How to Decolonise the Permaculture Movement
By Tobias Roberts
Published in Huffington Post 31/1/2017
About a year ago, I posted an article in the Huffington Post detailing some of the reasons why I thought permaculture had become a “gringo” movement irrelevant to the majority of small farmers around the world.
There were a number of reactions, both positive and negative, but I was frustrated that very few people actually offered some sort of solution or proposal for how to “un-gringo” a movement and ideology that we find hope in.
After a good deal of reflection, I want to focus now on how to rescue the permaculture movement; how to save it from some of its most disturbing and troubling tendencies. I believe that permaculture does have a lot to offer to peasant and agrarian communities around the world, so I humbly offer these ideas and suggestions not as a judgement; but rather in the hopes that permaculture can become relevant and practically applicable to the majority of small farmers around the world.
Stop Buying Land in Shangri-La Areas Around the World
We need to understand the effects of our privilege. As a foreigner (most likely white and male, because that is the predominant demographic of the permaculture movement) we are inevitably going to change the dynamics of small, rural communities where we take up residence.
While there can be positive effects through bringing new knowledge and ideas into a community, there can (and often are) unseen and ignored negative effects. When wealthy foreigners buy up land in rural, agrarian areas, this inevitably leads to gentrification. The spike in land prices forces young people off of the land and causes migration.
I don´t excuse myself from this reality. As a white, North American male, my family and I bought a farm in the mountains of El Salvador that was the inheritance of a young man who was no longer interested in farming. With the money we paid him, he paid a human trafficker to try and make it to the United States and has failed twice. If he tries to go again, he´ll have to deal with a ridiculous wall, increased border militarization, and a racist president.
My only excuse is that I fell in love with a Salvadoran woman who invited me to be a part of her reality. If you do end up purchasing land in some hidden, agrarian community, make an effort to truly belong there. If you´re just buying a piece of land to have it as a vacation home and a place to host a couple permaculture workshops during the year, you´re probably causing much more harm than good.
Also, if you are interested in permaculture and are looking for land to create a vision of your own, why not look at land in rural Kentucky instead of Costa Rica? Not only is land in many rural areas of the U.S. cheaper, but there is also an urgent need to repopulate rural areas and increase the “eyes-to-acre” ratio that is necessary for proper land management and ecological care.
Don’t Make Permaculture Courses Your Primary Source of Income
I understand that a number of people in the developed world have the extra income to spend on a $2,000-dollar permaculture course. If they’ve got the money, why shouldn´t they pay?
The problem is that if you derive the majority of your income from offering permaculture courses, you´re automatically divorcing yourself from the reality of your neighbors who make their living from the land. You can´t claim to offer a viable economic alternative (no matter how ecological it may be) to your under privileged neighbors who see that your income comes from hosting wealthy North Americans.
What if we were to use that money to re-distribute economic opportunities to our neighbors? We need to be honest and admit that establishing an economically viable permaculture system takes time and money. I´m not saying that we should stop offering courses all together, but rather reconsider how to invest that money into the dreams and visions of neighbor farmers who don’t have the same economic potential as do we.
After all, isn´t that what the third ethic of permaculture is all about: redistributing surplus so that others can enjoy the long-term abundance that comes from ecological design?
Stop Appropriating Knowledge
There is nothing that angers me more than watching permaculture videos on YouTube where some permaculture expert claims to have “developed” or “invented” some revolutionary technique to help preserve soil, store water, or save the environment.
For example, recently I watched a video of a permaculture farmer who claims to have developed a technique to slow erosion through making banana leaf boomerang barriers on the slope beneath where he planted some fruit trees. The idea is no doubt a good one; but it´s far from a unique development. I personally have seen dozens of small farmers throughout Central America do the exact same thing. Of course, they don’t have access to a camera and the internet to show the world their invention.
To put it bluntly, this is appropriation of knowledge, and it´s the same thing that mega- pharmaceutical companies and agricultural corporations have been doing for years through the patenting of medicines and seeds that have been stolen from the shared ecological wisdom of indigenous and peasant cultures throughout the world.
Be humble, and recognize that while permaculture may very well have a number of unique skills to offer, many of these skills and techniques have been around for hundreds of years.
