When we want to support local agriculture we think first to plant a garden or organize a farmers market. But rarely do we take the next logical step, which is to use local law to protect that sustainable agriculture system that we’re trying to build. When we don’t take that step, agribusiness corporations step into the vacuum that’s created to monopolize food access. As our farming practices return to decentralized production, so too must the decision-making about that food.
La Via Campesina, an international peasant and indigenous farmers movement, coined the term “Food Sovereignty” in 1996 which they defined as the “right of peoples to define their own food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries systems, in contrast to having food largely subject to market forces.” Unlike the food security movement, aimed at ensuring that people have enough to eat, food sovereignty focuses on the question of who controls local food and agriculture policy. Who holds the power to determine those policies? Who sets goals and designs policy? Politicians? Corporations? Or the people directly affected by such policies?
As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said, “Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.” Let’s remember some examples of corporate attempts at control over food systems:
Genetic engineering and forms of biopiracy like seed patenting
Financial instruments preying on farmers like the revolving wheel of debt
Encouraging dependence on high-energy inputs (fertilizers, pesticides) often leveraging influence over university and extension agency experts to promote their use
Collusion with government to regulate out of existence the small family farm by insisting on a “level playing field” (that is industrial in scale). The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is the latest example of this.
Crafting a narrative of food safety that implies all food producers are producing for national and global markets, and that all operations therefore require bureaucratic oversight and expensive equipment to ensure food safety.
The well-known revolving door between agribusiness and regulatory agencies that write, implement and enforce food system policy
Big solutions to big problems often recreate the problem in a new form. Small scale solutions have the advantage of being site- and situation-specific and being more amenable to incremental organic adaptation with less risk of failure causing higher order systemic failures. For example, a local raw milk Community Supported Agriculture system has some real (very low) risk of causing illness but large scale corporate supply systems of industrial milk have created problems where large numbers of people spread across countries become sick before corrective responses can be enacted. A vision of small-scale site-specific corrective action is offered by the political project of food sovereignty. Food sovereignty is based on the right of peoples to define their own food systems and to develop policies on how food is produced, distributed and consumed. It is above all a political call for action that it is based on empowerment processes and the generation of critical knowledge in support of the collective and popular construction of alternatives.
Food Sovereignty as it has emerged in Maine is the concept that people who eat and those who grow food should be at the heart of designing food systems policy instead of large-scale industrial “food commodity” manufacturers or government bureaucracies. Food sovereignty as a political movement asserts the right of people in a geographic place to grow food, save seed and exchange products of the home economy free from government interference as long as sales are direct from producer to patron. All other food production regulations apply if you are selling to retail venues like restaurants and grocery stores.
In this Friday, April 15, 2016 photo, a sign gives notice to customers at the Quill’s End Farm, a small family run operation in Penobscot, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
This concept has yielded a strategy asserting a legal space usually within a municipality where residents have the guaranteed right to save seeds, grow their own food, and exchange it with each other in face-to-face venues (like roadside stands, church potlucks, and farmer’s markets). The strategy was borne out of resisting corporate control of our food systems in our home towns using locally binding law, which is much more accessible than state or federal levels of legislation. In Maine it takes the form of municipal ordinances. These ordinances are rights-based rather than regulatory in nature.
Instead of regulating what you can and can’t do, a rights-based ordinance leverages language usually found in state constitutions that declare the inherent right of the people of a state to self-governance. Rights-based ordinances declare and secure rights in a positive and guaranteed way. In the United States, authority is often delegated throughout the varying levels of government. In home rule states, authority in matters of self-governance are decentralized to the local level, and people within a municipality can create governance as they see fit so long as it doesn’t conflict with or frustrate the purpose of higher state or federal legislation. On matters of food and water, it is sometimes unclear who has the ultimate jurisdiction to make these sorts of policy decisions. We assert that if there is any uncertainty about what polity has the decision-making authority regarding matters of food and water, that authority should devolve to the local level. Rights-based ordinances (RBOs) secure these rights over the supposed rights of corporations and claimed authority of regulatory agencies, which are often not legitimate and dominated by corporate influence. RBOs reinforce the civil and political rights of people in their communities and allow them to make determinations about the health, safety and welfare of their town.
Food sovereignty has enjoyed a good deal of success in Maine because of a number of factors. Culturally, Mainers are an independent lot and maintain traditions of homesteading, self-reliance and self-governance. Many towns practice direct democracy at the municipal level. The process for getting on the agenda before a select board or city council is straightforward, accessible and often welcome. In both statute and constitution, the state of Maine grants authority to towns to pass ordinances that deal with matters “local in nature” that affect health, safety and welfare. It would seem that there are no matters more local in nature than the procurement of food and water for general welfare. When it comes to designing food policy, the idea here is to privilege the voices of consumers and primary small-scale producers that directly feed local patrons, rather than corporate agribusiness or entrenched government bureaucracies. Many farms are small-scale family owned operations, and Maine enjoys a relatively youthful farmer demographic that is actually getting younger, bucking the national trend. There are even cases of people relocating to Maine specifically to begin an agricultural enterprise because their town has passed a food sovereignty ordinance.
