"Permaculture? Just another Vacation in Paradise?” Article by Tobias Roberts plus Interview with Tobias and Willi Paul, Planetshifter.com
“Hello, I am in the beginning of forming an intentional permaculture community. I am looking for like -minded people to meet with, and interview. Right now, I need a tech savvy individual to initiate a plan, to acquire funding, and/or investors, via members or anyone who wants to help society flourish once again. Begin small, teach and inspire. We will break away from the slave society. We will be learning who or soul's archetype truly is. I do not want agendas except for freeing ourselves from social programming, and creating a fully self-sustainable, yet modern community. Geodesic dome homes, earth ships and micro homes will be encouraged. There is another way of life that has been forgotten in the last 150 years. The latter is what is not natural. Solar and wind turbines will power us. Hydro and aquaponics, and usage of grey water for gardens. I have a greenhouse system that can grow year-round when in place. You would have a permanent home with carrying people around sharing in a goal... Freedom! ... Peace! Being in control of your life in every way posable. Let's return to nature and living how the creator intended. I have studied for 15 years to prepare for this. I can build anything and have experience starting and leading large projects, and this will be the biggest we will take on, but the rewards spill over in to all aspects of life..." No longer survive, together we will thrive!" Life should be fun! The community will be in southern Missouri. We will be family friendly. If this sounds good to you, weather you want to be a potential founding member, or you are the tech savvy member I am looking for in the add posting. Just email me, and we will talk about the vision further. Thank you. Chad 32. All religions are welcome! All diets are welcome.”
- Forming a intentional permaculture community – Craigslist Ad
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Huffington Post Article by Tobias -
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.
Interview with Tobias and Willi -
How many permaculturists think of this work as a movement? How else to think about it?!
I´d say that it is definitely a minority who think of permaculture as a movement. I think there is a strong tendency, especially among North American permaculturists to think of permaculture as a healthier way to live for themselves; a way to "do their part" so to say. This, I think, stems from the deep-seated individualism that is so prevalent in capitalist/consumer societies. Though many people may feel that there is some sort of connection with others who also practice permaculture, a movement, by definition, requires some sort of shared purpose, shared vision, and the like.
It gets frustrating to me to see so few permaculturists who are out address any sort of communal, or collective, or society wide action. For example, in almost all of the permaculture literature out there you´d be hard-pressed to find any sort of mention on how to govern the commons in an ecologically and socially just manner.
Instead of focusing on the commons or any sort of collective space, a number of permaculturists simply "bunker" down and embrace this "enlightened versus savage" myth where they feel that they´re living rightly and doing their part, and damned be the rest of us if we can´t follow their lead.
On top of that, there is a pretty serious deficiency in the permaculture movement when it comes to political advocacy or action or whatever you want to call it. The one exception that I know of is IMAP, in Guatemala, which is an institute based out of Guatemala that is politically involved in fighting for food sovereignty on a national level. I´m sure there are others, but the fact that so many people don´t consider permaculture a movement obviously contributes to this lack of political involvement.
How many permaculturists consider peasant and agrarian communities around the world?
I think there is a huge difference between permaculturists in their "home" countries, and those of us who have decided to move abroad and buy land in places where peasant and agrarian communities are very much a reality. I live in Central America, and it fascinates me how some permaculture experts can buy up a farm in some luxurious place, live there a decade, and still have an abysmal understanding of how their neighbors actually live. I suppose the same could be said of a Californian permaculturist who finds cheap land in Kentucky and buys up a piece of land surrounded by tobacco farmers.
What´s worse, of course, is when these types of permaculturists don´t only ignore the reality of their neighbors but blindly criticize it. I´m not going to lie, I dislike when my neighbors spray their peach orchards with huge amounts of toxic chemicals that get blown on to my land. I think it´s a bad practice, harmful to both them and their land. But I also understand that their subsistence and meager income depends on a bountiful peach harvest each year. They´ve been taught that chemicals will give them that, and despite the harm, it has proven to be economically viable, at least in the short term.
So instead of criticizing the ignorance of my farmer neighbors for their dependence on the agro-chemcial industry, I think we must start from a place of humility and understanding. That having been said, my family and I have been dedicated to growing our peaches organically, and without any sort of preaching or offering a PDC course, our neighbors have noticed that their predictions of us completely losing our harvest were wrong.
