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Human Permaculture: looking at migration as flow to solve problems

Permaculture is largely about turning problems into solutions. Many social issues currently seen as problems, when looked at closely, simply require a little re-organisation or ‘re-design’, which permaculture techniques, even those normally used to design land or water flow, can apply to. These involve looking carefully at the energies which go into a system, and human movements and desires can also be seen as energies. This article will examine a few of these issues and discuss how the problems can be turned into solutions.

One important point to consider when using permaculture with people is the unpredictability of human behaviour and the infinite variations inherent in human relationships. These can be embraced and used to our advantage as permaculture designers or practitioners; but it is necessary to remember that whatever you think should happen with a particular person or group of people, you have to communicate with them and decide together what the course of action is. A good source of ideas for facilitating communication is Looby Macnamara’s People and Permaculture (2012) (1).

Human flow

Currently, according to much mainstream media, there are a number of ‘crisis’ points in Europe due to huge influxes of refugees arriving in places which are ill-equipped to deal with such large numbers. One such point is the Greek island of Kos, where approximately 200,000 refugees have so far arrived this year, mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan (2). As the island normally has a population of around 40,000 (3) this has caused some logistical issues in terms of finding enough food, water and shelter for those arriving, and thus has made headlines in many global news outlets (see for example 4, 5).

Though such attention is helping to raise awareness of migrant issues in Europe, this is not a new phenomenon. Modern ‘temporary’ settlements of people who are striving to get from a place they have problems to a place where they can live in peace have been in existence for some time; from the ‘Jungle’ of Calais, France, where approximately 1,500 people have been living in wait to reach the UK for around the last thirteen years (6), to the temporary villages of Western Sahara, where refugees from their occupied homeland have been settled for so long that multiple generations have been born there (7).

What to do?

The situation is both complex and long-standing. The people living in migrant camps do not necessarily wish to, or are prohibited to, stay there, so there is generally a lack of long-term infrastructure (see for example 6). Short-term solutions are being provided by on-the-ground grassroots groups and individuals who help with a diverse range of issues, from liaising with the authorities to provision of food and water (see for example 8). This work is clearly helping to make people’s lives a little easier; yet these solutions are unsustainable for a number of reasons.

Firstly; though many ‘crisis points’ make the headlines and so attract outside help there are many more which are not as popular or which are less accessible (see for example 9). Surely in order to create long-term solutions it is important to gain many perspectives and see more of the wider picture of the energies involved.

Humans as flow

Looked at holistically, it could be seen that in order to provide long-term sustainable solutions for migrants needing homes, there may be a need for a general shift in perspective on human movements and how we can facilitate them with care. As discussed in my water article (10), understanding the nature of flow can greatly help when looking at how water moves on the land. The permaculture principles used to work with flow are also applicable to human movements.

Using the three ‘S’s…

When working with water, we can use the three ‘S’s (Slow, Spread and Sink) to ensure that instead of gathering in one place where it could cause erosion, the water on can flow in a way which is both beneficial to the land and not obstructing the natural path of the water. When looking at the way in which people gather in certain places we can also use the three ‘S’s to maximise the benefit to both humans and the earth.


The first ‘S’ is slow. Wherever the flow is, if you can slow it down it will create less erosion and provide more sustenance. When applied to human flow we can create solutions which involve working in the places where people are coming from, and looking at trying to improve life where they are, encouraging a flourishing of the culture they identify with. This has to be done with deep sensitivity to people’s desires; a helpful style would probably be one similar to ‘sustainable reconciliation’ as recommended by John Paul Lederach (for more see 11).

It is not always possible or desirable for people to stay where they are, so another way of slowing the flow of people might involve looking at where migrants are arriving from, and helping to redirect them before they get to a place which is already in crisis due to excessive numbers. Many migrants arriving in Kos are travelling from ports on the West coast of Turkey. Migrant-focused organisations in Turkey could encourage them to stay in the area if capacity is available, and provide information to those wishing to risk crossing the sea into EU Greece about the current situation on the various Greek islands used as destinations. For this, building communication links is key.


With water, rather than letting it gather all in one place, it is generally more effective to put in pathways which help the water to flow to a wider area. The easiest way to guide the flow is to use channels where the water is already inclined to go anyway. This can be applied in a similar way with people. Quite apart from questions of ethics and human rights, trying to get people to go somewhere that they don’t want to be is like trying to make water flow uphill. It’s not energy efficient and will involve more effort than it’s worth. However, if people can be given an easy path to follow, and a reason to be going somewhere, the whole then the human flow can be spread more readily.

One example of how this can be encouraged with migrants is to build closer links between places where people are arriving and places where they are welcome. In Germany, many city councils such as that of Leipzig in East Germany have designated the towns as ‘refugee-friendly’ (12). Also practical steps which we can all take right now are simply committing to be more hospitable and friendly to strangers and travellers, whoever they are. Showing this attitude in action is the organisation Refugees Welcome (13), a network linking refugees who have nowhere to stay with people with spare rooms who are willing to host them, active so far in Germany and Austria but with a very exportable framework.

In Mersin, Turkey, organisations already involved in this kind of activity include the Syrian Social Gathering (see for example 14), whose work includes building up links among the Syrian diaspora in the city and attempting to encourage Syrians to settle in Mersin (14). If Mersin as a city can support the extra inhabitants, such actions are useful in slowing the flow of migrants and helping to build new communities. This work can be duplicated in other towns where migrants are arriving which can support them and in turn benefit from the extra cultural inputs which a mixed community can bring.

It’s possible that, rather than having many people arriving in one place and potentially ‘flooding’ it, we can spread the migration across a wider area making it easier to welcome those arriving with ample resources and infrastructure.


