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Is permaculture appropriated from Indigenous knowledge?

Nov 23, 2022

I think about this question often. Indigenous peoples around the world have lived and continue to live in relationship with land. Milkwood Permaculture, an Australian-based permaculture organization, says it so eloquently: “Permaculture owes the roots of its theory and practice to traditional and Indigenous knowledges, from all over the world. We all stand on the shoulders of many ancestors – as we learn, and re-learn, these skills and concepts.” 

Can I get a little existential for a moment? Along the way, the inherent relationship we have with nature as western, industrialized people has diminished. So much so that we take, take, take, and see ourselves above natural systems, rather than active participants, even though our actions are actively undermining the very planet that gives us all life. There is so much to learn from Indigenous leaders about how to solve the problems we face. Was it Einstein that said we can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it in the first place? Permaculture’s roots are definitely informed by Indigenous wisdom. 

I like to think of it as this: Bill Mollison and David Holmgren (permaculture’s co-founders) went into the woods of Australia with a question: What rules does Nature follow and how do humans disregard these rules? Then they created some guidelines based on what they observed — observations that are inherent in indigenous people’s relationship with nature, without needing to be defined, but have been helpful for the post-industrial mind. In a way, permaculture is a modern, post-industrial roadmap to guide the return to earth-based practices. If we are to adapt and live more harmoniously, how do we develop human systems that participate in the bigger ecosystem, rather than constantly take from it? 

Whether you were raised in a traditional or Indigenous culture, or clumsily fumble your way back to the earth, my thought is that the heartbeat of healing is about being in relationship to the ground and water and soil and creatures that support us. Some Indigenous teachers I respect so deeply (Robin Wall Kimmerer and Martín Prechtel, specifically) both teach that what’s important is finding your own relationship to your ancestry and your ancestral practices before they were eaten by the ouroboros of colonialism. Every ancestor, at some point in history–some more recent that others–has had a relationship with earth. It’s an interesting paradox, really. Just like the same thinking that gets us into a problem can’t solve the problem, taking and taking without acknowledgement (whether we’re talking about “natural resources” or “permaculture”) is the same extractive methodology that got us here. 

That’s all to say, I don’t really know the answer…but it feels true that it’s important for me and my fellow white community to move beyond the shame of being a white, western, “modern” person, and try to live beautifully and become a “human worth descending from,” as Martín says. 

I’ll leave you with this beautiful quote from Martín: “Everyone’s trying to get rid of ‘invasive species’ but the major people pushing for that are the descendants of the invaders who are themselves an ‘invasive species.’ So when are they planning to leave? Maybe it’s better if you are an invasive weed, to try and be a lovely invasive weed. Or stop being invasive.” 

Photo credit: Erik Meadows Photography

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Permaculture 101