests of government and industries that use surveillance, policing and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.

In the US there are more than two million people trapped in one of the most ‘advanced’ prison industrial complexes on the planet. It is a system based on racism, repression, capitalism and a model of endless growth. In her book Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Yvonne Davis wrote: ‘The prison has become a black hole in which the detritus of contemporary capitalism is deposited. Mass imprisonment generates profits as it devours social wealth, and thus it tends to reproduce the very conditions that lead people to prison.’

Fighting capitalism’s most obvious effect on the system – privatisation – is rife with challenges: how can we avoid lending legitimacy to public prisons? Yet ‘market’ incentives to cage human beings can be a final reducer of social justice.


The UK’s prison system is already the most privatised in Europe, with private institutions holding 11.6 per cent of all inmates – almost 10,000 people. Research has shown that the overall cost of placing someone in a private prison is higher. Private institutions have also been criticised for cutting corners, failing to retain staff and weakening standards of safety.

Profit is the priority. Multinational companies find a multitude of opportunities to reap financial rewards, from selling electronic tags to actually running prisons. Thousands of prisoners are also employed producing goods for private sector companies through mainly menial labour such as packing headphones and boxes. Investment in rehabilitation, however, runs contrary to business goals.

Immigration law is another major factor. When a population is highly regulated and controlled through special laws, companies face no shortage of inmates. Women from foreign countries are among the fastest growing groups of prisoners, now representing one in seven women incarcerated in England and Wales.

prisons-baldryIllustration: hey monkey riot

Organising for abolition

Resistance to the prison system includes diverse approaches. Some focus on harm intervention, extending education, training and counselling to inmates. Through supporting individuals we can help de-carcerate our communities.

However, without recognising the social and economic drivers of the prison system, our impact will be limited. A number of groups work for reforms, while others articulate demands for abolition.

As an ex-prisoner and an anarchist working to eradicate all forms of domination, I do not want to see prisons reformed. I don’t care for bigger cages for my friends inside. Pushes for reforms have throughout history only maintained these centres of oppression for longer. The historical campaigns for the end of capital punishment changed prisons from holding places before punishment to sites of ongoing punishment. Reforms for differential treatment of women in prison have led to women-only institutions, a new market for the prison industrial complex and the fastest growing prison population in the world.

So I ask that we stop begging for reform and starting fighting for abolition. A barrier we face is that prisons are so ingrained in our psyches that we can’t imagine a world without them. I challenge this poverty of vision and call for us all to explore our own relationship to imprisonment.

Last October I wrote an article, ‘What will it take to heal?’, discussing abolition and permaculture – a movement that uses design to create sustainable human habitats and meet our needs for shelter, energy and culture as ethically as possible. I identified areas of intervention, where active community organising can counter the poverty-to-prison pipeline and build a prison-free society. In this society, we can all have our needs met, and our social and economic systems won’t function to make the rich richer.

Critical Resistance, an organisation dedicated to building a prison abolition movement in the US, recognises that: ‘As a set of political beliefs, prison industrial complex abolition is based in a feeling of what is possible. So, instead of thinking about what we want to destroy, it may be more helpful to think about what we must build to abolish the PIC. Our vision needs to include everyone affected by the PIC, not only the first-time drug offender or the wrongly convicted, but everyone.

‘We need to be able to create environments for ourselves that provide the basic necessities we need to live, such as safe and steady housing; sufficient food; access to medical care; access to information and tools with which to process that information; resources to participate in an economy; a way to express opinions, interests or concerns; freedom from physical and psychological harm (both from individuals and the state). We need to start building those kinds of environments for ourselves as we work to abolish anything. We need healthy environments that don’t depend on punishment and harm to protect the interests of the state and the rich or powerful.’

In the UK we may not yet have an explicit prison abolition movement. However, we do have thousands working for community needs in different ways, and together we can be allies in making the prison system redundant.


While we continue the long-term work of re-designing society, we must still struggle and ally with those inside, to improve their conditions and lives. We can support them to overcome the state-enforced alienation that aims to break them.

The individuals in California who have been refusing food are resisting with the only means they have left. Their bravery moves me to tears, as they now face force-feeding, healthcare abuse and increased punishment.

