Among the Haudenosaunee, Skywoman‘s daughter became Mother Earth and out of her body came the gift of the Three Sisters to sustain the people.
Indigenous Nation Rebuilding Through Gardening; pg 43
Care for people and care for planet, two ethics of permaculture, go hand in hand. It is for this reason that environmental restoration and feeding people are so readily achieved through permaculture. A high standard of living for the planet’s humans is not mutually exclusive from a high standard of living for the rest of Earth’s residents! To successfully complete this beautiful task, we must understand a few things about how to make a change in a manner that is truly liberating for humanity.
There is no such thing as environmental restoration that is mutually exclusive from feeding the people, as you cannot feed the people without restoring the environment–we will run out of resources once again if we do not restore our soils, sequester some of our carbon emissions, and return our production to the hyper local level so as not to repeat our mistakes. Permaculture is a potent answer on this front; but more precisely, grassroots sovereignty and control over food production is a potent answer, combined with cultural revitalization and connection to traditional roots.
Small-scale organic farms, according to a United Nations study, are literally the only way to feed the world. Restoring control over food systems to the people is empowering in that it can be a vessel for cultural revitalization (re-skilling, implementation of traditional agroforestry practices, empowerment through pride in a unified identity) and alleviates poverty (healthy food produced in the home cannot be withheld by powers-that-be due to the family’s lack of funds).
Permaculture as a Tactic to Catalyze Positive Change
How can we use permaculture most effectively as a tool for empowering social change without causing more oppression by accident (simply due to a lack of sufficient knowledge of how power structures seep into personal interactions and the systems we create)?
Before I delve into specific methods, I must make a disclaimer. All too often traditions, motifs, and practices are removed from the cultural context and appropriated for some other use, leading entire groups of peoples to be silenced and thus oppressed by an imperialistic system. Even this article risks concealing the original meaning, as I am not an original knowledge and tradition holder of the cultural traditions I reference here. I simply seek to call attention to the origins of the methods we permaculturists use, but I do not claim anything beyond that–it is not my place to claim to be a traditional knowledge holder of a culture I was not raised within, especially without permission. This is simply an introduction!
To Understand What to Do Differently, We Must Understand Why it is Done This Way Now
There are tangible methods to walk the talk and hold ourselves and our community accountable as we build permaculture systems. Focusing on the social aspect of permaculture (relationships between people; politics, culture, and power structures) is an integral pillar, just as necessary as the construction of physical systems (how to build swales, rainwater collection, building hugelkultures).
They are intertwined–rainwater collection, for example, is illegal in many places (!) so collecting it is arguably a political act; though one that is necessary for survival. Rainwater collection has also been traditionally practiced by many cultures, such as by the ancient Nepalese. It may be useful to take a moment to consider why rainwater collection–literally the ability to collect your own water from the sky that literally gives it to you–has been made illegal.
A knowledge of why we aim to do something can inform how we do it–if we know how to do something but don’t know why, we can be easily led. Beyond this, in considering why things have happened, or why the status quo is what it is, we can “follow the money” so to speak; there are questions we can ask that will tell us what is being concealed from us.
Once we know what is being concealed, we can ask: who does this benefit? Who does this suppress? We can then go about the business of learning how to lift one another up and live together in harmony. Returning to the example wherein rainwater collection, a cultural practice necessary for survival as sovereign beings, has been made illegal: who does this supress? Who does this benefit? We need only to look to water bottling companies to see the human rights violation. Let’s look closer at how this relates to permaculture.
The Deeper the Roots, the Taller the Tree
In looking at how permaculture can be utilized as a tool to liberate communities from oppression, we need to understand the roots of the practices we implement, which were developed long ago by cultures around the world. As just a couple of the innumerable examples:
1.Rice paddies were invented in China around 7000 years ago–long before the terms aquaponics and duckaponics were coined–and have traditionally utilized the symbiotic relationship of: fish to provide nutrients for the rice, rice to clean water and provide nutrients for the fish and ducks, and ducks for pest control. Cultural China writes that the practice “ably solves the problem of water pollution, a severe problem the whole world is suffering.“
However, funding sources today are often times geared towards the use of pesticides instead of ducks, which degrade the environment, poison the rice paddies, and disregard the traditional Chinese practice; so acknowledging and honoring the place of ducks within the planting system is important for both restoring/protecting a cultural practice and protecting the environment.
