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Is Permaculture the Gentrification of Traditional Ecological Knowledge?

 
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I'd like to hear peoples input on an idea that came to my attention recently.

I live in the Pacific Northwest and here there are many descendants of indigenous peoples. Sometimes in my work (ecological restoration), a tribal representative reviews my work and provides comment prior to permit approval. I have been doing my best to become more aware and knowledgeable of the indigenous history of our region, their modern (and historical!) plights and injustices, as well as their culture(s) which persist today.

I've taken a PDC and regularly inject it into any conversation I can because I think permaculture is great! However, it came to my attention that some indigenous farmers in the region are frustrated with the idea of permaculture because (as I understand their position) it is a whitewashing of practices people have been doing for a long long time.

On one hand, I agree! I could totally hear someone telling these farmers, "have you heard about permaculture? This guy Bill came up with designing gardens (farms) after forests! You should do that"! Without acknowledging that indigenous peoples thousands of years ago were creating food forests, this would come across as super frustrating and maybe I'd think permaculture was dumb too.

On the other hand, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) doesn't encompass many of our modern technologies, science, or challenges. TEK is often applied in permaculture, however it may be limited depending on context, therefore permaculture is a more expansive design science necessary to solves problems in our modern world.

So, what do you think? Are folks gentrifying via permaculture? Does permaculture not give credit where credit is due? Does it inherently gentrify?
 
pollinator
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Thanks Logan. I appreciate this topic being brought up.

Listening to countless hours of old recordings of Bill Mollison’s Permaculture Design Courses and reading his books, I am always grateful when Bill cites the traditional originators of certain concepts: be they the Bimbaches of the Island of Hierro and their rain tree or the Hawaiians and their sophisticated ahupua’a land management system. Regardless of who it was, Bill always cited them with reverence as forming the foundations of what a sustainable and regenerative future could be based on. To him, it was important when designing a location, to look to how people sustained and thrived in a given location for – in some cases – thousands of years without fossil fuels, biocides and artificial, petroleum-based fertilizers. It is “permanent” agriculture with empirical precedent.

Bill also cited just plain ‘ol resourceful folks born and raised in “Western” colonized societies who were observational design geniuses. He cited people such as Joseph Timothy with his low-tech sharpened shovel and Percival Alfred Yeomans with his machinery and high-tech earthworks.

After having studied Mollison and studied & practiced both permaculture and traditional ecological knowledge in-depth, I see permaculture as observation + resourcefulness + earthworks grafted onto root stocks of traditional ecological knowledge – TEK from any continent (yes, even traditional ecological knowledge from the European continent as well).

[Note: please correct me if I'm misunderstanding, however regarding the content of the OP it appears the concept of "appropriation" might be what's actually being referenced as opposed to "gentrification". Though I suppose gentrification can be descriptive in certain permacultural contexts. If so, just ignore this whole post. hehe]

I too have heard the “appropriation” comment made towards permaculture on more than one occasion. Though, because I see permaculture as observation + traditional ecological knowledge + resourcefulness + earthworks, I see these comments as based on an over-simiplification of what permaculture is.  And at the end of the day, every horticultural/agricultural practice is in fact rooted in traditional knowledge from some time and some place on planet earth. We are all standing on the shoulders of our ancestors.

That said, these comments do contain a grain of truth when originators of certain ingenious and resourceful concepts are not properly cited with reverence by certain permaculture practitioners and teachers.

Therefore, some best practices for permaculturists might be: properly cite with reverence (cultural appreciation) not mockery (cultural appropriation) originators of concepts - as Bill Mollison did throughout his entire life, when possible learn traditional design practices from traditional peoples and let them be the leaders on the education of yourself and others in that process (in other words, stay humble), lift up and amplify the voices of traditional peoples and their practices perhaps by inviting them to be hired to teach some classes within a Permaculture Design Course context if they are so willing, continue to educate others about observation, (low-tech and modern high-tech) earthworks and plain 'ol resourcefulness as also being essential branches on the permaculture tree...
GARO-Ocotea_foetens-_rain_tree_of_the_Canary_Islands-_Madeira_by_G.-U._Tolkiehn-_WikiMedia.orgSMALL.jpg
Garoé (Ocotea foetens) rain tree of Hierro
Garoé (Ocotea foetens) rain tree of Hierro
Page-_Joseph_Timothy-Page_Ranch-_Arizona_(aka-Trowbridge_Ranch)_HomesteadOrBust.com.png
Joseph Timothy, Page Ranch
Joseph Timothy, Page Ranch
 
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Judging from the people I know who are into permaculture,  it does not represent the gentrification of TEK.   As someone already stated on this site “we are the weirdos.”

That said, I do endorse the John Shuttleworth view.  We will not make a real impact until our practices are adopted by the middle class.   So, while on one hand I shudder at the idea of no longer being a weirdo,   It is a goal that must be obtained if there is to be a significant impact on the world environment.
 
John F Dean
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To add to my post above, indeed we are turning the middle class.  Comparing the present to the late 1970s when I picked up my first copy of Mother, electric cars are common, solar electric is common, my farmer neighbor wouldn’t dream of ploughing his fields, my farmer neighbor givers serious thought as to what fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides he uses (he has a way to go), houses are being seriously insulated, houses are being built with passive solar in mind, I can go to any large grocery store and see produce labeled organic.

Yes, we are moving in baby steps.  We are not even 1/2 of the wAy there, but we are moving the mountain.  What will it take to move things completely?  I suspect it is moving away from such a high level of materialism. .... at least here in the USA.   Most of the middle class that I know of would sell out the environment in a heartbeat to save their job.  I suppose I am fortunate. I never regarded a job as that important.
 
