CERES Global in India—Day 08: Visioning Permaculture at Shikshantar

From 2nd-12th December 2017 I co-facilitated a CERES Global tour to India, themed around sustainable development, permanent culture and un-learning.  My focus for the tour was to collect data for my research project on permaculture as a transnational social movement and to learn more about alternative education models as a teaching and learning professional development immersion.  This posting is one of a series of my daily reflections from the tour on what our group encountered.

On day eight of our CERES Global Sustainable Development, Permanent Culture and Un-learning tour to India, our group collaborated in a day of permaculture discussions and garden work with our friends at Shikshantar.  In a co-creative process, the CERES Global group and members of the Shikshantar community learned about permaculture ethics and design principles, explored visions for the garden on the Shikshantar premises, and got our hands dirty working on innovations to bring the garden to life, building relationships and learning new things about ourselves and each other in the process.  However, our yield from the day was not necessarily what we expected going in.

Permaculture visioning in the Shikshantar garden

The previous evening we spent a couple of hours with members of the Shikshantar community exploring their vision for what they want out of the Shikshantar garden space. I led the group through a discussion about the three permaculture ethics—Earth care, people care and fair share—during which time we broke off into small groups of 4-5 participants. This was an exciting process with CERES Global group members and Shikshantar community members fleshing out a vision for the site, through a multi-lingual discussion process in English and Marwari.

Sarah Gorman then prompted the group to expand on those visions for the site, asking participants to imagine what the garden will look like in five years’ time. I found this to be a powerful creative technique for helping the group to envision what it really wanted for the site at an emotional and functional level, above and beyond the wish-list of unintegrated features that purely intellectual visioning exercises often lead to.

Breaking off into small group again, we then explored how the three permaculture ethics could be married with the group’s visions for the Shikshantar garden and operationalised on the site. These discussions provided us with a foundation for what we might achieve in our working bee on site the following day.


The following morning on day eight, Sarah Gorman conducted a workshop on the permaculture ethics and design principles for a larger group of Shikshantar community members and the CERES Global participants, where she expanded upon the logic behind the twelve permaculture design principles.


Getting our hands dirty

With the visioning exercise in mind that the group embarked upon the previous day, we then divided the participants into working groups to apply some of the permaculture-inspired interventions in the garden.  Manish Jain had encouraged us the previous evening to make our activities more hands-on and experiential, to help participants learn by doing in accordance with Shikshantar’s core principles.  There were a number of participants from the CERES Global group who shared some of their permaculture expertise with the group through an afternoon-long working bee.

I led a working group devoted to improving the productivity of edge spaces within the garden.  In permaculture design, edges between different elements of a garden are valued as highly productive spaces. This is based on an ecological concept known as the edge effect, which describes how there is a greater diversity of life where the edges two adjacent ecosystems overlap.  In terms of permaculture design, we see that there are more mutually beneficial relationships between the elements at the edges, which arises because there are increased flows of materials, nutrients and organisms across these edge spaces.  Good permaculture design tries to maximise the benefits of the edge effect by increasing the available edge space on a site.

In my working group, we walked through the garden and identified already existing productive uses of edge space and brainstormed the benefits to the garden of each example. We then identified places in the garden where edge spaces could be created or increased, to increase the productive capacity of the garden, increase the species diversity of the garden ecosystem, and create a multi-sensory experience for the people who use the garden space.  With these spots in mind, we then created an inventory of appropriate materials available on site that could be used to improve these edges.  We also brainstormed what kind of plants would be most appropriate to cultivate in each of the edge zones.



Patricia Griffen and Helen Bucknell led a short workshop on composting techniques and got her working group to explore ways of improving the composting system on site.  Casey Moors led a group which helped to draw up a draft site map of the garden, which could be used to develop more detailed permaculture designs for future projects on the site.  Chris Adams and John Bucknell led another working group in mulching the existing garden bed and cleaning up heavy plant debris from around the site into a hard compost pile.

Reflecting on the (lack of) design process

Our “yield” from the day included a number of positive outcomes for CERES Global participants and for Shikshantar, as well a challenges that all involved can learn from.

In this engagement we had to balance the competing objectives of facilitating a meaningful hands-on experience in the garden and utilising proper permaculture design process.  On this occasion, the design process ended up being sacrificed in favour of getting hands dirty on the day.  Permaculture design is an involved process requiring lots of observation, information inputs, site planning, needs and functions analysis, and detailed client briefs.  A lack of pre-planning and limited time meant that it was not possible to engage in a holistic permaculture design process in any meaningful way.  The lack of actual permaculture design in the day’s engagement was a bone of contention among CERES Global participants as we planned the agenda for the day.  What we ended up with was essentially a working bee  with a couple of introductory workshops on permaculture ethics and design principles on the side.

On reflection, there appeared to be a mismatch of expectations between members of the Shikshantar community, who were expecting more extensive innovations on the site, and members of the CERES Global group, who were uncomfortable proceeding with any ad hoc interventions on the site that were not holistically incorporated into a full permaculture design of the site.  After all, its the holistic design process that makes it “permaculture.”

From my perspective, these difficulties and disagreements represent a learning experience that can help shape future interactions between CERES Global and Shikshantar.  More detailed planning, information sharing and matching of expectations in the lead-up to any future permaculture-based engagements will help to provide a foundation, and the time, to engage in a proper permaculture design process.  With a design already in place, site work on the day can be devoted to implementing design features that have been planned as integrated and complementary components of the garden.

Difficulties aside, the workshops and working bee provided a space for interaction, mutual learning and friendship-building.  Members of our group with permaculture skills were able to share some of our expertise and learn some local knowledge from members of the Shikshantar community in a co-creative process, all of us simultaneously occupying the roles of both teacher and student.

Those of us who shared knowledge with the group learned some insights into group facilitation in a cross-cultural context.  Working through interpreters requires a facilitator to communicate in simple language that is easily translatable and to deliver content in short bursts, giving the interpreters a chance to digest and pass on as much of the original message as possible.  Even more than usual, communicating via intermediaries prompts us to listen closely and pay attention to body language cues as we search for understanding in our interactions.

We learned that co-creation is messy and often difficult.  The co-creative process prompts us to critically examine our expectations and assumptions about what we want to share and what we want to learn.  It encourages us to reflect on how we are communicating with our co-creation partners, as well as what we are communicating.  Most of all, the co-creative process compels us to be patient and not try to force an outcome, being open to the emergence of possibilities beyond what we initially envisioned.