Friends of mine who have tried to take their own lives in prison have done so through the reality that the ability to live or die is the only agency they have left. When prison systematically dehumanises you, sometimes the only way to remember you are human is to feel the pain of the cut or the ligature around your neck. No doubt the individuals aching from hunger know what defiance lives in their cells and what it really means to be alive.

Nicole Vosper is an anarchist community organiser and permaculture practitioner based in Somerset. She was imprisoned in 2009 for a campaign against an animal testing company. She worked as a Samaritan in prison listening to suicidal women for several hours a week for the duration of her sentence and now continues to support close friends to stay alive in the prison system. She blogs at

Event calls for Education Revolution, Positive News 72

An international conference aiming to promote alternative education will take place in Portland on 1–5 August 2012

“This is the time for an education revolution,” said Jerry Mintz, the founder of the Alternative Education Resource Organisation (AERO), which runs the annual event. UK members of the AERO network include Human Scale Education and Schumacher College.

The conference will create a networking space for teachers, families and students who are engaged in educational approaches varying from home schooling and ‘open syllabus’ higher education to Montessori, Waldorf, virtual, libertarian, independent, co-operative and democratic school models. A common thread to these routes, which the conference will focus on, is the concept of placing learners at the heart of education systems.

In 2011 the conference drew 500 participants. Keynote speakers this year include the internationally recognised leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation, Sir Ken Robinson, and parenting expert Naomi Aldort. The event will host a panel discussion with Occupy Portland and workshops on themes such as how to bring values and community-building into education.

Workshop leader Matt Dale, a high school teacher in California, said: “The revolution cannot exist only in the margins of private alternative education; it must be mainstream.”

Finding local food in Somerset just got easier, Positive News 69

Finding local food in Somerset just got easier

A new website which maps local growing hot spots in Somerset, aims to encourage wider access to sustainable food, free up more land and increase food security

Travel through any part of the UK and it won’t be long before you come across miles of lush, rolling, empty fields. In an age where optimising land to sustain our dietary needs is becoming increasingly important, it is worth considering whether this land is being used to its full potential.

In Somerset, a new regional website has been set up to ensure just that. The FoodMapper site has been created by the charity Somerset Community Food and software developers Geofutures. It’s being used to record and map all allotments and local food spaces in the area, such as community gardens and orchards, as well as listing spaces which have potential for growing food.

All sorts of food-related groups and activities are being charted too, from food cooperatives, farmers’ markets and gardening clubs to growing and plant swapping events.

Demand for land to grow food on currently exceeds supply in many parts of the country. Somerset is no exception, with more than 250 people on waiting lists for allotments in South Somerset alone.

The information gathered on the site will help identify where these people are and is likely to be used to support initiatives to encourage councils and landowners to make more land available.

“The ultimate aim is to use FoodMapper as a strategic planning tool,” says Linda Hull, who created the project. “Everything we need to set up innovative land partnerships, shorten supply chains, increase food production skills and reveal routes to market is possible with FoodMapper.”

The information picked up through the site offers a wealth of potential for those interested in health and sustainability too, from highlighting areas where affordable fresh food is scarce, to identifying sites where food waste might be available for community composting.

Those behind the site believe it will, importantly, help increase food security, and that by highlighting land that can be used for growing food, it could make it more difficult for that land to be bought up for other development in the future.

The public are encouraged to register and record their relevant activities and projects on FoodMapper, which helps even the smallest allotments in remote villages to gain recognition as an important element of food security and sustainability. The map is a patchwork of local knowledge from the ground up.

“FoodMapper will never be static,” says Linda, “We can already see the impact of grassroots efforts to strengthen food security and the growth of a local food culture in Somerset. And now, we effectively have a base map of what is going on around us and when we see the gaps we can take action to fill them in. That’s the beauty of FoodMapper.”

Mark Thurstain-Goodwin, the managing director of Geofutures, who developed the web-mapping platform for the project, adds: “FoodMapper plugs important gaps in the data needed to answer the question, ‘Can Somerset — or any other location — feed itself?’”

