As permaculture-, environmental-, or philanthropic-based tourism is becoming increasingly promoted by the media, I often feel like I am being sold an idea, experience, or even indulgence for my unsustainable lifestyle. If I want to have an ‘experience’, as a tourist, I want to be introduced to new thought patterns that challenge me to notice what I notice, such as how I have been trained to seek validation through institionalization. This provocation is what I believe is inherent to permaculture, and is why I find it tricky to adequately explain ‘permaculture’ to someone for the first time. Even defining permaculture can feel counter-intuitive and unsatisfying. Because permaculture can take time, skilled wordsmithing, and visual examples to explain, permaculture-theory is increasingly over simplified, redundant, or sensationalized when adopted by the mainstream media, especially in film. Often, when watching a permaculture film, I find myself feeling as if like I have seen it already. However, One Day, Everything Will Be Free, a feature-length permaculture documentary about Sadhana Forest Haiti, released in Spring 2013, is different.
When watching the film, I could not help but question my relationship to permaculture. It hinted at how in permaculture, we are faced with ambiguity: in crossing a threshold, letting go, embracing discipline, and belonging to an inclusive community committed to questioning the consequences of our actions. Filmed within a permaculture community, it features people who, as travelers, crossed into a threshold. In speaking with these community members, the film celebrates the ‘experience’ of permaculture and the awkwardness of experiencing something that untangles you and touches you deeply.
Having lived and worked with permaculture-focused intentional communities in the United States, Australia, and Thailand, I have grappled with how to come to terms with the implications of fully participating in these projects. As Aid Worker Permaculture Design Courses, and permaculture communities dependent on foreign volunteers in low-income countries, become increasingly prevalent, it has become apparent that there is an urgent need for mindful reflection on the social, cultural, and political dynamics of applied permaculture.
In One Day, Everything Will Be Free, filmmaker Joseph Redwood-Martinez explores what it means to belong and contribute to an ecological restoration project run by a utopian community of international volunteers living out an ironic love story with an area that is referred to locally as "the wasteland." Through a series of interviews with the people both in and outside of the Sadhana community, the film articulates the disorientation that comes with trying to define what a resilient permaculture aid project actually looks like.
One Day, Everything Will Be Free introduces us to the ambitious work being done at Sadhana Forest Haiti to actively reduce erosion and improve watersheds in Haiti. It is significant because it critically explores how Sadhana Forest can be a model of resiliency for international permaculture projects dependent on volunteer labor. The documentary supplements the logistical elements of what one would learn in a Permaculture Project Aid Worker Course by reflecting on what compels and unites the communities served by these projects in the first place.
Reflecting on the human condition, Redwood-Martinez ultimately asks how our identity and actions can be more sustainable and less reactive when coming from a culture consumed by the politics of recognition and instant-gratification. The documentary on Sadhana Forest Haiti prompts us to step back and understand how we perceive ourselves in relation to the other, the environment, community, and institutionalization. The film really breaks the surface of the taboos we all too often shuffle around when a member of the Sadhana Forest community unapologetically expresses his frustration at well-intententioned volunteers who come to save Haiti because “Haiti’s got it bad.” Stressing that “people are people, and people got it bad everywhere,” the community member elucidates how uncomplicated international aid can be if we are willing to let go of the nationalistic, condescending labels that exacerbate global inequity in the first place. And it is precisely in this letting go that the real work of Sadhana Forest Haiti is being done.
Furthermore, the film prompts us to view permaculture through a race/class/gender lens. For instance, confronting the prescribed roles of giver and recipient, in the film, a Sadhana community member expresses how “the judgment that goes into deciding that someone needs help is where help goes wrong.” Through such observers, the film provokes us to recognize the difference between a project that is genuinely seeking to be a part of a community and a project that is trying to save one.
A particularly powerful scene in the documentary shows the second-hand aid clothes that have inundated Haiti and now accumulates into massive piles that quite literally turn Haiti into a dumping site for thoughtless international aid. As a majority of the donated clothes are totally inappropriate for the tropical Carribean climate, it accumulates into piles around ad-hoc sorting facilities where local people try to extract the usable items prior to burning the majority of what is sent so as to not smother the area with the litter of second-hand clothing. In the documentary, we see how the permaculturalists at Sadhana Forest Haiti use this clothing to prevent soil erosion and build dams for water conservation, and we are invited to consider the ways in which Sadhana Forest Haiti uses permaculture as a critical tool to reexamine the gaps between the motivations and implications of giving aid.
With grace, the film reflects on the dynamics of an ecological restoration community with implications that will deeply inform the ongoing discussions of critical and timely issues faced by the larger international permaculture community today.