Heather and Phil Retberg of Quill’s End Farm were instrumental in crafting Maine’s first food sovereignty ordinance
These food sovereignty ordinances in Maine are formally titled the Local Food and Community Self Governance Ordinance (LFCSGO). The LFCSGO used language from rights-based ordinances in Shapleigh and Newfield, Maine as a template. These RBOs prevented Nestle from taking water from their shared aquifer to bottle and sell back to them. These were ordinances drafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which pioneered the use of RBOs in places as near as Pennsylvania and as far as Ecuador. Food freedom bill proposals from Wyoming and Florida also provided inspiration for the text of the LFCSGO. (source link)
First formulated in 2011 as a response to industrial scale food processing regulations applied to small-scale operations, the LFCSGO was first passed in Sedgwick, Penobscot and Blue Hill and quickly spread to other towns in a process called “horizontal diffusion.” A key feature is that the ordinance language is usually uniform across different towns because we all use the same ordinance template as a starting point. “Horizontal diffusion” occurs in the context of a “standard of uniformity.” When ordinances spread town-to-town across the state in a bottom-up fashion, it is helpful to selectmen, councilors, and legislators to see standardized and uniform language. If officials see a precedent from another municipality, they are more likely to adopt it.
These ordinances have always been about small scale and face-to-face sales directly to patrons of the farm. The idea of making exemptions from corporate and industrial style regulations struck a nerve with Mainers. The LFCSGO was adopted in many towns across the state as activists flooded the state capital to pass state-level legislation that mirrored the town ordinance in spirit and content. State-level bills were narrowly defeated in 2012 and 2014, and then finally in late 2017, the legislature passed what ultimately became The Maine Food Sovereignty Act. This process is called “vertical integration.” Unfortunately, it had to be amended in a special session to take some food out of “food sovereignty” because the USDA, a federal agency, claims jurisdiction over the regulations around animal slaughter. So while The Maine Food Sovereignty Act doesn’t pertain to meat sales, it does recognize and codify the long standing tradition of face-to-face sales at local venues of all other locally-produced food.
So we have a focus on local rules for local food grown by small-scale operators using bottom-up democracy in action by leveraging local, state and federal law. The exciting pattern that emerged was “horizontal policy diffusion” (influence on other localities facing similar situations) resulting in “vertical policy integration” (influence on policy design and implementation at upper political and administrative levels), largely made possible by a “standard of uniformity” (most food sovereignty ordinances use the same language set forth in the LFCSGO template). We think the time is right to spread these sorts legal strategies to help rebuild local economies, especially to other home rule states.
Our current system of agriculture, which substitutes chemicals for living soil, is not sustainable. It is killing soil, creating dead zones in the oceans, pouring greenhouse gases into the environment, and destroying biodiversity. The earth is our only home, and we must learn to relate to it as a living system, not as an environment we can exploit for profit, while killing its ability to regenerate.
Corporate Agriculture Is Not Healthy
We are having epidemics of health problems created by modern agriculture, especially obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Many of these problems are the result of marketing unhealthy food directly to children. We need healthy soil to raise healthful food, both plant and animal. When food-borne pathogen outbreaks occur within our large-scale industrial system, it can make large numbers of people sick before recalls are issued.
Local Food Brings Local Prosperity
Our oligarchic food system sucks money out of our local communities and concentrates it in the hands of a few multi-national corporations. Eating locally-produced food circulates money locally and strengthens local economies. A thriving local food system means more jobs and a more vibrant and healthy economy. It also builds the resiliency needed when times get tough. Local food tastes good, too!
Food Strengthens Communities
Breaking bread together is a time-honored way of celebrating life in community. Church suppers, bake sales, Grange pig roasts, potlucks and other gatherings bring people together. It is hard to be disagreeable to people when you are all eating together! And when people care about food, they care about people and find ways to make sure that everyone gets to eat.
What you can do
Talk to your neighbors about this issue to get them interested. Rally a few friends and learn what it takes to bring legislation before your town government. Sometimes government officials will say that you can’t make these kind of policy changes. Do it anyway! Find allies both in town and in town government. Use the LFCSGO template as a starting point. If you live in Maine, you benefit by using this template because it has been passed in over 40 towns. Make sure your legislation protects sales at roadside stands, church potlucks, and farmer’s markets (all of which are allowed under the 2017 Maine Food Sovereignty Act). If you live outside of Maine, the language may largely apply, and you can customize it to make your own template to share across towns. Learn about your state’s laws and find leverage points in agricultural related statutes. Once you get familiar with the legal language, you can hone your arguments using various levels of law. After that, use the tools of rhetoric and debate to start conversations and build a local coalition to bring locally binding food sovereignty legislation to your town.
Here are a few ways to talk about food sovereignty with your neighbors
What it is
A rights-based ordinance, using locally binding law to secure rights for residents. It is not regulatory, does not add to responsibilities and services of government, and creates no bureaucracy. It has the force of law and goes beyond a municipal resolution or statement of support.
It is scale-dependent. It applies to products of the home economy. If you want to sell to restaurants or retail distributors like grocery stores, all other food production regulations can apply.
