EconomicsFood ShortagesSociety

Capitalising on Haiti Tragedy?

We’re all gutted about the situation in Haiti. It is so immensely tragic, particularly in the face of all the other suffering these people have experienced for far too long. One thing I would like to do at this juncture, is to ensure people realise that this latest disaster is not an entirely natural one. No, I cannot blame a secret global elite or a first world government for triggering a large earthquake underneath the island of Hispanola, but I can blame these for setting the stage for such an earthquake to result in maximum casualty rates – both during and after the event.

Recipe: Mud, a little vegetable oil,
and salt. Mix well, then bake in sun…

I am talking, in particular, about the acute poverty that has lead to Haitians becoming extremely vulnerable to any disaster. Haitians have gone from agricultural independence to having to eat mud and an almost complete dependence on outside aid for food, clothing, etc., by, specifically, following western economic guidelines for running their economy. Haiti followed the economic ‘recipe for success’ as mandated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Following the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Program of deregulation is the prerequisite to receiving a loan from the international financier. If you haven’t done so already, I would strongly urge you to read Orchestrating Famine – a Must Read Backgrounder on the Food Crisis to learn how Haiti managed to go from being fully self-sufficient, just a few decades ago, to being almost totally reliant on imports today – imports many cannot buy for lack of funds to do so. The policies implemented saw a large scale dismantling of rural economies with its simultaneous explosion of urban slums. These newly landless were forced to build as cheaply as possible – ramshackled corrugated iron and cinder block constructions without steel reinforcing sitting on denuded, treeless hillsides.

This economic restructuring is said to have gone a lot further than just economic policies – with the U.S. government accused of having supported corrupt Haitian dictators who aligned with their extractive policies and even organising a coup (see also) against a democratically elected leader who promised to do something to address their poverty.

Although governments will deny these accusations, it is difficult to have faith in their good intentions when we see the economic vultures circling yet again, now that this latest tragedy has struck:

Now, in its attempts to help Haiti, the IMF is pursuing the same kinds of policies that made Haiti a geography of precariousness even before the quake. To great fanfare, the IMF announced a new $100 million loan to Haiti on Thursday. In one crucial way, the loan is a good thing; Haiti is in dire straits and needs a massive cash infusion. But the new loan was made through the IMF’s extended credit facility, to which Haiti already has $165 million in debt. Debt relief activists tell me that these loans came with conditions, including raising prices for electricity, refusing pay increases to all public employees except those making minimum wage and keeping inflation low. They say that the new loans would impose these same conditions. In other words, in the face of this latest tragedy, the IMF is still using crisis and debt as leverage to compel neoliberal reforms. – The Nation (entire article also recommended reading)

Unless we understand this history, we’re destined to repeat it, and our efforts to help these people will be in vain – worse, they’ll just translate to increased dependency and even further unreadiness to face the next disaster. This becomes even more important to realise when you factor that, within the next few years, western countries will likely be so focussed on their own internal problems, that future pleas for assistance may fall on deaf ears.

It pains me at present to see the same kind of media reports as we saw with Hurricane Katrina – a focus on small pockets of (largely necessary) looting with not enough emphasis on the incredible patience and resilience of the majority of Haitians – particularly in the face of our painfully slow response. Rather than create aggressive divisions we must find a way to comfort and inspire these people. Rather than short term aid and long term economic pillaging, let’s discuss and action some PermaHelp.

Democracy Now! – U.S. Policy in Haiti Over Decades


  1. The first step in Haiti should be to plant industrial Hemp on every sqm of denuded land. This would stabilise the soil thats left within weeks and the resulting crop can be used for high protein food (better than mud)and fibre and construction materials.
    Then, i guess, the hard work begins. Replacing the trees and implementing permaculture on a massive scale.
    Unfortunately, the US will never get out of the way and will continue to flood the country with subsidised GM grains and agri-chemicals and unessesary debt on a massive scale.
    Looks like the IMF are about to get the Haitians on the hook again for another few hundred mill’ as well.
    What did these people do to deserve this?
    In Australia, we have absolutely nothing to winge about in the big scheme of things.

  2. There is some truth here, but a few important points remain: too many people, too much wild belief and religion, corruption as a way of life and a general dependence on aid; a growing lack of self-reliance.

