If you’ve ever attended a festival, a yoga retreat, or done research on sustainability, chances are, you’ve heard of permaculture. As a matter of fact, permaculture has been a buzzword for a few years now. The word permaculture comes from combining the words permanent culture or permanent agriculture. It was developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the mid-1970s. Bill Mollison was an Australian ecologist and professor at the time, and Holmgren an Australian environmental designer, ecological educator, and writer. Their co-creation has earned them esteem and awards throughout their lifetimes. The practice itself is defined “as the growth of agricultural ecosystems in a self-sufficient and sustainable way. This form of agriculture draws inspiration from nature to develop synergetic farming systems based on crop diversity, resilience, natural productivity, and sustainability.” (You Matter)
Photo by: Yanda Montahuano Ushigua
What is Permaculture?
Permaculture is an ecologically beneficial and sustainable farming practice. It’s developed using twelve guiding principles to enforce its methodology and effectiveness. These principles are founded on the standards of:
1. Care for People
2. Care for the Earth
3. Fair Share
“It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.” In other words, permaculture is a holistic, living-in-harmony-with-nature worldview, as well as technical approach for how to do so.” (Modern Farmer )
Photo by: Permaculture.co
In practice, permaculture has proven itself to be an effective alternative to traditional western farming practices. We live in a world where factory farms and industrialized food systems tend to favor the big corporations’ bottom line over food quality, fair wages, and sustainability; permaculture and other similar practices seem to be an answer to problems created by Big-AG. Its ideals lend themselves to a self-made utopia for all.
Permaculturalists span the globe, with courses taught on almost every continent and in many languages. And its popularity seems to be growing, still. Permaculture challenges the Western- European agricultural practices that separate man, the farmer, from nature, the resource. In turn, it places people within the natural ecosystems, creating a more integrative biological community. This outlook on our role in nature is indigenous in origin. “Traditional ecological knowledge facilitates the implementation of stewardship practices such as burning, pruning, sowing, tillage, and more.” (USDA) Prior to global colonization, communities everywhere cultivated symbiotic relationships with their natural environment. With the arrival of European settlers, however, these farming, foraging, and co-living techniques were all but destroyed.
As wonderful as permaculture is, it has received some criticism from communities seeking to remedy settler colonialism and our current systems of oppression. You see, while implementing systems of permaculture into modern farming practices can have a unique and healing effect on the planet, the traditions and the principles originate from indigenous communities. These communities developed and passed down systems of agroforestry and agroecology that had a beneficial impact on their communities and the land; the same land that was subsequently stolen and exploited for many generations. And these communities whose wisdom is being sold, rarely receive acknowledgement or compensation in the form of land, finances, or social support.
In a beautifully written article by Abby Maxwell, we learn that “Land is the essence of discussions of food and agriculture, as well as of settler-colonialism and Indigenous rights: land use, land loss, and land theft. Historically, land has been the primary source of capital since contact between colonists and Indigenous peoples. Since the capitalist ends of the colonies required utmost efficiency in its productivity, Indigenous erasure was legitimized “by claiming that Indigenous people did not know how to use land ‘properly’, dismissing Indigenous farming, hunting, fishing, and gathering practices as inferior”[viii]. Despite its ethic of caring for the earth and people, permaculture is not an exception to the violent nature of the settler-colonial project: if the land on which the swales are dug is unceded territory, and the mouths that are being fed are largely those of white settlers, this material and epistemic violence persists. Furthermore, the leftist and progressive stereotype embodied by typical members of Western alternative food movements portrays them as “incapable of participating in the overt racism one can normally find within radical right extremist white-bodied organizations”[ix]. Thus, all critical exchange is stifled and the permaculture movement continues to grow with accumulating force, further marginalizing the outspoken voices that its core ethics claim to support.” (Work that Reconnects)
Arguments like Maxwell’s present the often-overlooked socio-political perspectives that dominant culture doesn’t always consider. It is an ask to take a step back and contemplate the larger picture as seen from the historically marginalized vantagepoint. Upon diving deeper into how the permaculture movement causes harm, one can see how we all continue to disenfranchise indigenous communities by ceding authoritative wisdom to those who are appropriating it. But the real question is… How can we fix this?
Permaculture in of itself is an impressive system of farming. And it’s not the only one. Communities across the globe formulated ways to nourish themselves and nature in alignment with their unique needs and climates. They were able to maintain these practices despite the European invasions. Modern cacao farmers in Ecuador operate using agroforestry to keep the soil healthy allowing them to produce continuously. Many of these farmers cultivate the same ways their ancestors did- as a part of the ecosystem and not separate from it. “Making up only 6.2% of our global population, Indigenous peoples steward 80% of Earth's biodiversity while managing over 25% of her land. Indigenous worldviews are the bedrocks that our agricultural practices and lifeways arise from.” (Green Dreamer) Their ways of cultivation have limited deforestation and land depletion. And in turn, they inspire others to farm similarly.
Whether it’s permaculture as coined by Mollison and Holmgren, or a traditional system passed through the generations, we can all benefit from sustainable farming and foraging. Additionally, to counteract the on-going effects of settler-colonialism we must first recognize ways we perpetuate it. This means acknowledging the ugly history of global imperialism and seeking to remedy it by supporting landback movements in your community, amplifying indigenous voices, and buying from indigenous farmers and creators. We can also step up politically and vote for legislation that benefits our communities and planet. As permaculture continues to grow, it stands a reminder that there is an alternative outlook and system that puts people and planet before profit. Little by little, we can shift the past belief that we are separate from nature, and honor it as ourselves, healing our planet.