The wheels are already in motion to bring more local food to the area, thanks to FoodMapper, and Somerset Community Food has recently organised a conference called Growing Connections to link together those on waiting lists with landowners interested in leasing land.

With its potential to expand the map around the UK, could FoodMapper not only change the local Somerset landscape, but change the face of British landscapes for good?

More Information:

New online network to make permaculture mainstream, Positive News 69

New online network to make permaculture mainstream

A new website is showcasing permaculture projects and practitioners from across the world, in an effort to revolutionise the way permaculture is practiced and bring it into mainstream consciousness.

Permaculture designer, Angelo Eliades in his urban back garden food forest, Melbourne     Photo © Craig Mackintosh

The Worldwide Permaculture Network is an interactive database set up for networking, learning, friendship and inspiration, which has been developed by the Permaculture Research Institute in Australia (PRI).

The website, which has over 1300 designer profiles and hundreds of projects registered so far, is part of the Institute’s ‘permaculture master plan’, to educate the world in permaculture design principles and application. Each project featured is a demonstration of what is possible in different regions and climates, with the website providing the ‘how to’ information behind their experiences in creating sustainable human cultures and healthy landscapes.

“The ideal and ultimate goal is that these projects will self-replicate to the point where they will saturate the global landscape with mutually interdependent and resilient communities of knowledgeable permaculture practitioners,” says Craig Mackintosh, the network’s creator. “The PRI seeks to develop and support the growth of successful, mutually beneficial relationships, both between individuals and communities, and between these and the land at their feet.”

More Information:

Moving towards compassionate agriculture

It’s no secret that vegans care about food. We care about what lives and what dies so we can eat. But how many of us truly know or understand where our food is grown? Extending the compassion we have for animals to the whole food chain is a challenging but important next step in the vegan journey. Why?

For starters, it is almost guaranteed that many of the diverse vegetables you relish are grown industrially, with fertility dependent on animals in the form of animal manures or blood and bone fertilisers, even in organic systems. Whoa, wait a second…

What is industrial agriculture?

Industrial agriculture is a way of farming based on industrial production. Living systems are derided to inputs and outputs, fertility and pests are controlled through chemicals that are animal tested, harmful to wildlife, cause pollution and erode our soils. Deforestation, displacement and social injustice, climate change, land degradation and biodiversity losses worldwide are all attributed to this model of agriculture. So, how do we change it?

Moving towards a compassionate agriculture 

Extending our awareness to the food system as a whole, vegans can take action to support locally grown, organic food that is the sustainable and socially just alternative to industrial agriculture. Local food and small farmer movements are growing around the world, and it is time that more vegans got involved and pushed for a compassionate agriculture without the use of animals.

What you can do:

If you are lucky enough to live near a vegan-organic farm then sourcing your vegetables from it is a sure-fire way of knowing you are not supporting animal cruelty in any way. Veganic farmers will always need supporters and a market for their produce.

Growing your own food is fantastic – it is empowering, saves money and helps you reconnect with nature on a day-to-day basis. Yet not many of us have acres and acres to be self-reliant upon, which is why we need to come together to challenge the food system.

Organizations such as the Vegan Organic Network in the UK and the Veganic Agriculture Network are making headway in promoting vegan organic growing methods, certifying farmers and helping those with conversion, as well as generally providing evidence that we can feed ourselves without being dependent on animal farming. Veganic growing isn’t just about avoiding animal fertility, it is about working with nature, supporting wildlife and ensuring healthy ecosystems for us all to live in.

Find out more about veganic gardening at or

Guest Contributor Nicole Vosper is a passionate veganic grower based in the UK who is active with the Vegan Organic Network and movements for food sovereignty. Her blog can be found at: .

This article was originally published at Vegan Mainstream.

Cultivating the revolution, Positive News 70


Nicole Vosper uncovers the gentle rebel inside permaculture practitioner, designer and teacher, Graham Burnett…

Poking about in ants’ nests as a child and looking under old logs to find toads and newts with his grandad, Graham Burnett’s interest in ecology was seeded at an early age. But it was discovering permaculture that really changed the way he looked at the world.

“For me, permaculture was a big switch in thinking that enabled me to work towards, rather than against something,” says Graham, an Essex lad who spent his early days in protest and campaigning activities through the punk movement.