  3. “There is some truth here, but a few important points remain: too many people, too much wild belief and religion, corruption as a way of life and a general dependence on aid; a growing lack of self-reliance.”

    Didn’t permaculture guys go to Cuba and jumpstart the “power of community” there? Why wasn’t this done in Haiti ages ago? Would we rather just sit around and play the blame game?

  4. I found this article from a search on Haiti +Permaculture, the other article of interest was here:

    Clearly someone (Scott Pittman) tried to do something back in the 2004 – 2006 period, offering practical training to local farmers. The crux seems to have been “This project is currently on hold until the political situation is less threatening to foreigners.”

    Now, I’ve only recently been exposed to Permaculture in the last 18 months, but this situation highlights something that is beginning to confuse me somewhat.

    Why is there no “Free” online PDC available on the web? With todays technology it seems feasible the “political situation” could have been worked around. Partnering with NGO’s on the ground could provide the access, remote backup could be provided by the plethora of permaculture forums etc.

    I admit I don’t know much about the internal politics of the permaculture movement, and I’m basing my thoughts on a response I got from a UK PC teacher when I asked why the TT movement had to charge so much money for the backup books/tools required to start a local initiative, but looking in from a relative “outsider” it seems as though some permaculture teachers are a little over concerned about maintaining the idea of “monetary value” in the work that they do.

    It just seems to me that if the PDC, and maybe advanced courses tailored to different climates, was rolled out on affordable DVD’s (or free online) there would be far more traction, especially in these times of world crisis where the need is ever so much more dire.

    I’m sure there have been various courses videoed etc. which leaves me even more confused. From what I understand about Permaculture Ethics, this seems the obvious way forward.

    If there are concerns about living expenses for PC teachers etc. there are possibilities of say a diploma system, or indeed the internship mentioned on this page where those who can afford to can contribute in monetary forms.

    Another thought would be to encourage established projects to propagate plants to get other projects established as part of the training program.

    One of the first thoughts I had when I was exposed to permaculture was why hasn’t this system spread more in the many years it’s been going, and I’m still pondering it. Surely someone has asked the same questions in the many years PC has been going?

    Cheers from the UK.

  5. Pete, I too have often wondered why there are few if any permaculture design course videos free on the internet. Just bits and pieces of teasers. There would be no cost to distribute such material. Many people like myself are intensley interested in these ideas but are nowhere near being able to afford the money and time required by these courses. I can’t see how copyright could be an issue since you could just drop the word “permaculture” and there is no way ideas about swales, orchards, ponds, and mulch are new or unique.

    Back to the topic though… Yes, we need to deploy anarcho-capitalist aid teams along side the permaculturalists to keep Haiti stateless!

    PS – That video’s narration was painfully slow. Arrrgh!

  6. Pete, JBob,

    actually, there is something like a “free PDC on the web”: Dan Hemenway’s course transcript from 1981. I would consider it a fragment, conceptually somewhat incomplete and also somewhat out-dated, but it still covers many of the key ideas fairly well.

    Here’s a re-edited version of that:

    And “why hasn’t this caught on more?” When I first came across it, this also made me wonder, and I started to do some field research to find out. Let me describe my present understanding of the situation.

    One key problem is that our present “free market economy” actually is a cleverly disguised planned economy in two very important aspects: One is land use. Policy decisions on what you can do on what piece of land are often based on the question what would contribute most to growth, and hence help to make society rich as fast as possible. The problem is that this planning approach very often is based on completely unrealistic assumptions considering the economic role of non-renewable resources. Opportinity costs are selectively taken into account for the finite resource land, but not for the finite resource high-quality fuels. This skewed perspective has the effect that decisions leading to the production of more “degenerative assets” that need constant effort for upkeep such as e.g. roads are given priority over the creation of self-stabilizing productive assets that generate value from sunlight.

    The second issue is that we are still stuck with thinking which historically had the objective to get people out of primary production (i.e. growing food): When Industry started, workers were needed in the factories. And you get the more people working in industry the smaller the percentage of people needed to grow food. Of course, achievable yields per square meter go down if farmers manage larger areas, hence can pay less attention to each patch of land. But if the ex-farmers then work for industry and contribute more to the GDP than before, that is considered advantageous. This essentially sets the framework that resulted in legislation which makes “artificially cheap food” possible.

