In the heartland of intensive industrial agriculture, permaculture was picked up quite quickly. It blended well with alternative lifestyles that persisted through the 1980s, particularly in ‘ecovillages’ – entire communities intended to be sustainable. One example is the small Happy Brigade Community, still expanding in the Santa Cruz mountains of California, with a focus on permaculture design. A slightly different approach is taken by the Bera College Ecovillage in Kentucky, which provides accommodation for students. The Cougar Hill Ecohamlet in Grand Forks, Canada, has half-a-dozen families living on the land and practising permaculture design.ˆ1ˆ But, as small family farmers know to their cost, the onward march of subsidized intensive agriculture continues.
A rather different example comes from a place where agro-industry was forced to retreat. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 – and with the continuing US trade embargo – Cuba lost access to fossil fuels almost overnight. During the ‘special period’ that followed, Havana learned how to provide some 80 per cent of its food from within a 50-kilometre radius of the city itself. Gardens of all kinds spread over roofs, parking lots and derelict spaces. Fossil fuel-based chemical systems were replaced with organic methods. Beasts of burden were pressed back into service. Ingenuity was at a premium. Permaculture designers found their skills highly prized. Cuba became more resilient.
The hardships were real, the transformation involuntary – and has now been made a little more optional by oil bartered for the work of Cuban doctors and teachers in Venezuela. But much of the transformation has stuck, because it proved so much more preferable. A short film about the Cuban experience, The Power of Community, now gets shown around the world. There’s a screening in Stroud, near where I live, which is being launched as another Transition Town – but it’s booked out. So I get a copy for myself and watch, intrigued.ˆ2ˆ
Through permaculture networks in Britain I keep hearing about Chris Evans and his work in Nepal. He has known the country for years – it is only just beginning to recover from prolonged and brutal conflict.
‘Over 90 per cent of the working population is dependent on agriculture for their livelihood,’ he writes. ‘Agricultural practices have developed to be finely in tune with local climate, landscape and people’s needs. Such practices are intimately interwoven with the forest and other natural resources to provide basic needs of food, fuel, fodder, timber, medicines and the like. But the clearance of forest land for farming has led to degradation.
‘The Himalayan Permaculture Group (HPG) is a small, local organization in mid-west Nepal, which has developed demonstration sites to show how sustainable agriculture can be practised... increasing crop yields without clearing new land.
‘The HPG’s results to date are so encouraging that part of its work is to apply and teach models of sustainable development, including sustainable agriculture and permaculture, on a national and even international scale.
‘The new Interim Government, while made up of experienced and dedicated people freed from a 50-year yoke of oppression and corruption, suffers from the confusion of the vast, new, open way to development. It is an awesome task for a nation to redirect political, financial and natural resources to productive and positive ends.’3
I email an old friend and regular NI contributor, Mari Marcel Thekaekara, in Gudalur, southern India. Has she heard of permaculture? Could she take a look at an Australian website and tell me what she thinks?
‘A distinct feeling of déjà vu,’ she replies. ‘Been there. Seen it before.
‘Then I remember. An adivasi (tribal) elder once recounted to me how, when he was young, the tribes lived almost completely off the little tracts of land surrounding their homesteads. The only things that came from outside were the year’s supply of salt and a few pieces of cloth, bought twice a year for the festivals. The families produced or gathered all the food they needed. The land was bountiful, providing rich variety with each new season.
‘Most of rural India lived that way too. My own grandmother – who grew up in Trivandrum, Kerala, at the turn of the century – told us, her urban Calcutta grandchildren, what seemed like magical tales of long ago. “Everything we needed for the table came from our compound,” she wistfully recalled. “We had ducks, chickens, cows, goats, pigs. A fishpond. Vegetables. Fruit trees of every kind. Enough coconut trees to provide delicious chutneys, coconut milk for every meal. We had our year’s supply of rice. Nothing was needed from outside, except maybe salt.”
‘The realization is slowly dawning that the old ways were best. People are linking the pollution and pesticides to the cancer and disease that attack almost every family, without exception. And the tide is slowly turning. But to revert to the old systems will need more than organic or permaculture revolutions. It will need a new mind-set. Consumer culture is overtaking even rural India with the onslaught of TV and advertising. We can revert to the wise old ways of agriculture. But can we revert to the simplicity, the non-consumerist mode of life that went with it?’ˆ6ˆ
It is hard indeed to prosper amid violent conflict – but permaculture may well have a part to play even here. By chance, I meet Lucy Michaels in Oxford, just before she heads off to work on a permaculture project in Palestine. Several months on, she writes from there to tell me:
‘Permaculture makes a lot of sense in Palestine, not least because it has great similarities with traditional falcha agriculture. All the permaculture projects that have developed recently are politically engaged – seeing themselves as a strategy for self-reliance and as a form of resistance against the destruction of land, resources and livelihoods. Such projects are also a means to empowerment in the face of the hopelessly disempowering daily grind of the Occupation.