At the same time, I think that all peasant and agrarian communities around the world do maintain treasures of wisdom that need to be unearthed and brought to light. I lived for five years among the Mayan Ixil people of Guatemala, and there the ancestral agrarian traditions were still very much intact. Here in El Salvador, where indigenous identity has been wiped out through years of genocide, it is harder to find those reserves of traditional wisdom and practice...but they are there. I think it would be wise of permaculturists everywhere to look for those wise old farmers and seek to learn from them...even if some of their tidbits of wisdom seemingly contrast with some tenant of permaculture. After all, permaculture has been around for a few decades while these guys and girls have been farming for close to 9 decades.
Are individual and group spirituality finally deemed acceptable by the long-time anti-religion leaders in permaculture?
I would hope so. I grew up in rural Kentucky where Bible Belt Christianity was the norm. But among a number of my tobacco-growing neighbors, there was a sort of mystical connection to the land that grew out of their closeness and proximity to the land. While that connection was obviously framed in a very conservative sort of Christian theology, it was real and sincere.
In Central America I´ve run across permaculture practitioners who bring Yoga, meditation, eastern religions, native spiritual traditions, and everything in between on to their farms, and that works for them. Obviously, among the Mayan Ixil people, their whole cosmic vision was framed around a connection to the land and territory. I´m reminded of the quote of Masanobu Fukuoka: "The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings."
I think that whatever spiritual tradition helps you along that path...then by all means have at it.
How do you see the intersection of transition and permaculture now?
I understand that the transition movement is about re-locating our lives and livelihoods to the specific places where we are. Call it bio-regionalism, or whatever, but I think it´s about learning to respect the limits and boundaries of place...and also find joy and happiness and fulfillment in those boundaries. Unfortunately, our western concept of limits is almost exclusively negative, when I think that abiding by limits can bring about a greater sense of belonging, and thus contentment.
Permaculture, I think, can offer us very real and tangible tools to belong bio-regionally to our places. I know that permaculturists don´t like to be considered as nothing more than a toolbox, but I think that even people who find their ideological, political, or spiritual home elsewhere can utilize some of the tools of permaculture to find a better way to belong responsibly to their places. Permaculture´s focus on design and observation is, I think, one of the most important aspects in discovering what any certain place will and will not permit or allow.
Is permaculture a middle class white man's game?
I mean, if we just look at the demographics of permaculture and are honest with ourselves, then I think we have to say yes. The vast majority of permaculture teachers are white, wealthy males of economic privilege. There absolutely needs to be more diversity in the leadership of permaculture and I think that begins with white men stepping aside and lowering their voices.
At the same time, it worries me that because of the fact that so many permaculture leaders are white, middle-class men, their particular epistemology is shading out other possibilities within the permaculture movement. In my context, I think that a lot of permaculture experts simply aren´t able to see the vast stores of wisdom in traditional cultures. I recently visited a small piece of land that an urban permaculturist had in downtown Bogota, Colombia. In his garden were dozens of diverse flowers and herbs and vegetables, but they were all the different types of plants that you read about in the North American printed permaculture books. He didn´t have one quinoa plant which grows almost like wild throughout South America, nor any other type of traditional seed.
That might be an exaggerated example, but I think that the permaculture movement stands to gain A LOT by offering more leadership space for women, indigenous cultures, small peasants, minorities, etc.
Is there a "House Hunters International" theme in how we look at permaculture land acquisition and lifestyle?
Yeah, in the worst examples, that´s obviously true. I see a lot of wealthy folks from North America who buy up land in beautiful places around Central America and then throw the world permaculture in there, perhaps to help justify their land acquisition. And it´s always interesting to me why the model permaculture farms are always in beautiful places. Very rarely do you see a permaculture farm located in some arid, degraded, eroded landscape; and that´s where their inspiration would be most needed.
Sometimes I fear that permaculture is turning into nothing more than an elaborate landscaping movement. I´ve taken groups of young Central American farmers to tour different permaculture farms, and their reaction is usually something like: "No, it´s pretty and all, but what do they grow for food?" or "What do they live on?" When model permaculture farms aren´t as productive as a typical corn and bean field, then small farmers are not going to see it as a viable alternative, but rather as another luxurious landscaping alternative that wealthy people do.