It is compliant with federal constitutional law, state constitutional law, and state statutes in Maine. It is a targeted application of the Home Rule law giving municipalities and counties the right to exempt direct farm-to-consumer sales, roadside farm stands, farmers markets and community potlucks from regulations designed for industrial-scale producers.
It is traditionalist. It protects our way of life, local culture, food sources, the right to grow and exchange food, and the right to a local food economy.
What it does
This reduces the regulatory burden for the small (or new) farmer. It would allow small-scale farmers to begin operating without the need to install costly commercial equipment or facilities for each separate operation. It lowers the barrier to entry into the marketplace and allows new farmers easier access to direct-sales markets. This has tangible economic benefits by circulating money in the local economy.
It places emphasis on responsibility of producers and patrons. It is a push-back against the bureaucratization of everyday life, and enshrines the legitimacy of handshake deals and direct “me-to-thee” relationships.
“Me-to-thee” transactions are based on trust. The local food movement is reconstituting a culture of independence, self-reliance, freedom of choice, and responsibility. Producers are responsible for producing high-quality safe food. Consumers are responsible for the choices they make.
As an issue it can unite people across the political spectrum (after all, everyone has to eat!). The rhetoric of sustainability and resilience can appeal to liberals and leftists while the rhetoric of preserving tradition and independence and eliminating barriers to trade can appeal to libertarians and conservatives.
Localized food systems are resilient against economic, environmental, and other stressors. We don’t know what our climate, economy, or society will look like in 20 or 50 years, and we should build systems and structures (not just related to food) that will lead to prosperity in a variety of futures, some of which may involve the weakening of national and global supply lines.
A strong local food economy can attract people and new business to town. It will incentivize the growth of food-related business. It will reinforce your town’s position as a leader in local food culture.
We need more farmers and more food producers. The food economy forms the bedrock foundation of any economy. Without food, no one works. This ordinance would set the conditions for a much more resilient food system in Maine of small-scale distributed production and peer-to-peer sales. This ordinance would set the conditions not only for a resilient food system, but also a more resilient localized economy.
It improves access to locally grown food too, by the way.
What it does not do
This does not apply to producers who wish to sell to a retailer or distributor like a restaurant or grocery store. Again, it is a scale-dependent idea.
It does not exempt the municipality as a whole from state and federal food regulations. It only exempts small-scale growers making direct-to-patron transactions.
It is not without risks. We can’t protect people from everything. The preferred yardstick in the discussion of risk analysis is raw vs. pasteurized milk. Your risk of being struck by lightning is greater than your risk of getting sick from raw milk. The risk you take every day driving in a car is greater. The risks to food safety are overblown by fear mongering, especially given the food pathogen outbreaks already common to our globalized, industrial food commodity system that can poison large numbers of people.
We’ve tried big, centralized food manufacturing, now let’s try local and decentralized food culture, as we have for most of human history! This sort of ordinance creates the legal space for products of the home economy to easily change hands between neighbors. Ultimately this ordinance that enshrines food sovereignty stems from a vision of how we can structure society to meet our basic needs. A broad sketch of this vision looks small in scale, localized, decentralized, with food production distributed throughout the landscape. The vision we find most attractive comes from agroecology and permaculture design that incorporates good landscape design with perennial food producing trees, shrubs and herbs. We imagine biologically diverse garden landscapes in every back yard with fruits, nuts and spices dripping from the branches and poultry or some other small livestock foraging in the understory. This vision integrates biological diversity with economic resilience and personal responsibility. The resources to help you pass an ordinance like this are ready to hand.
Please reach out and pass one in your town!
Templates and organizing resources for creating food sovereignty ordinances in your town
Jesse Watson is a permaculture designer, teacher and builder living and working in Rockland Maine, where we passed the LFCSGO in May 2018. He operates Midcoast Permaculture Design (midcoastpermaculture.com), serving residential, farm and institutional clients. He helps facilitate permaculture design certificate (PDC) courses with The Resilience Hub, based in Portland. He now serves on the board of directors of PAN, the Permaculture Association of the Northeast.
By Nathan Davis and Jesse Labbe-Watson | Dec 01, 2016 Original link
This question is at the core of the movement for food sovereignty in Maine and around the world. Food sovereignty is the assertion of local control over our food system, and the assertion against control by big agribusiness and nonlocal corporate interests. Eighteen municipalities in Maine have passed food sovereignty ordinances, and food sovereignty is now before the Rockland City Council. Rockland would be the largest community in Maine to pass a food sovereignty ordinance, and the first city to do so. We strongly support food sovereignty, and we think that the proposed food sovereignty ordinance deserves the Council’s support.
The movement for food sovereignty in Maine began in 2009, when Heather Retberg at Quill’s End Farm in Penobscot wanted to sell raw milk directly to her neighbors. She became frustrated when state regulators required her to obtain a permit that would have demanded expensive investment far beyond what her small-scale sales could justify. It seemed ludicrous that regulations created for and by the factory farm industry would be applied to neighbor-to-neighbor transactions. So Heather and other like-minded farmers and consumers drafted what became the first food sovereignty ordinance in the state. This ordinance has become a model for ordinances in communities throughout Maine, including the one before our City Council.
