In a young nation emerging from centuries of colonialism and conflict, permaculture has become a beacon of resilience and self-sufficiency. This article delves into the profound impact of permaculture on Timor-Leste's community-based education, environmental sustainability, and youth empowerment. It highlights the shift from dependency on international aid to nurturing local expertise and ecological awareness. Join us on a journey through permaculture youth camps, where participants learn not just with their minds, but through their senses and connection to the land.
Permaculture is a set of gardening and agricultural design principles centered on whole systems thinking, and on simulating or directly utilizing the patterns, connections, and resilient features observed in living ecosystems. Permaculture’s presently globally circulating principles were first articulated by the Australian psychological ecologist Bill Mollison and environmentalist–biologist David Holmgren in 1978. Its 12 core principles are grouped around nature-based self- and other-awareness, the recycling and reuse of naturally existing energies and materials, the downscaling of consumption patterns, waste reduction and collaborative practices, diversity and slowness, the valuing of edges and margins and embrace technologies of change.
Eugenio ‘Ego’ Lemos, collaborator in a research, founder of the NGO Permakultura Timor Lorosae (Permatil), and advisor to the Ministry of Education, directly refers to Mollison and Holmgren in the foreword to the Permaculture Guidebook from East Timor (2008), as pedagogical founding figures of the movement:
“Permaculture techniques can be an important tool for reducing disaster risks, especially food shortages, erosion and landslides, flooding, drought, fires and even disease epidemics. Solutions start on a community level, while also requiring a coordinated national plan [ . . . ]. Perhaps the most important part of using this guidebook is to teach and encourage the participation of children, East Timor’s future. (Permatil, 2008, p. 8).”
I got to know Ego and permaculture in 2014 through my wife’s ethnographic work on collective violence, reconciliation and aging at the borderlands of Timor-Leste and Indonesia. Since then I have researched on Timor-Leste’s trailblazing permaculture garden based national school curriculum, and I have participated in water conservation projects in 2019 and joined permaculture youth camps in 2022 in Aileu, Manatuto, and Atauro and interviewed and conversed with participants and inquired into how permaculture was perceived from different perspectives. Whereas there has been a wide range of opinions, echoing Nuno, who is a young high-school teacher, and who joined the six day permaculture youth camp in 2022, permaculture is understood as a collaborative learning practice that “works together with our land and communities and not against them” was the most common response.
In addition, and with Ego as main collaborator, we explored permaculture’s demographic and historical resonance with the Timorese context during collaborative fieldwork engagements and a series of online FGDs during lockdowns in 2020. Our conversations focused on the question why permaculture community initiatives have the potential to resonate with the geography, demography, history, and the political landscapes of contemporary Timor Leste. Let me share some of the factors we came up with as to why permaculture continues resonating so significantly in the young nation state.
Timor-Leste gained independence in 2002 after over four centuries of Portuguese colonialism, 24 years of illegal annexation by Indonesia, and an interim civil administration and peacekeeping mission provided by the United Nations. Today, the young nation is home to an estimated population of 1,400,000 people with the population continually growing. Two drastic drops in population growth in the late 1970s and the late 1990s marked outbreaks of collective violence, starvation, torture, and killings. These relate to Timor Leste’s colonial past, when the Indonesian military and respectively sponsored militias engaged in strategic and structural atrocities against its population. This is important to consider, permaculture education within and beyond schools is also understood as decolonial learning in opposition to decade-long domination of Indonesian and Portuguese curricula and language. Hence, the school curriculum is subject to Timor Leste’s ongoing contestation over its colonial history and imagined future.
Apart from disputes on language proficiencies and priorities, the prospect of a permaculture-based school garden curriculum and community development policy also responds to international investors’ initiatives, which continue targeting Timor Leste’s various economies, ideas of the land and of the country’s transformation in relation to large-scale agricultural undertakings and everyday consumption patterns. For example, the cultivation of school and community gardens is expected to make them resilient to the interest of transnational companies that target communities with their fast-food products.
With a mean age of 17.4 years, Timor-Leste is one of the youngest populations in the Asia Pacific region with 40% of the total population below the age of 14 years. If compared with the mean age of Germany (47.1 years) or Singapore (34.6 years), the reasons why the articulation of the permaculture as ecotopia and rhetoric of Timor Leste’s future is so prominent in Permatil’s permaculture guidebook and practice becomes more comprehensible. The future-driven public discourse also manifests in visions of nation-building and other entrepreneurial projects within the private and the state sectors.
Timor Leste is a young nation with considerable, yet disputed, oil resources and an entrepreneurial class within the government. Contemporary features of the national-development plans therefore include the planning and development of special economic zones giving tax reductions catering to transnational investors and consumers, and the rapid development of infrastructures. And yet, despite Timor Leste’s rapidly changing infrastructures and aspirational economic megaprojects, it ranks among the highest in the region for maternal mortality rates and malnutrition. This seems paradoxical, because Timor-Leste is a largely agrarian economy with approximately 70% of its population living in rural, and often hard-to-reach areas, where small-scale agriculture, horticulture, forestry, and fishing are primary income-generating activities.
In my anthropological work I inquire into a variety of phenomena, such as contrasting the shaping of young person’s selves, personhoods and imagined citizenship, issues of planetary health, nutrition, and well-being, or ways and strategies of (un-)learning and contesting normative gender roles and customary sociality. Within this broad scope, I now focus on the practice-oriented pedagogy of translocally thriving permaculture youth camps and their sensory and affective dimensions of learning together.
