Cuyama to Kenya: Interweaving Permaculture & International Development

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Zeya Schindler
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On a spring day in 2011 I sealed a thick envelope containing my freshly printed master’s dissertation and dropped it in a mailbox, bound for the Centre for Development and Emergency Practice in Oxford, England. The title of the paper was “Designing for Disaster: Evaluating the Potential for Permaculture Design in Development and Emergency Practice”. The project was my first attempt to sketch out a bridge between two distinct worlds that seemed fundamentally connected.

My background and chosen career path were within the world of international development, an amorphous term that I had never much resonated with. The meaning hidden behind the phrase, for me, was a dedication to help create solutions to the great challenges we face on our planet. I knew the world of development well through my course of study and a handful of experiences in international work. And while some associate that world with waste and mismanagement, with white Land Rovers and band-aid solutions, my perspective had been different. I had worked alongside and been mentored by brilliant minds and compassionate hearts; individuals who had devoted their lives to helping in whatever ways they could and who were untiring in their commitment to help reduce suffering in the world.

And yet, as inspiring as my personal vantage into that world was, there was a missing piece, a something flitting at the edge of my awareness. Whatever it was, it moved closer to realization when conversations turned to the underlying causes of human suffering. Peer deeply enough into problems of conflict, poverty, and increasing vulnerability, and you will find that they are inevitably rooted in the relationships between humans and the ecology that supports their lives and livelihoods. Who has access to what they need to live a good life, and who does not? Who is responsible for restricting others from that access? And how have so many societies drifted away from the practices and attitudes that once allowed for the human/ecology relationship to be a healthy and abundant one? The answer to this last question seemed clear enough to me. At some point in time a great many people had turned away from the understanding of their lives as part of a dynamic system of mutually nourishing relationships, and had reduced their relationship to the ecology to one of commodity and consumer.

The something that I found absent in the stance of the development world was an awareness that we cannot possibly meet the challenges at hand using the same lens of perception that created those challenges. The fundamental importance of relationship between people and landscape was missing in the lexicon of the development world because it is a world created by societies that lost the awareness of that importance long ago. Discussions of ‘resource-based conflict’ and ‘natural resource management’ indicate the best of intentions but also a reductionist view of the ecology as a thing to be manipulated and managed rather than as complex living systems to which we belong and are a part of. The more I learned about the current paradigm of development practice the clearer it became that success in facing the challenges of our time would necessitate a shift to a more holistic understanding of how we arrived here and what is truly necessary to create a better future.

I knew very little about permaculture, but enough to indicate that it might be a worthwhile direction in which to seek not only practical tools and design principles relevant to development work, but a different way of seeing and relating to the world as well. I soon found that I was not the first to link the holistic design science of permaculture with development. Breadcrumbs of data led me to a handful of projects around the world that had employed permaculture design in dealing with crisis situations, from refugee camp design in Macedonia to village-scale livelihoods and disaster preparedness training in Indonesia. It was enough information to craft a dissertation and to deepen my conviction that permaculture had a tremendous amount to offer to those concerned with development work.

Still, my own understanding of permaculture remained abstract, gleaned from a few books and an array of articles scattered across the internet. I knew that my dissertation had served to introduce me to a fascinating design science and further my desire to integrate it with my career in development, but I was unclear as to where to turn next for mentorship and practical learning. It was shortly after that a friend forwarded me a notice for an upcoming Permaculture Design Course for International Development and Social Entrepreneurship at a place called Quail Springs in Southern California. I booked the course and set about preparing to make the journey from my home in the San Francisco Bay Area.

No expectations could have prepared me for what I found upon arriving at Quail Springs, in terms of both natural beauty and relevance to my desire to bridge permaculture with international development. A world away from the mild coastal climate of nearby Santa Barbara, Quail Springs Permaculture site is tucked into a secluded canyon above the arid Cuyama Valley at 2400ft. Past a series of gates and up a winding dirt road, the small settlement serves as a demonstration and teaching site integrating permaculture into farm development and land stewardship. It is a testing ground for holistic ways of designing human environments and regenerating and revitalizing land and community. And importantly, these goals are being pursued in an ambitious environment. The Cuyama valley is blazing hot in summer, freezes in winter, with random late frosts. The soils are barren and the springs are dry after successive decades of deforestation, overgrazing and erosion. And with six inches of rainfall a year, the margins for error in crop production and other livelihood activities are as narrow as can be.

And yet Quail Springs is thriving. The drylands habitat is as challenging a place to live, but through studied and deliberate nurture of the ecology a dynamic and beautiful farm and community has taken shape. Through watershed and land restoration the levels of harvestable water are rising and wildlife populations increasing. Comprehensive composting and fertility building have allowed for crops and a the beginnings of a food forest. Integrated animal systems provide a multitude of vital services to the farm and the community. Intelligent, site-appropriate natural building methods have led to the design and creation of structures that are as beautiful as they are perfectly suited to the local climate.

It’s difficult to imagine a better learning environment for a course combining permaculture and international development.  The environment that supports Quail Springs is mirrored around the world by communities facing increasing desertification, irregular and extreme climate patterns and displacement onto marginal and infertile lands.

The wisdom and care that characterized the relationship between the residents and the ecology of Quail Springs were mirrored in the quality and the delivery of the course. The combination of practical knowledge and deep insight provided by Warren Brush and a wealth of guest teachers spoke to a profound understanding of both the challenges we face and the potential to meet and transform them by living with integrity in our relationship to the natural systems that sustain us. As I had hoped, what was on offer was not just instruction in practical aspects of design but an opportunity to develop a different way of seeing and experiencing, of valuing interdependence and designing for the kind of resilience that is only possible through recognition of relationship to our ecology.

The course was a powerful confirmation of the value of bringing the principles of permaculture into increasing connection with the world of development and international aid. And that confirmation has shaped the unfolding of my own life as well. My relationship to Quail Springs has grown and deepened in the years since my design course, with frequent visits to learn and share.

In January of this year, I had the great fortune of traveling to Kenya with Warren Brush to help facilitate that country’s first ever Permaculture Training of Teachers. Organized by Permaculture Research Institute Kenya, the cohort was an amazing mix of community leaders, teachers and NGO staff from around East Africa and beyond, developing their skills as permaculture teachers so as to impact their own communities and enact positive change.

What began for me as an inquiry into the potential value of permaculture design in development has brought me into connection with many amazing individuals and projects also working to bridge those two worlds. Having one foot firmly in the world of ecological design has not led me to reject the world of development. As with any vast system grappling with insurmountable challenges, there are plenty of failures towards which one can point. Yet awareness of the many flaws in the system does not repel me since I know that that system is comprised largely of people who have dedicated their lives to doing what they can, to finding solutions. My hope is that these many bridges will continue to take real and definite shape, allowing the best of both worlds safe passage across.


Zeya Schindler is a writer, storyteller and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He holds a master’s degree in Development and Emergency Practice from Oxford Brookes University and is a student of permaculture, ecological design and natural building.

Zeya Schindler
MA Development & Emergency Practice

To learn about Quail Springs Permaculture Design Course for International Development & Social Entrepreneurship offered annually in the summertime, with upcoming dates June 21 – July 5, 2014, please visit the course webpage here.

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