The preamble to the ordinance begins as follows: “We the People of Rockland, Knox County, Maine have the right to grow, produce, process, sell, purchase and consume local foods thus promoting self-reliance, the preservation of our local food economy, family farms, and local food traditions.” It then continues with philosophical and legal justification (drawing upon the Maine Constitution and Maine Revised Statutes) before arriving at the core statements of law: “Producers or processors of local foods in the City of Rockland are exempt from licensure and inspection provided that the transaction is only between the producer or processor and a patron when the food is sold for home consumption”; and “Producers or processors of local foods in the City of Rockland are exempt from licensure and inspection provided that their products are prepared for, consumed, or sold at a community social event.” The ordinance thus covers only transactions in which there is little or no separation between producer and consumer. It applies to neither third-party distributors, grocery stores, nor restaurants. It relies on – and strengthens – the feedback loops and bonds of community that nourish local business and form the fabric of traditional Maine life.
Food sovereignty supports economic development, environmental sustainability, community resilience, food security, local control, and individual liberty:
It combats control of our food and our government by large unaccountable corporations. It’s no secret that big agribusiness drives government food policy. As President Obama stated in a recent interview, “For a long time, agribusiness has had obviously a prominent seat at the table in Congress. It’s bipartisan.” Food sovereignty aims to remove regulatory burdens appropriate to large industrial-scale food production from small farms and producers (and ONLY from small farms and producers).
Huge monoculture farms produce well-documented negative environmental effects. Food sovereignty encourages diverse, small crops rather than uniform, large ones. It promotes active and careful stewardship of our farmland and natural resources by encouraging tight feedback loops between patrons and farmers.
Localized food systems are resilient against economic, environmental, and other stressors. We don’t know what our climate, economy, or society will look like in 20 or 50 years, and we should build systems and structures (not just related to food) that will lead to prosperity in a variety of futures, some of which may involve the weakening of national and global supply lines.
A food sovereignty ordinance in Rockland would reinforce our position as a leader in local food culture, which attracts visitors, new residents, and investment to our community.
Food sovereignty preserves Maine’s traditional food heritage and folkways, which are among the reasons that Maine is a great place to live.
Food sovereignty guarantees in local law the right for people to choose where they obtain their food and how that food is produced. If you want to get your food from a big store, you can do that. If you want to support a young farmer in the startup phase of their business, you are free to do that as well. A food sovereignty ordinance reduces the capital-intensive barriers to entry that many small farmers struggle with and also codifies the right of farmers to be able to sell directly to patrons who willingly support them.
Local law is the next frontier and most powerful current tool for protecting a sustainable agriculture system made resilient by diversified small-scale producers exercising their own right to self-determination.
This ordinance supports local businesses in the growing agricultural sector of Maine’s economy. By extension, it supports all local businesses, because if people can’t eat nourishing food, they can’t work or live here.
You may have heard of the “Farmer Brown” case decided by the Maine Supreme Court in 2014 against a seller of raw milk in Blue Hill. Contrary to some accounts, the Court did NOT strike down the food sovereignty ordinance in Blue Hill, nor did it strike down any food sovereignty ordinance elsewhere. Rockland would not contravene the Court’s decision by passing this ordinance. Government regulations around food safety arose in the early 1900s in response to centralized industrial meatpacking plants and have never been designed for small-scale direct farm-to-patron sales. The original motivation for food safety regulations like the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1907 was for government to provide oversight in situations where the consumer could not do that for themselves. A food sovereignty ordinance clarifies where government oversight is needed and where it isn’t. Under this ordinance, direct patrons of local farms would essentially regulate how farms produce food by taking their business to farms they trust in a true free market.
Food is one of the most immediate and intimate aspects of human life. Let’s celebrate that immediacy rather than ceding it to structures and systems built to mitigate the worst aspects of the industrial food systems of the past. Small farms drive Maine’s economy and attract young people to our state, and their numbers are increasing. Let’s keep it that way.
Nathan Davis and Jesse Labbe-Watson both live in Rockland. Davis is a co-founder of Renew Rockland, which has proposed a food sovereignty ordinance for the city. Labbe-Watson is the founder of Midcoast Permaculture, current board president of the Permaculture Association of the Northeast, and an expert in designing and building regenerative food systems for home and farm clients.
The first step in any good design process is to clearly define our goals for the project. A clear grasp of goals helps us to hold a vision, make design and implementation decisions and strategically allocate limited resources. The goal helps us orient our actions in the right direction. This way we can distinguish between which elements are the right fit for the right place or which actions take us toward our goal versus away from it. A good goal consists of a couple sentences that clearly articulate a statement of purpose. This is different from an element or list of elements that might go into the system.
Here’s an example: if i ask you what your goal is and you say “i want to grow apples,” this is a good start but we’re not quite there yet. Apples would be an element in the system and the system overall would be oriented to some larger goal. So i might ask you “why do you want to grow apples?” After you think about it you might say that apples are a good fruit crop for our climate and you like to eat apples. Underneath the desire for apples we get closer to the goal, which is why i might ask “why?” a few times. In this case you want to grow apples because you want to grow your own food in a manner that is a good fit for our climate. So a couple goals we can infer are 1) to grow your own food and 2) to adapt to the existing climate.