“Paradoxically, it seems that the more we focus our positive energies and time on the things in our lives that we can affect directly, rather than on those where we can make no real difference, the greater and wider our circles of influence actually become, expanding outwards and creating opportunities to make even bigger changes.”

Graham now runs Spiralseed, an enterprise through which he publishes books – including his illustrated, Permaculture, a Beginners Guide – and leads courses teaching others the principles and pleasures of ecological systems. Also a trustee of the Permaculture Association, key to Graham’s approach is the importance he places on people working together.

“Permaculture is all about undertstanding the ‘edges’ where ecosystems meet – where woodland meets grassland or where the water meets the land. These are the places that are the most abundant and productive,” he says.

“But perhaps the most valuable ‘edge’ of all is the synergy that happens when people come together, combining and sharing our skills, knowledge, energy and strength to give support to each other in these times of ecological and social difficulty.”

Graham is currently working with Southend in Transition, helping the group to apply permaculture principles to strengthen their efforts to develop an ‘energy descent action plan’ in order to survive and thrive in response to the challenges of climate change and shrinking supplies of cheap energy.

He is also helping local organisation Milton Community Partnership to put on forest gardening and permaculture workshops. The group has recently launched Nurturing Health, a project that is making fruit trees and bushes available to local schools, as well as providing basic training in food-growing skills to local people.

Graham believes that work such as this addresses what he sees as the biggest challenge we face: how to learn to work together effectively to build real communities.

“Permaculture is as much about conflict resolution and consensus as it is about sheet mulching or making swales. Anybody can design a herb spiral or a forest garden, but the vital work at this moment in time is in finding the ways to collectively design and maintain the social networks that will help us to live abundantly yet within our resources.”

To this end, Graham likes to describe permaculture as “creating sustainable human habitats by following nature’s patterns.” He sees his work as part of a worldwide movement that encompasses all aspects of learning to live harmoniously in relation to our Earth and its finite resources.

But when asked to name his favourite permaculture definition, Graham smiles and replies: “Revolution disguised as organic gardening.”

Making the connection, Column in Positive News 69


Connecting with people and connecting with plants; Nicole Vosper finds the balance

In my first column in the spring, I wrote that the essence of permaculture design is in beneficial relationships – creating situations where components of a system, be they bees or trees, can support each other to survive and thrive. This summer I’ve also realised the benefits of designing for social relationships, where we can support each other as people.

In July I attended the London Permaculture Festival, a celebration of permaculture in all its forms across the city and beyond. There were stalls, talks and workshops, as well as music and kids’ activities. The highlight of my day was winning the rude vegetable making competition. Let’s hope my future reputation as a designer isn’t overshadowed by collective memories of the potato vagina!

On a serious note however, I realised that what I took most from the day was not the array of leaflets or knowledge gained from workshops, but the connections I made. It was great to finally meet people in my age group with similar plant-geek tendencies and to hear how others are doing on their Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design Pathways.

One student I recently met told me that he now spends more time at the community garden he started than on his own patch. He realised it’s because it’s more fun and it performs a social function. People need people and if we understand this then our gardens can benefit too.

With this learning gained, now that I’m starting to design our smallholding for the coming years ahead, I won’t just be focusing on composting and canopies – it’s how to make our land a community resource that is the next question for my family. We are thinking about how we can provide a space for learning, growing and reconnecting with the land.

However, with all this socialising going on, let’s just say the vegetable garden has had a little less attention than normal. What’s lovely about it though is that it’s still abundant and productive. We have had peas, beans, potatoes, all manner of salads and more coming out of our ears. Which brings me to my favourite permaculture principle – minimum effort for maximum effect. This means investing in activities that will bring the greatest yields with the least amount of work. So I could have spent hours and hours weeding but how much will it really affect the amount of crop harvested? Is there a halfway point where just a little effort goes a long way?

The beauty of high-yielding, low energy systems is that with intelligent design you don’t have to spend hours on back-breaking double digging or endless weeding. Of course there’s always something to be done in the garden, but you realise that when you’re busy growing the equally important social side of your life, the garden is pretty much taking care of herself. Now you can’t complain about that.