Update 2019-09-23: I updated the link to Tazia Gaisford’s thesis, using the handle.net link listed on its page on the Victoria University digital repository. The handle.net permanent links appears to be a similar system to the DOI (Document Object Identifier) system at doi.org, which is more commonly used by scholarly publishers (as far as I’ve seen so far).

—————————-

A friend recently send me a link to a Huff Post article entitled ‘How to Decolonize the Permaculture Movement‘ by Tobias Roberts, who was born in the USA, but now lives on the land in the Central American country of El Salvador, with his Salvadoran wife.

I want to clarify that this article frustrates me immensely, not because the author is playing the wrong tune, but because he hits all the wrong notes. I agree that any movement emerging from a colonial society like Australia, and spreading to colonial societies like the USA and New Zealand, does need to periodically check itself for Eurocentric assumptions, and make a real effort to address them. Permaculture may have emerged as a radical rejection of “conventional” agriculture, and the ecocidal colonization culture it is part of, but that doesn’t automatically prevent colonialist assumptions from creeping into it over time. But Tobias doesn’t address what I consider the real priorities of decolonization, which revolve around figuring out how to support the regeneration of the indigenous cultures in the countries we live in, and assimilate ourselves into their system of ethics and principles, as discussed by Ani Mikaere (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Porou) in her 2014  Bruce Jesson Memorial Lecture. Instead, his article sets up a series of boringly common misconceptions about what permaculture is, and uses them to support a line of strawmen

Strawman #1: Permaculture is a network of patronising educational charities whose goal is to change the practice of small farmers in the Global South. “The solution, however, is not to criticize these farmers, but rather to humbly seek to understand their situation.”

The main focus of permaculture education, as I understand it, is to shift the practices of folks in the Global North, so our appallingly ignorant resource use and pollution doesn’t wreck the biosphere. This benefits everyone, including indigenous communities, and the small farmers who actually feed the majority of the world’s people. It does extend to standing up to the corporate food supply chains that want to own and control every bit of land, labour, and income involved in farming, especially when they attack the traditional and novel organic practices involved in subsistence living and small farming in the Global South as “inefficient”. If this is interpreted as criticism of those who have bought into (or more usually been forced to accept) the “green revolution” snake oil sold by agents of the corporate supply chains, it’s probably because the astroturf groups who apologize for those supply chains spin it that way. I’ve seen a lot of vitriol directed at investor-driven “agribusiness” in the North, like the intensive diary farming ruining water quality in Aotearoa, but never at people on the land in the South.

Strawman #2: “Don’t Make Permaculture Courses Your Primary Source of Income”

I don’t think Tobias has ever run a PDC, or even run the numbers before making this criticism. Most of the money paid by students for a residential PDC goes into covering the direct costs of running them, including three healthy meals a day for each student (”beans and tortillas” are no cheaper than hummus when they’re both made on-site), and maybe subsidizing some of the outgoings of the properties that host them. Very little is left over to actually pay the teachers, who work fulltime for 21 days. Permaculturists I know make a living from a wide range of marginal income sources, including selling surplus produce, designing and consulting, running landscaping and garden maintenance services, writing books, and so on, as well as doing everything they can to reduce their cash costs by applying permaculture design to their own homes and gardens.

Strawman #3: People using and sharing regenerative land-use techniques that may resemble or have been inspired by traditional sustainable practices is “appropriation of knowledge… 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.”

No. It’s not, and I’m getting thoroughly sick of people lazily claiming that it is. Anthropologists like Michael F. Brown, author of the book ‘Who Owns Native Culture‘ would beg to differ.

According to the online edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, ‘Appropriation’ (in the sense of “cultural appropriation”), means to “take exclusive possession of” or to “annex”, or to some degree, to “to take or make use of without authority or right”. People running their own experiments with techniques for growing food (or anything else), and freely sharing their results, is not taking exclusive possession, quite the opposite (especially when those results are shared under a free culture license like CreativeCommons). It’s not appropriation, it’s citizen science. As for “authority or right”, if we all have to wait for planning permission from the appropriately mandated cultural property bureaucrats before making any transition towards more regenerative practices in our own backyards, we’re really screwed.



Strawman #4: Permaculture = food forests, but we have to “avoid the tendency to offer those systems as the “only” way to grow food in an ecological and sustainable manner”

Permaculture is a design system by which humans can become good stewards of regenerated ecosystems. Permaculture design can be applied to any scale from a verandah to a sheep station, and to producing any kind of crop or product. Food forests are a good technique for some bioregions, like most of Aotearoa, where the land naturally wants to be rainforest and we waste a lot of energy knocking it back into unsustainable grasslands. It’s good for Zone 3 and Zone 4 areas where you want to get something started and not have to manage it too intensively. But Fukuoka’s ‘One Straw Revolution’ has been a mainstay in permie bookshelves for decades, and permaculture design is just as applicable to regenerative grain and grazing systems (for example using mixed herbal ley), as in the broadacre permaculture work of Darren Doherty.

Strawman #5: A PDC is the only way permaculture design is taught, and is seen as the only correct way to do so, “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.”

A lot of the people attracted to permaculture are the same people turned off by the eurocentric “Education(TM)” system, and a lot of the ‘teaching’ the movement does is through site visits and permablitzes, where people learn by observing and doing, and conversing about what they’ve seen and done, not by listening to lectures. People can read about permaculture for free on the internet, or in public libraries (or using the free internet in public libraries). If they can learn to apply permaculture design by reading books and websites and trying stuff out at home, or by going WWOOFing on permaculture properties, that’s great! Permaculture is a design system we practice and share, not a commodity we sell.

For some people, attending a PDC gives them hands-on experience, supported by people who’ve learned from years of their own mistakes, and can therefore help their students understand their own mistakes more quickly. But the main purpose of running a PDC is to teach people how to design for their actual circumstances, as opposed to just blindly slapping together a patchwork of techniques they’ve seen elsewhere, with no idea how they’re supposed to work or fit together into a functional system. Ultimately, running PDC courses is a means to an end, which is to increase the number of people confidently applying ecological principles and regenerative techniques to the way we manage resources and provide for our needs. 

The PDC was created at a time when access to any advanced practical knowledge in the Global North depended on access to a multi-year course in a university or polytechnic. The PDC model was designed to provide a thorough grounding in the application of permaculture ethics and principles to a wide range of practical needs, in a short amount of time, at an entry cost that remains a fraction of many tertiary courses of much lower value to the student and the biosphere. The idea that anyone who completes a PDC is qualified to teach a PDC was, and is, a radically democratizing approach to education, and has resulted in PDC courses taught in a huge variety of locally customized ways.

I do feel obliged to admit that while I’m intimately familiar with the permaculture movement in Aotearoa, I have only a vague idea what it’s like elsewhere. Perhaps on Turtle Island (North America) there is a permaculture movement that matches Tobias’ descriptions, one that uses permaculture as a marketing pitch for expensive lifestyle commodities, as he claims in an earlier article, and one that I would be as disgusted by as he is. Perhaps, but since he never gives any specific examples of the claims he makes, I suspect he and his informants have simply mistaken greenwashing for permaculture. I suggest having a skim through Tazia Gaisford’s thesis on permaculture and anarchism as an alternative to “development” for another perspective.

Filed April 25th, 2017 under transition initiatives

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