Duck-rice-paddies are a useful method for food production and building soil fertility within permaculture while promoting a biodiversity-led approach to pest management rather than devastating usage of chemicals; but it extends beyond this in the context of local villages in China. If Chinese farmers such as those in the Dong Village of Congjiang County, can practice cultural traditions in a way that heals the planet, we can begin to see how connecting with our roots will allow us to grow to new heights.
2.The Three Sisters method of growing beans up a corn stalk while squash provides ground cover was common knowledge of indigenous farmers in what is now known as North America. Many tribes, such as the Haudenosaunee (known as Iroquois), Aniyvwiya (United Cherokee Nation), and the Aquinnah Wampanoag, have for innumerable generations relied on the symbiotic planting between corn, beans, and squash for the staples to get through the winter with sufficient nutrition.
With their hands in the soil and the guidance of the elders, children, parents, and other community members live out their traditions and connect to the land. Elders “taught younger generations the Indigenous nation‘s Original Instructions, the oral history and origins of the people, as well as the songs and ceremonies associated with preparing the ground, planting the seeds, tending the plants, harvesting the vegetables, and the feasts giving thanks to Mother Earth for all she provided (Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force 2001). In this way, elders passed on the language, knowledge, traditions, values and a sense of belonging,” according to page 43 of the article Indigenous Nation Rebuilding Through Gardening.
Today, the Wampanoag Tribe teaches a gardening glass to 3rd through 6th graders that has the dual objective of instilling among youth an understanding of Three Sisters as a gardening method as well as exploring the Wampanoag relationship with the Earth. From the course unit page: “today science can explain what we as a Tribe have always understood from hundreds of years of experience living close to the land—that planting these crops together has special benefits. We have always had very advanced farming practices that did not harm the soil and yielded plenty of food.”
A spiritual relationship with the Three Sisters is unique to each tribe and includes stories, songs, and rituals intrinsically woven into the script of–and inseparable from–the act of farming. Mother Earth News writes “for many tribes, each plant was assigned a specific spiritual role, and each part of the plant (the roots, stems, leaves and flowers, as well as the fruits) was imbued with deep meaning and a role in native healing practices.” Because the spiritual significance of each plant is specific to the culture of the tribe, this example shows that a method cannot be replicated in full. Out of the context of its original culture, the meaning transforms and is at risk of being lost, if traditional knowledge keepers are not given a voice through which to breathe life into the coals.
Indigenous Cultural Teachings and Climate Justice
An ethic of cultural revitalization ties into the Climate March I attended on November 29. As 700,000 of us worldwide flooded the streets–some of us permaculturists and pioneers in the field of renewable energy–I knew the changemakers with me both in the same physical parade and the innumerable changemakers the world over were uniting to redirect our “inevitable demise” into something flourishing and productive. I felt jubilant to be able to work alongside these allies and my joy only increased when the peaceful protest commenced with a call for peace and cooperation between nations.
Two Lhaq’temish elders from the Lummi Nation shared traditional teachings after the march. They showed a film called Huli Ta Tum Uhw: The Earth is Alive; Salish Teachings, produced during an event intended to raise funds for the Lummi Youth Canoe Family to travel to Paris for the COP21 Climate Talks. They held a space to speak a Lummi truth: that we must steward the Earth together, living harmoniously, with respect for one another’s needs, if we wish to survive and thrive. The earth is alive.
Care for people (social justice) and care for planet (environmental justice)
This is why I work with permaculture–not just because building biodiverse gardens creates habitat for endangered species and cleanses our waters and sequesters carbon and can produce superfluous food levels in spaces currently being used for aesthetics only (I’m looking at you, lawns)–but because environmental justice and social justice go hand and hand.
Remove the barriers to success that oppress the people, make the tools and education readily available, and positive global change will rush in exponentially! May we unite–with the goal of building farms that liberate our human family members from the chains of oppression.
Symbiosis in Creating a Better World
Now is the moment we have all been waiting for. We are the ones we have been waiting for. This opportunity to lift one another up from poverty and oppression, to grow healthy food while rebuilding the soils, to remove barriers to success, to begin rebuilding culture, community and environment, to reverse the damage carelessly done to the Earth that after all brought us every single thing we have now–this opportunity is our glorious gift and challenge. We will find great power in our unity if we figure out how to steward the planet and our people together, and recognize that we are all human family, regardless of cultural differences. If we can recognize our differences to be akin to biodiversity and thus find that we symbiotically compliment–rather than conflict with–one another, we may begin to create a world in which future generations have a future!