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Permaculture School Gardens as Decolonial Projects

Text by Svenja J. Holzhausen (Freie Universität Berlin)

Art by Lena Rorschach

This essay centers on the question of whether permaculture school gardens can be considered decolonial projects, focusing on the connections between colonialism, capitalism, hegemony, agriculture, and knowledge. Using Timor-Leste as a case study, it examines the potential of permaculture school gardens to challenge dominant narratives and contribute to decolonization efforts, particularly in the context of knowledge valuation.


Colonialism forcefully incorporated large parts of the world into the capitalist market system. It also resulted in the extraction of resources, leading to the partial or total destruction of ecosystems. Furthermore, colonialism involved the exploitation of labor and the dislocation of produced ‘value’ to Europe. Colonialism also promoted a hegemonic ‘one size fits all’ definition of knowledge deemed valuable, leading to the ideological devaluation of local knowledge. Although colonialism partly exploited local knowledge, it also manifested racist definitions of ‘superior and inferior.’ Most of these endeavors have been framed and even partially understood as ‘development’ in the sense of a positive impact. Problematizations of these issues have come a long way to find wider recognition and have to be understood as the results of efforts of the formerly colonized; thinkers, nationalists, nationalist thinkers, critical thinkers, as well as some critical thinkers of the formerly colonizing nations.

As Dipesh Chakrabarty states in 2005, by taking the European economy with an uncritical understanding of modernization, as a model for a formerly colonized nation, decolonization became a “catch-up” effort for the latter (Chakrabarty 2005, 4814). This only strengthens Frantz Fanon's emphasis on the need for decolonization to happen inside the people’s heads (Fanon 1991 [1951]). Efforts of decolonization contain the struggle to think of, dream, struggle for, and especially realize, once entered, a better positioning within the capitalist system for the formerly colonized. This very realization faces structural difficulties for the same reasons that were named and came along with colonization itself. At the same time, the way the global capitalist market system operates has made its dysfunctionality for the planet, the very place we all live in, as obvious as the increasing disadvantage it brings to the marginalized, or rather those the system does actively marginalize in the first place.

Since the 1990s, the approach of permaculture promises to focus on community and a way to provide for humans alongside nature, and nurture ecosystems instead of working against them, having its foundation rather inspired by how ecosystems work. Permaculture allows a kind of social impact that works together with the natural local environment, instead of forcing the destruction of ecosystems. Even though permaculture seems to hold many answers to the devastating impact colonialism had, the question is whether an approach that officially originated in a settler state, Australia, can be considered decolonial. In this essay, I would like to discuss a few theoretical insights alongside the case of permaculture school gardens in Timor-Leste, which started as projects in 2015.

Decolonizing ‘Success’

Colonialism's marriage to capitalism has brought a specific kind of hierarchy along with it; the successes of the few inevitably went the way of exploiting the many. Now with permaculture, success is not primarily measured individually. There is no ‘trickle down’ effect one keeps waiting for dogmatically. The success model of permaculture is a sustainable living system, that necessarily includes sociocultural aspects, self-, and other-awareness and aims at fair distributions (Stodulka 2020, 1516) — it is measured in terms of community, not the individual. It could therefore be seen as delivering an alternative to interlaced colonial and capitalist thought systems. Neither individual success nor the marginalization of ‘others’ should be framed as purely Western, which would oppose a ‘noble’ romanticized other. Though we can understand this redefinition of ‘success’ as a potential partial decolonization of the mind.

Timor-Leste is dominated by an agrarian economy, with small-scale agriculture, horticulture, forestry, and fishing for income (Stodulka 2020, 1522). Portuguese, as well as Indonesian colonization, contributed to desires for office jobs, for being a public servant in the capital instead of working in rural areas, and brought forth the idea that one should avoid being a farmer (Hill 2007, 4). Helen Hill refers to such beliefs as contents of a ‘hidden curriculum’, still largely accepted at the beginning of the 21st Century (ibid.). While such ideas have given office jobs and money the connotation of autonomy and freedom to do, buy, have, and grow, a permaculture curriculum and garden laboratory could connote autonomy with a different set of ideas that include the healthy provision of more than basic needs, namely …. Not holing up with neoliberal definitions of freedom and individualistic lifestyles that are being idealized as they continuously circulate online (Stodulka 2020, 1513), being a farmer is accompanied by an ideological devaluation.

Hierarchy of Knowledge

By acknowledging the power and practical applicability of knowledge on a sustainable way of farming alongside “[…] pragmatic life skills with respect to changing transnational job markets, national economies, and local ecologies” (Stodulka 2020, 1520), permaculture school gardens have the potential to reshape how farmers’ social statuses are ideologically hierarchized. The incorporation of local knowledge, partly traditional knowledge, as well as the potential for innovations that work for specific localities, can help to validate this knowledge through its practical applicability and direct impact. This is where permaculture school gardens can help to redefine formerly learned systems of hierarchization, systems defining the ‘inferior’ and the ‘superior’ inside people's heads. Frankly, it states that farming is not for the uneducated, but recognizes it at the core of care — nourishing a community. It can thus play a role in unlearning and learning what education even is about.