In my recent article, that´s why I criticized the fact that so many permaculturists don´t grow annual grains. There are undoubtedly ecological issues involved with the growing of grains and legumes and the like, but when you dedicate huge amounts of land to developing a food forest or stacked polycultures of perennial crops or whatever you want to call it, a small farmer is going to think: "What am I going to do to make a living for the 10 years while the trees start to grow and produce?"
Permaculture practitioners need to find a balance between sharing in the reality of their neighbors and offering practical alternatives that can allow that reality to be transformed. To do that respectfully, you have to be a part of a community and understand its reality, and so many permaculture farmers fail right there from the outset.
Too many teachers, not enough food? Right?
Yeah, it is obviously a problem when so many of the leading permaculture farmers say that "knowledge" is their main cash crop from their farm. I think that you can´t claim to be an offering a true alternative if you´re making your living from offering courses. I worked in the non-profit sector in Central America for 10 years but ultimately walked away because I couldn´t stand the hypocrisy of us "development experts" (I say that mockingly.)
We would go into a community, "study" it, come up with a diagnostic of what is wrong, and then tell the people what they needed to do to fix their community. Obviously, there are examples of development programs that are less "damaging" than others, but I could never get over the basic fact that we were offering alternatives to a community that we ourselves didn´t implement or put into practice. We could tell a small community to come together to build a root cellar to save their potato harvest for longer periods of time so as to get a price at the market, but then we went home, opened our refrigerators, and bought potatoes at the supermarket. It really is ridiculous if you step away and view that reality from a distance.
Well the same thing happens with permaculture. A lot of experts tell small farmers to quit using Round Up Ready or stop growing annual grains, or plant a food forest, but their livelihood doesn´t come from what they grow. If I was a small, subsistence farmer, I´d tell them: "I tell you what, I´ll do everything you ask of me if you promise to also bring just one group each year to my farm and give me just a portion of the $2,000-dollar course fee that they pay."
And then there is the issue of work. A lot of permaculture experts simply have no idea that growing a good amount of food is a hell of a lot of work. I always say that you can tell a good permaculturist from a false one by seeing whether or not he or she has "computer hands" or "farm hands."
If you spend more time researching plant databases for the best adapted plant for a certain region than using your back to clear a plot of land to actually grow something...well there is a problem, there.
Who is teaching us about the many sociological and systemic factors that lead to unsustainable farming practices?
I´ve been kind of negative throughout this interview, so I want to end by saying that there are a lot of folks out there who are doing great work; people who identify with the permaculture movement and who are also dedicated to being a part of the communities where they live. But at the same time, I think that we urgently need to draw attention to those voices that remain unheard of.
So, I would say that, in my own case, the most valuable things I have learned about ecological farming methods have come from folks like "Pap Xhun", a Mayan spiritual guide and farmer in the small town of Nebaj where I lived, or from Doña Amelia, the 85-year-old woman neighbor of mine who wakes up every morning at dawn to dig in her vegetable beds. I would hope that everyone would try and find their own Pap Xhuns and Doña Amelias out there to be their own guides.
From a more academic standpoint, which I think is what you question was getting at, I personally have learned so much from agrarian writers like Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Eric Freyfogle, Norman Wirzba and the like. The perspective of these agrarian writers is unique, I think, because most of them grew up in rural, agrarian communities and have watched these communities effectively die out because of the increased urbanization and industrialization of our society. Their analysis, then, rises from an intimate connection to land and place as does their hope that these places can once again shelter placed communities.
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Tobias’ Bio - As a farmer, writer and development worker, I'm interested in helping rural people and farmers find ways to live well in their communities and territories. My experiences in North, Central and South America have helped me to perceive different challenges faced by rural populations as well as appreciate the different approaches used by communities to root their livelihoods and cultures in the places they inhabit.
Willi Paul lives uncomfortably in the grey spaces between the present and the future, integrating Permaculture, Transition, New Mythology and SpiritNature. Please see his iBook for a summary of his vision work at Planetshifter.com.