Permaculture in Times of Change

gardener planting


At Casa Gaia we have received many volunteers over the years, first from WWOOF and more recently from Workaway. Recently there has been an increase in permaculture projects signing up to Workaway, so I was asked to write the following article – posted on the Workaway Blog at the end of 2012, looking at how volunteers can participate in this growing movement!

We are living in exciting and difficult times of change, but the good news is that all over the world people are reacting creatively to the current economic crisis: travelling, learning new skills, starting great projects. Permaculture is one approach that is giving rise to some of the most creative personal and community responses to the global economic situation and to the need to reduce our impact on the Earth. And Workaway is a great place to find and connect to permaculture practitioners.

The term “permaculture” – from permanent agriculture and, more recently, permanent culture – was coined in the late 70s by the post-graduate student David Holmgren and his mentor Bill Mollison. Walking through the forests of Tasmania the two were struck by the fact that the forest needs no human help to maintain its diversity; in fact the very diversity found in the forest guarantees its sustainability. From its birth in Tasmania, permaculture, grounded in three ethical principles of care for the planet, care for people and care for the future has spread throughout the world.

I entered the word ‘permaculture’ in the Workaway search box last week and 199 hosts appeared, based in countries all over the world, with new hosts signing up each day.

Whether you are a permaculture practitioner seeking more experience or a curious traveller wanting to find out more, there is an incredibly diverse list of hosts waiting for your help. They include skilled permaculture hosts teaching from demonstration sites, as well relative newcomers to the approach keen to share their learning process; hosts asking for help with projects of all sizes, from mini to macro; hosts just starting up and others long established; the list even includes hosts covering rural and urban initiatives. Here are some suggestions drawn from just a few of the hosts that came up in my search.

The old…

A lot can be learned from visiting established projects which allow you to see the results of trial and experiment, demonstrating what can be achieved over time. The best way to see how a compost loo works is to use an established one – and no, they don’t smell! It is inspiring to see how well a garden can grow with little irrigation when swales and other systems to catch and store rainwater are in place.

man building a roof

On Workaway you will find hosts who have been working with permaculture for many years, accumulating great experience.

Check out this new project – a Quintana in Portugal – but run by old hands, combining the best of both worlds: lots to do, but in the early design stages, and under experienced guidance.

As permaculture becomes better known, and the need for designing for sustainability becomes more widely understood, there are more and more teaching and demonstration projects starting up. If you are interested in a thorough exploration of permaculture, there are hosts that offer training from their site. This village farm in Thailand has received great feedback, showing how much you can learn as a volunteer:

“… an incredible immersion into Thai culture. From learning permaculture farming practices, to cooking delicious Thai food with Nong, to teaching English in the local school, I experienced what it is like to live the “permaculture philosophy” – to take care of the Earth, take care of the people and share the surplus.”

(A word of advice: if you choose a host that runs educational projects, be sure to ask about any costs entailed with attending a Permaculture Design Certificate or other official course. Even if the dates of a PDC coincide with your visit, attendance on the course may not be considered to be part of a Workaway exchange.)

…and the new

two people digging

The Workaway host list is inspiring in part because it features so many new initiatives and start up communities. Hosts, like this organic farm in Costa Rica, offer opportunities to join new projects for a few weeks or longer.

Several intentional communities using permaculture in their gardens appear in the host list, as well as new eco-villages incorporating permaculture design principles in the structure of their community.

If you want to be involved in the contagious atmosphere of the early stages of a new project you could try one of several that seem to be springing up simultaneously in Portugal, where the seeds of permaculture appear to be sprouting far and wide.

The big

person handling honeycomb with bees

Want to get away from it all and really immerse yourself in the world of self-sufficiency? There are Workaway hosts in very rural areas with large properties, using permaculture to support mixed farming practices. Learn to care for chooks or sheep, help with harvest, discover the pleasure of eating what you produce, find out how life is lived off-grid – and how life might look post-peak oil – with hosts like this onein South Africa, on 300 hectares of land, 45 km from the nearest town.

…and the small

Permaculture places great value on small interventions, and many of the hosts on Workaway are starting small veggie gardens based on permaculture principles, or working out how to become more self sufficient and independent on smaller plots of land, and in some very interesting parts of the world!

Combine some hands on learning about permaculture with visits to Rome with this host. With an extra pair of helping hands micro-projects can make great advances and it’s a fantastic opportunity for you to really see the difference your volunteering can make.


Permaculture principles are applied wherever people are found. Nowadays many permaculture courses are offered in urban or semi-urban areas, and permaculture principles are put into practice on terraces and balconies, in small yards, and in community gardens.

building a haybale house

Workaway hosts include people who have joined their neighbours to create suburban homesteads, like this host in the USA with a tiny backyard flock of laying hens, honey bees, and approximately 2800 square feet of garden space in eastern Pennsylvania: as well as families who are working to retrofit their suburban homes in more sustainable ways, like this one from just outside Canterburyin the UK who want to take their cottage off-grid.

…or urban?

You will also find dedicated urban projects ‘turning grey into green’, such as this one run by a host out of Flanders, in Belgium, apparently one of the most urbanised places in the world, with more than 50% concrete.

In the second part of this post about permaculture, we discuss what you might learn and the volunteering work you should expect to be doing.