    We could easily increase food production quite substantially, if we just managed to get more people into gardening. But that is actively discouraged in the framework that is presently in place, because in a society that spends a larger share of working hours on growing food, food evidently will have to have a higher value relative to industrial goods such as plasma TVs. Industry does not like that idea, and hence, politics does not like it either. Therefore, our legislation is what it is like, making an objective such as “more gardeners” difficult to achieve.

  7. Thanks for commenting Thomas. You saved me some typing, as I wanted to also address Pete and JBob’s valid queries.

    I would only add a couple of thoughts.

    Pete, re permaculture info being free for all and open source. This is certainly our ambitions (mine for sure, and I know most other permies think likewise). Finding ways to do this whilst remaining financially viable in this current system is tricky. If we all lived and worked in communities where the interest of others were regarded as of the same or higher value than our own needs, then we could work completely selflessly knowing our own needs would be met. As is stands, capitalism is where we’re at, and turning ourselves around and heading in the complete opposite direction creates some challenges that effect basic survival capacity. Take our ‘Permaculture Master Plan’ for example (see video on top of sidebar). This is the best we’ve been able to come up with so far that enables us to finance the spread of permaculture. It’s not perfect, as it’s reliant on people from wealthier countries flying (lots of energy and economics involved in that) to poor countries so their course fees can subsidise locals that otherwise couldn’t afford to learn, and would thus remain in unsustainable systems and eventually become extinct…. We persevere with the ‘Master Plan’ approach, as we know it works, and has the potential to hasten permaculture uptake so that such sites can then begin to replicate internally (without the need for more wealthy students flying in). The Greening the Desert II video, I think, shows how this works – with people within Jordan (even people who work for the Jordanian agricultural department) taking an interest and starting to spread concepts in their own way. Once we have built up enough momentum in such places, then it can start to continue under its own steam.

    The same goes for spreading information via books, DVDs, etc. We’d love to just make it all freely available, but how to do so whilst still keeping PRI afloat so it can continue to do the valuable educational work its doing? If places like PRI and others like them go under, then what?

    We do think of these things as objectively as we can, and if we find viable alternatives we would certainly consider them.

    It’s the old question of ‘does the end justify the means’. It’s a very hard call. Because of the system we’re plugged in to, where unplugging entirely will quickly have us unable to help ourselves let alone other people, we have to find some balance and try to begin a transition in the right direction.

    Some people may well run PDC courses primarily for profit (I don’t know), while some will be doing so because they’re trying to hasten a transition to a saner world where their children have some hope of survival. For the latter people, many have to support their educational work by course fees, of course. How to keep these people doing what they’re doing, but keep them fed, clothed and housed as well, if they just give the information away for free, is certainly a challenge in most cases (there may be a few independently wealthy exceptions here of course).

    And adding to Thomas’ thoughts on “Why this hasn’t caught on more”, I’d also mention that

    1) comfort zones and human lack of deeply affecting foresight are important factors here. What I mean by that is over the last 30 years it’s been fairly clear that things cannot continue indefinitely as they are – that the world is eventually going to hit a wall. But, despite not approving of the system mentally, we continue to ‘approve’ of it in reality, because we are forced to participate, or starve. For permaculturists to step right out of the system they would need a significant framework of support to step into. Building that is the challenge, and, the point I am leading up to here, is that this challenge is easily postponed when the system is still working for you sufficiently to keep you to a reasonable level of comfort. In short, we don’t change because it’s too challenging (need land, community, etc.). It is easier to tinker in our gardens on the weekend, and commute to our jobs at the nuclear power station or coal face during the week.