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I don't consider it "Gentrification" I see it as embracing available practices. Not just local indigenous practices but new and old practices from many regions. Until the middle class are all permies we're not gentrifying permaculture. Maybe another word, gentrify makes me think of a victim, I think of my ancestors as teachers. One of my professors always addressed his students as thieves stealing knowledge, that's how we learn through observation and trial and error. An individual's use of a body of historical knowledge/practices isn't bad. Do I have to add a footnote of acknowledgement for each process that once was common practice? Cultural Appropriation to me is a flattery not something bad but someone saying cool food, I like that, what's the recipe? Authenticity? Does lefse have to be made by a Scandinavian?  I am not going to ignore knowledge or tacos I like them both, sometimes we overthink things and in doing so ignore the betterment that forward movement adds to a solution. I'm willing to pay for knowledge that someone has but common historical practices that are open to observation and possible implementation are free market for anyone willing to use that practice.
 
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I get tired of people worrying about who did it first, pride gets in the way of progress.

If you read books like "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus" You will see evidence that places like the Amazon were a cultivated gardens. All done with stone age tools, by native farmers.

So?

Farmers are farmers everywhere, "new" innovations happen quite regularly; and sometimes the "new" innovation isn't so much a totally new thing, but rather a rediscovery of something that was done thousands of years ago.

People need to get over their feelings and themselves for a minute and focus on the people around them.
 
pollinator
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I agree that "gentrification" doesn't seem to be what is being discussed.

I feel that, as with all things, context is king, especially with issues of cultural appropriation or that of traditional knowledge.

If a scholar has reconstructed past cultural or traditional practices not belonging to their culture but really important for people of the current time, while I believe that using that knowledge does require an acknowledgement of where it came from, or even an awareness, as much as possible, of other similar methods belonging to other cultures, there is a duty also to use that knowledge to improve people's lives.

I wouldn't be too pleased if someone whose ancestors stepped off the Mayflower turned their patch of Florida or Louisiana flood plain into chinampas, renamed them something with an out-of-place temporal or nationalistic flavour, and started charging people for making or using them; that would piss me right off.

Incidentally, I have nothing against Mayflower descendants; my much-better-half had something like six ancestors among the non-Puritan passengers. I just used the clashing cultural contexts to illustrate my point.

Permaculture is a great big umbrella that encompasses a great many tools. A great many. Some of these are drawn from historical and cultural knowledge bases, and where possible, credit is given to the originators. I think that part of the work of permaculture needs to be a push for communality in areas of common concern, where there's too much at stake to quibble about things like who did it first, or determining fault at a time where collective action is required to avert disaster. I feel this is both time and subject matter where this applies.

-CK
 
Logan McClish
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Mike Kenzie, thanks for the thoughtful and well written response. Thanks to everyone else who also responded! Good thoughts all around.

Mike, I agree, I think appropriation is the more appropriate term for this discussion. I used gentrification in the post title because that's the word used by the person who brought this to my attention. It's a hot word right now and can stir up a lot of emotion, but probably not the most fitting for the context.
 
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My great grandfather was The Boy Sid.  "The Boy" was a title in that part of England that combined the meanings "farm manager" and "living history and wisdom reference library" into one human.  Sid was his nickname (although the spelling was different in his day, it's how we write it now).  He learned Agriculture in the mid-1800s in a part of England that was slow to embrace progress.  His methods were the same methods used in those parts from the early 1400s and the focus was on improving soil health for future generations of farmers.  I'm very lucky to live with someone who learned farming/gardening from him.  

The thing that surprises me about Permaculture is the need to put new words on old knowledge.  There is very little I've found in permaculture that wasn't done my great grandfather.  That makes sense because this was common all over the world.  The farmers knew that soil health was important to feeding the people.  Weather is always unpredictable.  There is a balance that need be maintained.  Do what we can with the least harm needed, to help the crops grow.

I don't understand the need of modern people to put new terms on old ideas.  But it seems to be a thing.  It's also the biggest thing that bugs me about permaculture.  Why re-label what we already have words for in English?   Why is this needed to move forward?  

I worry that we forget that there are places all over the world that have been growing food for thousands of years while improving the soil quality.  "traditional Ecological knowledge" isn't restricted to one culture or heritage.
 
pollinator
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A difficult topic.

I think that an important part of reconciliation and rebuilding our society's relationship with First Nations people is simply listening and acknowledging. The have been dismissed out of hand, told they are inferior, and subjected to a century of tone-deaf and harmful policies. No surprise, many bristle at the slightest hint of their voices being bulldozed and ignored yet again.

I believe it is also worth considering the perspective that nature, the biosphere broadly, invented what we might consider the foundation of sustainability. The complex webs of life are both competitive and cooperative, with organisms in the web adapting and finding ways to survive and thrive. A working balance emerged. Humans everywhere, out of necessity, aligned their thinking and their actions with what was already built, in order to survive and thrive. And we made some modifications to the landscape to tip the balance in our favour. In recent times, we became too good at those modifications. So, to me, it seems that finding, implementing and encouraging sustainable practices, listening the voice of the living land, is a revival of wiser ways of thinking, rooted in the vast experience of the human past. That does not seem like appropriation; it strikes me as deep homage, and an opening. My 2c.
 
That's my roommate. He's kinda weird, but he always pays his half of the rent. And he gave me this tiny ad:
177 hours of video: the Permaculture Design Course and Appropriate Technology Course
https://permies.com/wiki/65386/hours-video-Permaculture-Design-Technology
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