For Halena Seiferling, a master’s of policy studies student at Simon Fraser University, it’s a question generated not from facts or statistics, but from one of the most essential principles of permaculture: observation.
“I started to wonder about some of the voices, typically male, that were leading the conversation about challenging local food systems,” Seiferling says. “They seemed to favour liberalism over facing and actually addressing social injustice.”
Seiferling began her permaculture education four years ago in Cuba, the island nation that’s been internationally recognized for surviving a crash in oil imports (following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989) in part by undoing and diversifying conventional agriculture, and also by institutionalizing permaculture, a holistic and sustainable food systems design for achieving “permanent culture.”
In May 2011, Seiferling was among 10 Canadian women selected to participate in a permaculture design course (PDC) at the Antonio Nuñez Jímenez Foundation for Nature and Humanity (FANJ) in Sancti Spiritus. Together, the Canadian women collaborated with Cuban permaculturalists to design and transform a peri-urban farm into a permaculture system, integrating ethics of transforming waste into wealth and maximizing biodiversity.
“The Cubans were surprised that our group was made up of women only,” recalls Seiferling.
But the program’s Canadian coordinator, Ron Berezan, a permaculture designer and instructor with The Urban Farmer in Powell River, B.C., was not at all surprised by the gender imbalance in Seiferling’s program.
“In most [permaculture design] courses I’ve taught and organized, there have been more female students than male students. It’s actually disconcerting to me that we can’t get more men to take the courses,” says Berezan, who’s been teaching permaculture in western Canada and Cuba for almost 10 years.
“But why is it that when men get into the stream of this movement they absorb a lot of the leadership? Of course, I have to count myself among them,” he adds.
It’s a question that’s beginning to surface more frequently in the minds and actions of female and male permaculturists and food producers alike in North America: are alternative food systems and movements shaped and dominated by the leadership of men?