    2) Often on this site I’ve had commenters berating me for talking about political and economic issues – they only want me to talk about rhubarb, sprouts and cover crops. But one of our biggest challenges is changing the system itself, as Thomas mentions. Too few permies consider how important it is that if we don’t change the system itself in fundamental ways our permaculture gardens, as important as they are, will not amount to much in the grand scheme of things as the world will continue to get progressively worse, and none of us can remain islands forever. A good example here is that those that just want to talk about land based issues, but not ‘invisible structures’ are those with land. I’ve heard some say that ‘Permaculture is only for rich people’. I can somewhat understand why they would say that. If you’re renting an apartment on the 18th floor, and are working ten or twelve hours a day to make ends meet, then considering a practical application and outlet for all your theoretical knowledge on permaculture, and world changing desires, can be discouraging. Creating a more equitable system is the only way we will get more people onto the land. Creating millions more gardeners, without violent revolution, takes changing the system from a massive groundswell of coherent and united thought. This can only happen if permaculture principles are accepted into mainstream thinking. We end up in that situation where we’re all sitting on the edge of the lake, in a row, saying “I’ll go in if you will first”, or “Let’s all jump in at the same time”, but then you wonder if at the count of three if you’ll be the only one that made the leap. For permaculture systems to truly work on a global scale, everyone needs to be involved. This is why education is important, and why I fill this site with articles that are both ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’, both good news and bad news – to wake people out of their apathy and try to get a focused vision on both what we need to build, and what will happen if we don’t.

    3) I would also add that some have tended to, by their example, link permaculture with fringe beliefs that give the impression to people that to become a permaculturist necessitates changing ones spiritual view of the world. Permaculture is about planet and people saving design techniques. Concepts of spirituality are a matter of individual choice that should remain separate from permaculture science. When permaculture is put into a bowl with metaphysics and blended and stirred and then sprinkled with various other subjective opinions on life the universe and everything, then it can end up being rejected by people who might otherwise have jumped on board.

    I think these issues are all part of the learning process.

    I agree we’re behind where we should be in the movement. But, we can’t just sit here and get despondent over this. We’ve just got to keep moving and try to design our way out of this (design of gardens, but also society as a whole – politics, economics, social structures, etc.).

  8. Thomas, Craig. Thanks very much for your well reasoned replies, I appreciate the time you took to answer my questions in such depth.

    I will listen to Dan Hemenway’s course, I’m sure there is valuable insight, even if a little conceptually incomplete, I’m sure I will get a lot out of it.

    It is hard to think on balance that there will not be a global solution, or rather the momentum we would like all like to see, at the level we would like to see it, until the capitalist system fails completely. I hope this is not the case, and I have yet to make up my mind either way, many thoughts to ponder.

    Clearly you’re right Craig about these questions all being part of the learning curve. My somewhat simplistic view is probably largely due to my relatively comfortable personal position of very low overhead living. Although we live a debt free, minimal spend lifestyle now, it has not always been the case, but it has clearly framed my thinking.

    I recently learnt there is an organisation working to provide an open source PDC in the near future, if this comes off, and the resource can be fully utilised by local NGO’s and PC groups via technology, I’m sure it will help achieve the global awareness required.

    I am not despondent, just not very far up a steep learning curve!

    Many thanks,

  9. Thomas: I certainly agree with your general ideas about policies of the “establishment” opposing the creation of millions of gardeners. The political/corporate powers that be certainly don’t want their gerbil slaves (us) getting off our treadmills. Perhaps the most important thing that you don’t mention is that taxing a gardener producing a good percentage of his own needs via his own land is much, much harder than getting a big company to collect these taxes for you as withholding, social security, medicare, whatever you have in Australia, etc.

    Craig: I would like to know your estimation about how much the average permaculture teacher earns via course fees vs doing actual consulting/planning for individual propery owners. A big part of that Hemenway 1980s course notes piece is devoted to how to be a good design consultant. It seems to me that earning money by providing that service would be a surer bet than selling education via coursework. After all, information wants to be free, as they say. But there is no substitute for an experienced designer working out the unique details of your own land.

  10. JBob,

    Let me say it in Bill Mollison’s own words: “If you try to become self-reliant, council will do everything in its power to prevent that. Because once you are, *you* are king, and they are not.”

    An interesting thought, actually. I’ve seen it so often that mostly-self-supporters get attacked by “properly employed people” as if they were saboteurs of the collective effort towards a more prosperous future. Actually, indications are it’s pretty much the other way round…

  11. JBob,

    another comment on “the economics of permaculture professionals”: There indeed unfortunately are certain (few) “black sheep” that capitalize on Permaculture by selling it as a New Evangelium – pulling in lots of money from books, videos, and pricey fees for visits to their remote site. This money they then use to obtain a substantial part of their own needs from the consumerist economy. But to the very largest extent, people are actually aware of that problem, and designed their own rules in such a way that this prevents them from falling into such a trap.