‘The West Bank village of Budrus saw a weekly skill-sharing between traditional Palestinian farmers and Israeli and international permaculture activists, who had been involved in joint struggle against the Separation Wall. The aim of the new project was to create an organic market garden to support Ahmad Awad and 19 members of his family, who had lost their land and livelihoods to the Wall. The garden is now flourishing, although local political objection to Israelis entering the village has put an end to the joint work. Connections have been made with a neighbouring village to continue skill-sharing workshops.
‘The Bedouin struggle within Israel – often overlooked by international activists – is also a struggle against land expropriation and displacement, with the resultant loss of traditional lifestyles. Bustan LeShalom, a joint Israeli-Palestinian NGO, currently runs a number of permaculture-inspired projects in Bedouin areas, introducing alternative technologies such as bio-gas and solar fridges into “unrecognized” Bedouin villages with no access to electricity, as well as preserving traditional knowledge such as local medicinal plants. Bustan’s most famous project was the building of a straw-bale clinic in Wadi Na’am, an unrecognized village, as a political and practical statement about the lack of Government healthcare provision for the Bedouin.’ˆ4ˆ
So you couldn’t really say that permaculture is hiding out in rural bliss; and least of all in Zimbabwe. I met John Wilson several years ago, and he now writes from Zimbabwe:
‘In 1987 I was running an organic mixed smallholding while setting up a rural day-school. I heard that Bill Mollison would be running a permaculture course in Botswana. A colleague and I attended and decided that permaculture would be a good framework for the Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre, which is still running – not an easy thing to do in Zimbabwe today. Over the years it has trained many people in permaculture and related skills.
‘In 1989 St Vincent’s School and Nyahode Union Learning Centre (NULC) approached Fambidzanai about designing school grounds. I felt that schools would be an excellent entry point for permaculture. Many schools were talking about conservation. But most of them were dustbowls. With many people suddenly concentrated in a small area in this kind of environment (with only one rainy season), you turn everything to dust so easily. I also worried about permaculture taking things too fast – better to focus on sharing local knowledge.
‘In 1992, I think it was, the Minister of Education visited St Vincent’s, which was already being transformed by students. She requested that a pilot programme be set up.
‘The pilot started in 1994 and led to the formation of SCOPE, run by Walter Nyika. Over the years SCOPE (Schools and Colleges Permaculture) has trained teachers from around 150 schools and a number of colleges in what has come to be known as the ILUD process (Integrated Land Use Design). This term was used because we linked permaculture with other approaches – a theme I have always felt strongly about. The SCOPE programme has now reached out into the region of East and Southern Africa (ReSCOPE) and is up and running.
‘Of course there have been mixed results, with some schools completely transforming their grounds, others managing to improve things, and some not really getting anywhere. I think we are all still novices. It is a new paradigm and we need to keep learning – but signs of the potential are very good.’ˆ5ˆ
As I write, in mid-May, the eighth international permaculture conference and ‘convergence’ is about to start in Brazil.ˆ7ˆ Unfortunately, it comes just too late for me to get there. Fortunately, I’ve avoided the air miles again. And, from what I can tell from some of the preparatory papers, perhaps that’s just as well.
Quite what happens to common sense when it goes global can be a mystery. In Brazil the focus is on ‘economics’: important things, to be sure, like trade, income-generation, credit, banking and currencies. But then there’s talk of ‘debt-for-nature swaps’ and ‘carbon offsets’– the hair-brained schemes and deep pools of cash that global corporations of one sort or another have filled for their own enrichment. Just think what permaculture could achieve with that! I’d rather not.
More productive, in the long run, may be links with related networks, like the food sovereignty movement. At the Forum for Food Sovereignty in Sélingué, Mali, in February 2007, about 500 delegates from more than 80 countries adopted the Declaration of Nyéléni, which says in part:
‘Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers.’ˆ8ˆ
That sounds more like common sense to me.
- 1 For the global network of ecovillages, see www.ecovillage.org 2 Obtainable from www.communitysolution.org 3 Chris Evans works for Appropriate Technology Asia www.atasia.org.uk 4 For examples of permaculture in Palestine, see www.zatoun.com/trees
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