Can Permaculture Play a Positive Role in International Development?

Updated: Aug 21

By Chris Evans.


The word 'development' is like a double-edged sword. It can be a tool to cut your fodder needs, or it can cut your throat. It can mean improvement in quality of life, or it can herald a slide into

deterioration of social, economic and environmental systems. Here, Chris Evans examines the history of the word development, and the part Permaculture has to play as a method of ensuring its positive side.


Picture above: Remote upland villages like this one in Humla, Nepal are the last to get access to development as most organisations prefer easy access.

The word 'development' is meaningless. It is what Wolfgang Sachs called an 'amoeba word', having no fixed boundary, yet within it can be all, or none. We cannot use current speech without using it, though it is a relatively recent addition to the common language. It was U.S. President Truman, in a Presidential address on January 20th 1949 who first split the world into two parts - the 'developed' and the 'under-developed'; the 'North', and 'South'. So the concept of development is a very young concept, while the 'underdeveloped' world is full of diverse, traditional cultures, evolved and adapted over centuries and holding the wisdom of generations.


However, now these cultures have become defined by what they lack, and it is deficit which marks its boundaries. Similarly, the poorest part of the world is designated only one-third – the 'third world' – despite it having most of the population and biodiversity. I prefer to call it the two-thirds world; other names such as 'global South' and 'Majority World' are also used.


Truman saw the world as a race on a track - some in front (Europe, U.S.A., etc.), some at the back (the two-thirds world) and some in the middle (the 'Eastern Block'). The speed of the race is measured by Gross National Product (GNP, also a new term, coined by Colin Clark in 1948). This is how the world became organised.


Before this, there was no measure of poverty (though there was assuredly less), but there was rampant exploitation of natural resources and an effort to increase social standing through education and income. The imperative of the development race - an objective all governments strive for - is to catch up. A primary objective for the 'developed' world, to show an effective (not ethical) use of its profits, has been to pull all nations into the race, i.e. the world market. Secondly, it has been to train the new nations to be competent runners - how to run fast.


To get on the racetrack, you need three things. Firstly, you need cash input. Secondly, you need input (import) of technology, and thirdly you need cultural change. All investment into development is towards these goals, and therefore old, traditional ways become an obstruction to development.



Above: Women planting SRI rice, a radically new technique that take a few years’ commitment to embed in communities, but can double rice yields with no significant extra inputs, with less water and less seed.


The Role of International Banks


The training in how to run faster in the race is provided by those in front. This is rooted in the international banking syndicates - the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund etc., but also encompasses in the national scale, central government and the elite classes that run it. After this, everyone else are like lost sheep running whichever way they are herded. Governments are provided massive loans and grants in order to enter and run the race, for which they have to implement an 'economic structural re-adjustment programme'. This takes different forms, but some of the criteria for reform frequently include removal of barriers to free trade (thus countries with cheap or excess product can dump this into other countries' economies), cutting government spending (education, health, and other public services) and high emphasis on cash crops and consumer goods for export. The latter is to compensate for shortage of foreign currency, where economies must be restructured to perform 'more competitively' on the world market and to increase the nation's ability to service its debts to the international banks. This takes emphasis away from meeting basic needs and the whole vast 'informal economy', which is based on small farmers, especially women who play such a crucial part to produce food for local needs. Traditional systems of recycling wealth and non-money value systems are undervalued and consequently lost.


Opening up to the international development community implies giving access to local markets for agribusiness corporations. Their saturation policy and government support pressurise traditional farms to adopt seed hybrids, monocultures and chemical fertilisers (leading to pesticides) in the place of local resources. There is a general pattern of less food grown for local consumption every year. Opening up to international markets as the only form of development is also inherently risky, though they can play a part to augment and diversify strong local economies.


Now into the race, trying to keep pace and breathe, developing nations regularly fail to service the interest payments on debts accrued to finance capital intensive development projects. Thus, the traditional food base is further compromised by the need to produce goods for export. Again, emphasis is all the time taken away from local solutions to local problems, away from investing in local resources (skills, environment, technology) or building a strong local economy.




Above: Netra Gurung, farmers’ leader in Surkhet, Nepal displaying what’s possible with good organic growing.



Dissolving Traditional Cultures


Development, therefore, is re-distributing knowledge with the rationale that traditional cultures are ignorant. It dissolves cultures not centred around the frenzy of accumulation and consumerism, and the level of 'civilisation' is measured merely by levels of production and consumption.


