I worked for many years with NGOs, most of which were providing English education in order to provide people with the ability to make living in industries, like tourism or international business. Generally, I volunteered in communities where impoverishment was beyond anything I’d ever seen growing up in the USA: Houses were lean-tos constructed from randomly amassed scrap materials, schools often lacked electricity and/or materials and/or books, and people suffered horribly from malnutrition.
The need for empowerment was great, indeed, and for a long while, the ability to speak English was perhaps the best thing I could offer in aid. As a matter of fact, I’m still very closely linked with some of the organizations with which I’ve worked, and I support them where I can as institutions striving to create better lives for people, often addressing immediate issues of need, such as food, clothing, and healthcare. However, my point of view, having now studied permaculture, has changed drastically from what it used to be.
Empowerment, for me, has become one of those words that perhaps gets tossed around too lightly or distorted too readily. Though knowing English still seems a valuable tool to becoming empowered (the ability to communicate, the vast amount of resources available through it), tourism and international business, for instance, no longer fit into my mold of what empowerment is. A sustainable, self-sufficient model couldn’t be based on first-world tourists or first-world companies providing viable means of living. That’s reliance, not independence.
I recently stumbled upon a passage questioning the value of permaculture as something to “preach” to people in dire situations, such as some of those I’ve worked with. The author was struggling with how permaculture applied to people with nothing, struggling to put food on the table right now, to provide clothing for children, to maintain shelter suitable for living. Growing a food forest, or owning the land to do so, he suggested, isn’t really an option for these people. So, what role can permaculture play in overcoming their struggle?
Permaculture is a holistic solution.
For me, in situations of such need, obviously immediate aid—giving the man a fish or medical care or a home—is necessary and can provide some relief, but it fails to address the issue. Even long-term efforts, such as providing the ability to speak English, can get someone a better job, yet this is not always the answer to a problem. If speaking English gets you a job with a company that is exploiting the laborers and land of your country, then that hardly seems the best solution to a nationwide problem. Now, you specifically may have money, but it comes in aid of worsening the situation overall.
Permaculture, on the other hand, first addresses our ability to do for ourselves in simple, healthy ways, fostering relationships with the planet and community, with particular attention to what and who is around us. Rather than helping this company export food produced in an unsustainable, exploitive manner so that you can earn enough money to go buy the food you helped export, now processed and returned, the idea would be finding a means/space to produce food—or clothes, or energy, or education, or homes—for yourself, hopefully as an entire community with the easily accessed local resources. Permaculture teaches self-reliance on a basic level rather than integrating into, often, the very systems of destruction that have created such need.
Rather than looking at one thing—learning English or medicine or a house—as the answer to the problems of poverty, permaculture encourages us to act holistically. We can’t learn if we are hungry and malnourished. We can’t stop being hungry if we don’t eat. We can’t eat if we don’t have food. We can’t have food if we don’t know how to produce it, be that growing it ourselves or obtaining the funds to buy it. And, if we can’t produce food then we are going to be hungry and unable to learn. In other words, everything is connected, every cog necessary for the societal mechanism to run well, and the best solution is one that addresses the problem accordingly.
Also, permaculture, as the name suggests, looks to create permanent systems. Medical care is great, but if people still lack food, then they’ll need it again soon. Providing a home is great, but if people are plagued with illness, they’ll have to go elsewhere to find care. In other words, the solution to one problems doesn’t solve the others. People need food and healthcare and shelter and community and knowledge. To solve the problems of poverty permanently, all of these things must be addressed. Only then will the system have a chance to function.
Think of it like soil: We can add fertilizer to infertile soil, but that Band-Aid will only provide food this season. It will have to be reapplied again and again until we take the time to provide the soil with an entirely new system for remaining fertile. This is a long, arduous process, but one that actually stops the need for outside inputs. All of the necessities for healthy soil—organic matter, biodiversity, unturned rest, microorganisms—must be in place before we can once again grow abundance without bringing stuff in.
Permaculture is empowerment.
One of the things I think has been most damaging about aid work is the tendency for it—for those of us providing it, including myself—to push everyone towards an incarnation of a first world existence. It seems to insist we all need electricity or internet service. It provides long-life, processed foods and a certain style of clothing. Houses have to be of a certain structural integrity and made from universal, manufactured materials approved by regulatory organizations. People need jobs centered around earning money so that they can buy furniture, cars, and groceries. Because our life is notably more comfortable with these things, we assume they are what everyone wants, and that anyone with less is surely lacking.
