Practising permaculture in Sumatra: Regenerative patchouli oil

Carrying a wave of nostalgia, the distinctive and earthy aroma of patchouli is used widely in perfumery and aromatherapy, and you can find it in some of Lush’s most loved products.

We source our patchouli from Indonesia (Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi), but the Leuser Ecosystem area in Sumatra is under serious threat. This area is the only place in the world where certain endangered species all live together, including tigers, elephants, rhinos and orangutans - and we are in danger of losing this natural diversity.

Gayo Lues is one of the main essential oil growing districts in Indonesia, and it’s where we source our Sumatran patchouli oil. The agricultural processes here, however, are historically damaging on the land, the community and the natural diversity of the Sumatran rainforest. Farmers clear new sections of the natural parks each season through slash and burn techniques, which can spread into further protected forests and endanger the wildlife. This destructive loss of habitat, in turn, cuts off wildlife corridors, making it harder for animals to move around without passing through farming land. It also leaves protected species such as elephants and orangutans more susceptible to poaching.

Ensuring our Sumatran patchouli oil is sourced as responsibly, directly and regeneratively as possible, our buying team have been working on the ground in Sumatra over the past decade with the Orangutan Information Center (OIC) - one of Lush’s sister charities. Gayo Lues Permaculture Centre (GPC) was opened in 2015 as a joint venture between OIC and Lush to see permaculture practices aid the regeneration of damaged land and provide various training programmes on responsible and sustainable farming.

Situated amongst the 40-degree hillsides in North Sumatra, the steep and sloping environment does little to help the regeneration of farmers’ land. Landslides are a constant threat, and the nutritious topsoil can slip away at any point. This leaves the ground infertile, and farmers often move on to find a new crop of land to grow on, often and unfortunately within the protected forests.

The GPC demonstrates how permaculture can maintain the fertility of this ground. Head of the centre Sabar explains: “The crops are usually planted in formation. This allows for water to be retained around the roots of the plants.” The land, therefore, stays nutritious and can be reused over and over again. The introduction of nurseries to house the crops is also taking the pressure off the steep land, and allows for a more stable growing environment.

Sabar himself is no stranger to permaculture and an experienced leader in the craft. His regenerative journey began at the age of 12, where he was adopted into a permaculture centre in Bali after the loss of his family in the Sumatra tsunami. Clearly finding his passion, he became their lead consultant by his early 20s. It was at this time, the buying team reached out to the organisation to help work with the local communities in the Sumatran district of Gayo Lues. After finding love at the OIC, Sabar decided to return to his home country, and lead the training for more sustainable agriculture.

As the demand grows for essential oils, the land needed for crops continues to grow. The patchouli bushes currently span across several acres of land, and there are no signs of its popularity slowing down. The challenge is then presented to the GPC, and the farmers in Sumatra, on continuing to grow their produce in a regenerative way, whilst maintaining a steady income. GPC help to train and build capacity for the patchouli farmers in order for regenerative practices to take place, and for a higher quality of oil to be produced. When Lush purchase this oil from the GPC a portion of the funds go towards the running and maintenance of the centre, allowing the training to continue and develop. The rest of these funds go directly to the farmers themselves.

Not only does this aid the income for the farmers and producers within Sumatra, it also does so in a sustainable fashion. Many of the farmers in the area now use an essential oil distiller powered by a small hydroelectric dam running from a nearby river. This means that the power-demanding process of distillation, that usually takes place by burning wood in stills around the forests, is completely generated by renewable energy - the first of its kind that Lush has seen. By processing these oils, and selling these materials, the funds are raised to continue the demonstration and education of permaculture.

Since Lush’s partnership with OIC started a decade ago, together we have created a flourishing state of permaculture for farmers in Sumatra, and continue to expand these regenerative practices. We now buy our patchouli from six different villages across the region in a sustainable fashion. But the work is far from over, and the natural diversity in Sumatra is still under threat. Through the GPC’s continues efforts, we hope to inspire future generations and farmers - by reconnecting the district to restoration of the land, we can reconnect them to its importance

Words by Lauren Collins

If you want to explore more and help keep yourself grounded, our new Lord of Misrule Range is patchouli-a-plenty.

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