Decolonising Permaculture

Sarah Queblatin
Thursday, 28th October 2021

Sarah Queblatin suggests that before we start to ‘observe and interact’ – permaculture principle no. 1 – we need to step right back and honour local knowledge, seeking consent from people and place.

I work with climate vulnerable indigenous and ethnic communities in the Philippines1 weaving permaculture with Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) through my organization, Green Releaf Initiative.2 As the COVID-19 pandemic limited our face-to-face training, we had to adapt by developing blended learning approaches such as digital and printed tools to share. Additionally, this invited us to translate permaculture materials into different major languages of the Philippines through Permawika, a collaboration with permaculture translators from different parts of the country. As we were developing the translations to honor the diversity of our local languages, however, I didn’t feel we were honoring our local knowledge in its entirety. Thus, I am inspired to share a proposal to add ‘Principle 0’ before permaculture’s 12 design principles:

Resourcing Back to Source

The applied permaculture principle of zoning has a Zone 0, which is a reference to one’s home or a place that is a starting point for designing a regenerative system of energy flows outwardly through a further five zones.3 From a systems thinking approach, this represents the source of one’s worldview, influencing all visible and invisible elements, that results in the application of a design plan.

I believe we can explore a way to reframe permaculture’s 12 principles with the foundational lens of Principle 0 that I know is implicitly acknowledged, but not formalized as one of the key design principles. Because it is unspoken and unwritten, it can be a blindspot for our work. Given that many indigenous peoples and formerly colonized nations communicate more with oral traditions, this can result in permaculture mainly referencing dominant worldviews. Those from oral traditions often do not practice referencing a worldview, system, or method with a name or framework. You will therefore see many books and articles that reference such worldviews, but these are generally authored by Westerners or those from the dominantly white culture. I say this with recognition and appreciation that naming, documenting, articulating and amplifying are the gift of such cultures, without which we also wouldn’t have the permaculture approach nor such an effective methodology for addressing our needs. However, for the thousands of traditions with non-English and oral cultures, ecological wisdom is often embodied, tacit in its ways in everyday living, and outside of a formal Permaculture Design Course (PDC).

Culture in Permaculture

The 12 existing principles of permaculture begin with ‘Observe and Interact’. While they are not a linear set of principles that require this as the first step, my concern with this and the rest of the principles is that they already assume that we are in a place to take stock of what we want to do with the land and engage in observing, interacting, managing and giving feedback. Principle 0 invites us to step back and rethink our relationship to the ecosystem first. It reminds us that permaculture is not just ‘permanent agriculture’ which often is the first and popular reference to this practice. Permaculture is also ‘permanent culture’, a remembering of collective beliefs and narratives that shape how we perceive and relate to an ecosystem. Permaculture is remembering our sense of belonging by designing not just ‘with Nature’ but ‘as Nature’.

Acknowledging Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)

Many cultures and traditions recognize that Nature is sacred. Nature is often associated with deities or family members and so for many traditions, Nature is a living being. In some cultures, this recognition even requires those who wish to visit, document, or eventually use its resources to undergo some form of ritual or way of honoring the spirits of the land and asking the ancestors for permission. For example, to visit with the Talaandig tribe of Bukidnon, Philippines, one must first seek permission from the spirit guides and other keepers of the land through ritual.

Currently, in our work in Kalinga and South Cotabato, these climate vulnerable indigenous communities have rituals for planting and harvesting and food sharing systems. They even have rituals before cutting trees to invite the spirits of the tree to move to another location out of respect. Thus, as much as we can, every workshop we hold invites the local people to share their knowledge relating to their ecosystem first, always referring to their IKSPs (Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practices) as the original permaculture. The sharing of permaculture as we know it universally becomes a means of validation and reference.

There are many ways of acknowledging the identity of Nature. In my culture, we often announce our presence and ask permission from Nature spirits when we pass by a grove of trees or any uninhabited place and say, “Tabi (a)po” which means, “Excuse me, may I pass?” Buddhist monks in Thailand ordain trees to make sure they are not cut down. Some Australians and North Americans acknowledge the original custodians of the land they live in as part of their self-introductions. Today, there is a growing movement to recognize the Rights of Nature, giving it a voice and role in its protection and to all of us who depend on it for our survival.

This doesn’t have to be an indigenous approach. One must rethink what ‘indigenous’ really means, as it is in its essence a way of remembering our original relationship with our place. In contexts where land is not owned as ancestral domains or indigenous territories, Principle 0 can be applied as a simple consent or permission for use of the land, its wisdom, and its resources from the previous owner with clear agreements for managing it. As Nature’s elements are beyond political boundaries, developing ways of referencing the collective narrative of the ecosystem can be one way to truly recognize the identity of an ecosystem and design a permaculture plan along with it. 

Engaging through Inclusive Ecosystem Leadership

Acknowledgement is not enough. Indigenous peoples protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity, but are only 5% of the world’s population. They are some of the most climate vulnerable people on Earth and this means that as we depend on them greatly, their vulnerability is our vulnerability. We must engage with them and local wisdom bearers who hold key tacit knowledge and practices that protect and restore their ecosystems, having lived in their places over time, and across generations. Inviting them to lead and design the solutions that impact our shared habitats will prove to be a more regenerative, and not just a sustainable, approach.

Inspired by the many gifts permaculture brings, many practitioners and teachers venture out into indigenous territories, the Global South, and into vulnerable, ‘developing’ or ‘underdeveloped’ nations, with intentions to share their practice. While this is a noble cause, it may create more harm than good. I reflect on this for myself as well, as I am not indigenous, but my organization is often invited to share our work in indigenous territories, whether to address climate vulnerability or to support the restoration of indigenous food systems. Over time, we realized the best way to approach this is to partner with local organizations and support them to enable the solutions with the local indigenous group. This saves time and resources for travel, and fosters long-term commitment.