The whole eco-system is improved if water is allowed to be absorbed into the ground. Whilst people do behave in different ways to water, this principle can apply to humans as well – as long as people have food, water, shelter and safety, the contributions they could make to the community is limited only by the imagination.

One way in which this could practically manifest involves looking at the use of land and property. Throughout the world, abandoned or unused properties abound which could be utilised to house those who no longer have homes. In Europe, so many houses have become empty that in many places, in particular the Southern Mediterranean countries, entire villages are now abandoned. Last year, UK-based newspaper The Guardian estimated that there are around 11 million empty and disused homes across Europe (15).

So on the one hand, people are entering the continent in need of basic shelter, and on the other, millions of homes are vacant. In this case, ‘spreading’ would simply involve opening up channels of communication and logistics in between the arriving migrants and the owners of disused properties. Greece itself, which as mentioned is one of the countries currently experiencing a heavy influx of people, has so many so-called ‘ghost towns’ (see for example 16) that they are being marketed as tourist attractions. However, if they could be re-utilised for what they were designed for, namely for people to live in, they could help to boost the economy of the areas as well as helping people to settle in the country.

By spreading the flow of migrants to utilise all resources, which the world appears to be abundant in, we can turn this from a seeming problem into a wonderful opportunity to repopulate lost lands.

Making connections

The ideas in this article are flexible and can potentially be helpful in many contexts. Put very simply, using the three ‘S’s can be seen as a way of creating links between the people who are in need and the things which can be used to fulfil this need. Such connections can also be made in other areas; for example, when looking at food. According to a 2013 UN report (17) we produce enough food at the moment to feed approximately 12 billion people (17), even when using mainly highly intensive, inefficient farming methods, so if such methods could be adapted to more ecological and holistically efficient techniques then the figure could potentially be even higher. Since there are less than 12 billion people on Earth now, the question of feeding people is not one of lack but of organisation.

Much of the food we produce is currently wasted (18) – but organisations across the globe are stepping in to intercept food which would be thrown away and redistributing it instead to hungry people (See for example 19).

All of these connections began with just two humans meeting and communicating. In order to create better conditions for people everywhere, and work intelligently with human flow, surely this has to be the first step which we take.


1. Macnamara, L, 2012. People and Permaculture: Caring and Designing for Ourselves, each Other and the Planet. Permanent Publications: Hampshire
2. Kingsley, P, 2015. ‘Kos: the Greek island where tourists and refugees share the same beaches’. The Guardian, 5/9/2015. – retrieved 9/9/15 ***NB though this report has some useful statistics, the reporter’s style appears somewhat patronisingly unhelpful to the refugees.
3. Wikipedia, 2015. ‘Kos’. – retrieved 9/9/15
4. Mourenza, A, 2015. ‘La masiva oleada de refugiados en las islas griegas desata choques policiales [The massive wave of refugees in the Greek islands unleashes pólice clashes] [Spanish article]’. El País,6/9/15. – retrieved 9/9/15
5. Mackinnon, M, 2015. ‘Welcome turns increasingly hostile in Kos as migrant numbers grow’. The Globe and Mail, 6/9/15. – retrieved 9/9/15
6. Chrisafis, A, 2015. ‘”At night it’s like a horror movie”’ – inside Calais’s official shantytown.’ The Guardian, 6/4/15. – retrieved 9/9/15
7. Thomas, M, 2007. As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela: Underground Adventures in the Global Arms and Torture Trade. Ebury Press: London
8. Humble, A, 2015. ‘Taking essential supplies to refugees in Kos’. – retrieved 9/9/15
9. Donnison, J, 2015. ‘Papua New Guinea: The Camps where Australia sends asylum seekers’. BBC News, 12/06/15. – retrieved 9/9/15
10. Haworth, C, 2015. ‘Understanding Water part 1: The Theory of Flow’. Permaculture News, 30/3/15. – retrieved 9/9/15
11. Lederach, J.P, 1998. Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. United States Institute of Peace: Washington, DC.
12. City of Leipzig, 2014. ‘Sponsorship program “arriving in Leipzig” supports refugees’. – retrieved 9/9/15
13. Refugees Welcome, 2015. ‘Idea’. – retrieved 9/9/15
14. France-Press, A, 2015. ‘Dreams and despair in Turkey’s “little Syria”’. – retrieved 9/9/15
15. Neate, R, 2014. ‘scandal of Europe’s 11m empty homes’. The Guardian, 23/2/15. – retrieved 9/9/15
16. Greeka, 2015. ‘Ghost villages in Greece’. – retrieved 9/9/15
17. De Schutter, O, 2013. ‘Report on Right to Food’. United Nations General Assembly: Geneva
18. Institute of Mechanical Engineers 2010. ‘Waste Not Want Not’. IMechE: London. Available as a PDF here: – retrieved 10/9/15
19. Fareshare, 2015. ‘About Us’. – retrieved 9/9/15

Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth). Born in London, I am very interested in peace and community and have a degree in Peace Studies. I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and my Permaculture Teaching Certificate in 2018 at Aranya in India. For me, permaculture is about so much more than garden design; I am mainly interested in applying ‘human permaculture’ as a complement to peace practices. In particular, I like to look at how human permaculture can be applied through psychology, communication and education techniques. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. With my husband, I’ve travelled a lot in Europe and Asia and encountered many permaculture and community projects. I have lived in various situations, from squatted land to intentional communities, as well as more ‘normal’ places, in the UK, Spain, Italy, Thailand and Vietnam. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and sometimes run dance meditation workshops. Currently, I live in the Andalucian mountains.

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