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Permaculture and Refugees – Part 3

Resources of Refugees

In part 1 and 2 of this article series we explored how refugee situations can be reframed in our language and consciousness to recognise the potential for opportunity and growth which can be present for people in such situations, and how this reframing is being put into practice around the world, with some direct ideas from Rosemary Morrow about her work with Permaculture for Refugees (P4R) (2). This part will look in more detail at the resources which refugees already have, and how we can shift our thinking in order to encourage holistic social connections.


Practicing seeing abundance

Those in refugee situations need to be recognised as having value as human beings, regardless of whether or not they have papers. It seems important to highlight the difference here between compassion and sympathy. Feeling sorry for someone can be a very disempowering position to take, and arguably is the underpinning cause of dependency on outside assistance in situations like refugee camps, which usually comes in the form of international aid. This dependency exacerbates unsustainable situations, and thus those who are dependent require even more aid, in a cycle which permaculture teacher and author Looby Macnamara calls a “spiral of erosion” (3).

Luckily, we have the tools right now to flip around such erosive patterns and create instead “spirals of abundance”(3). Acting with compassion includes validating the reality of those around us and recognising the opportunities present in every situation; in this way we can “turn problems into solutions” (4).


Human Power

As I explored in part 1 and in other places (5, 6), people moving from one place to another can be viewed not as a threat but as fellow entities who can provide rich opportunities for growth and connection; a flow of ideas, cultural practices, skills and emotional connections which can benefit any community. Humans escaping a situation of conflict or other discomfort who end up being placed in refugee camps often have something in common; that they are members of a particular cultural community which has not been ‘officially’ recognised.

As such, refugee camps or other relocation situations often become a haven for the culture of the homeland which they left behind. Members of the culture who find themselves living together in refugee camps often preserve cultural practices and communal activities, such as spiritual rituals or symbolic clothing. In this way they have very strong community ties and interdependent social organisation which is often a goal we strive for in social permaculture design. In the situations from which these communities are seeking refuge, such cultural practices may be completely forgotten or intentionally discouraged, but the refugee communities keep them alive.

An example of cultural preservation here in Northern Thailand is the work of Thai Freedom House which encourages free practice and teaching of traditions and knowledge from the Shan people, such as language, dance, ritual observation and practical skills, to “develop a sense of pride and sense of self in our students so that they pass that on to the next generation and retain it in the case that they return home to Shan State.” (7)

Shan Fisherman
Photograph by mydaydream (pixabay)


Refugee Camps = Seed Banks?

Another positive aspect of cultural preservation is that practices which were initially isolated to one geographical location are able to spread to new places and people. For example, the interpretation of Buddhism as practiced in Tibet was previously known only to people living in or visiting those remote snowy hills; whereas since the Chinese invasion of this land, Tibetan refugees have brought their culture to communities all over the world, and the Dalai Lama has become somewhat of an internationally respected leader (see for example 8).

Examples such as this can be equated to the concept of seed saving.  By preserving heritage varieties and species of plants, seed banks allow us to access a diverse range of food sources, thus making us more resilient and diverse as a culture (see for example 9). In exactly the same way, refugee communities who preserve their cultural practices and share them with other communities are enriching the social ecosystem by providing a diverse range of sources of cultural and spiritual fulfilment, and thus allowing our global society to be more resilient.

Tibetan Prayer Flags
Photograph by Tama66 (Pixabay)

Moving Onwards

When we take seeds from a seed bank in one place and plant them in another, even if we then preserve that particular strain by collecting the next generation of seeds, the plants themselves will be fundamentally different from their parents, due to the new environmental factors. In the same way, bringing one form of cultural practice to another culture will probably end up fundamentally changing both cultures. In the long run this can help to create more resilience overall, and so it is important to recognise that while historical traditions, rituals and ways of life can be upheld, if we are to encourage a truly permanent culture then we also need to be ready to adapt such practices to current situations.

In long-term ‘temporary’ situations such as with the Sahwari in Western Sahara (10) or various communities from the Karenni and Shan states in Northern Thailand (11), the situation of conflict has been going on for so long that the “camps” are the only homes which many of the inhabitants have ever known. If someone is born in a refugee camp but for their whole life is told that they don’t belong there, yet they have no connection to their so-called ‘homeland’, it may not be helpful to their development. It’s like an umbilical cord stretching in a long and painful trail back towards the womb which no longer serves as a home. For the baby to grow, the umbilical cord needs to be cut; but the mother is still appreciated.


Humans Welcome

By practising compassion for those in refugee situations and welcoming their gifts we can enrich our lives through hospitality and mutual exchange. The fact that hospitality of this kind is not present in many places can be seen as a form of violence which is inherent within those cultures which exclude refugees from mainstream society. To create more peaceful societies, it seems essential that we change this and put into practice compassion for our fellow humans. In future, perhaps one of the outward shapes this compassionate communication will take is the dissolution of borders, as is already in place in much of the European Union (6). This has to begin on an individual level, so we can all take steps right now to shift our perceptions to a more inclusive view of humanity.



1.  Ashwanden, C, 2019. ‘Permaculture and Refugees part 1: Turning ‘problems into solutions’ in marginalised communities’. Permaculture News, 25/8/19. – retrieved 27/10/19

2.  Ashwanden, C, 2019. ‘Permaculture and Refugees part 2: An Interview with Rosemary Morrow. Permaculture News, 22/10/19. – retrieved 27/10/19

3.  Macnamara, L, 2013.People and Permaculture: Caring and Designing for Ourselves, Each Other and the Planet. Permanent Publications: East Meon, UK.

4.Tropical Permaculture, 2019. ‘Permaculture Principle No.4: The Problem is the Solution’.       – retrieved 27/10/19

5.  Ashwanden, C, 2015. ‘Human Permaculture: Looking at migration as flow to solve problems’. Permaculture News, 11/9/15. – retrieved 27/10/19

6.  Ashwanden, C, 2016. ‘The EU Referendum: Towards a Global Citizenship?’ Abundance Dance Garden, 25/6/16.       – retrieved 27/10/19

7.  Thai Freedom House, 2019. ‘Shan Cultural Preservation Project’.       – retrieved 27/10/19

8.  The Dalai Lama, 2008. Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. Harper Perennial Press: New York City, USA.

9.  Haworth, C, 2015. ‘Seed Saving for Beginners’. Abundance Dance Garden, 28/3/16. – retrieved 27/10/19

10.  Sipiński, D, 2015. ‘A Story of Waiting’. New Internationalist, 1/11/15. – retrieved 27/10/19

11.  Burma Link, 2019. ‘Refugee Camps’. – retrieved 27/10/19

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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