You went.. where? To learn about.. what?

cuba“What is permaculture?” This had to be the second most frequently-asked question when I told friends I was headed to Cuba in November for an International Permaculture Conference. (The most frequently asked question was “How are you able to go to Cuba?!”..which by the way, is doable and even authorized by the U.S. government, so long as your reason for travel fits under one of these categories of travel activity.)

Permaculture is an art, science, and design philosophy that uses a set of principles and practices to design sustainable human settlements. They are modeled after nature, yet include humans. While permaculture most commonly focuses on the landscape, the philosophy is also used to design buildings, energy and wastewater systems, villages, and even less tangible structures such as school curricula, businesses, community groups, and decision-making processes. Rather than being focused on individual plants or techniques though, the relationships and interconnections between plants, humans, landscapes, and the built environment are what make the field of permaculture such a rich art and science to study and practice.

Cuba site plan

I think the first time I encountered the word permaculture was way back during my time as an apprentice at the UC-Santa Cruz organic farm. My fellow farmy Dave Shaw was big on the idea, and I knew it had something to do with integrating natural building with organic farming.

Fast forward a few years, and in 2011 I visited a farm where folks had implemented keyline design to make the most of natural contours for managing water on the property, and planted hazelnuts in swales to maximize the farm’s yields, showcasing some principles of permaculture. In  2012 my colleague Rachel Levi started a permaculture book club with some fellow friends here in St. Louis, and one of our second year apprentices, Maria Stoica, made permaculture and cultivating perennial fruits on the farm her sophomore project at EarthDance. This February when Matt Lebon joined our team, he asked whether he’d be able to commence a few permaculture-inspired projects around the farm, and host some free classes and workshops for the public on the topic. (Um, YES.) In fact, now that we own the entire 14 acre property we’ve been growing on for the past five years, I am really interested in and excited about creating an overall site plan that integrates and demonstrates permaculture principles all over the farm.

So when I discovered that the 11th International Permaculture Congress was to be held in Cuba this November, I felt that this could be my opportunity to find out more about this growing movement around the world. Having not yet taken a PDC (Permaculture Design Course) myself, I was able to attend as an “Observer.” This meant that I could attend all presentations and participate in discussions, but wasn’t allowed to vote on such matters as where the next Congress should be held. This suited me perfectly, as I’d already learned that the very first design principle is “Observe and interact.”


Aerial view of garden

What transpired over the course of fourteen full days was simply astounding. Beyond seeing permaculture in action at  about 10 different sites around Cuba, I saw presentations from folks making permaculture their life’s work in Uganda, Costa Rica, the UK, New Zealand, Cuba, and Oakland. The theme of the conference was Permaculture in Islands and Cities, facing Climate Change Challenges. In addition to the incredible projects and principles put into action I was learning about, I was inspired by the power of living in community. I realized that our group of 400+ people from around the world convening in one place, many of us strangers until we met in line at the airport, or dining hall, or hotel lobby (we were in lines quite often with a group that size!), became a living example of the transformation that can take place when people are intentional about really getting to know the folks around them.

Over the next few months I’ll be posting some more in-depth articles about specific highlights and lessons from the conference, but in the meantime here’s some photos from my trip.