Toward a permaculture for the people

Care of the Earth. Care of people. Fair surplus sharing. For whom? We need a permaculture for the people.

by Nanda Favaro

The ethical principles of permaculture have been an inspiration for my daily life for the last three years. Since then, Bill Mollinson´s ideas and work have, a sprout every day, become a resignification of my role as part of nature, woman, mother, worker and change maker. But this story has not been written without intricacies.

As a Brazilian citizen living in Sweden since 2014, I had to restart my professional and productive life from scratch while gestating, nurturing and raising a new human child. People with my profile — an immigrant mother living in the outskirts of Stockholm — face extra difficulties to enter the Swedish job market or even get simple opportunities in any area. Not to mention the many ways the “Latina” stereotype harm us. So, despite speaking very good Swedish and three other languages, having a master’s degree and long professional experience, I have been and am — as many of us have been and are — systematically under absorbed or even wasted by the job market.

For us, therefore, keeping on moving is a very tiring journey rather than a choice. To take minimal steps, since we don´t play on equal terms with the typical blonde/blue-eyed Swedish citizen, we must keep all channels and possibilities active and open at all times. From cleaning to assist in temporary and usually underpaid projects, we take all kinds of work to earn a living while proving that we are “valid”, “trustworthy”, “competent”. We start several educations at the same time to test us in different fields and skills, in the hope to crack the way in. We engage in all sorts of volunteer initiatives and side projects to “gather experience” and accumulate curriculum and portfolio. We knock on the door of people who can help us somehow. We build bridges, contents, critical masses. And, above all, we hope.

“No time, sister” has thus been the keynote of my life here, not because I think it is a bliss to live for five years within a permanent anxiety about what bets in life I should make, but because, as in a compost system, almost everything that falls in becomes nutrient for something that maybe, maybe can lead to harvest. While taking my Master in Communication for Development, therefore, I never stopped doing “all the rest”. And it was in this crevice that a shy plant sprang up — I finished my first permaculture course. Three years since I started making my first steps on the ecosocial/regenerative movement, I did not find the work of my dreams, but renewed dreams for myself, my community and the Earth. I did things I never imagined I could be able to do, I met people who changed my life, and I have been studying and putting into practice my own ecosocial transition. But while those seeds were sprouting slowly, I never turned my back to the other paths I have been building. And why? Because closing doors is not especially safe for people like me.

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Practicing in my first PDC, at Ecocentro IPEC in Brazil, which took me 3 years of savings.

In permacultural circles, I often hear that permaculture is the most important path to a just and sustainable world once it empowers any person with tools and resources to change the system from inside out, i.e. from the individual and community will to political decisions. That it´s (not only) a way of life, (but) the only one possible giving the state of things in the world. One that means, of course, “get off the grid” — the traditional job market, the big and noisy cities and the system itself.

I truly believe that engaging in permaculture is transformative, and I am a living proof of it. But the embodied assumption that a permacultural life is a matter of an individual choice, i.e. available to anyone, gives me the creeps. Most of these discourses often ignore the obvious: come out of the system is too a question of privilege. Once the majority of the people in this globe are completely deprived of accessing and practicing most of the permaculture principles, we cannot just assume that a life in balance with nature is there, just waiting to be lived. We cannot keep saying to people struggling to find any livelihood and survive that living more sustainable is just a matter of make it happen. We cannot keep blind to the huge privilege of owning land (or a garden or even a house) in a world that systematically kills its indigenous people, our original permaculturists, in order to steal their sacred homes.

No wonder, the overwhelming majority of people spreading this kind of coach-entrepreneur discourse are white men. The usual privileged suspects.

Take my story, which in many ways is a one of privilege too, as a starting point for this reflection. For three years, I have been fighting to make my transition amidst a terrain of precarious jobs and studies while managing almost all the reproductive and household work — this big female black hole. A parenthesis: I have the immense “bliss” (in quotes of course) to have by my side a partner who is aware that, if it isn’t good for me, it isn’t good for him either. But as much as we try to fairly share our housekeeping and caring responsibilities, the whole macrostructure of society — laws, habits, mentality — will always put much more pressure on women, and especially on mothers, and especially on mothers living at the margins of the system.

Another parenthesis: I am speaking from my specific standpoint of course. If permaculture is still a luxury for me, who despite being a B citizen in the Swedish social hierarchy, live in a society that facilitates sustainable education and practices, communal lawn use, and provides for human and basic rights, what to say about the distance between the knowledge that Bill Mollinson systematized and the real-life (of poverty, racism, lack of access to education, gender violence etc) of “peripheral” women around the globe? Or even other immigrant women which, in spite of living in Sweden, carry way more layers of oppression than me, a white citizen in my original homeland?

In the world we live in, even making true the urgent and completely obvious call of permaculture can be, itself, a colossal privilege. We must urgently open our eyes to it if we want to make big steps towards a new ecosocial paradigm. Otherwise, permaculture will never be able to come out of the same paradox seen in other movements: if it doesn’t serve to liberate and raise historically excluded groups, how can we say that it is about “taking care of people and the Earth”? By distancing itself from a more critical discourse and practice concerning gender, race and class perspectives, isn´t permaculture indirectly working to maintain the same system of oppression that sustains the capitalist, patriarchal and white supremacist system we all want to change?

The good news is that there are people awaking to this very question and working to make permaculture available to people and communities on the margins. The ones in urgent need of livelihoods, environmental and sanitary solutions, health, care, healing, basic rights, hope and collective utopias. Those who cannot afford a 1,400-euro Permaculture Design Certificate. This will be the theme for my upcoming text.

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