Permaculture principles are designed to combine local knowledge and multi-disciplinary scientific insights, natural sciences as well as humanities (ibid.). Is this not a colonial distinction in itself? The distinction between local and scientific knowledge, two categories that are only supposed to become combined in a second step? What is accepted as a scientific source, a method, and how is scientific knowledge produced? One must acknowledge that what this ‘combination’, may it be one or not, holds on the ground, is the insight that those two categories are not a contradiction to one another. The inclusion of permaculture, therefore, bears the potential to marginalize a formerly made distinction of inferior and superior, and can in this sense, be understood as a decolonizing process.

Expanse and Profit

The way permaculture principles are known today, they have first been articulated by Bill Mollison and David Holmgreen in 1978 in Australia to be adapted locally (Stodulka 2020, 1516), wherever that may be. So, is its spreading not the spreading of a set of ideas, a typical project that someone or a small group of people already wanted to realize, now backing it up with the trendy term of decolonization (Tuhiwai Smith 2018, 13), while holding on to the idea of knowing their way around economics better from a privileged position? Is it not the call of two white men, Mollison and Holmgreen? How permaculture travels as a concept, by whom its traveling and implementation are encouraged, and with what intention, plays a role in how permaculture is, will, and should be interpreted. If I, as a German Student, were to present to a European NGO the idea to 'take a look at what is being taught in the grassroots organized school in the Global South that we are financially supporting, and how the curriculum could be adjusted', eyebrows may be raised for good reasons and in avoidance of paternalist supremacist tradition. But Timor-Leste’s Permaculture curriculum has come into being through a very different process.

After seeking expertise in community development at an Australian settler University, Timorese Ego Lemos met Steve Grand and got introduced to Permaculture (Stodulka 2020, 1519). So a local to Timor-Leste was specifically seeking collaboration, and further invited people of different backgrounds to collaborate. He later helped to implement permaculture into primary school curricula in Timor-Leste (Stodulka 2020, 1520). 'His' collaboratively written guidebook on permaculture acknowledges the multi-sourced nature of its contents and deems its universal knowledge, as Thomas Stodulka points out (ibid.). This is not a specific acknowledgment of certain groups of people. While this may be seen as problematic concerning recognition, universal authorship, and ownership can well be regarded as thoroughly decolonial. The guidebook, furthermore, encourages readers to think for themselves and with their community (Permatil 2008, 7 cited as in Stodulka 2020, 1517). Furthermore, the produced 'value', the product, the monetary or practical win can stay within the local community and is not exploited by someone further up the hierarchy.

Autonomy, Sovereignty

“The cultivation of school gardens is expected to create self-sufficient schools and school lunches and to make them resilient to the interest of transnational companies that target school canteens with their fast food products as a business market” (Stodulka 2020, 1521). This means food sovereignty on a small scale, which poses a real threat to hegemonic undertakings of globalization in colonial tradition. As Stodulka (2020, 1521) points out school gardens offer an answer:

to Australian, Indonesian, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and other economic investors’ current initiatives, which have been 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.

By this Stodulka is saying that, if the school projects reach wide acceptance, they can easily be adapted for projects with a wider reach. While the latter appears affine to neoliberal logics, contributing to food supplies, the acceptance of permaculture into more communities, bears the potential to lead to relative food sovereignty and thereby support partial sovereignty from the global capitalist system. Permaculture can offer solutions that are better adapted to the natural environment, thereby posing lower risks of losses and dependencies. For some people in Timor-Leste, it may make the detour of monetizing labor in the larger market economy, and therefore moving to the city, superfluous by supporting communities’ sovereignty up to a degree.

Concluding Thoughts

Permaculture does not aim at a dogmatic exclusion of everything connected to colonialism and capitalism from the curriculum. Is it therefore to be regarded thoroughly decolonial? There is not a clear answer to this since some things connected to the two may be beneficial and lead to more sovereignty. So, the reality on the ground encourages us, to ask a different question. One more precise? The decolonial connotation of ‘undoing’ is no backward notion but aims at hegemonic structures in a forward motion. Which practices can get communities out of and around the structure? How can its gripping forces be untied? Is that what brings one closer to the abolition of this specific hegemony? And who gets to decide which practices and knowledges are to be pursued?


Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2005. Legacies of Bandung: Decolonisation and the Politics of Culture. Economic and Political Weekly, 40:46, 4812-4818.

Fanon, Frantz. 1991 [1952]. Black Skin. White Masks. London: Pluto Press.

Hill, Helen M. 2007. How Education both Promotes and Undermines Development in Timor Leste: the Problem of the ‘Hidden Curriculum. In East Timor: Beyond Independence, ed. Damien. Kingsbury and Michael Leach, 223–236. Melbourne, Australia: Monash University Press.

Stodulka, Thomas. 2020. Worlding Permaculture School Gardens: Translocal Connectivities and Minor Utopias in Timor Leste. American Behavioural Scientist 64 (10): 1512–1525.

Tuhiwai Smith, Linda (Nga¯ti Awa, Nga¯ti Porou), Tuck, Eve (Unangaxˆ), and Yang, K. Wayne. 2018. Indigenous and Decolonizing Studies in Education: Mapping the Long View. New York: Routledge.

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