This is a story about how permaculture has taken root in Timor Leste, with unexpected results, and has become blended with Timorese culture and the push for sustainable food productions and development.
It’s a story that started 15 years ago, and by telling it we can hopefully provide some knowledge and inspiration for others wanting to integrate permaculture techniques into developing countries.
We go back to the year 2000, one year after Timor Leste’s incredible and tragically brutal passage to gain independence from Indonesia. The Timorese population had finally achieved what they craved and fought for over many long years, but it came at an awful cost, not just to the people but with buildings, crops, trees and animals also being destroyed.
In that year, permaculture was introduced to Timor Leste by some dedicated Australians hoping to help rebuild and renew the country in a sustainable, culturally appropriate way. Fortuitously, or perhaps fatefully, they teamed up with some of Timor Leste’s student activists from the occupation, led by Eugenio “Ego” Lemos, who had already started an organic farming movement pre independence.
Permaculture grew and slowly spread through trainings and demonstration sites and it was already clear that permaculture went hand in hand with community based development work and could help guide growth, livelihood and agriculture development. It was also clear that permaculture was eagerly accepted by Timorese people, not just because of the techniques, design ideas and common sense approach, but because the focus on community and fair share resonated strongly with Timorese culture and identity.
From this initial work a Timorese NGO, Permatil (Permaculture Timor Leste), was born and still thrives today.
Bamboo watering pipe - Permatil workshop demonstrating using a bamboo watering pipe for fruit trees
Quick note on tropical permaculture
A quick sidestep - For people wanting to familiarise with permaculture in developing countries: Permaculture ethics and principles demand that each and every project/program/farm etc. is unique to suit the conditions, the people, the culture, the needs, the resources available, the educational capacity and the goals. This is the same everywhere, and results in not just very different designs and different techniques but most importantly very different approaches for education and achieving the desired outcomes.
Permaculture is becoming more and more used in development work, because its holistic, community based design and approach is easily integrated into programs for; health, livelihood, sustainable agriculture, environment, appropriate technology, food security, food sovereignty and, critically, climate resilience.
However, for all of the great books, videos and resources about permaculture created for the temperate climate regions, there is precious little available for the people’s of the tropical world, and in languages other than English. And as permaculture spreads, as tropical folk aspiring for positive change hungrily devour any permaculture literature they can get their hands on, the need to develop information specifically for the tropics and in the native languages of the tropics becomes vitally important.
Making natural pesticides - An organic gardening training session on making and using natural pesticides with Permatil near Behedan
So back to Permatil.
After initially running courses and workshops including setting up demonstrations, sometimes with expat guidance and sometimes not until 2005, the Timorese staff made a strategic decision to grow their base and form long-term partnerships and working relationships.
It is important to note that while there has been many expat permaculturists providing advice and helping to improve capacity and resources, all of the decisions and the running of the NGO has been driven by the Timorese staff that are passionate about permaculture and creating sustainable, community driven outcomes for their nation’s future. This has created longevity and ownership in the NGO and its projects, and has made Permatil one of Timor Leste’s most respected local NGOs.
Notable steps include forming a national farmers network called Hasatil as well as the Perma-scouts movement combining Scouts with permaculture and sustainability. Many educational materials have been developed including a teachers flip-chart series, posters, films and children’s books in partnership with other local groups like Bibi Bulak theatre group and Arte Moris art school. Permatil has also run several sustainability and food sovereignty events, and promote local, healthy foods at every opportunity they get.
A handbook for tropical permaculture
In late 2002 Permatil decided that a permaculture handbook was needed, in Timorese language, to back up the trainings and provide ongoing guidance. Initially it was thought that this text would be around 50 to 80 pages and take six months to produce. As can occasionally happen, the result proved slightly different than the initial plan...
Six months became one year, one year became two... And then it took a solid five months working with artists to produce the detailed illustrations. Three years later a 400 page comprehensive guidebook with over 1,500 illustrations came off the press! The very patient and understandably exasperated donors were relieved to say the least but very happy with the result. To make the book the best it could be, rather than just get it finished was the best decision made, and was thankfully well vindicated.
Permatil has a long term approach to its projects. After a community consultation process has been undertaken, the results are turned into a multi-year program of trainings, demonstrations and monitoring. All work is based around a permaculture approach and the end goals are broken up into bite size trainings that can easily be absorbed, tested and duplicated. The guidebook has provided a continual reference guide for community members between training and monitoring.
The guidebook is also being very well used by the Agriculture and Education departments of the Timorese government, as a university text, and by other NGOs and community members. Since the first edition there has been three Tetum language reprints. An unforeseen bonus is that the illustrations have also been used to create training flip charts and posters that many organisations use for education. The guidebook has also been adapted, translated and republished in Indonesia by IDEP Foundation. And there’s been a lot of interest and use in other countries too.
To quote a testimony from the renowned permaculture author, trainer and practitioner Rosemary Morrow:
“It’s strength lies in the number of strategies and techniques it offer practitioners. The book is easy to handle and well indexed. The drawings are clear and represent a reality for readers.
"The book’s potential is beyond the islands of SE Asia. For example I had some chapters of the book translated into Luganda in Uganda and it was immediately swallowed up by keen students and we could have printed many many copies.
"Having taught in so many tropical countries with their range of ecosystems, it is evident that the guidebook needs wider dissemination around the equatorial regions. All equatorial east and west Africa, and then there is South America. One of the problems in disseminating permaculture information is lack of suitable and relevant resources particularly for the tropic regions. I hope the present book will be revised, updated and made available to students and farmers to meet a need for their will and right to know, and render their lives more sustainable and productive.”
Which leads us to present day and a new and exciting project. Permatil have joined up with Xpand Foundation, Disruptive Media and permaculture advisors including Rosemary Morrow to start the process of updating and rewriting the guidebook.
Why? The aim is to not only upgrade and improve the guidebook but also to generalise it for use in all tropical regions. In essence we are hoping to produce a practical educational resource that will provide the same benefits in Africa, SE Asia, Polynesia, Melanesia, the Caribbean and the tropical Americas that we have seen in Timor Leste. Most importantly, to provide knowledge, techniques and skills that will reduce the severity of global climate change and provide adaptation and resilience to climate change impacts.
A success of the first guidebook was that Permatil wanted to provide simple but complete knowledge with a focus on practical techniques backed up by detailed illustrations, which enabled everyone, including semi-literate and illiterate users, to glean information from it. The information is aimed at strengthening and building communities from the ground up and almost all of the techniques are able to be duplicated by anyone no matter their economic and social circumstance.
The new guidebook will follow this approach and take it another step: it will be available in hard copy and online to download for free, chapter by chapter, so that it can easily reach the target audience, because only when information is available to everyone will true equality be available to everyone.
Permatil and its partners strongly believe in free share as a means to enable independence, community strength and resilience.
In time the aim is to work with partner organisations in different countries to translate the guidebook into various languages and post them online as well.
A gift from Permatil and Timor Leste to the tropical world.
Good luck and go well with your permaculture projects too.
Can You Help?
Can you support Permatil and help them create the updated Permaculture Guidebook? Visit https://chuffed.org/project/permacultureguidebook for more information.
For more information on the project visit http://permacultureguidebook.org/
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