By Naomi Millner
I’m writing from El Salvador, on the Soil, Seeds, and Social Change field research trip that is being partly funded by the ARN. Here I have been working with a network of small-scale farmers here since January 2013, especially those linked with the Instituto de Permacultura de El Salvador (IPES) and the associated permaculture movement. This is my second visit, and this time I’m not just an observant participant, I’m running a series of participative interventions of my own. In total I’ve put on eight four hour participative workshops in two different regions of El Salvador: Torola, in Morazan, and Suchitoto, in Cuscatlan. Those taking part are a mixture of young people new to permaculture and experienced volunteers, some of whom have been involved since the first stirrings of the movement in the late 1990s. With IPES as my hosts I’ve also visited twelve working permaculture sites and interviewed and around twenty people from local and national NGOs, and municipal and regional government.
In doing this work my goal has been to explore how the in situ - that is, place-based- expertise being developed and shared by the movement has been, and might be, translated to other sites and scales. Each workshop has focused on a different theme (eg. food cultures, soil and water, food sovereignty) which formed the basis for dialogue and exchange. We have produced maps, diagrams, and dramas which helped us to delve into the histories and cultures of the movement, and problems that its faced. We’ve also sought to delve into the contradictions and opportunities presented by economic globalisation, and the contrast between the traditional practices which are valued in permaculture, and the very new technologies of communication and connection which allow the traditions of other places to mingle in. From the beginning my particular focus has been the way that the “experimental” and “experiential” forms of authority being developed by IPES and related organisations might challenge and alter the way that food security is imagined and tackled in UN forums like the Food and Agriculture Organisation...
I first became interested in the permaculture movement in El Salvador because of the way I saw traditional forms of know-how and transnational forums of
exchange coming together to shape practices and pedagogies of social change.
Beyond a critique of economic globalisation or neoliberalisation these practices
seemed to offer another world of imagination for negotiating the complicated
heritage of past centuries of empire-building and exploitation. This imagination
emerges from exchanges taking place between generations but also between geographically distant places. I have also been involved in permaculture practices in the UK, and was fascinated by how different
tropical permaculture seemed to be in El Salvador, especially in a movement led by
campesino farmers, rather than the educated middle-classes.
However, there are also striking similarities, including not only practices like seed-saving or terracing of the soil, but also attitudes toward health, development, and political change. In both contexts, a “do-it-yourself” culture prevails, with a strong emphasis on
popular education and a rejection of mediating institutions which assert themselves as
“knowers” and “actors”. The permaculture movement challenges conventional assumptions of social movements and social change in a multitude of ways. Like other transnational networks for the development of ecological approaches to agriculture, "permaculture” (which comes from the idea of creating a “permanent culture”, ie. an agriculture comprised of ecologically stable systems) has initially been taken up by pre-existing leftist social movements and structures in El Salvador. It is neither a “model” transplanted from the Global South, nor a pure invention of colonised others. Indeed, in the same way that this movement challenges assumptions made in food security policy - ie. that NGOs and governors are actors, who need to come up with efficient solutions, whereas campesino farmers are poor and need to be helped - a historical study of the movement also challenges recent accounts of indigenous knowledge and claims. In El Salvador the indigenous population was largely wiped out during the massacres of the 1930s - most famously, La Matanza of 1932, where roughly 30,000 indigenous people and peasants were killed. This including the leader of the rebellion, Augustín Farabundo Martí, who gave his name to the revolutionary party formed in 1979 to begin the civil war, the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN). There is no “living archive” of indigeneity in El Salvador, and permaculture is not a historical claim to land and practices made viable by unbroken links with the past.
Traditions from other places mix with fragments of oral memory and remembered practices from the past such that one cannot be separated from the other. Instead of bearing any kind of “traditional authority” - one based in connection with long-standing institutions or
entities - the authority of the movement is derived by a pragmatic emphasis on collective
experimentation and testing. Permaculture is comprised of a series of “principles” for design which can be passed on by anyone, but have to be reinvented in each place in relation with local vernaculars and specific environmental conditions.
