Basic Permaculture Principles and How These Apply to Development Practice

I started taking a Permaculture Certification Design course with a local Atlanta-based organization called Shades of Green. This is a 72-hour course spread over the course of 6-months and I have only assisted one extremely instructive weekend-long session. I’ll be assisting the next one very soon.

Permaculture is somewhat difficult to describe concisely, but essentially it’s a system of agricultural and social design principles that focus on using patterns and structures found in natural ecosystems. This includes closely observing one’s environment so that one can understand how it functions and the relationship one has with it. It also includes designing urban and rural systems—agricultural or not—with consciousness of the local biological/ecological processes that surround the area. Permaculture principles aim to work with the environment, rather than against it, so that conservation and efficiency can be maximized, and the human impact and disruption to the ecosystems we are part of can be minimized. Biomimicry is a perfect example of applied permaculture principles.

I first decided to take Permaculture Design because I thought it would teach me about sustainable agriculture. I have yet to delve into this part of the course, but what I have learned so far is extremely relevant to what I’m learning in my international development graduate program. Beyond academic theories, permaculture principles are extremely practical for any development practitioner attempting to design programs and interact with ‘beneficiaries’ in the field.

A condensed picture of my notes and insights that are to follow.

Here are the highlights:

  1. Permaculture pays attention to the entire, integrated ecosystem. It aims to gain awareness of how systems (natural or otherwise) are interconnected and how they interact. The more interconnected systems will have the most balance, health and resiliency. Resilience means that a system is able to withstand change and impact, and in the case of an ecosystem, it means it has the capacity for it to return to its natural state after a shock (fire, natural disaster, human destruction, climate changes, etc.)
  1. Permaculture attempts to be holistic in addressing challenges. Instead of being allopathic and treating a few symptoms, it attempts to discover the root cause of the “problem” and deal with from that level. In development, “poverty” (among other things) is often a symptom of larger power relations and exploitations from various root sources, historic and contemporary. This all takes a good while to understand, which is why…
  1. You cannot do anything until you have been in a place for at least all four seasons. This was one of the most relevant lessons for development practice, which is usually implemented by foreigners. While development work does not always involve changing landscapes, it always deals with unique contexts which require a deep understanding of the cultural, religious, economic, environmental, social and political components of a specific place—which often vary by season. Foreigners to this include those from outside the particular country, but also country nationals that have no affiliation to that place or community, who often sweep in and do “development” work with no real understanding of what the problem is, and are much less equipped to give a “solution.” Permaculture also teaches: Things are going to be different everywhere you go.
  1. In order to understand the unique and often, complex, context of a location (and/or situation), permaculture teaches the “Scales of Permanence.” These components makeup the minimum baseline research required to understand the things that can’t be changed, down to the things that can be changed immediately. When working with landscapes, these scales include climate, landforms, water, buildings and infrastructure, legal systems and other invisible structures, access and circulation like paths and roads, zones of use, vegetation and wildlife, soil, microclimates (caused by shady trees or sunny areas), aesthetics and lastly, knowing that most things are not permanent. Many of these scales are also applicable to development work, as most often access to natural resources, economic activities and many kinds of “invisible structures” have a huge impact on the work we aim to do. For those development practitioners that dream of moving and traveling around a lot, permaculture teaches: working in one location means you only have to do this level of analysis once. The more you know a certain place and its people, the less time you have to spend researching—and more time can be spent being helpful and efficient.
  1. Of the above, one of the most important things to understand is water. According to the instructor Ben Portwood: “Water management is among the most important decisions you can make. Water is a catalyst that permits or prevents all other projects.” He was mainly referring to water flows in landscapes and how that will affect your agricultural/landscaping projects, as well as impact manmade infrastructure; but in development, water access is a huge global issue, too. According to and WHO/UNICEF, more than 663 million—or about 9 percent of the global population—lack water in 2015. Furthermore, 1 in 10 people lack access to safe water, 1 in 3 people lack access to sanitation, with 946 million practicing open defecation (mostly in South Asia). More than half of the world’s children go to a school with no toilet, which is especially difficult for girls and women of menstruating age. Throughout the world, women and children spend 125 million hours each day collecting water, and every 90 seconds a child dies from a water-related disease. Additionally, 80 to 90 percent of U.S. water consumption is from agriculture—mostly the industrialized kind. Draughts are also occurring in several parts of the world including the “resilient” developed countries, so Ben’s math lesson was particularly intriguing. According to the session, in a 1 inch (2.5cm) rain, 1000ft2 (304m2) will receive 622 gallons (2,354.5 liters) of water. Fulton and Delkab County in Atlanta are a combined 806 squared miles (22,456,608,733 ft2/2,086,287,219m2) and receives about 50 inches (127cm) of annual rain, equating to more than 698 billion gallons (more than 2.5 trillion liters!) of water falling from the sky for free. Rain harvesting needs to be a thing—alongside new methods of sustainable agriculture.
  1. Permaculture advocates for contemplative observation, which means breaking down the objective observation versus the subjective interpretation. An observation’s interpretation is inevitably accompanied by our pre-made assumptions, mindsets and worldviews that could be either positive or negative, but always reflective of the subjective experiences, biases, judgments, and vantage point of the observer. Immediately analyzing and interpreting an observation will keep you from seeing the real thing or situation, without it being distorted. Thus, permaculture teaches the “Action Learning Cycle” in which designers must observe first, then interact, prior to designing. Then the cycle repeats and it’s ongoing (much like monitoring and evaluation should be.) This is important for development practitioners because we often come into situations with a lot of assumptions, usually stemming from our own experiences, which often have occurred far from the context that we end up working in. In order to succeed, development workers should spend much more time objectively observing and interacting with people, communities and the interconnected systems before they can begin to plan or design any program or policy.
Action Learning Cycle
A condensed picture of my notes and insights that are to follow.
  1. Lastly, permaculture promotes a deep respect for diversity in both, people and non-human life forms. In contemplative observation, we seek to understand what things are, how they function, and what their role is in a natural or social system. In the observation, we don’t judge or interpret anything—nothing is superior or inferior. We simply aim to understand something, by letting it exist without manipulation or the need to make it succumb to our will or perspective. We note how it interacts with other things. In a landscape, this means not deeming any specie as “invasive” or “bad,” even though it may technically be. Instead, we observe the conditions that have allowed for its presence and note the imbalance in the system that allows it to persist. In the words of my instructor Brandy Hall: “There is always a context for why something is growing.” After understanding all this, permaculture designers can begin to interact and decide what techniques can be used. No technique can be chosen until the designer fully understands what the “problem” is, and is certain of what he or she is trying to do about it. This is so relevant to development, which too often has pushed for inappropriate “solutions” to deep and complex issues, and which has historically been lathered with imperialistic mindsets and attitudes. Too many indigenous peoples and too much traditional knowledge has been disregarded and actively destroyed because it has been judged inferior and/or backward. While it’s unlikely to find development practitioners that don’t respect others or value diversity, it’s worth remembering to cultivate an open mind that will allow one to accept that maybe, our way isn’t the best way.

    A condensed picture of my notes and insights that are to follow.

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