Part IV: Eco-social imaginations and transformations

Here, I draw a connection between imaginations, ethics and practices in sustainable food projects.  An interesting dimension to the projects I visited in Zimbabwe is their different ways of thinking about and working with the eco-social world. By ‘eco-social’, I draw attention to the inseparability of the ecological and the social, or natural and cultural worlds, which have become largely separated in modern modes of thought. This term draws attention to relations involving humans and nonhumans. I found that different people and projects have different ways of imagining ecosocial relations, making a difference to the depth and breadth of their approaches to sustainability.

More conventional approaches to agriculture are generally guided by an imagined separation between society and environment, human and nonhuman worlds. They have technocratic, managerial or possibly ‘stewardship’ orientations towards working with the environment and often imagine a relation of control, domestication or guardianship of nature. More sustainable models of agriculture, on the other hand, often have a more ecological, holistic or integrated view. These approaches are more likely to imagine humans and nonhumans (of all forms) as part of an interconnected and complex web of life, where the interactions and relationships between different actors are central; (note that nonhumans are considered as active participants in these relations).  These different imaginations affect the kind of ethics that shape these projects, both in terms of the way that inter-relations and dependencies are understood, as well as the kinds of obligations and commitments that arise. These different ways of imagining eco-social relations and ethics are pivotal to how people behave and the practices that they enrol in food production; essentially, they affect the material transformations that can take place. In this way, ‘ethics’ are inseparable from ‘ethos’ (our everyday practical actions and ways of being).

I focus here on the community projects based on permaculture practices and principles.  Permaculture is ‘a global movement with many local actualisations. Its motto is ‘care of earth, care of people, return of the surplus’.  Generally speaking, it promotes ecological living (urban and rural), local food production, development of alternative energies and radical democratic forms of organisation: ‘Permaculture is about creating sustainable human habitats by following nature’s patterns’ (Burnett 2008, 8)’ (in Puig de la Bellacasa 2010, 151-152).  Permaculture tends to foster an imagination of mutually dependent and integrated eco-social relations, whereby humans are positioned as participants in a system where other parts of that system (animals, plants, waterways, etc) also have significant rights and roles to play.  Humans are seen less as managers and more as co-workers, with a vision of generating a system of health and abundance from which all (humans and nonhumans) benefit. By giving back the surplus, or creating a self-feeding system, there is no waste and no need for ‘external’ or non-renewable inputs.

At Kufunda Village, the community developed a holistic way of managing what is usually considered human waste, to instead ‘returning the surplus’ and thereby performing a key permaculture principle.   As a rural project, there is no sewerage or mains water system here. Unlike most other rural communities in Zimbabwe (where unproductive ‘long-drop’ loos and, in some places, open defecation, are the norm), at Kufunda, they recycle human waste (or ‘humanure’) using composting toilets. There are two types of composting loos at Kufunda. One is the ‘arborloo’, where a mobile upper loo is put above a pit, and moved on once the pit is three-quarters full. Topsoil is added and a tree is then planted in the pit. The other type is the twin composting loo, which cycles the process of decomposition and compost production over a period of about two years. Two pits are made inside a permanent outer structure.  Once the first pit is full, it is covered with a concrete slab and the other pit is then utilised. After about a year, the excrement in the first pit has decomposed into a safe compost and it can be emptied and used as an organic fertiliser. The cycle continues as the second pit fills. In both of these types of toilet, one puts a few cups of leaves, ash and soil into the loo after use and this helps to ward off evil smells and cover the deposit, as well as aiding the production of a fertile, well-structured compost.   In this way, human energy ‘outflow’ is transformed into a valuable input to the agro-ecological system; waste is transformed into non-waste, at no cost.

At the PORET Trust in Chaseyama, another key practice of permaculture is performed; that of encouraging ground cover.  Instead of sweeping the yard bare and burning the grasses in surrounding woodlands, the Piti family put mulch around their crops and encourage year-round ground cover.  This facilitates the infiltration of rainwater and reduces surface runoff, evaporation and soil erosion. It is therefore of benefit to the trees and plants growing here, which in turn, benefit the Piti family in the form of food and shade.  But the explanations I received for this practice (which is unconventional here), were not narrowly utilitarian and human-centered.  Piti referred to enabling a healthy habitat for wildlife, including birds, bees, butterflies, worms and such, and to helping restore the underground water catchment.  These aspects then have great benefits for human inhabitants too; there is no easy division between human and nonhuman when it comes to ‘who benefits’. The ideal is for healthy relationships to lead to an eco-social system where all should thrive and have life in abundance. Here we can clearly see the permaculture principles of ‘care of earth, care of people and return of the surplus’ being performed.