Yet for the whole world to mine and consume the resources needed to acquire the current standards of Europe or the U.S., and to dump its waste afterwards, we would need six planets to look after our one. Hardly a realistic situation, and it is because of this that the development race can only fail, as it points in the wrong way, and runs into an abyss.


Nowadays, 'First' and 'Third' Worlds are not so much separated by geographical area - there are elements of both on every land mass. Europe and Japan compete their race on Indian soil. Development is now not so much an issue of being exploited, as it was in colonial times, but one of being included or excluded. To be included, you need a car, a job, a bank account, etc.


So what for the choices ahead? Maybe it is like choosing a bus ticket - one to a sustainable future where all needs can be met, or one which heads into the abyss. If you are already on the latter, there is nothing to do but to get off the bus, and find one going to a sustainable destination. We have to accept a finite nature in order to increase the possibility of dignity for more people. We need to create a society not dependent on exploiting. This is done by reducing our energy throughput (by up to 50%), and living gracefully with less energy needs, and a reduced economic growth. Thus traditional cultures become a positive resource, as it is they who have flourished for centuries using local resources, without their over-exploitation. Their indigenous knowledge is an untapped reservoir of ideas & solutions that already exist in farming and social systems that have maintained themselves, without money as a primary or priority means of exchange, for many years. By working with and respecting this traditional wisdom, as Permaculture designer and teacher Lea Harrison says, "We are not going back to a more primitive society, but forward to a more intelligent one."


Above: A Permaculture Design workshop with the Himalayan Permaculture Centre.



What and Who are we Developing?


All this led me to explore the wider context of development: what is to be developed? For whom? By whom? For how long? And of course, how? The answers, of course, inevitably start with “it depends…”, as what we have realised over the past decades is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer or technique. Context is everything, and depends on many factors of what, why, where, who, when and for how long. Below are some fine examples of existing projects that provide clues as to the way forward.


It’s also interesting to see the difference and similarities between humanitarian and regenerative development work. The former is about people and communities that have been forced to leave their homes because of human and/or naturally-induced disasters, and are needing to meet their needs (basic and otherwise) in artificial settlements. The latter, meanwhile, is about communities developing their own homes and settlements and is illustrated by the Himalayan Permaculture Centre’s mission to co-create abundant villages that people don’t need or want to leave, because they are meeting all their material and non-material needs locally. Both are about creating abundance and meaningful lives, but in very different contexts.


Permaculture, with its time and site relevant design systems and careful energy accounting, is a synthesis of the principles of ecology and natural systems, traditional wisdom, and modern scientific knowledge and innovation. Design is used to create cultivated ecologies and communities, based on natural wealth and linked to cyclic economic systems that are self participatory and respectful of traditional societies.


In fact, permaculture has already played a positive role in International development over several decades. In many countries, using the Permaculture principles of “Observe and Interact” and “Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback”, these roles are becoming more common and more effective over time.


Permatil in Timore-Leste have successfully integrated principles into over 1,300 schools, have been embedded in local government policy, and have created the fantastic Tropical Permaculture Guidebook.

In Zimbabwe since 1988, the great Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre pioneered work that has been replicated throughout Southern Africa.

In Malawi, Never Ending Food is a well-established implementer of best-practice ideas since 1997.

These are great examples, not just of the techniques and approaches espoused to community groups, but in the very management of organisational planning, design, implementation, learning, monitoring and evaluation that goes to making effective and participatory development interventions.


It is the learning from such initiatives that our team, including fellow Re-Alliance members, and I have created a 'Permaculture for Development Workers' course, looking at the common patterns of success that can be shared to make development more effective. Through this course, we work with development professionals to illustrate just how useful permaculture design has been, is being and can be.


Finally, if solutions appropriate to current issues are to be developed, farmers must be considered experts in their own right, given the respect and value due, and their innovations taken seriously and included in the research and problem solving process.


There are after all just two types of people: farmers, and those dependent on farmers.

Chris Evans lives on and manages Applewood Permaculture Centre, aka Waterloo Farm, in North Herefordshire, UK, with his partner Looby Macnamara. He is also advisor to the Himalayan Permaculture Centre in Nepal where he has worked in permaculture develop­ment for over 30 years. Article first published in Permaculture Magazine, Autumn 2019.



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