Thriving minds and movements
It seems fair to say that permaculture initiatives coupled with critical and liberation pedagogies thrive particularly at societies’ margins and with considerably vulnerable rural communities. Particularly, in Timor-Leste, the community based permaculture youth movement (juventude permakultura) that works at the rural margins has exponentially grown in number and social influence during the last three years. The youth movement is coordinated by the staff and many volunteers of the local NGO Permakultura Timor Lorosa’e (Permatil), who were also spearheading the permaculture-based school curriculum initiative over the last decade. Permatil’s recent shifted priorities from creating school gardens to community gardening and water conservation responds to both political and environmental crises resulting from landslides and mudslides in the wet season, and existential droughts in the dry season, that have recently resulted in inter-community conflicts over access to water.
August 2022. As we drove up to one of the regularly organized travelling permaculture youth camps in Labubu, Manatuto, a rough four hour ride from the capital Dili in a four-wheel drive pick-up, Ego Lemos stressed that
“People lost their faith and their trust in the government to solve their problems for them. The whole country, the government and the communities got used to being helped by someone, instead of helping themselves. The whole country has been made dependent upon international aid. Every project is titled ‘for the future’, and yet if we continue like this, our children will have none. The government spends millions of dollars to create monuments like this one all across the country.”
He points to a grayish concrete structure with a dried up faucet at the side of the road. “We call them monuments, because they have no other function than to remind us of another failed mega-project”, he then honks at a passing cross-country motorcycle – the first that passes us in two hours on our bumpy ride on the washed out dirt road up and down the hills spreading into the dried-up and dusty countryside.
I thought I understood what Ego meant at that moment in the pick-up truck. I thought I related to his critical perspective on Timor-Leste’s and the international aid work circus that travels across the Global South. In hindsight, I think I might have grasped the basic idea that I related to previous research at urban margins and to the literature I read on postcolonial NGO-landscapes, decolonial and resistance movements, and the ‘environmentalism of the poor’.
Tasting the Soil
Spending one week at the permaculture youth camp in Labubu with around three hundred young men and women from the surrounding villages and about twenty Permatil volunteers was a powerful reminder of collaborative learning and the limits of disembodied understanding from a distance.
After five days of learning how to look for adequate lots and building soon-to-be fertile community gardens, the participants of the learning group on creating ‘terraced gardens’ (the other groups were ‘community school gardens and nutrition’ and ‘water conservation’) went for their final check as to whether the knowledge taught (‘from heart to heart’) in open air classes under two trees and through humorous hands-on sessions had already seeped in. The task was to taste the dry earth and thus assess its pH value via our taste buds on the tongue.
Before digging the soil and building more terraces at the steep hills, Amandu, the instructor, asked the twenty participants of the group to taste the soil first in order to check whether the following tasks of digging, mulching, and planting seeds would stand the chance to create future fertile gardens. Since no one volunteered, Amanu walked up to me, took me by the arm and asked me to taste the soil and assess its pH value. I had failed the days before, so the scene for failure, slapstick, and gentle mocking would be set. I played my part – and got it wrong again. By contrast, most of the young women and men tasted, touched, and sensed the soil right. It was ‘too gravely’, ‘too sour’, and looked ‘too gray’, so we had to look for another lot, some thirty meters uphill, where it felt, tasted, and looked ‘just right’.
Three hours later, after the whole group gouged out two terraces, which included digging, measuring, and mulching the Beet with dry weeds, we sat under the only shade giving tree to take a lunch break. Amanu joked about how slow we were, but was full of praise how promising our efforts were if we kept practicing and implementing the learned skills of feeling, smelling and tasting once we returned to our home communities. He then closed his speech with a short yet fervent reminder that stuck with me: “And remember, your head is in Timor-Leste, your heart is in Timor-Leste, but your stomach is in Vietnam!”
When a young high school teacher asked “What’s wrong with Vietnam?”, Amanu explained that “nothing of course, but even if ‘we’ tried our hardest to finally become independent from Portugal, Indonesia, and international companies, we will never really be, if our food is not secured, if we cannot provide for ourselves! If our stomachs cannot be filled with healthy food! Remember that!”
Mobilizing the Future
In the larger research with permaculture collectives, I intend to elaborate on the practice-oriented and sensorial pedagogy of the traveling permaculture youth camps. I theorize how eco-social movements that carefully combine transnational solidarity initiatives with localized knowledge and expertise painfully reveal the bureaucracy-heavy, capital intensive, and project-minded international aid and charity conglomerations.
Permaculture youth camps thrive at the margins because they attend to the existential concerns of the growing number of communities that do not feel heard, seen, and cared for. They manage to contest state-tolerated inequalities and marginalities through respecting and revitalizing local knowledge in combination with globally travelling liberation and permaculture pedagogies that not only consider, but work, sense, and taste with the soil instead of exploiting it.
The juventude permakultura movement steers away from pedagogic buzzwords of ‘international development’ and ‘education for all’ projects that more often than not homogenize learning practices and infrastructures based on universal values and devalue local knowledges as hindrance to be overcome on communities’ prospering pathways to ‘progress and development’.
Permatil’s evidence-based results of thriving gardens, revived water sources, and the revitalized yet shifted conviviality of communities (such as revisited rituals and celebrations) increasingly attract the attention of those globally operating aid and development agencies that ultimately created the juventude permakultura movement as critical response due to the former’s disappointments. At the risk of sounding overly naïve, the permaculture youth movement emanates hope through their practices of learning together with ecological and cultural environments instead of solely disciplining, extracting, and exploiting them.
Thomas Stodulka is Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Münster, Germany. His on-going research are on permaculture, learning, and shaping futures in Southeast Asia.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.