Goals can be summarized into a few sentences like in a holistic goal statement or they can be summarized in a list of bullet points. If it’s in a list of bullet points it’s important to remain focused on the deeper desires for why we want to do a thing rather than list out a bunch of elements. A wish list is also a useful exercise, but it’s best to separate that list from the goals. A clear understanding of goals help us to decide whether an element on a wish list is really necessary or if we can come up with a different solution to some design challenge.
Another example might be where a client says to me that they really want hugelkultur beds. Hugelkultur is a great way to turn rotting waste wood into viable garden beds, but it is a fairly significant construction project. After a discussion about why they landed on the element of hugelkultur we discover that the underlying desire is to manage water, make use of waste wood and turn it into an asset like growing space. Once we discover that the primary goal is to manage water, we may decide that it makes more sense to cut swales based on site conditions, soil types, volume of water and financial resources.
Clear vision and goals helps us make strategic decisions, allocate limited resources, and pivot to the most appropriate design solution. A focus on goals allows us to remain somewhat non-attached to specific elements so that we can focus instead on solving design challenges with the most appropriate strategies based on site conditions and other constraints.
Look, i clearly understand that there are invasive and noxious weeds that can have negative consequences on ecosystems, but we have to grok that this is a consequence of living in the Anthropocene. There are complex dynamics afoot in the “invasive” species debate that include ecology, economics, ethics and psychology. Our European ancestors are responsible for much of the introduced species. Some good, some bad. While purple loosestrife is problematic, can the same be said for the honeybee or apple tree or earthworm? And over a long enough time span, don’t ecosystems eventually find balance after a disturbance? Ecologically speaking it seems that the effects of “invasive species” are a mixed bag usually coming down to semantics and whether or not a new introduction is labeled with the epithet.
While ecological disturbance is a problem, we can’t blame it all on “invasive species.” How about this: if you want to blame ecosystem damage on one simplistic thing, blame it on “invasive culture” which is more to the point. You can’t demonize plants for reproducing themselves in the ways they evolved. They just happen to be in new places where (often) people of European descent introduced them by building their conception of society.
So while there is ecology involved with the disturbing effects of opportunistic and aggressive species, so too are economics. It’s big business to try and eradicate these plants and “restore” the “native” ecosystem. But the concept of restoring a native ecosystem is flawed because it starts at an arbitrary point in history (before Columbus) and then presumes that that “pristine” ecosystem was somehow static. But we all know that ecosystems are constantly changing and evolving and species move all over, sometimes with the help of humans and sometimes not.
In eradication efforts, while mechanical and hand removal labor costs add up over time, herbicides wind up looking like the cheaper option to land managers (government, conservation groups, land trusts, farmers, etc). So a beneficiary of the concept of invasive eradication is herbicide companies like Monsanto. That’s an economic consideration in this debate, which then yields a feedback loop to exaggerated ecological and economic damage in order to justify large orders of herbicides. The cozy relationships between big business and universities is no secret.
An ethical component comes down to the question of who controls ecosystems? Or what is our duty of care if we introduce species that disturb ecosystems? In order to answer those questions you have to ask the larger philosophical question of what is our role or place or position in nature? Should we be humble or authoritarian in our answers? Should we seek to control nature or find some other kind of balance?
As far as the psychological dimension, we would be foolish to overlook the grief and guilt associated with the disturbance that nuisance species create. In some ways i think we project the drama and tragedy of the process of colonization onto the ecological dynamics here. Where the demonized “invaders” are wiping out the preferred “natives.” In order to protect the natives we must wage war on the invaders, and the resulting efforts are somehow a sideways (if white savior) attempt at a collective reconciliation for the genocide of Native American peoples. While this might not be front and center for most people in the invasive species debate, i think it is a part of it.
This article takes a deeper dive into the psychological dynamics of guilt, fear and disgust with invasive species and new introductions. There is a short ideological bridge from invasive species to xenophobia and racism. http://tobyhemenway.com/201-another-kind-of-genocide/
This article was originally printed in Permaculture Design Magazine (formerly Permaculture Activist) issue #98, Winter 2015. Thanks to everyone who contributed to this issue.
Exploring the Intersection of Permaculture and Decolonization
This article is meant as a primer on decolonization in a contemporary North American context, written specifically for permaculture designers, teachers, activists and gardeners. It is offered so that we may think critically and philosophically about “sustainability” and our role in our culture as designers of novel ecosystems.
In this article we will seek to answer the following questions: of What is decolonization? Why should permaculture designers care? What is my experience with this topic? We will attempt to make a clear critique of settler colonialism here in industrialized North America, and demonstrate how we can simultaneously be both victims and perpetuators of settler colonialism. As a bridge to the challenge of bringing a decolonization framework into permaculture practice and pedagogy, I would like to start by mapping those same questions onto permaculture itself.
