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Permaculture and Refugees – Part 1

Turning ‘problems into solutions’ in marginalised communities

For many, the image of refugees may be a strange one to couple with permaculture. The term may conjure images of small, hastily-built, flimsy ‘houses’ of plastic and cardboard, with little or no design planning, few available resources and complete lack of stability; hardly conducive to ‘permanent culture’. Yet millions of people around the world are currently living in refugee ‘camps’ (1), some of which are so well-established that they should more rightly be termed ‘villages’, such as those in Thailand (2), Western Sahara (3) and elsewhere, where inhabitants have been residing for over 30 years, some having never left their ‘temporary’ homes (2, 3).

Migration as flow

Though this situation could be seen as a problem, from a permaculture perspective it also presents a unique opportunity. As I explored in my article ‘Human Permaculture – Migration as Flow’ (4), we can view the movements of humans as an energy which we can ‘Catch and Store’ (5). In the current international political system, once people have been designated as ‘refugees’ they are often given land on which to live, an opportunity which non-refugees often do not have a hope of ever getting.

If we can help those living in refugee camps to use their homes – however temporary they may be – in a holistic and resilient way, then refugee camps can be transformed into places where the human energy of refugees could ‘slow, spread and sink’ (4, 6) into flourishing holistic communities.

Using permaculture with refugees

This work is already being put into practice in many places around the world, both in refugee camps and in towns and cities where there is a significant population of migrants and refugees. One of the main instigators on an international scale is the initiative Permaculture For Refugees (PFR) (7), a group set up to offer permaculture in refugee camps in different situations around the world, in order to “build resilience, social connection, and peaceful productive communities” (7).

What is Permaculture For Refugees?

The initiative is based on a workshop, “Refugee Friendly Permaculture”, which was held at the International Permaculture Convergence in the UK in 2015, and the group Permaculture For Refugees was set up at the European Permaculture Convergence (EuPC) of the following year at Bolsena, Italy (8). They describe themselves as a “working group of concerned permaculturists from Italy, France, Australia and Spain” (8) who are providing a set of applicable resources and collating case studies to encourage “working together with refugees towards places of hope and transformation” (9).

A key worker in the field of permaculture and refugees is permaculture teacher and teacher-trainer Rosemary Morrow, co-founder of the Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute (10) in New South Wales, Australia. In her over 40 years of experience, Morrow “has especially dedicated much of her efforts to refugees of war-torn nations such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Uganda, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Kurdistan and East Timor” (10) among many other places. In part 2 of this article I hope to speak directly with Rosemary about her work.

PFR in action

One of the most important aspects of PFR’s work can be seen in their offering of a “new model” on the potential for refugee camps to become places of community and hope. This is shown clearly in a comparison table on their website showing the contrast between current scenarios of refugee camps as places of uncertainty and ‘limbo’; and the new perspective offered of viewing them instead as places “that allow for purposeful transitions” (9).

Such a perspective recognises that refugee camps are not permanent homes, but that if their transitory nature is taken into account and used in a positive way, those living in such temporary situations can perhaps “creatively use and respond to change” (11) more easily and therefore find fulfillment even in uncertain situations.

Blue Mountains

The Blue Mountains in Australia, as well as being Rosemary Morrow’s base, are home to the Blue Mountains Support Group for Integration (12), a voluntary organisation dedicated to bringing “comfort, friendship and hope” to refugees in detention centres and as part of the wider community. This includes a diverse range of initiatives aiming to “widen public understanding of refugee and asylum seeker issues” in Australia (12).

Education and community

The PFR website gives a number of case studies of permaculture being put into practice in refugee camps and other situations around the world (13). These provide inspiring information, for example with the role of education as a key part of “rebuilding a demolished country” in Cambodia (13, 14, 15) and the Oinofyta Community School in mainland Greece (13, 16). The importance of building community is highlighted in the case of the Filippas camp in Greece, where the inhabitants set up a tea-tent, a “‘female-friendly space’ where no men are allowed” and a meeting place for teenagers (13).

Other case studies from the PFR site include examples from outside the camps, of migrant communities within existing towns, cities or villages, who are engaged in building community resilience. The main groups listed which appear to still be active seem to all be in Italy and include Con Moi (17), in Torino, Italy, a “multi-ethnic network founded on the concepts of solidarity, environmental ethics and the gift economy” (13).