Before planning to travel to work on a site, Principle 0 invites us to review our intentions and to honor that every place already comes with existing ecological knowledge or practices. We must explore instead how one can complement and enable the local approach as the main design frame for a permaculture intervention. If we must be there, we might consider ensuring that our presence will truly empower the locals to lead (and not the opposite!). Some effective inclusive collaborations can come in the form of exchanges in learnings, the showcasing of best practices from their part of the world, and ways to highlight the local partnered programs to the international movement. One movement that does this well is Re-Alliance,4 a network of regenerative practitioners in humanitarian aid and development.

Narrative Sovereignty

To see the big picture as designers enabling social and ecological solutions, permaculturists can step out of a circle, and be the holder of the circle as if holding a container  –  inviting holders of the local Traditional Ecological Knowledge to be in the center and in charge of the narrative, and be its storytellers as much as possible.

Considering that many places that still hold TEK and indigenous wisdom operate more with oral cultures rather than written ones, such knowledge is passed down by word of mouth and may have limited ways of documentation in a written format. Principle 0 requires our presence on the landscape to take time to listen, dialogue, and with consent, eventually collaborate for collective impact. It also encourages us to ensure proper consent for the documentation, use and reference of this knowledge.

A passion project I have been prototyping called Kalikhasan – Living Story Landscapes5 works with multi-media artists and culture bearers using photography and video among other media to practice an approach called narrative sovereignty.

 Principle 0 offers ways for local partners to share their own experience from their own lens and voice, rather than tell it for them in its entirety. If storytelling is not easy, engaging more relatable communicators or sectors to facilitate may help locals. One example is working with an indigenous facilitator to deliver the session to indigenous communities. This can also include engaging one more local person closer to the community to ensure a familiarity of language, the history of the landscape and the local flora and fauna. 

Engaging counter-mapping tools so locals can map their own territories and landscapes is one way we can engage them to define the scope and definition of their ecological interventions. One inspiring initiative that we are collaborating with is the work of the Indigenous Peoples’ and Community Conserved Areas and Territories (ICCA) in the Philippines6 that uses digital 3D mapping of ancestral domains. This includes the many dimensions of a place – from natural to political and from economic to spiritual – that need to be identified in terms of geographic locations.

Restoring and Re-storying

In working with ethnic and indigenous communities affected by disasters and displacement, great care is taken in terms of using Nature to heal, especially when there has been loss of life and damage from floods, landslides, and trees that have been uprooted or fallen, among others. It is important to design with dignity in ways locals can use permaculture to reclaim their narratives in relation to the land where a lot of their identity is rooted.

In Marawi, south of the Philippines, we worked with ethnic Meranao IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) displaced by an ISIS affiliated siege of their city. We collabo-rated with local knowledge bearers and ethnobotanists to invite them to share their edible and medicinal plants and to design their garden in a resettlement. It is our hope that the plants they grow and consume can represent their stories of home, their place of belonging where they may never return. In the process, we hope that a sense of healing can take place given that gardens have therapeutic effects and support well-being.

 In Kalinga, north of the Philippines, we worked with the local government in developing a permaculture demonstration site after Supertyphoon Haima in 2016. It was to showcase the benefits of the transition out of GMO corn which the locals have resorted to for economic recovery from a failed coffee program. In the aftermath of Supertyphoon Mangkhut (2018), we were able to raise a small amount to support the community with initial relief goods from organic rice to beans, to dried fish that were locally sourced.

Based on our usual justice-based approach as a non-profit, we decided to allocate more goods for families with more children to be equitable about how we offer aid. This meant, however, that not everyone would receive something. In a feedback circle from our partner indigenous leaders, they advised it would have been better if we could have trusted their indigenous way of sharing. Coming from their strong communal nature, this meant giving everyone equal amounts, so everyone felt they received something, no matter how little. Then in the process, they would naturally share more with those in need. This humbling experience really changed my whole approach to working with indigenous communities.

As a living design framework, permaculture’s principles and ethics should continue to evolve over time. It is my hope that Principle 0 can contribute to the growing movement to decolonize not just permaculture, but the regeneration movement around the world, weaving it back to its roots  – the indigenous knowledge, systems and practices that it drew inspiration from. My proposal is only one of many movements that are amplifying the call, like Liberation Permaculture,7 Green Dreamer,8 Possible Futures,9 and this statement on White Washed Hope,10 the Global South Permaculture Network and many others.

I believe permaculture, a global movement of more than 20 million practitioners, can play a role in healing not only our ecological ecosystems but our socio-cultural ecosystems. Because of its growing popularity and predominantly white cultural following, it has the privilege of attention and support to inspire a much deeper remembering of our relationship with the Earth. I am sharing this story with the intention of inviting conversations about this topic through an emerging platform called Restore-Restory. We have already started with our first conversation11 as part of the Soil Circles of Commonland with the Presencing Institute. We will continue on with an action-research dialogue with New Stories12 to weave regenerative voices through regenerative dialogues where we feel there is a separation or divide. This can serve as an opportunity to unlearn and learn from each other in a time when growing systemic collapse is taking place and inviting us to work together, rather than apart, in deep adaptation.

Sarah Queblatin is a systems weaver on a journey to restore and re-story narratives of place and belonging, between soil and soul, between chaos and creativity. She co-founded Green Releaf Initiative and the Living Story Landscapes Project and holds a merit diploma from Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute.
www.soilsoulstory.com / [email protected]

All footnotes can be found at: linktr.ee/soilsoulstory

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