Back in the early 90’s I was tasked to work in rural Aboriginal communities in Australia helping those communities improve their infrastructure, livelihoods, and health through permaculture. These communities were in a shocking state and the people in them were prone to alcoholism and violence as there was little chance of employment and most existed on hand-outs from the government.
If you look through the Permaculture Designers Manual there is nothing in there on how to deal with dysfunctional Aboriginal communities. The first town I worked in had the highest crime rate per capita in Australia. This was a rough and dangerous place if you were unaware. Travellers were warned when they passed through Wilcannia not to stop or if they had to stop, not to get out of their car. I remember the first day I arrived in that grimy broken town. I stood in front of the main pub gazing at a patch of dusty ground. In the dirt were several teeth and a few splotches of blood. I saw that when these guys got violent they meant business!
Together with the local people I organised we built a permaculture park that was planted out with a huge variety of fruit trees, a fire pit, a music stage and many hand carved sculptures. We build vegetable gardens at the local schools and taught the children how to produce and cook organic food. We planted windbreaks in the desert to reduce the dust problems. We build an arts and craft centre so the local Aboriginal artists could earn a proper living from their work. I trained most of the 1000 people in that town is some aspects of permaculture and helped them revive parts of their Aboriginal culture so they had a truly modern Aboriginal perma-culture. The town changed and people passing through began to stop and chat with the locals instead of speeding through town to get away.
Just over 2 years later I finished my contract with TAFE there. The crime rate had dropped a whopping 90%. The remaining crime rate was mainly petty crime, not murder, rape and grievous bodily harm, which plagued the town before. Without any previous training in community development I’d somehow managed to achieve a miracle. Of course the government wasn’t interested in learning how I’d done this. Aboriginal problems employed many people from many different government departments. They weren’t in the business of solving problems, only managing them…badly.
The essence of how to repair this type of damaged community is simple. Get the people to repair their own community and get them involved in all aspects of redesigning the new version of their town. The repair must include the environment; the culture of the people, the infrastructure and the economy and it all must be linked together. You can’t recreate an economy that trashes the ecosystem again or the same problems will begin again. Bored drunk people are destructive. The same people trained and engaged in landscaping, building, planting native forests and running small enterprises creates a completely different atmosphere and society.
After 5 years of Aboriginal communities I graduated to overseas aid work. My first overseas project was in East Timor in October of 1999. The country had been worn down with 28 years of civil war and Indonesian occupation. After the UN gave the people a referendum they chose to succeed and become independent. As a result the Indonesian military in conjunction with their locally trained militia burned the country to the ground leaving the survivors in a desperate state. My role was to introduce permaculture to this country as a means of rebuilding the food security and infrastructure in a sustainable way.
The first few months on the ground there were difficult, as I had no NGO or organization to work under. I was a lone wolf but I had skills others needed. I was horrified to observe that most NGO’s and the UN had no idea what to do beyond emergency aid. Being a novice to this kind of work didn’t deter me so I set up a small project in a town 25 kms from the capital city to teach permaculture. With my Timorese counterpart, Ego Lemos, I ran the first Permaculture Design Certificate course. Having little in the way of funds I begged scraped and borrowed what I needed to run the 2-week course. I even used Australian army ration packs I’d scrounged to feed the participants. The first PDC was the standard international curricula I used at the Permaculture Institute back in Australia. Using Ego as an interpreter I ran each course with mostly Timorese students but also a few international volunteers. I quickly learned that the international PDC could be improved to suit the Timorese culture. I also increased the hands-on component to over 50% to overcome the language barrier and improve the students uptake of the skill-set required by them to rebuild their homes and towns.
