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What Does It Take To Be A Permaculture Aid Worker?

Rosemary talking to the owner of a commercial hydroponics vegetable growing farm in Hong Kong;

Rosemary Morrow is an author, permaculture legend, teacher of teachers, aid worker and the patron of Permafund, a charity within Permaculture Australia which raises funds for projects in disadvantaged communities around the world. This septuagenarian is having a brief recharge after working with refugees in Italy and Spain. I asked her what it takes to be an aid worker; it’s not a task for the faint-hearted.

What sort of person do you need to be?

‘The life of a permaculturalist in a camp is probably three months, if you can last that. You’ll be lonely. If you’re sick you just keep going. The physical conditions are hard. There’s a camp in Greece between an army base, a major highway (that runs either side) and a big industrial centre, between stinking traffic and polluting stuff. In a Kenyan camp they’ve cleared all the wood and water for ten kilometres, and people just walk further and further. There’s a couple of million displaced by the Taliban in Kabul, in absolutely disgusting living conditions with no sewerage or water. People use plastic bags for cooking fuel.

‘Some people want a high-paid UN type job, preferably out-of-country with a high budget. Others want to work at village level; by the time we’ve gone through realities many don’t want to any more. It’s a difficult job with lots of rewards, but you can get very lonely and homesick. If you want to be happy, it doesn’t work. If you want to have meaning, it does work, but you won’t always be happy! You’re not the most important person – what’s happening for others is the most important thing.’

What do you need to be aware of?

‘First of all, a really good permaculturalist can see what is needed. It might be windbreaks: wind is so damaging to health if it’s carrying dirt and disease. In another it might be shade: Uganda was 40°C and people broiled inside or out, it makes you feel sick and terrible. We started by putting up bamboo shelters, and finally we got fast-growing trees for shade, and a little bit of firewood. We also put in moringa and mango trees for long-term food production. You have to know your palette of plants for each place.’

What process do you use?

‘We ask different groups: “what are ten vegetables easiest to grow here?” They all know. Then you put the groups into one class, they bring together their lists, and you ask the class to agree on ten. If you’re in a dry area you’re looking at oasis crops: melons and pumpkins. You need things they know are hardy, and they can grow.

‘And then we ask: “what are the threats?” They have to work out what they’d do, to keep out the pig, the bu§alo, the wind. You throw the problem back to the people – direct their knowledge. They’ve got the answers but not the design to put them into. Always take people into a site analysis. For example, talk about wind and shade – then they can put in their own knowledge.

‘Let them discuss. You provide a sequence of questions and small inputs. Acknowledge their input and learn from them. People who’ve worked as farmers have a lot more local knowledge than a group of westerners. But some, like Syrians, are often middle-class city people, similar to Sydney people – except for trauma, anxiety, displacement. They can look things up with computers.

‘In Afghanistan this year I had a group of young people, fourteen to twenty-eight-year-olds, mad to get knowledge. To explain photosynthesis I’d use a green leaf and someone would hold a lemon for the sun. Their grandparents were refugees. They have neither farming knowledge nor education. They have no information; you assess that too. You might make a series of posters, and in the evenings have key words and concepts, in English and their own language, of which there are six. Print up a book later and give it to them. Your aim is a learning community with relevant knowledge to suit their situation.

Rosemary teaching at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Dehradun. The participants from Ladakh, Bhutan (¦rst Bhutanese permies) Tibet and India were all strict Tibetan Buddhist devotees.

Where do you start?

‘You start with what people want. People in refugee camps want their children at school, so that’s a pop-up school; permaculture could be the curriculum. They want safe places for women and children. They want to reduce the [impacts of] climate. Ask them if they’d like free food, rather than using the camp shop. They [might] want to grow food, some in community gardens and some outside their tents … things they used to eat at home. You start where they are at, and say “yes, you can do that” and help, because in many of the camps there’s no individual capacity to show their ability or experience.

‘We could talk about internal currency systems. We might give a course on running a small business: why shouldn’t they start a business in the camp? But we’d teach them how capitalism works, and about how credit can cripple them later: five per cent interest per month from the money lender is sixty per cent a year; what other ways are there of doing it? It’s about handling a big bad world if they’ve had a closed cultural life.

‘We have an obligation to show them how to live without fossil fuels, with wind and water and solar. Water – start uphill, slow it down, use gravity. How to clean water, make compost, make bricks out of waste plastic. Give them knowledge they can use then and later; they might be there forever. Wherever they are they want comfortable homes, food, education and shops; all refugee camps should be ecovillages.’

How do you facilitate this?

‘We get them to write a project proposal, every step: can you do this? how would you do that? is it a dream? Pin it down: who are the beneficiaries? how will you get them there? I interrogate them. It’s still good if people decide they don’t want to do it. A lot of people go back to their own communities, write a decent proposal, get things happening, they know how to do it: that’s a win.

‘There are lots of traps for young players: what happens if there’s corruption? how do you stop money going astray? what if they’re ideologically against the government? You have to relax and go with it, say “tell me about it, I’d like to understand”.

‘For a committee you’d do different things: scope the types of development, and what’s wanted. I think there are new areas to work on: ethical money; internal and external migration, whether refugees or workers going to work as slaves somewhere else.’

What’s next for you?

‘Permaculture has always worked best for me when I put it into an organisation. I’m going to India to put it into Buddhist monasteries. The monks and nuns will give talks; they are very well regarded and authoritative. They talk about everything, not only Buddhism: not chopping the forests, not taking the trees, bringing up children, agriculture. Giving them really good permaculture knowledge equips them to pass it out in perpetuity, so it’s solidly embedded in their communities. You identify the local person with the vision, capacity and some sort of charisma or authority, to run with it.’

All of which Rowe Morrow has in spades. And she uses every bit of it.


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