Permaculture as a Gringo Movement

In order to truly live out the ethics that were first set out for permaculture, the values of frugality, thrift, prudence, and simplicity need to be reworked into how we care for the earth and care for people.
04/22/2016 10:30 am ET Updated Apr 22, 2017

I have a friend from Central America who is a diehard advocate for all things organic. He eats organic, grows organic, and dedicates his time to working with small farmers across the region to help them incorporate more environmentally friendly production practices. I once asked him about what inspired the work to which he has dedicated his life. He mentioned first the ancestral agricultural practices of his Mayan ancestors but went on to mention more current sources such as the agroecology movement, biodynamics, traditional organic gardening, amongst others. When I asked him about the permaculture movement however, he laughed scornfully and remarked: "Permaculture isn´t anything but a movement of gringo hippies who are pretending to be farmers."

Though his critique was somewhat naïve and over simplified, I've been finding that throughout Central America and much of the "under-developed" (or perhaps better stated as "differently developed") world, this appreciation of permaculture as a movement of gringos is strongly felt and deeply rooted.

As I've talked with different farmers, researchers, academics and others interested in alternative agriculture and ecology, the main grievance that they have with permaculture is the steep costs associated with the courses offered and the literature sold. These prohibitive costs, they argue, turn permaculture into an exclusive club that can only be enjoyed by the affluent. They have very little argument with what permaculture actually teaches or advocates for, but they find that in a region where small farmers are usually severely economically marginalized, the exclusivity of the permaculture movement is a major impediment.

Most permaculture teachers offer a two week Permaculture Design Course (PDC). The running cost for most PDCs is around $2000 dollars, give or take $500. With prices like those, it´s hard to argue against the idea that permaculture is unaffordable to 90% of the world´s farmers who might be lucky to make that amount in a year of hard work.

Though there are a few permaculture institutes in Central America, the agroecology movement is far better established. This movement, in comparison with permaculture courses, tends to offer courses and classes for free to local farmers. True, participants may have to settle for eating beans and tortillas three times a day instead of organic hummus and other delicacies of the First World alternative health food movement, but nonetheless, it's free!

It's true that many of these Central American agroecology movements and organizations fund their work from grant money awarded to them by international organizations that fund development programs. Nonetheless, the money invested by 20 participants in a 2 week long permaculture design course is often equivalent to the funding for a three year agroecology project where hundreds if not thousands of Central American farmers will have access to information, agroecology courses, etc.

Another problem that many Central American academics and researchers have with permaculture is the cost of books written by supposed permaculture experts. One of the most recent permaculture books to hit the market was originally priced at $75 dollars on Amazon. Other permaculture authors even sell their books by the chapter. If it weren't for internet piracy and public libraries, the majority of books about permaculture that I wanted to read would still be on my Amazon wish list.

The actual permaculture courses can often seem like a publicity campaign for companies that market organic products. When I participated in a PDC back in 2012, there were hundreds of references or "plugs" during the two week course for different products and companies that produce organic inputs and of course for the essential books that any good permaculturist must read. It almost gave the impression that in order to farm and live permaculturally, you needed a bank account deep enough to buy this endless list of products.

Still other permaculturists advocate for the use of expensive machinery like bulldozers, Bobcats and backhoes. Where I live in Central America, big tractors and other heavy machinery are equated with mega-projects like mining, hydro dams, and industrial monocultures like the massive sugar cane plantations that dot the entire Pacific Coast of Central America. Farming tools are pretty much limited to a hoe, a machete, and strong back.

When I showed one video from a well known permaculture teacher about how to do build swales (water infiltration ditches) using a backhoe, one of the young Central American farmers raised his hand and asked sarcastically: "Is this guy a farmer or a miner?" Still another said that he could have built the same system of swales in a weekend with the help of a few friends and a six pack of beer.
The cost of renting a Bobcat in my small village here in Central America is $40 an hour. Most farmers make an average of $100 a month. Very few people would be willing to spend what they would make in 4-5 months just to rent a Bobcat to build a pond or a swale that they could build with a little sweat, a pick axe and a shovel.

Another point of tension between permaculture and Central American farmers is the issue of how knowledge is used. Some permaculture experts list knowledge as one of the main "products" or "income generators" from their farm. They argue that the knowledge they have acquired over years of study and work on their land can be sold to others.