Refugee freedom

One more example of refugees being offered holistic community-based solutions is the Chiang Mai-based Thai Freedom House (18), a school and community centre set up in 2005 for the inhabitants of the nine refugee camps which have existed along the Thai-Myanmar border for over 30 years, and which are home to not only Burmese people who were escaping political persecution, but also many members of communities who have been displaced within Thailand and denied the same rights as Thai citizens, such as ethnic Karen people (1). Thai Freedom House provides education in languages such as Thai and English, and vocational arts-based workshops. They also offer health services such as access to family planning and doulas; and art, music and drama therapy (18).

Going deeper…

This article provides a short overview of why permaculture is needed in refugee situations and how holistic techniques are already being applied in such situations around the world. In subsequent parts I intend to go deeper into how exactly permaculture principles can be applied in a practical way to help in situations which seem ‘unstable’ but which can actually be springboards towards flourishing transition communities.

The techniques used by Permaculture For Refugees, Thai Freedom House and other groups could arguably be applied in any community where the inhabitants feel ‘lost’, which could be many permaculture practitioners all over the world who, regardless of official status, are nevertheless taking refuge from a system with which they do not agree.

Featured image: Shinkiari refugee camp, Pakistan, by David Mark, from Pixabay.

References

  1. UNHCR, 2019. ‘Figures at a glance’. unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html – retrieved 24/8/19
  2. Burma Link, 2019. ‘Refugee Camps’. https://www.burmalink.org/background/thailand-burma-border/displaced-in-thailand/refugee-camps/ – retrieved 24/8/19
  3. Sipiński, D, 2015. ‘A Story of Waiting’. New Internationalist, 1/11/15. https://newint.org/features/2015/11/01/western-sahara-exile-continues – retrieved 24/8/19
  4. Ashwanden, C, 2015. ‘Human Permaculture: Looking at Migration as Flow to Solve Problems’. Permaculture News, 11/9/15. https://permaculturenews.org/2015/09/11/human-permaculture-looking-at-migration-as-flow-to-solve-problems/ – retrieved 24/8/19
  5. Permaculture Principles, 2019. ‘Principle No.2: Catch and Store Energy’. https://permacultureprinciples.com/principles/_2/ – retrieved 24/8/19
  6. Lancaster, B, 2013. Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond. Puddledancer Press: Tucson, USA.
  7. Permaculture For Refugees, 2019. ‘About Us – Values and Mission’. https://www.permacultureforrefugees.org/about-us-2/vision/ – retrieved 24/8/19
  8. PFR, 2018. “Permaculture for Refugees in Camps’. EUPC 2016: Bolsena, Italy.
  9. PFR, 2019. ‘Project Overview’. https://www.permacultureforrefugees.org/project/overview/ – retrieved 24/8/19
  10. Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute, 2019. ‘About Us’. https://www.bluemountainspermacultureinstitute.com.au/about-us/ – retrieved 24/8/19
  11. Permaculture Principles, 2019. ‘Principle No.12: Creatively Use and Respond to Change’. https://permacultureprinciples.com/principles/_12/ – retrieved 24/8/19
  12. BMRSG, 2019. ‘About’. https://www.bmrsg.org.au/about-bmrsg/ – retrieved 24/8/19
  13. PFR, 2019. ‘Case Studies’. https://www.permacultureforrefugees.org/case-studies/ – retrieved 24/8/19
  14. Robinson, C, 1998. Terms of refuge: The Indochinese Exodus and the International Response. Zed Books: London, UK
  15. Grant M et al, 2000. Bamboo & Barbed Wire: Eight Years as a Volunteer in a Refugee Camp.DB Pub.: Mandurah, W.A, USA.
  16. Harvey, R, 2016. ‘CASE STUDY: The importance of a school and garden as a community and learning centre in a Greek refugee camp’. PFR: Bolsena, Italy. Available as a PDF here: https://www.permacultureforrefugees.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/OInofyta-Case-Study-compressed-1.pdf – retrieved 24/8/19
  17. Con MOI, 2019. ‘Chi Siamo [Who We Are].’ https://conmoi-torino.tumblr.com/chi-siamo [website in Italian]. https://conmoi-torino.tumblr.com/chi-siamo – retrieved 24/8/19
  18. Thai Freedom House, 2019. ‘About Us’. http://thaifreedomhouse.org/about-us/ – retrieved 24/8/19

Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth) I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and since then have been traveling the world learning about and practicing permaculture. Born in London, I've lived in a number of places in England, Spain, the Basque Country, and Italy. My mum lives in Leipzig (Germany) so I've spent some time there. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and have recently become interested in dance meditation. Currently, I live in Thailand in a Forest Buddhism community school, so you can expect lots of tropical permaculture related articles in future.

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