    I think it is perfectly reasonable to use PDC course fees e.g. to pay for those things you are effectively *forced* to pay for (like, your radio license, wastewater bills, trash collecting fees etc.) – as long as you work towards eliminating these forced dependencies in a responsible way. There is, for example, (at least?) one guy in Germany, Carl Rheinl”ander, who went to 100% recycling like a religious zealot and actually went to court to fight for his right to not pay for trash he does not produce:

    (@Craig: Might actually be quite interesting to ask him for an article on his lifestyle…)

    But at the same time, I’d say it is a very good idea to have some sort of “firewall” in your books that separates money generated from educational activities from money generated from, say, your “demo system” primary production core business. Wouldn’t it he highly questionable to run a demo system that is economically viable only through the attached “buy our DVD & other stuff” promotional effort? Many Permaculture businesses actually do have such a “firewall”, precisely to prove that what they show can stand on its own feet, and does not rely on money generated from visitors.

    Theoretically, it might be possible to run a permaculture business that does nothing else but selling books, DVDs, and courses, and has just one business model to offer to those who want to join: to also sell books, DVDs, courses. That, then, would amount to nothing else but a pyramid scheme. Now, it certainly is expected that practitioners who set up a business that is in alignment with the Permaculture core ethics do a bit of promotion, and also make money from that, as having multiple income streams is considered a good thing. So, the question is: what actual “substance” is there once you subtract the merchandise? Those who make a honest effort with their business (the vast majority, I would say) don’t have to fear that question.

    One issue where the Hemenway Pamphlets perhaps create a somewhat distorted image is that it is absolutely not expected that all PDC graduates eventually become Permaculture Designers making money chiefly from their design consultancy business. There are a zillion other “right livelihood” alternatives. Ever noticed how many dry places there are in the world that actually don’t collect rainwater? Do the math, show to people where they are economically plain stupid not utilizing rainwater, and set up a business specializing in rainwater tanks and greywater systems that helps them to save money. That’s permaculture. Ever noticed how many technically sophisticated devices are thrown away due to minor breakdowns? See if you can make a repair service business viable that extends the lifetime of such goods. etc. etc.

    There are thousands of other business ideas. Friends of mine just recently set up a small solar electricity (mostly PV) business in Israel to make people less dependent on bought-in electricity. This DVD might give you a number of ideas:

    The key principle always should be: What can I do help people to become more self-reliant, i.e. how can I help them to save money?
    Note that this runs contrary to presently prevailing business logic, which is based on the question: “What can I do so that my customers become dependent on my continued services?” As Bill says, “if you sell self-reliance, the money you make on something is a measure of your degree of non-success.” Being successful means that people ultimately no longer need you. But this then means that you, like a pioneer species, must keep on moving. If people’s most pressing problem is that they spend too much money on X, help them so they no longer do. Once that’s accomplished, move over to the next thing Y they spend too much money on. Repeat until you eliminated all artificial dependencies that *force* people to earn money. Note: *having* to earn money just to live is a bad thing. (I.e.: we need to make a conscious effort towards reducing “the costs of living”.) But *earning* money of course is *not* a bad thing.

  12. Thomas: Very interesting comments. Thanks. Especially Bill’s quote about selling self-reliance. I’m a market gardener and I’ve often thought about how odd it is that so much of permaculture promotes gardening as a means of self reliance, but almost never mentions the possibility of selling produce for a living. If anything, the impression is given that everyone should garden and no one would need to buy food from others. I’m sure that would be possible with permaculture methods, but I for one would like to keep quite a bit of the ol’ “division of labor” in my society. And most people just plain have no interest in growing their own food. Even so, I think I have more fun teaching people how to grow their own food than I do selling it to them. People as pioneer species… tasty food for thought.

  13. JBob,

    I think it is a good idea if *everyone* does a bit of gardening, just because you do want people to have at least some clue about food. The present situation is displayed very nicely by e.g. this comment:

    “Vitamins don’t grow on trees.” (Shake head… Incredible…)

    In other words: Do we really think people will make well-educated decisions about the question whether to go all-out GM or not if pretty much no one actually does know anything about growing food anymore?