The issue of knowledge as a profit generator brings up the debate as to whether knowledge should be considered a right that should be universally accessible to all or an aspect of private profit for individuals. In Central America, most farmers share their knowledge with one another. If one type of seed grows better than another variety, the majority of farmers will share that knowledge freely with their neighbors instead of trying to charge them for access to that knowledge.

Gene Logsdon, a farmer and writer linked with the agrarian movement in the United States, has said that farming is increasingly a part time occupation, especially for young people. If that means that someone who wants to embrace permaculture principles on their land has to work part time at a construction job so he can spend the rest of his time on the farm, so be it. It sure seems a lot fairer than having someone make their living by selling his or her knowledge for $2000 bucks per course.

I first heard of permaculture when I was around 24 years old. At that time, I was living in San Salvador and obsessed with the idea of socialist revolution and the end of the exploitation of the masses. I had read most of Marx's work and was convinced that the Marxist critique of capitalism leading to inevitable inequality and exploitation was dot on.

When I came across Bill Mollison, one of the founders of permaculture, I read about the three ethics of permaculture that form the backbone for the movement: care for the Earth, care for people, and redistribute surplus back into the first two principles. The first two ethics seemed pretty vague to me, but the third one jumped right off of the page.

Redistribution! That sounded pretty Marxist to me and definitely got me interested. I imagined permaculture advocating for land reform and supporting the cause of peasant revolution. I was convinced that permaculture was a way to tie my social/political ideas into my growing environmental awareness.

But as I learned more about permaculture and tried to find some affordable literature on the subject, I came to find that most people involved in the permaculture movement had no idea what the third permaculture ethic actually entailed. In fact, many permaculture leaders had different ways of defining the third ethic. Some permaculture teachers stuck to the more radical idea of redistribution of surplus, while others settled with the more ambiguous idea of "fair shares" while failing to ever define what is fair. Many a Central American farmer could ask if it´s fair for a permaculture teacher to rake in $20,000 from leading a two week design course while the small farmer toils daily for a mere $6 dollars a day.

We need a Marxist interpretation of permaculture's ethics. By that, I don't mean to say that we need government control of what we grow and how we grow it. The majority of political leaders have probably never shoveled cow manure or even stuck their hands in the dirt. Marx himself thought peasants were particularly dumb and subservient and that the communist revolution would be led by primarily urban workers who experienced the worst aspects of industrial, capitalist exploitation.

What I mean is that we need to understand that permaculture exists within a neoliberal capitalist system that continually tries to subtly subvert its "ethics" into some form of consumer, capitalist ideology. Care for the earth can be interpreted as allowing rich countries to pay for their waste and pollution through the pharisaical carbon credit program. Care for people can follow neoliberal ideology and argue that individual greed can miraculously lead to societal well being. And the issue of redistribution of surplus can either be shrewdly ignored (as it often is) or reduced to a largely symbolic offering of "scholarships" to economically challenged permaculture enthusiasts.

Some permaculturists argue that they need to charge $70 a book or $2000 a course to support their ongoing permaculture work and research. They may argue that maintaining an alternative, sustainable lifestyle is costly. And therein lays the problem. If living sustainably is an expensive luxury, then it is a privilege of the wealthy and affluent. Marx would be turning in his grave.

Permaculture desperately needs a new focus on the ethics of frugality, prudence and thrift. We in the so called "First World" need to learn to question certain things we take for granted about our lifestyle. A true permaculturist, as Wendell Berry says, would "achieve the character and acquire the skills to live much poorer than we do." Instead of relying on expensive organic inputs at the local permaculture store, we would learn how to shovel our animal manure and turn it into the fertility our plants need. As Henry David Thoreau admonished us so many years ago, we need to learn to "cultivate poverty like a garden herb."

If people come to permaculture because they think they'll be able to pull in fifty grand from organizing a couple of workshops per year, then permaculture is destined to remain a movement of affluent gringo hippies and continue to receive the ridicule of small farmers from around the world who understand that frugality and hard work are the keys to living successfully and sustainably on the land.

In order to truly live out the ethics that were first set out for permaculture, the values of frugality, thrift, prudence, and simplicity need to be reworked into how we care for the earth and care for people. The idea of redistribution of surplus needs to be taken seriously and knowledge needs to be included into that idea of surplus. What we learn from our readings and from long hours of working the land should not be considered a product to be profited from, but rather something to be freely and openly shared. Only then will permaculture have the possibility to grow into a worldwide movement capable of helping small farmers from around the world.