Through the Chaseyama Permaculture Club, the PORET Trust fosters community-based learning and sharing of knowledge about permaculture techniques. The idea is to facilitate the expansion of the above kind of eco-social system, to encompass and benefit an entire watershed.  This is an ambitious project, where not everybody will opt in to these unconventional practices. However, the eco-social imagination and some of the ‘care of people, care of earth’ principles are not far adrift from older, traditional notions of ubuntu[1]. For example, social giving to those in need, community sharing practices and respect for and minimal intervention in ‘nature’ are often explained as indigenous practices that ‘the ancestors’ favoured. Whether this is true or imagined, the explanation encourages people to easily adopt (some) permaculture practices as ‘traditional’ rather than viewing them as a ‘western’.

A related and important aspect of permaculture, which has been commented upon elsewhere, is its situated or grounded approach. That is, all the principles, practices and techniques of permaculture are framed by a primary allegiance to the embedded locality; that is, where you are changes how you ‘perform’ permaculture.  This makes it a very flexible and context-dependent way of working.  Broadly speaking, it fosters an eco-social imagination that brings together humans and their nonhuman co-habitors and co-workers as a union.  The goal is not just sustainability or resilience, but abundance, balance and thriving of all lifeforms. Where this abundance is emerging, at sites like Chikukwa, Chaseyama, Zvishavane, Dimbangombe and Kufunda, there is then a strong chance that these projects can be sustainable in a deeply holistic sense, as when many forms of life benefit, these are all incentivised to participate, endure and ultimately thrive.

References and key readings, Part IV

Abram, D. (1996). The spell of the sensuous: Language in a more-than-human world. NY: Pantheon Books.

Altieri, M A. (1995) Agroecology: the science of sustainable agriculture. Boulder CO: Westview Press.

Altieri, M.A. (2004) Linking ecologists and traditional farmers in the search for sustainable agriculture. Frontiers in ecology and the environment, 2, 35-42.

Bell, G. (2004) The Permaculture Way: Practical Steps To Create a Self-Sustaining World, Hampshire: Permanent Publications.

Braun, B. and Castree, N. (eds.) (2001) Social Nature: Theory, Practice, and Politics, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Burnett, G (2008) Permaculture. A Beginner’s Guide. Westcliff on Sea: Spiralseed.

Devenan, W.M. (1995) Prehistoric agricultural methods as models for sustainability. Advanced Plant Pathology 11, 21-43.

Dewalt, B.R. (1994) Using indigenous knowledge to improve agriculture and natural resource management. Human Organisation 52(2), 123-131.

Donati, K., Cleary, S., & Pike, L. (2009) Bodies, bugs and dirt: Sustainability re-imagined in community gardens, In: Lawrence G, Lyons K, Wallington T, eds.

Food Security, Nutrition and Sustainability: New Chal-lenges, Future Options

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In: Lawrence G, Lyons K, Wallington T, eds.

Food Security, Nutrition and Sustainability: New Chal-lenges, Future Options

. London, UK: Earthscan; 2009:207-222

in Lawrence, G., Lyons, K., & Wallington, T. (eds). Food security, nutrition and sustainability. London: Earthscan, pp. 207-222.

Esposito, R. (2008) Bios: biopolitics and philosophy. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Glanzberg, J. (1999) Permaculture as a Way of Seeing and Acting. In Cajete, G. (ed.) A people’s ecology: explorations in sustainable living. Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers, pp.225-242.

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Koohafkan, P. and M.A. Altieri (2010) Globally important agricultural heritage systems: a legacy for the future. Rome: UN-FAO.

McNeely, J.A. and S.J. Schlerr (2003) Ecoagriculture. Washington DC: Island Press.

Merchant, C. (2005). Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World. London: Routledge

Merchant, C. (2013). Reinventing Eden: The fate of nature in Western culture. Routledge.

Mollison, B. (1988). Permaculture: a designer’s manual. Permaculture: a designer’s manual. Tagari: Tyalgum, Australia

Peacock, Laurel. “Inventing Nature: Re-writing Time and Agency in a More-than-Human World.” (2009).

Puig de la Casa, M (2010) Ethical doings in naturecultures. Ethics, Place & Environment 13:2, 151-169

Sanchez PA. and MS. Swaminathan (2005) Hunger in Africa: the link between unhealthy people and unhealthy soils. The Lancet 365, 442-444.

Whatmore, S. (2006) Materialist returns: practising cultural geographies in and for a more-than-human world. Cultural Geographies, 13(4): 600-610.

Worster D. (1993) The wealth of nature: environmental history and the ecological imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.




[1] Ubuntu is an Nguni Bantu term roughly translating to “human kindness”, used in Southern Africa (South Africa and Zimbabwe), it has come to be used as a term for a kind of humanist philosophy, ethic or ideology, also known as Ubuntuism.