As a quick thumbnail sketch, permaculture is an ecological approach to the design of whole systems. It is an ethically bounded framework of ecological design that can be used to design everything from landscapes and farms to business enterprises and other cultural projects, on nearly any scale. On the surface, permaculture is often about designing eco-groovy, perennially edible landscapes, gardens and farms. On a deeper level, permaculture is about the conscious design of ecological cultures. As a design process, permaculture can be used to design both outer and inner landscapes, using observation as the preeminent tool for understanding. We would do well to reflect on our role as ecosystem designers and designers of ecological culture, and to think of ourselves in our design and organizing work as “culture jammers.”[i] What then, are some responsibilities here (vis a vis EarthCare, PeopleCare, FutureCare)? How we behave and interact with our ecosystems matters.
Micmac girl and her grandmother working on a herb spiral built during a permablitz in Micmac country near Presque Isle, Maine
The reason this matters is because the industrial systems we are embedded within and dependent upon are often deeply flawed and corrupt, in addition to being quite brittle. Whether we turn our observational gaze to food systems, energy systems or economic and political systems, they are all overdue for a radical ecological revision. The interactions between climate change, energy peak and economic contraction mean that the stakes are very high. Whether considering energy systems of production and distribution or agricultural systems of production and distribution, when we examine them critically we can see that these systems are brittle and capable of breakdowns at many pinch points. And it isn’t even accurate to say merely that the economic-political system is flawed, because it seems more accurate to say that it is deeply corrupt. Or perhaps it’s designed to function exactly as its functioning now: to keep the poor and disenfranchised firmly separated from the elites, and to maintain this oppressive distribution of power.
…permaculture gives us the ability to heal and regenerate ecosystems through “right relationship” to all the other beings around us…
Permaculture is a process of understanding, analyzing and designing systems. By using this lens of understanding, you can look at these systems and choose your leverage points. If you have access to land use, permaculture allows you to design perennial systems of regenerative food production that are much more resilient than annual-based agricultural systems of food production. Permaculture allows us to design productive loops of synergies between our technologically built environments and the surrounding ecologies within which we live. Think of it as regenerative design that heals and repairs ecosystems while at the same time producing beneficial yields. Through this process of the design and management of ecosystems, we can regenerate ecological health by weaving patterns of beneficial relationships in ecosystems. Permaculture gives us the ability to design resilient homesteads, farms, villages, towns and economies so that we have the ability to weather the storms that come our way, whether they are economic or ecological in nature. More importantly, though, permaculture gives us the ability to heal and regenerate ecosystems through “right relationship” to all the other beings around us: plants, animals (including humans), wind, water, rocks, soils and so on.
I am a permaculture designer, gardener, activist and teacher. The body-mind this go-around happens to be in the form of a cis-male of northern European ancestry (from the British Isles and Scandinavia). My ancestors came from cool temperate and cold northern climates. My family and I currently reside in occupied Penobscot territory, known as Midcoast Maine in the industrial nation-state known today as the United States (and this too, shall pass). I come from a background of union activism, art & philosophy, direct-action environmentalism, public school education, and building trades. I’m living out a version of the “American Dream” with an eco-groovy veneer here on my one-acre permaculture demonstration site where we manage small scale agroforestry systems with poultry as integrated livestock. My lineage of permaculture teachers includes Charles & Julia Yelton and Lisa Fernandes of the Resilience Hub. My lineage of earth skills teachers includes Mike Douglas and Mal Stevens of the Maine Primitive Skills School. I maintain a permaculture design/build practice for residential and farm clients. I help to facilitate and teach Permaculture Design Certification courses (PDCs) here in Maine and sometimes in Boston, partnering with the Resilience Hub. I serve the larger Northeast regional network by being an active participant on the board of PINE, the Permaculture Institute of the Northeast. My economic forms of production include designing, teaching, gardening and construction trades (carpentry, painting).
I am here to learn how to be of better service to all people. I’m here to help make the world a more just and sustainable place for my daughter and all the other children in the world, those alive today as well as those of future generations. I’m here to learn how to be a good ancestor. I’m also here because I dream of a world free of the industrial nation-state. I see an agenda of decolonization coupled with land use based on permaculture design as a positive way forward toward a time of greater ecological and social health, in which we may rediscover how to live in right relationship to a place while simultaneously repairing and healing historic crimes against humanity.
I became aware of the topic of decolonization a year ago. It was a topic whose initial catalyst came from Rafter Sass Ferguson’s article, ”Critical Questions, Early Answers,” which is an overview of the permaculture movement.[ii] In this article he interprets the racial homogeneity of the permaculture movement as a vulnerability. He suggests that the response to this weakness should not be one of recruitment or tokenism, but rather requires some deeper reflection on how we can be relevant to communities of color. While it’s a challenge, it’s also a tremendous opportunity. It’s also important to remember that no group of people is monolithic, whether we are talking about the permaculture movement, people of color, or Native American peoples.
As I reflected on how I could be relevant to communities of color close to where I am located in rural Maine (which is mostly white), I started thinking about making bridges with Native American communities to the north. As I ruminated on the difference between recruitment, green missionary work, and relevance, I also started to ask how I could use my privilege and agency (as a white cis-male) to be an ally to marginalized Native communities. I reached out to my close friends and eventually we found an article titled “Decolonization is not a metaphor”.[iii]
How can we expect to design a regenerative legacy for our descendants if we haven’t yet made peace with the ancestors?
