soil food web song: Interview with Antonio Roman-Alcala, sf urban ag alliance. By Willi Paul, Publisher, Magazine


soil food web song: Interview with Antonio Roman-Alcala, sf urban ag alliance. By Willi Paul, Publisher, Magazine

This July, I went for about a month to the rural area of San Martín Jilotepeque in Guatemala to work with an NGO there on their agroecology and health programs.

For those of you were interested, I will be presenting some photos and thoughts from this trip, focusing on agroecological, historical, social, cultural, and political points of interest.

If you've ever been interested in third-world politics, rural issues, or the cultivation of coffee, here is a chance to hear about these from someone who has experienced them!

The presentation will be Wednesday, October 5, at 7pm at the monthly Permaculture Guild meeting (The Gazebo Room, California Pacific Medical Center, Davies Campus, SF). We will have the usual open discussion time for permaculture-related topics.

-- Antonio

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Interview with Antonio by Willi

You joined the “movement for a decentralized, values-based food system” in 2004. What have you learned so far?

I have learned a lot since 2004, far too much to share completely in this format (which should be expected: who can condense 7 years of life and learning into a paragraph or two?). That said, there are few things which I feel compelled to share:

1) A decentralized food system is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to reclaim the human project from self- and other-destruction, inequity, and autocratic control. In other words, if we want community self-rule, autonomy, a functioning participatory democracy, and more egalitarian relations between social groups (whether separated by gender, race, or whatever), we need a reasonable land resource base that produces the necessities of life for those of us who are working for these things. I say it is not sufficient because we also need to challenge extant authorities and forms of domination which are not land or place-based. We need food, duh. But, importantly, we need food in order to physically support a movement to create change. Essentially, we need to discover and elaborate strategies which can reverse the historical enclosure and expropriation of land.

2) We cannot create such a food system only through escape. While I am a proponent of "engaged withdrawal" from the damaging structures of society (to whatever level is possible or comfortable for each individual and community), I believe that a greater shift by necessity requires a population–meaning great numbers–who will confront political and economic power as currently constituted, while creating alternative systems to render those powers obsolete. Going back-to-the-land isn't going to cut it; nor is "voting-with-your-fork". We need, for lack of a better analogy, an Arab Spring here in the "developed" world to create a resilient, equitable, and values-based food system.

Is Outlands or Farm Aid speaking directly to a permaculture vision? Are there rock bands singing about “swales and biochar?!”

I do think there are efforts–historic and current–to link music with farming, culture with activism. In some communities, these are inextricably linked. But in this country today, there is not so much. I don't know of many PC-inspired bands. I know of political bands, and bands with environmental messages (like my mom's band). The closest I am aware of is a song I wrote during my PDC training. Sadly I don't have it recorded, but it was an effort to put the PC principles into pneumonic form; here are the lyrics:

Letting go of power has unknown benefits,
just cuz we care for people don't mean you call us communists.
With relative location we increase stability,
our functional design is designed to be free.
Everything is connected; that you know is true,
you gotta trust in evolution: it came up with me and you...

OH yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah.

In a cyclical world, the yield can never end;
use information as a resource, and you can make amends.
Restory to restore; turn bad into good;
and Work with Nature, like you know you should AND

DON'T FORGET: to make the least change, for the greatest effect.

Some day I'll record this and post it on my website.

How is Alemany Farm an example of a “localization” strategy? What happens next?

I believe Alemany is more of an education strategy than a localization strategy. It will continue to educate and inspire, like so many other projects, in order to build a base of people committed to and knowledgable and passionate about local, sustainable forms of food production. The "next" question is: where does the land come from? Where do all these people go to farm? Considering the eventual limitations of productive capacity within cities, how much "localization" can we reasonably expect from such farm projects? Of course, the answer will vary greatly from place to place, echoing the gardening (not PC!) principle that the answer to most questions is: it depends.

Is the Guild system in the US a strong advocate for permaculture? What is the Guild mandate?

I would say it is not. But it is growing. I would hope that the guild begins to meld more with other groups and efforts (like Transition Towns, an obvious kindred group, or US UNCUT, a not-so-obvious one). I don't believe PC Guilds have any more mandate than community groups, PTAs, or underground affinity groups formed for illicit political actions: these are all more or less autonomous efforts to catalyze bottom-up cohesion and action. And they all are great.

Can permaculture gain by extending its reach into the political system? What strategies would be worth trying?

Yes, certainly. I actually find a certain reticence (at least in the "big guys" of PC) to address expressly political issues. I once wrote a short proposal to the Permaculture Activist to write about ways that PC principles could be applied to the political system, and never heard back. Later, I saw in their editor's letter that they were disappointed that so many people wanted to write "theoretical" articles, instead of ones about "real" things, like gardening techniques.

