I began working with international nonprofits about eight years ago, first as an English teacher in Palestine and Guatemala. Having elected to retire early (at about 35) from the teaching game, I’m now regularly approached by organizations interested in including permaculture projects in their game plan. For me, this switch has been very exciting. I am able to continue to work towards a better future for and with others, while perhaps changing some of the systems and mindsets that are, in effect, destroying the planet. All in all, however, volunteering in this capacity is new to me.
Unfortunately, what I’ve come to realize, especially in regards to “project” volunteers, leading their own specialized undertakings, such as with the permaculture ventures I’ve been presented, is that the end result is often a broken-down version of what they likely left behind. There are abandoned, horribly destitute gardens the world over. There are hydroponic systems long forgotten and dried up. There are buildings half-finished, now covered in refuse and collapsing components. In other words, often what once seemed a rosy and nearly realized dream has gone the way of so many good intentions: forgotten.
A Later Life Objection to The Good Deeds I’ve Done
One of the things that I’ve come to believe, somewhat through my adoption of permaculture, is that much of my previous work with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) is no longer in line with how I feel. I thought I was doing something right—empowering kids with English—but the motivation—to help them get better-paying jobs, such as in tourism—felt lacking. In essence, I could recognize the need and suffering and wanted to do something, but on some level, I realized that I was encouraging them to enter the same system that had oppressed them (and those around them) and caused such devastating states of poverty. I wasn’t teaching them true self-empowerment, only pushing them further into the grasps of capitalistic compulsion.
People deserve the opportunity to succeed, and I had the ability to share a skill—speaking English—that could provide that opportunity. However, the likelihood any of the 300 some-odd students I taught English ever finding work out of it, let alone a home or a meal, is and remains extraordinarily low. What’s more, it would put them at the mercy of the Western economy and members of the English-speaking world deeming their countries worthy of visiting (or exploiting). It wasn’t really the stability I hoped for them (or for myself for that matter), and I’ve since come to believe that there are possibly more pertinent skills—permaculture—to teach people to sustainably feed and shelter themselves.
I’m not saying teaching English is a bad thing, but that I don’t necessarily believe it’s the best means of combatting malnutrition and poverty. Learning English has many better benefits than finding jobs in tourism or with international conglomerates. It opens up an entire world of educational materials and conversations that aren’t always readily available in other languages, even one so common as Spanish. My mistaken motivation at the time, however, was to help people reach higher economic levels within a financial system I was taking measures to abandon. While having money is undoubtedly an advantage I’ve had, valuing money over food and self-reliance—at least from my lofty perch—now seems tragic.
A New Issue with Sharing Permaculture
Fortunately for me (and hopefully them, too), I’d already built up quite a network of connections, as well as the confidence to travel somewhat blindly into new surroundings, so I was easily able to promote this new and improved method of my helping and sharing: permaculture. By the end of my first year of being involved with permaculture, simply due to my immediate location (more than qualifications) and enthusiasm, people were beginning to inquire about me (and my wife, also a former English teacher gone permie) doing projects with them, and we began hopping around, working and volunteering with farms, NGOs, and schools. Quickly, though, we noticed a new issue.
It seems, with permaculture, most of the time what people (generally new to the concept) believe they’ll get is a rather typical-looking, but somehow magically productive, organic annual vegetable garden. Increasingly, people are requesting ideas they’ve passingly heard about, such as aquaponics systems, regardless of the necessity/ practicality. I’ve never actually created nor—though I know there are—seen a successful example of aquaponics, though I have seen several failed ones. I’m not into aquaponics and associate it more with an urban setting (places I prefer to avoid), and while organically grown food is great, organic farming methods are not always respectful of the planet.
In essence, I’m coming to recognize that, though spreading permaculture this way would be a dream come true, the seemingly boundless possibilities of doing so are not quite as vast and accepted as I’d like them to be. Unlike my previous experience with teaching, my motivation now is much more focused on creating something that will last without Western influences and can continue without constant external inputs. Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed far too many projects that have not considered the sustainability and effectiveness of the contributors’ time, money, and effort to help better their fellow humans’ plot.
Recognizing the ”Impact” of What We Are Doing Before We Do It
I can’t help but feel regret on behalf of people who have done something out of the goodness of their heart only to have it ultimately fall flat of its intention. I have been one of these people, and I have been privy to the oversights of others. For the sake of improving, we need to be aware, permaculture and otherwise, as to the types of faux pas those involved in world aid often find ourselves both mocking and painfully laughing at. We mourn the loss of resources and manpower that might have otherwise been put to good use, and shamefully, we are all conscious we aren’t without our such blemishes on our own record.
Sometimes the perceived impact of what we are doing doesn’t jive with the result. I taught English at a school in which an organization, upon finding out that children were using the bathroom in the woods, donated an entire lavatory for the children, including the building, flush toilets, stalls (with privacy doors), and sinks. The school, however, didn’t have running water. I recently saw an abandoned aquaponics system in which all the stones had been removed and replaced with soil to make raised beds, which had also been abandoned. There simply wasn’t the staff or knowledge (the pumps had broken) to keep the operation running. And, there are any number of dusty textbooks donated, out-of-date computer rooms (with no internet access), and dried garden beds.
Such is the case with the promises of permaculture: We try to plan on a holistic, sustainable level, but we must stay acutely aware that the likelihood of hitting all the perfect chords right off the bat (or all at once) is slim. Some notes will hum true, some will be completely out of tune, and each must be played in the right progression. So, we must learn from the mistakes and successes of others (and our own), adjust and find new ways of approaching our aid projects. We have to address each new project on its own terms, and we must do so with the idea of slow change, modifying the status quo one well-established piece at a time in order to improve upon it in a lasting way.
Feature Photo: An abundant expanse of food—flax, chia, beans, corn, quinoa, mustard, etc.—growing at Project Somos in Guatemala. It feeds at-risk families every day.