In a literal and legal sense, decolonization “brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life.”[iv] It is important to note here that Native American peoples are not mythical relics of the precolonial or pre-Columbian Americas. They are not extinct. Native people continue to live and many continue to tend their council fires, which have been maintained for hundreds of continuous years. Many of them continue to resist the process of settler colonization and assimilation. Decolonization is about upholding longstanding treaties, adherence to international law, and the return of genuine sovereignty and the administration of land use to First Nations peoples. Decolonization is about correcting past crimes committed by (mostly) European settlers by returning “stolen” land.[v] Ideally this process should be done without strings attached. Questions of what happens to present settler peoples is secondary to the act of returning Native land to Native peoples. It is this facet of decolonization which strikes fear into the hearts of most settler peoples because it offers no firm guarantee of a settler futurity. In an ideal process here in North America, determining the future of settler people would be a separate process of negotiation between the newly repatriated indigenous governance structure and the settler peoples. This concept is complicated by the fact that the ancestors of some settlers of color have been brought here against their will, in the slave trade or as indentured servants. This is known as the “tangled triad” of settler—native—settler of color.[vi] And while settlers of color may experience systematic oppression at the hands of the currently designed economic-political system, they are also settler people and not members of the First Nations. And because of this they have a stake in the continuity of the colonial project.
How can we tend our own council fires in service to the community?
How can we expect to be designers of ecological culture if we don’t have a clear understanding of our past? How can we expect to design a regenerative legacy for our descendants if we haven’t yet made peace with the ancestors? If permaculture has as its ethical foundation Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share or Future Care, what do those words mean in this light, given the fact that people like me passively benefit from systematic forms of oppression and genocide that continue today?
In Edible Forest Gardens, Dave Jacke talked about the generative or degenerative potential that disturbance plays in ecosystem dynamics. As a principle for ecosystem design and care he talked about “shifting the burden to the intervenor.”[vii] So that when we decide to fall trees or sheet mulch so that we can plant forest gardens, the responsibility of managing the consequences of that disturbance falls to the gardener who intervened. I consider this principle when recognizing how I passively benefit from the actions that my ancestors probably took to help construct this oppressive and exploitative system. It informs how I think about what part I can play to heal historical traumas. If “responsibility falls to the intervenor,” how does that affect contemporary land ownership for those who can afford it? How should this principle inform the actions of ethical people who benefit from skin and gender privilege in general? I don’t have any firm answers, but I know that asking these difficult questions causes an uneasy and unsettling feeling. It seems the observation of the tension in considering these questions of land ownership/stewardship in light of this historical and contemporary inheritance is important. If we genuinely care about the regeneration of ecosystems and culture, we should talk more openly about this tension of “owning” “stolen” land,[viii] especially when seeking relationships with contemporary Native peoples.
In another sense, a cultural sense, decolonization is about the process of removing colonizing thoughts from your own mind and colonizing behavior from your own lifeway. In this sense, there is broad overlap between movements for social justice and anti-racism. For me, it is a process of learning how I passively benefit from my racial and gender privilege. It is a process of unlearning racist and white supremacist ideas and behaviors, some of which I wasn’t consciously aware were in my head. For me, it is a process of working through my grief over the crimes my ancestors may very well have committed. It is about learning what it means to be an ally, how to listen (especially when what I hear is emotionally challenging), and learning to give thanks always.We have to decolonize our minds before we can decolonize Native North America. We have to remove the empire from our heads before we can remove the empire from any land base.
This matters because an injury to one is an injury to all. I know that sounds trite and cliche, but that’s because it’s a truism. The industrial nation-state is an omnicidal machine, and it eats everything. The industrial machine is genocidal because it kills off whole nations and peoples. This machine is ecocidal because it destroys mountaintops and water wells with fracking and coal mining. Right now it doesn’t make a prominent habit of eating white cis-dudes because it’s busy making a habit of disenfranchising people of color, women, queer peoples and all those ‘others.’ But as these brittle industrial systems fall apart as a result of climate change or energy shortages, those ‘others’ can always be redefined to include me or you. So “an injury to one is an injury to all” should be understood in light of Neimoller’s poem “First they came for the Socialists…”:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Decolonization matters because of mountaintop removal, water mining and fracking. If resource extraction or industrial infrastructure needs to happen, none of us are immune to being displaced. If it’s under your house and the machine needs it, it cares not who you are. It will get those resources and eat you along with them, if need be. Think of decolonization as another form of enlightened self-interest.
We have to remove the empire from our heads before we can remove the empire from any land base.
Decolonization matters because it is the right thing to do in a moral sense. It gives the ethic of ‘People Care’ teeth. Ferguson points out that the mostly homogenous demographic makeup of the permaculture movement is a weakness. Recruitment is disingenuous. We need to be relevant. Decolonization allows for a framework of relevance as long as we have the courage to heal our “White Fragility”[ix] and face the realities of a white supremacist economic-political system. And if we have privilege and agency within that unjust and atrocious system, we must commit to using that access to dismantle that system.