I saw the most insane things happen with conventional aid in the field. NGO’s and the UN gave out food and basic survival goods in the initial phases of Timor’s independence, which they desperately needed at that time, but that’s all they would do. As time went on the people began to get a handout mentality. Many organizations competed for victims and I saw Timorese families playing poor to get benefits when they could have easily farmed their land and become self reliant. The rice farmers restored their rice terraces and produced quality rice only to find they couldn’t sell their produce because the UN was giving out free rice. NGO’s were giving out hybrid seeds, fertilisers and chemicals to farmers that had no idea how to use them. What I found staggering was that all these organizations with their 4 wheel drives, trucks, flags, logos and offices had little knowledge of how to help the Timorese long term. It was like a Hollywood set! They began to create more problems then they were fixing in my view. I became angrier and angrier at the colossal waste of resources and opportunity. After working 6 months in the field, in a very challenging environment, I had to return to Australia for a 2-week break. My friends told me they had never seen me so angry. This anger was affecting my health and my friendships. Something had to change. I meditated on this for a few days until one morning I woke up and heard my inner voice say to me “don’t get angry, get effective!” I knew then I had to create a permaculture-based system that all organisations could use when working in a post-disaster arena.
After 5 years in East Timor working from ground zero, I had developed a simple manual for communities to use to rebuild their infrastructure, eco-systems and food security. I had created a manual for trainers and seeded an informal permaculture network across the whole island nation. I saw that there were many “best practice” ways to solve problems in the field like water, sanitation, food production without external inputs and so forth. Each NGO or organization did at least one thing right but nobody did everything right so I began to compile a manual of “best practice”.
I considered that what aid workers needed was a sort of toolbox with a wide range of effective strategies they could draw from to use in their work in the field. Hence the Green Warrior Tool Box was born. After East Timor I was engaged by an NGO to set up a permaculture-training centre in Aceh, Indonesia in the epicentre of the Asian Tsunami in early 2005. Here my project was situated in a war zone with earthquakes everyday in an area where 100.000 people recently were killed by the largest tsunami in recorded history. We were also non-Muslim people in a Muslim extremist area. This was a very challenging environment to work in!
In the small village of Lamsujin I trained out 15-member, local staff team using the Green Warrior Tool box and I was able to improve and add to the manual with new practices I developed and some I observed from other organisations. Each new project I worked on gave me new insights and ways to improve Permaculture Aid.
I used this system in Uganda, Africa 2010 when I worked for IOM training the Karamajong Warriors to become Green Warriors to great effect. In that project I had to devise a strategy that solved the problems caused by 40 years of food-aid. Food given as charity over 40 years had created a wide range of problems from endemic poverty to armed conflict in an area that could have been a highly productive agriculture area.
In 2011 In Ethiopia I ran the worlds first Permaculture Aid Certificate (PAC) course. This is a course I developed for wannabe aid workers. The course is conducted in a field school for the first 2 weeks learning all the hands-on skills combined with a bit of classroom theory. The last 2 weeks are conducted doing live projects in the local community to give the students experience doing real aid work. Students came from many different countries to learn these skills. The PAC was born.
We now have an infinite number of disasters and problems in the world that could use permaculture aid to solve them. The catchword in this day and age is “sustainability”.
Unfortunately, sustainability is a much misused word as many people and organisations have no clue to what true sustainability is. For something to be truly sustainable it must produce more energy than it uses. Nature is the only system that we know of that can do this. Translating this into aid work, we must ensure that when we rebuild a community we must rebuild that community’s eco-system and develop an economy or set of livelihoods that preserve the ecosystem or even enhance it rather than destroy it over time. The three pillars of Permaculture Aid are food security, eco-repair and sustainable livelihoods.
I have used this system of Permaculture Aid effectively for over 20 years in the field. Many people I have trained are also using this system now in their fieldwork. Post conflict zones, disaster zones, poverty zones and anywhere where people are in dire need of assistance, permaculture can be the best tool to restore the people and their environment. Environmental repair must be part of any aid package or in a short while those people will be begging for aid once more.
Billions of dollars are spent on conventional aid each year around the world. When you compare the results to the amount money spent its easy to see that most of this money is wasted on the administration of administration. Donors are increasingly becoming aware that this waste of funds needs to be addressed and a better system of aid in required. Permaculture Aid is that system. Permaculture Aid can deliver Aid for the earth and aid for the people, that creates true sustainability and resilience at a fraction of the usual cost.
When you next donate money to a charity or a cause, examine how that money is spent and what is the long-term effect of that program. Ask yourself, “Could Permaculture Aid do it better?”