Stop Demonizing Small Peasants
There are a number of very serious problems with how many small farmers in Central America and other parts of the world farm their lands. The effects of the Green Revolution on small farmers around the world have led to an almost complete loss of traditional farming knowledge in some rural communities
The excessive use of pesticides and herbicides, burning crop residues, tilling hillsides, and other examples of ecologically damaging farming practices are obviously unsustainable, unhealthy, and damaging to the environment. The solution, however, is not to criticize these farmers, but rather to humbly seek to understand their situation.
If you had an acre of land and 6 children to feed, would you prioritize permaculture farming solutions that might offer abundance a decade from now or would you continue to follow the well-trodden path that while unsustainable, does offer subsistence and income?
Instead of criticizing small farmers who adopt unsustainable farming practices, it would be much more valuable to look at the sociological and systemic factors that lead to this adoption. Permaculture has not had much of a voice for advocacy, but it would be heartening to see permaculture “experts” around the world offer their voices to fight against unfair distribution of land instead of simply blaming small farmers for their “ignorance.”
Start Farming Grains
I understand that annual grain farming does come with a number of difficulties. The annual tillage of the land and the monocultures of one crop obviously present an ecological challenge. But you know what, agrarian communities around the world subsist on the farming of annual grains and that is not going to change. Even if you stoutly believe in developing a “food forest” or “stacked polycultures” of tree and perennial crops, dedicate at least a portion of your land to developing more ecological solutions for annual grain crops.
It takes years for a perennial food system to develop enough to offer any sort of subsistence or income, and almost no small farmer around the world has enough savings or alternative sources of income to wait around for their system to develop into the marvelous and awe-inspiring productive systems that you see on a 20-year-old permaculture farm
I´m not saying that we should throw out the idea of food forests or perennial crops, but avoid the tendency to offer those systems as the “only” way to grow food in an ecological and sustainable manner. When you show off your acres and acres of food forest to a small farmer in Central America, chances are that he or she might find it interesting but have little incentive to try and reproduce what you have created.
If, however, you had a diversified landscape with an acre of food forest, an acre of pasture, and an acre of annual crops, there is a far better chance that your neighbors will find interest in what you´re developing.
Despite the challenges, it is possible to grow grains in a sustainable, ecological fashion. Susana Lein of Salamander Springs Farm in rural Kentucky lived and worked in Guatemala for close to a decade. When she moved to her own farm in Kentucky, she started a no-till Fukuoka method of annual grain production that was adapted to the traditional corn and bean diet of Central American farmers. If she can do that in Kentucky, why aren´t more permaculturists doing the same in Central America, or experimenting with no-till rice harvests in Asia.
Be Aware of Alternative Epistemologies
The bread and butter of the permaculture movement is the PDC, or permaculture design course. The two-week curriculum has been offered by thousands of teachers in every part of the world and has been adapted to the specific and particular contexts of small farmers everywhere.
Many of the folks who critiqued my first article argued that they offered free PDC´s to their neighbor farmers. While I find that commendable, I think it´s also important to recognize that many rural, peasant and indigenous communities don’t learn the same us westerners do.
The pedagogy of a course with Power Point presentations, lectures and “visits” to the field might actually be so foreign to a small Guatemalan farmer that he or she might get nothing out of it. The Brazilian professor Boaventura Sousa Santos talks of the idea of epistemicide, the elimination of alternative forms of knowing through the colonization that comes through western academia and forms of learning.
An NGO that I worked with in Guatemala found that the best way to “teach” small Guatemalan farmers had nothing to do with courses, workshops, agricultural schools, or the like. Rather, they simply brought small farmers from neighboring communities together to tour the farms and lands that each one worked.
While one corn field may appear just like every other corn field to the untrained eye, these visits allowed for small farmers to learn of small variations in growing techniques, in seed saving, in the combination of companion plants, in soil preservation that many “experts” might never have noticed. At the same time, it allowed for small farmers to take pride in what they were doing which is so often criticized or ignored
Perhaps the famous PDC needs to be laid to rest and other, more appropriate pedagogies developed if permaculture is going to find relevance with small farmers around the world
I truly hope that this article doesn’t come across as a futile and derisive attack on permaculture practitioners around the world. I do honestly believe (and hope) that permaculture has a lot to offer the world. We need to recognize, however, that what´s most important isn´t the content or subject in itself, but rather how it is presented with respect for the local autonomy of the placed agrarian communities around the world.