I submit that the framework of decolonization would also save permaculture from being one more happy-faced, green, eco-groovy front for the project of genocide. This framework would help us discern between solidarity projects and green-missionary projects, both here and abroad. This lack of discernment is a blind spot. What good does it do to impose a forest garden somewhere if it isn’t a good cultural fit, or if the design process isn’t sufficiently inclusive? Such a project is nothing more than another form of imposition upon the locals by another foreign interest.
Permaculture allows us to remember how to be in right relationship to place.
Some open questions I still have revolve around issues of permaculture and its relationship to colonization. To what extent is permaculture a product of a settler people? Permaculture certainly appears to have been assembled from toolkits from all over the world and throughout history. And while that seems “progressive” or “cosmopolitan,” are there instances where design principles or techniques associated with permaculture were misappropriated from indigenous peoples without their permission? To what extent is permaculture practiced as a form of “green missionary work” throughout the world? While I get excited about the National Agroforestry Center looking into ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge’ (TEK) with the interest of transitioning tillage-based agriculture to perennial agricultural systems, I can’t help but notice the potential for inadvertent colonial appropriation.[x] In this case, settler peoples are studying and applying indigenous forms of land management, which can be positive as long as the tools and techniques are willingly shared by the indigenous peoples and not brashly stolen, like they have been so many other times throughout history. Clearly we’re doing important work with permaculture, so I want to separate the baby from the bathwater. This critique is offered to make the evolution of our movement cleaner and more respectful of indigenous cultures, and to find a way to balance “Leaver and Taker”[xi] cultures, maybe even to unify them.
An example of a novel ecosystem with forest garden polycultures and a diversity of plants and flowers
Once, during a presentation I said, “Permaculture allows us to remember how to be indigenous to a place.” It was a meme I had seen elsewhere, but I instantly felt skeevy after repeating it and vowed to never say it again. In the sense of some kinds of strict land management and home economics, it’s kind of true. But I realized that saying that sentence, especially to a room full of (mostly) white people, has the effect of erasing the lived experience of contemporary indigenous North American people. The tragedy is that such thinking offers permaculturist white people the opportunity to replace those indigenes and complete the project of settler colonialism, without those permies realizing that they’re doing so.
We now approach a closely related topic that, while important, is big enough that it warrants a separate article. Though there isn’t enough space to properly tackle the subject in this article, it still warrants a brief mention here. How do we remember that we are all indigenous to this planet, our Earth Mother, our Gaia? We all have indigenous ancestors, and they were once colonized too. How can we translate and communicate that to members of our colonial culture who may have forgotten? In light of Earth Care, People Care and Future Care, how can this be a valuable concept? (Think solidarity, being an ally, healing white fragility). How can it be a misappropriated concept? (Think of “Rainbow family”, New Age “Plastic Shamans”, and “pretindians”.)[xii] [xiii]
In my work regionally in the Northeast Permaculture network, one proposal that has emerged is that we consciously refrain from self-applying the term ‘indigenous’ if we are not actually indigenous to Native North or South America. So instead of making a statement like “Permaculture allows us to remember how to be indigenous to place,” we should choose other language. The reason for this relates to a concept in the article “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” which the authors call “settler moves to innocence.” A move to innocence is a diversionary attempt by a settler person to absolve themself of the guilt of living on stolen land using some form of catharsis, without actually addressing the difficult societal structures involved. So saying something like “Permaculture allows us to remember how to be indigenous to a place” makes a metaphor of indigeneity and thereby erases the lived experience of real peoples who are actually indigenous to Native America and who still resist the campaigns of genocide and expropriation of land and resources that continue to this day. Instead we can deploy an alternate sentence, such as “Permaculture allows us to remember how to be in right relationship to place.” This phrase contains a subtle but profound difference, one that relinquishes the settler colonial replacement strategy.
Another proposal is that we should seek genuine and longstanding relationships with existing First Nations. We should ask how we can be relevant to their lives, and ask for permission and endorsement of our activities and events. We should listen with humility when we are challenged over our privilege or unexamined racism. We need to be aware of white fragility if we start feeling defensive during racially charged conversations. We need to give thanks always. During events like the regional Convergence, we might make an offering at the beginning to acknowledge who the indigenous peoples are who live/d on the land we are now occupying. And when we publicly use ceremonies or songs from other cultures, we must be absolutely clear exactly how we got permission to use those ceremonies or songs.
And finally, what does the decolonization of Native North America look like? How do we organize for that kind of vision or dream? How do we incorporate righting this egregious, unresolved, and ongoing historical crime into our culture jamming work? How do you organize and convince White, Black and Yellow people into giving their land back to the Red Nations from which all this land was stolen? As designers of “bioculturally diverse ecosystems,”[xiv] how can we accomplish our goals of cultural, ecological and economic sustainability without contributing to the erasure of indigenous people and their lived experiences?
These are a few thoughts I’m left with. I don’t have any answers, but I do care deeply about being a good neighbor and a good ancestor to my descendants. I am deeply grateful for the space to explore this important topic in these pages, and I am grateful to the other participants in this conversation for their help in..