With this interest in authority I have been particularly interested to study the “hybrid
traditions” which come together to legitimise permaculture as a form of practice which stands for the politics of the memory of indigenous ancestry. Without claiming perfect continuity with the past, permaculture forms a framework into which to organise
and remember fragments of historical practice and to preserve them as forms of
knowledge. Generational continuity becomes a kind of barometer for effectiveness, although trial in practice and tests including the minimal demand for energy inputs determine which of these forms of knowledge will organise the rest. The grammar of this
practice emerges from the emphasis on pedagogy and popular education within the context. Both permaculture and the leftist institutions which incorporated permaculture in the late 1990s share a politics of knowledge which emphasise the equality of learners over and against systems which assert hierarchies of access to knowledge and political speech.
The “roots” of the permaculture movement in El Salvador are in many ways the
campesino-a-campesino(farmer to farmer) movement which grew through the 1980s and 1990s as a methodology for experimentally developing, and sharing, ecological practices
for agriculture. This methodology, or movement - which still exists today -makes the experience and experimental expertise of practitioners central to its activities. Farmers demonstrate for other farmers techniques which they have found effective in intercambios
(exchanges), and new participants become teachers and motivators in their own areas. The emphasis in learning is not only in producing yield, but in dealing with chronic problems of soil erosion and infertility, and understanding their causes. Shaped especially by the wake of the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, where hybrid seeds and quick-fix fertilisers had quickly replaced traditional practices, this movement shaped a collective awareness of the role in large multinationals in the drive toward large-scale agro-commerce. It has also rendered governmental technicians - the “knowers” responsible for advising farmers on appropriate farming techniques - largely redundant.
Although small-scale and practical from tits inception, the farmer-to-farmer movement has been regarded as political movement for this reason: it bypasses the need for top-down governmental strategy, and positions the campesino farmers as knowers and creators. Like the transnational land-workers’ alliance Via Campesina, whose hundreds of thousands of members developed the concept “food sovereignty” to supplement to the idea of food security used within UN forums in the 1990s, this agro-ecological movement also makes
larger claims about food justice. Food security, here, is not just about getting enough to eat; it’s also about the rights of land-workers to continue working their own land, and to
choose what and how to grow. More than this, it is about the right to know: the right to say what the problems are and to take part in determining a solution. Where market-oriented food security policies have supported World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies, which push struggling countries toward export crops and large scale agro-commerce, food
sovereignty asserts the autonomy of farmers and the legitimacy of other ways of knowing and understanding the natural world which are not allotted a place in economic markets.
Whilst agro-ecology spread via the campesino-a-campesino movement from Mexico, Guatemala, and Nicaragua to El Salvador, permaculture became embedded when British community development worker Karen Inwood, and Salvadorean born Juan Rojas began to work with local communities. News of permaculture had already spread from Guatemala to certain regions of El Salvador, but Inwood and Rojas - who had discovered permaculture during his exile from El Salvador to Australia- saw an opportunity for the principles and practices of design in the chaotic wake left by the Salvadorean civil war (1979-1992). Land was a major factor and theme of the civil war, which began after the brutal repressions of civilian protests at the declining living conditions of the country’s majority agrarian population, who had been forced into below-subsistence living and continuous migration for work by a cementing alliance of coffee plantation owners and the military. But where in other countries the initial revolutionary spark subsided, in El Salvador a full-scale revolutionary uprising was sustained between guerrilla fighters and the military for a bloody twelve years, with peace accords mediated by the UN finally being signed in 1992. The development of liberation theology as a mode of critical praxis throughout the 1970s played
a large role in facilitating this rebellion, with outspoken priests and small groups developing a social justice reading of the bible which rejected long-standing ideas of submission to established authorities. This pedagogy of reading and learning proved fertile ground for permaculture’s own principles of teaching, learning, and social change.
