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What’s wrong with permaculture design courses? Brazilian lessons for agroecological movement-building in Canada


This paper focuses on the centrality of permaculture design courses (PDCs) as the principal sociopolitical strategy of the permaculture community in Canada to transform local food production practices. Building on the work of Antonio Gramsci and political agroecology as a framework of analysis, we argue that permaculture instruction remains deeply embedded within market and colonial relations, which orients the pedagogy of permaculture trainings in such a way as to reproduce the basic elements of the colonial capitalist economy among its practitioners. In the specific case of eastern Ontario, this embeddedness had the effect of diluting the transformative capacity of permaculture practitioners who were unable to create its own social movement organization. The paper then highlights key elements of the agroecological pedagogy used by the Brazilian Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) and the Escola Latinoamericana de Agroecología (Latin American School of Agroecology, or ELAA) in Paraná, Brazil. The objective is to draw lessons from these inspiring experiences, in a rather unique context of struggles that can help to critically assess the pedagogical practices and principles presently informing permaculture communities in Canada and in advanced industrialized countries more generally. We then conclude by reiterating the key arguments and lessons drawn from the Brazilian pedagogical experiences, pointing out the importance of engagement and coalition-building with established rural and urban movements, as well as progressive farmer, Indigenous, and rural associations to foster a just and sustainable transformation of agri-food systems, starting at the local and regional levels. It also emphasizes the need for the most marginalized sectors to lead the way towards an agroecological transition.

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  1. 1.

    Gender and racial issues are particularly relevant to analyze both in the Canadian and Brazilian contexts, but for the purpose of this paper we mostly focus on the effects of a permaculture pedagogy that is embedded in a neoliberal capitalist and colonial context, from a Gramscian perspective. Nonetheless, we recognize that an intersectional approach would be extremely useful to make visible gender and racial inequalities that persist among agroecology and permaculture communities.

  2. 2.

    Eastern Ontario is not a formal political designation. For our purpose, and as it is used in this particular region, it covers the area in Ontario east of Toronto and south of Deep River.

  3. 3.

    In Gramsci’s work, hegemony involves both consent and coercion; to maintain their power, the rulers, or dominant forces, need to build alliances with other classes and convince a majority that the prevailing order is also beneficial for them, thus obtaining their consent. However, hegemony is never complete. The constant presence of resistance forces requires the availability of coercive means to dissuade lower classes, the “ruled”, to rebel and form a counter-hegemonic movement.

  4. 4.

    PRI’s Global Permaculture site allows local permaculture institutions, teachers, and students to create their own profile, which the PRI then verifies to ensure that teachers and students did in fact complete a recognized PDC.

  5. 5.

    MST website, accessed December 10, 2017:

  6. 6.

    Paulo Freire and his well-known book the Pedagogy of the oppressed, was a popular educator who greatly inspired the MST pedagogy and liberation theology. Considering our main focus here on Gramscian insights, we decided not to include a discussion of Freire’s important influence on the MST, but see for example Barbosa (2017).



Comissão Pastoral da Terra (Pastoral Land Commission)


Community Urban Food Forest


Escola Latinoamericana de Agroecología (Latin American School of Agroecology)


Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Rural Workers Movement)


National Capital Commission


Ontario Public Interest Research Group


Permaculture Design Course


Permaculture Institute of Eastern Ontario


Permaculture Ottawa


Permaculture Research Institute


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Our gratitude goes out to all interviewees and activists, especially those from the Ottawa permaculture community, the ELAA and the Brazilian MST for sharing their knowledge and expertise informing this research. Your love for your community and dream for a sustainable world is inspiring. Thanks to Patricia Ballamingie and Jill Wigle for supervising the eastern Ontario fieldwork that went into the writing of this paper, and to reviewers for providing insightful feedback to improve this article. A special thanks to Tiaraju P. D’Andrea for research assistantship, as well as Stephen Brown, Peter Andrée, Alicia Martin, and Michael J. Wigginton for offering their feedback and editing. This paper was produced with the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Ontario Graduate Scholarship, and The Douglas Fullerton Award in Urban Studies.

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Correspondence to Marie-Josée Massicotte.

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Massicotte, MJ., Kelly-Bisson, C. What’s wrong with permaculture design courses? Brazilian lessons for agroecological movement-building in Canada. Agric Hum Values 36, 581–594 (2019).

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  • Permaculture
  • MST
  • Agroecology
  • Emancipatory pedagogy
  • Peasant movements
  • Gramsci