Granted, I don't have a lot of cachet in the PC scene, or a set platform for the proposed article. But really, I find that magazine to not be very interesting and useful to me, I imagine in large part due to their apolitical nature. So that's a roundabout way of saying that, without "extending its reach into the political system" PC will remain as marginal to the larger society as it has been for 30+ years.

As to strategies: I'd like to see PC enthusiasts organize for local campaigns that are based in PC values/ethics or will reform the political system to be a more functional system: specific things like Instant Runoff Voting and Proportional Representation for example. Or bring PC to other organized groups (like neighborhood associations): that's political. Or bring other oft-overlooked values/concerns/debates to PC groups. Politics isn't just voting and elections; it is organizing and uniting; bridging divides in a meaningful way, and getting towards the aforementioned critical social mass necessary to affect change in the political arena.

Is permaculture a “slow revolution” in the USA? Is it a new hippie thing?!

Yes. And yes. I have nothing against hippies. The success of hippies were their values (see the article on the origins and effects of the Diggers in my publication, which were recuperated by the mainstream. Recuperation is a tough thing, since it does bend dominant culture towards the light of the underground or counter culture, but it does so at the cost of compromising the radical nature of that light. If we don't want this "slow revolution" to go the way of the hippies (i.e. many of them became the uber-capitalists of the 80s), we need to constantly remind ourselves what our values are, debate those values and strategies to enact those values, and not accept mainstream recognition as an unmitigated good. The hippie ethos, with its politics excised, resulted in the hedonism of the 70s. The opposite, though, was the downfall of the sectarian "New Left" due to their "I have it all figured out" attitudes; we must avoid either extreme, and in Zapatista parlance "caminando preguntamos"–"walking, we ask questions".

What is sacred to you?

Life's epic battle against entropy. Love, unconditional, romantic, familial, and otherwise. Sex. Food. Music. At the same time, I believe that nothing is special. I like this excerpt from a stand-up comedy act (referencing how there are never positive stories in the media about drug use) by Bill Hicks: "Today, a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration – that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There's no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we're the imagination of ourselves. Here's Tom with the weather." Basically, that describes how sacred the world is to me.

What songs, poems, symbols and/or Heros come to mind when you think about permaculture mythology?

My heroes and heroines are indigenous and peasant peoples fighting for FOOD SOVEREIGNTY worldwide. LA VIA CAMPESINA is the peasant way, and one that I think embodies the best parts of permaculture without even knowing it.

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Antonio Roman-Alcalá Bio -

Antonio Roman-Alcalá, having been irrationally dedicated to urban sustainability since he decided that there wasn’t enough “land” for all the dropouts to go “back to”, spends his time realizing his personal vision of sustainable hedonism. This includes teaching organic food-growing techniques to urban dwellers, organizing communities into more cohesive and politically active wholes, and bridging art and music with everyday life and participatory politics.

Antonio plays guitar in the band People People, is editor of the San Francisco Art and Politics magazine, director of the In Search of Good Food movie project, and shares skills around town at Alemany Farm, Hayes Valley Farm, the Free Farm Stand, and with the SF Permaculture Guild. He is also co-founded and co-facilitates the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance. Currently, Antonio attends U.C. Berkeley, pursuing a degree in “saving the world in style”.

Antonio joined the movement for a decentralized, values-based food system in 2004, sparked by an awareness of our precarious energy situation and a desire to engage others in transformative everyday acts. It wasn't until his education through GFE in spring 2005 that he gained the confidence to pursue these high-falutin' goals. Concurrently to his GCETP education, Antonio learned farming skills through his help in re-constituting Alemany Farm.

In the years since, Antonio's efforts have expanded to include skill-sharing through local projects like Alemany Farm, Hayes Valley Farm, the Free Farm Stand, and the SF Permaculture Institute. He also maintains the In Search of Good Food project blog, which includes analysis and videos about the sustainable food system in California, along with announcements of local food politics happenings. Lately, his interests have been in organizing the nascent urban agriculture community into a more cohesive and effective political force, the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance, and helping this alliance link its work to other grassroots movements in the Bay Area.

This fall, Antonio will begin studying the cultural prospects for urban sustainability at UC Berkeley, attempting to forge a connection between academic and activist approaches to social change, while saving some time to plant and tend to his own garden (and hopefully do some seed saving!).

Antonio loves to hear from people: antidogmatist at


sf urban ag alliance @
movie and blog @
community farm @
permaculty @
newspaper @
personal music @
people people @

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