However, reality seems to be suggesting otherwise. Obesity, heart disease, and cancer are rampant in affluent countries due to poor, but commercially encouraged, eating (and food production) habits. People are overworked, overstressed and unhappy because they spend lives dependent on long hours devoted to companies that don’t value them enough to provide job security or retirement plans. Ninety-percent of a day might be consumed with a tiny screen on a handheld device and bouts of rage over the political follies of corrupt government, from which no actual change seems to come, and painfully biased campaigns for public office. Sure, they have things, comforts unimaginable to friends of mine in Guatemala, but that doesn’t always equate to contentedness.
Ironically, the rising trend—as seen with the rise of permaculture in the first world—is to go back to a simpler, more self-sufficient existence.
For us, if the banks fail or a Y2K scenario happens, the world promises to completely meltdown, and our lives with it, but if we weren’t basing our existence around money and global economies, this wouldn’t be the case. While there is something to be said for luxuries, like HDTV and hot water heaters, stability and happiness are not products of them, and the toll that our indulgences have put and continue to pile onto the planet are beginning to produce a completely different sort of global meltdown in the form of exaggerated rates of climate change. In short, what sort of life should we be leading people towards, one of symbolic capital affluence or one of self-reliance and relevant—edible—abundance.
Permaculture promotes a different way of living, and in it is this very thing, in my opinion, that makes it the best option for battling impoverishment. Communities are built around small, often trade, economies while the ethic of people care encourages us to, communally speaking, help ourselves (by helping each other). Spaces are developed organically to be productive and biologically diverse, creating a varied food production using cyclical techniques that reduce waste and sewage problems. Homes are comfortable for their environments, built from local and renewable resources immediately available and sensible for the location. (The typical cinderblock and corrugated tin shacks make no sense in tropical climates, but raised platform palm thatched huts do.). They work efficiently rather than energy-intensively, using passive systems for cooling/heating, lighting, and providing water. To me, permaculture offers a way out of lifestyles that have ultimately betrayed us “first-worlders”.
Permaculture is applicable.
So, what role can permaculture play in overcoming their struggle? Well, permaculture doesn’t require that someone owns land or has money, nor do we need degrees or jobs in the modern, office-sense of the word. If we have the knowledge and the time, we can build food forests and sustainable garden systems on community or shared properties, that collectively maybe we can acquire, either via money or government grants or private donation. We can construct homes out of mud or bamboo or straw bales, resources that are either free or incredibly cheap and renewable. We can improve our health by providing ourselves with a healthy diet of home-grown fruit and vegetables rather than nutritionally-deficient food products. In this way, permaculture is the very thing that we should be sharing with those who are struggling to feed and cloth themselves.
Permaculture is very applicable when we think of utilizing public spaces like schools or parks to grow food, or those limited private spaces like the rooftop or walls of even a lean-to, though with permaculture we can aspire to more substantial dwellings from local resources, even if it is nothing more than the dirt beneath our feet. Permaculture makes sense, though it needs knowledgeable application, in terms of creating simple, efficient, productive—unlike in most of the first world—waste management, water harvesting, and passive energy systems for cooperative communities. Permaculture thinking can provide financially desperate populations a different method for addressing their problems, one not reliant on finding a position in a system that has them indefinitely at the bottom rung, but instead one in which they can have some personal control over their own destiny.
Now, certainly this is not to say it can all be done without aid, whether financial, educational, or material. Building a healthy garden is much faster with some compost, a plot of land, and some seeds, but it’s a lot better and more reliable than collecting dropped bags of rice from planes. Catching rainwater is much easier with some gutters and a barrel, digging wells possible only with the right machinery, but they are far better than bottled water or contaminated sources that make everyone ill. Homes are much more comfortable when they rely on passive energy design as opposed to electrical systems that fail or for which the residents can’t afford to pay the bills. External outputs are sometimes needed to get an ecosystem back in order, and the same can be said for human settlements.
In short, there are certainly elements of aid—namely, land grants or donations—that would help greatly to right the wrongs in shantytowns, such as the worried author had observed, but permaculture can most certainly play a huge role in fixing issues in the years to come. To leave it out of the conversation because other needs are more immediate would negate the path to a lasting solution, a holistic change, which is why I believe permaculture—in addition to well-planned and calculated immediate aid—is exactly what people in disadvantaged situations need to hear about. It is to their advantage that we “first-worlders” use our advantage to help them create lives better, for both people and the planet, than we’ve done for ourselves.
Feature Photo: Kids in Casa Guatemala Who Helped Us with a Soil Rebuildng and Erosion Prevention Project (Emma Gallagher)