    But apart from that, I really don’t see why regional self-reliance should go beyond everybody growing, say, between 5% and 50% of their own food, and a certain percentage of regional market gardeners (say, 10%-25% of the population) providing the rest.

    This interview with Bill Mollison I find very useful:

    Let me quote him directly: >>>Mollison: I remember reading a book rather like the Nearings’. It was made in England . . . I’ve forgotten the guy who did it . . . and I thought it was a lesson in rotten hard work for very little result. It was sort of like a ground-down peasant primer. (laughs heartily) Just what I didn’t want. I grew up like that, I grew up on farms on which you worked 18-hour days, hard work, and I thought, there’s got to a better way. I ignored this in Scott Nearing and John Seymour. He wrote a book, in which you’re trying to do everything. He called it practical self-sufficiency. (John Seymour’s books “The Forgotten Arts” and “Forgotten Household Crafts” have recently been republished in one volume by DK Publishing as “The Forgotten Arts and Crafts.”)

    First of all, I think that’s a terrible concept: self-sufficiency. You make your own cheese; you skin your own pig; you make your own gloves from the pig’s ears, you know, it’s a shocking idea. We are absolutely interdependent. I want somebody else to be making my boots while I feed them, you know. And somebody else again to make my fishing rod, car, bike. Self-sufficiency is a stupid idea. You can go a long way to feeding yourself or perhaps all the way, but beyond that, it’s pretty stupid really. You have to have something to make money: photography, writing books. Me, I write books. That’s my income. But I can easily feed myself.<<>> My grandmother had chickens and she feed them with a handful of wheat every day and had a little shed that she’d close some of them up in and got the eggs. She got two dozen eggs every day without fail. One day, I said to her, “How many chickens do you have, Grandma?” She said, “I don’t know, about 25 I reckon.” She didn’t know. So, I set out one evening with a notebook and made notes of all the chickens I could see. By the end of the evening, I knew she had a lot more than 25 chickens. They never came in for that handful of grain, that was all. So, I set chicken traps, big wire cages with funnels in them, with lots of wheat in the funnel and I caught 68 chickens. I wondered . . . these chickens aren’t eating one handful of wheat, that’s not going to do it. She had them running in amongst two plants: one was called Coprosma, it’s a New Zealand shiny leaf creeping plant immune to sea winds and things, and it has crop after crop of berries during the year; it’s always got green berries or ripe berries or new berries or something. Each berry has two seeds that you could easily mistake for two grains of wheat. So it’s a continual wheat producer as far as chickens are concerned; they think it’s wheat and they eat it. So even one Coprosma bush was feeding dozens more chickens than my grandmother. And the other plant she had planted because of the sea winds was in the Solanum family. It’s got huge thorns. It’s called African Box Thorn. It’s a Lycium. It’s a frightfully thorny thing. But in cool climates it doesn’t spread; you put it in and there it grows; it grows to about 15 feet across and 15 feet high. It’s a dome, and it stops there forever. We’ve had hedges of it for more than 200 years in northern Tasmania. It always has flowers, green berries, and ripe berries and the chickens love it. It’s in the Solanacae so there’s like millions of little tomatoes falling all the time. When a chook (chicken) is going to lay eggs and rear chicks she walks in underneath the box thorns, makes a nest, lays her eggs and sits under the box thorns because nothing, no hawks, no dogs, nothing can get her in there. Then come the chicks and they don’t leave that shelter because the berries are the perfect size for little chickens. They eat them until they’re quite well fledged, and out they come in the open air and then hawks get one or two of them. If they’re in trouble, they run into the box thorns, so it’s ideal food and shelter. <<<

  14. oops… seemingly, using greater-than/smaller-than characters as a text end marker seems to upset the blog system… some explanatory text seems to have got lost here.

  15. How I missed that interview in all the times I’ve googled “bill mollison interview” I have no idea! Looks like a long but good read. Thanks.

  16. JBob,

    here are a few more:

    There’s one on Wikipedia that’s not yet listed. Plus you might want to listen to the agroinnovations podcast and an ABC News interview with Bill.

    Many things he wrote suddenly make much more sense if one hears him explain the underlying rationale.

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