Many projects start with a champion: someone who believes enough in an idea to take those perilous early risks. In our community that was Natalie Meyer. She was the team leader and able to draw on the resources of the Nimbin Neighbourhood and Information Centre (NNIC), a membership-based not-for-profit organisation that does a lot of community work at all levels.
Community services typically focus on crisis relief, counselling, referrals and other support. The NNIC wanted to expand the scope of that work to include capacity building.
The idea is that if we have a resilient community that is self‑determined, self‑supporting and highly connected we are all going to have a better life now, and be less likely to need those emergency social services when things get tough; we will be supported more organically through our strong community networks. Refocusing the core delivery model of the organisation serves the original vision – relief from poverty.
Starting With Solar
In 2009, in an effort to reduce the high entry cost to install solar power, a group-buy was organised by the NNIC and the Rainbow Power Company. The project installed fifty-five rooftop solar arrays on Nimbin households. Once this project was completed, an event was held to celebrate and attempt to leapfrog on its success. A recent survey states that 30% of households are on stand alone power.
I was studying for my Diploma of Permaculture at the time, and supported Robyn Francis in a transition process that helped the community to identify their fears and aspirations for the future in the face of peak oil and climate change. The results of this process became the 2009 Sustainable Nimbin Community Plan.
This inspired the organisation and regular meeting of several groups based on key focus areas identified in the Plan, of which the highest priorities were Food Security, Transport and Energy.
As part of the Diploma program, I was encouraged to participate in these community groups. I learned about organisational structures, meeting protocols, legal obligations, negotiation, conflict resolution, time management, planning, delegation and other critical skills for which I could generate evidence to support my competency.
Food Security Project
The Food Security group met at least monthly, and sometimes more often, for about a year, developing a strategy to increase local food production, consumption and resilience of the local food supply. We developed no‑cost, low‑cost and high‑cost options.
These options were then used as the foundation for a grant application backed by community mandate. We were successful and received $50 000 from Northern Rivers Food Links. This was part of a pioneering initiative worth $2 000 000 and funded by the NSW Environment Trust.
The grant also marked my graduation from Permaculture College Australia. Now sufficiently qualified and competent, I applied for the newly created project management job; and I got it!
The Food Security project was funded for two years. It helped kickstart: the Blue Knob Farmers’ Market; the community grain mill; a food equipment library; workshops and further planning processes with Robina McCurdy; Sustainability Alley at the Nimbin Country Show; local farm tours; the natural bee keepers group; educational workshops and more.
As of this year, the Blue Knob Farmers’ Market group has hosted 118 ‘local knowledge’ seminars to over 1800 people, making it one of the biggest providers of sustainability education in the region (and with no budget). These talks and workshops are largely free, and delivered by local people with a passion.
A survey taken in the main street revealed that, of participants: 66% had increased the amount of local food they consume in the last twelve months; 47% shop for food at the Blue Knob Farmers’ Market; and 74% saw the need for a farmers’ market in Nimbin Village Centre, which was later successfully launched.
James Creagh, one of the market organisers, said ‘the farmers’ market supports local growers while also giving us a sense of security about our food’.
Ben Grouse from Levity Gardens, a local market gardener, said ‘the market is a great showcase of how the community can come together to support its members while supporting itself’.
Community Solar Farm
Another project, concurrent with Food Security, and funded by a $500 000 grant, was the development of a community-owned solar farm. This 45 kW system would be owned and operated by the NNIC, and installed on six community-owned buildings.
Income from the sale of the power (which receives the previously available and generous NSW Government 60c gross feed-in tariff) is reinvested by NNIC into further community development projects. The project was among the first of its kind in Australia, and received national media attention, including an article in Australian Geographic.
These initiatives were seen as so successful by the NNIC that I was offered an expanded permanent position as a community development worker. This was funded by the solar farm income and independent of grant funding. This allows NNIC to avoid the gap between available grants, and to pursue a more holistic approach to the community development process – beyond chasing the next bucket of money to keep the lights on.
A great deal of the work is still done by volunteers. For example, in the period between September 2010 and November 2011, 4605 hours were contributed of which only 384 were paid. However, the volunteers’ effectiveness is enhanced by having a paid coordinator who has a four‑year (and counting) commitment to the project. This continuity allows for greater forward planning and accountability.
Planning For The Future
The most recent Sustainable Nimbin Community Planning process happened in June 2011. Building on the success of the 2009 Plan, which achieved positive and measurable outcomes in all areas, the new process involved over 100 community members.
The resulting Plan is extremely ambitious in scope, and covers nine key result areas: Transport, Food Security and Energy again, as well as Housing and Built Environment, Jobs and Skills, Health and Wellbeing, Social and Political, the Natural Environment, and Arts and Culture.
Each focus area has: a vision; strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis; goals and strategies; and details of who is responsible and how it’s going to happen.
Sustainable Living Hub
Four project groups (including Food Security) identified the need for a more permanent home for some of the initiatives. So the NNIC began its most monumental project to date: Sustainable Living Hub at 7 Sibley Street. The NNIC is now nearing the end of its entirely community-generated fundraising goal of $150 000 to buy this block of land, in the heart of Nimbin, to build a Hub to demonstrate the solutions that we have developed, as well as incubate new ones.
Nimbin receives nearly 100 000 tourists each year, and is recognised as a pioneer in the sustainability movement for its forty year history of alternative living. NNIC hopes that the Hub will inspire, educate and employ those who come to Nimbin seeking a lifestyle more aligned with care of the earth and each other.
While it isn’t over yet, our work to date has not gone unnoticed. In September 2013 the NNIC, on behalf of the Nimbin community, was awarded both the Community Sustainability and Premier’s Awards at the NSW Government Green Globes by the Hon. Robyn Parker, Minister for Heritage and the Environment.
Despite setbacks, despair and burnout, the Nimbin community continues to work towards its shared vision of being a sustainable community.