This religious reading of social justice is important to the permaculture movement today, with many of the members of the network bearing strong affiliations with the local Catholic and Evangelical churches, and a significant number having played an important role in the guerrilla uprisings. Interestingly, however, the spirituality of the movement is strongly underpinned by a deference to ‘Mother Nature’ in at least equal - if not greater - weight with ‘Father God.’ This Mother Nature is a short-hand for the traditions and practices of indigenous peoples in oral memory, and it includes folk knowledge of a repertoire of healing herbs, together with traditional practices for managing water and soil on steep hillsides using terraces and diques, as well as stories which emphasise the importance of saving and sharing, seeds. However, Mother Nature is also a mode for relating differently to the world of soil, plants, and seeds. Rather than being regarded a resource to be carefully managed, she delimits a system of interrelated species, processes and systems in tension with one another. Permaculture ‘design’ involves close and careful observation of these systems and their precarious balances, before intervention takes place. Within this approach, Mother Nature also forms a means of connecting with other ecologically-oriented agricultural practices, across cultural differences. Mother Nature is not one “ontology”, or way of knowing the natural world, she is a meta-trope for acknowledging the multitude of ontologies which have been eclipsed by the extractivism of colonial and imperial
Interestingly, this means that although permaculture practices travel, the difference embedded in local sites and traditions become amplified and celebrated rather than flattened. For example, bocashy, a natural fertiliser created through a heating and fermentation process, was developed in Japan, but today forms part of the permaculture vernacular. On the other hand, the images, language, and practices remembered from indigenous fragments and elders in the community create the underlying grammar into which new practices are selected and absorbed. Although permaculture can itself be regarded as a travelling set of practices, it functions to preserve both bio- and cultural diversity. This is largely due to the fact that “designs” are never copied or transplanted from place to place. They are created through observation of site-based systems, and the incorporation of permaculture principles into pragmatic solutions to issues of systemic flux or instability. On the other hand, “bio-diversity” is clearly a loaded term which is used for different work by different institutions. It is not a simple relationship.
A key question which often arises in relation to this narrative is often: but what is the relevance of a set of practices which are so specific to particular places, and are not even claiming to be generalisable to others? This is partly answerable by distinguishing between permaculture principles - eg. observation of systems, integration of designs which keep resources circulating and avoid large expenditures of energy to bring in new resources - which do travel, and permaculture designs which are specific to place. The idea is that the pedagogy itself can be shared, and indeed, in the sharing, the existing expertise of farming communities is tested and authorised as valid practice. However, no one expert is to be raised higher than any other, as expertise is explicitly tied to location and practices. However, whilst I am here I have also been reflecting more and more on the topic of health as an extremely important one to grasp to understand how the permaculture movement is reaching interests at other scales, beyond itself. Whilst it is undeniably part of transnational efforts to redefine an “ecological” approach to political economy, contesting dominant “growth” models and attempting to rehabilitate cultural and bio-diversity into governance discourses, at a sub-national level it is the language of healthy, clean and nutritious food systems which is winning the movement new allies.
Perhaps I noticed the language of health due to my intimate acquaintance with the healthcare system through an accidental fall which resulted in stitches and numerous visits to local health facilities. Perhaps these visits also emphasised the alternative model of health being developed within permaculture, which challenges the idea that ailments of skin or soil can be dealt with by medicines or chemical fertilisers, and works instead to grasp what a “healthy” eco-system of food, soil, seeds, consumption and production would look like. Either way, I would like to wonder about this new role of health in relation to the development of “ecology” and “biodiversity” as concepts which link (but also disguise difference between) agendas. In other literatures, there is skepticism about the growing individualisation of health (we need to manage our own bodies for health, and
governments can only flourish if individuals will do this work) and also the ways in which intimate knowledge about the body is used to govern us as populations (eg. via airport security). However it also strikes me that there are notes of optimism in this move. There’s a whole machine of money and power which means that the claims of small-scale
farmers won’t be heard or listened to. But might the politics of bodies and environments, and the language of health, be a way of translating this expertise in a way that makes
it matter for other stakes and claims? Might it be a means of positively imagining future worlds outside the usual frames? The jury remains out.