Permaculture & Indigenous Cultures

Maddy Harland
Thursday, 21st May 2015

Maddy tells the story of discovering a forest garden high up in the Bhutanese Himalayas. The gardeners had never read a permaculture book or taken a course. Isn't it time permaculturists acknowledge where our knowledge has come from and show greater respect towards the indigenous people who have grown polycultural stacked food systems for millenia?

Some years ago, Tim and I were walking on a hot, dry day in the Himalayas to find a monastery in the Punakha District in Bhutan. Located near Lobesa, it stands on a round hillock and was built in 1499 by the 14th Drukpa hierarch, Ngawang Choegyel. The ‘Divine Madman’, maverick saint Drukpa Kunley (1455–1529), had previously blessed the site and built a chorten there. I have a soft spot for this Divine Madman. Instead of trying to teach his followers the Buddhist Way with protracted meditation, abstinence and scholarship, he chose singing, jokes and outrageous behaviour, saying that divine knowledge was not governed by rules. He is also the saint who advocated the use of phallus symbols as paintings on walls and flying carved wooden phalluses on house tops at the four corners of the eaves, but I digress... 

We crossed paddy fields and walked uphill in the heat, arriving at this monastery near a small agricultural village. There on the hillside was a little, but perfect, forest garden, a layered polyculture of annual and perennial fruits and vegetables with all the crops adequately spaced to take advantage of the sunlight, but also with the benefit of shade in the dry heat of the day. Each niche in the layers was optimised for plant health and yields. I had of course read that Robert Hart, who brought forest gardening to Britain in the 1970s and ’80s, was inspired by the forest gardens of Kerala in India. So here I was seeing a Bhutanese version, evolved through observation of nature, experience and common sense.

Permaculturists can spend rather a lot of time trying to explain what permaculture is and I am no different. In many ways it is rather a difficult word, a concept that is alien to our post-industrial western society. What we can forget to do is to attribute its origins. It was not really ‘invented’ by two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, in a bolt of enlightenment. I believe it evolved, and was coded from, protracted study of perennial systems in agroforestry, tree cropping, Yeoman’s keylining and specifically Bill’s interaction with, and observation of, Aboriginal and other indigenous peoples and their practices wherever he travelled. These ways of observing and working with nature are the legacy and heritage of indigenous peoples all over the globe. They do not call it permaculture. They have often not heard the word, yet they understand nature’s patterns and use them to create polycultural, perennially based, energy efficient homes, gardens, farms, communities... These are found all over the world where remnants of those cultures have been allowed to survive. They deserve acknowledgement and respect.

So no one actually ‘invented’ permaculture. Good ideas and good practices have been borrowed from indigenous cultures. These have been mixed with appropriately scaled renewable technologies and low embodied energy materials to try and design the most ecologically elegant solutions to our current problems: pollution, excessive consumption of resources, tools and practices that rely on mechanisation driven by fossil fuels.

This is a big year for permaculture with many events and conferences happening in the world. This is especially so for the UK, as we are hosting the next International Permaculture Conference and Convergence in and near London. The Permaculture Association (Britain), our educational charity, wants to make this event as open and inclusive as possible. They have actively sought funds for bursaries to enable people from all over the world to attend. They do not want to host a gathering only for people who can afford it. Their aspiration is to create opportunities for all delegates to share knowledge and information, respectfully and from diverse cultures.

In a world of escalating racial tension and conflict, I believe it is time for the permaculture movement to open its eyes and actively support a process that acknowledges and respects its legacy from indigenous people. We are all unconsciously conditioned by our colour and our upbringing. I had thought I was a pretty liberal and educated white woman, but now I understand that there are parts to my psyche that are hidden from me – my ‘privilege’ – a second skin I barely see. There are therefore experiences that I will never have and probably never fully understand, however much I educate myself.

For the permaculture movement to grow, we have to face our personal and cultural limitations and open our eyes to them. We also need to understand our countries’ unvarnished histories, acknowledge our differences as well as our similarities, and appreciate the indigenous legacy that permaculture thinking has appropriated and taken as its own. If we can do this, we begin a journey towards a more genuinely polycultural movement. This must be a movement of humility and respect – one that of course abhors all violence and extremism – but not one that uses satire and factionalism in the name of free speech. Instead, we need to learn to place our solidarity in peace, co-operation and the humble desire to learn and grow.

Maddy Harland is the co-founder and editor of Permaculture magazine and Permanent Publications. You can read a digital copy free of charge here. All print and digital subscribers can read 20 years of back issues totally for free.

Further resources

A sustainable approach to the world's economies: centralise happiness and well-being

Can an entire country go organic?

kerst ster |
May 28, 2015 - 3:32pm
So its all just common sense?! Wow, I never thought about that...
Pinquiniusch |
May 28, 2015 - 6:06pm
Ohh we've done it all wrong for all those years!
kerst ster |
May 28, 2015 - 7:51pm
Of course our lack of "ecolitteracy" is going to trouble us for a while.... as children of the what Rob Hopkins calls, age of cheap oil.
Maddy Harland |
August 17, 2015 - 2:58pm
If I have implied we are 'wrong' then I have communicated inadequately. What I am saying is that we need to acknowledge the contribution indigenous people have made to permaculture systems - and appreciate the long history of that contribution. I do not think that Bill Mollison would have any problem at all with those sentiments. It is not a question of being 'wrong', it is more a desire to refine, evolve and appreciate the sources of our knowledge.
Skepteco |
September 5, 2015 - 11:37am
I didnt think there was ever any doubt that "permaculture" was largely inspired by traditional systems and studying natural forests. However, multi-layered polycultures do make a lot of sense in the tropics and sub-tropics where there is intense sunlight; in cloudy wet cool temperate climates, not so much. Forest gardens are good for fruit and leafy greens, but can be much more awkward to manage. They are not very good for the staple or high-energy crops that provide 50%+ of our calories- we need large industrial models for grains, given our populations are many times what they were at the time these "traditional" systems were developed. Remember, the nut plantation at the ART in Devon is essentially a *true* monoculture of single species trees (walnuts or sweet chestnuts) and the grass is tightly mown underneath with no understorey, otherwise it would be much harder to collect the nuts and the yields would be far less. Forest gardens have a role and can be fun but in no way will they or could they replace modern industrial farming in western Europe.

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