Permaculture guru leads the way

Robyn feeding the dragon, a wood-fired oven made from mud, sand and bamboo leaves.
Robyn feeding the dragon, a wood-fired oven made from mud, sand and bamboo leaves.

Robyn Francis has a MySpace website under the name ‘Permaculture Guru’. And she is.

The Nimbin resident has been the editor of the Permaculture International Journal, a founding director of Permaculture International Ltd and a permaculture teacher and designer all over the world.

For those who came in late... permaculture is essentially a system of designing sustainable land management systems that work with the earth’s natural cycles. It takes a holistic approach to the design and development of human settlements, taking into account food production, structures, technologies, energy, natural resources, landscape, animal and plant systems as well as social and economic structures. It literally means “permanent agriculture” and the term was first coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the mid 1970s.

When The Echo visited Robyn at Djanbung Gardens, the permaculture training centre she has been running since 1994, there were signs on the wall with messages like ‘look for low energy solutions – let the ladybirds eat the bugs in your garden’.

The five-and-a-half acre training centre is next door to Jarlanbah, an eco-village with 43 residential lots that Robyn designed in the early 90s.

“I’d been living up here for about five years looking for my perfect patch to set up a permaculture training centre and this fitted the bill perfectly,” she said.

For Robyn, a sustainable lifestyle wasn’t a choice she made later in life, it was something she grew up with.

“My folks were very resourceful people. They grew up during the Depression on dairy farms here on the North Coast... We had a standard quarter-acre backyard (in Inverell) but it was full of vegie gardens and fruit trees and chickens and ducks and a few hives of bees and a milking goat that we used to tether to mow the neighbours’ lawns. Before we got town water we had a 2000-gallon tank we had to survive on. Water was seriously rationed; half a cup for brushing your teeth. So having a high degree of self reliance was something I grew up with and thought was normal,” she said. “When I finished schooling I spent a few years in Sydney and then went travelling, and that was my real education. What I found particularly fascinating was village culture and the different ways people farmed... I lived for three-and-a-half years in Bavaria not far from Munich. The last of the old traditional farmers were still there farming in their old ways with the rotational crops. The only change was that horses had been replaced with tractors. The only thing they were importing onto their farms was the diesel for their tractors. Their animals provided all the nutrients for the crops.”

She also looked at traditional farming practices in Asia and the Middle East.

“I decided to come back to Australia and get some land and set it up like a botanical garden of useful plants, put together in a similar way as to what you would find in nature. I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what I was observing in the 70s. I got back to Australia in 1977 and to connect with what was happening here, there was an organic festival in Upper Colo just out of Sydney and I went to that. Bill Mollison was talking about this new idea, permaculture, and was promoting the book Permaculture 1 that was about to be published. It was so exciting because here was somebody talking about all of the stuff I’d been talking and thinking about and it had a name and a methodology and wove in other elements that I hadn’t fitted into the total picture. So it was a natural next step.”

She had an organic herb farm on the Mid North Coast for a few years where she started to put some of her ideas into practice before she and her partner separated and she decided to do the permaculture design course. She has been training others ever since.

“I’m just one of those people that doesn’t feel satisfied if I’m just looking after myself. I need to be doing something that has a greater benefit... In the 70s I got travel weary and said to myself ‘I’m never going to travel again unless I’m invited’ and that’s still my position in terms of travel, but I’ve been able to go to some wonderful places with my permaculture.”

She was first invited to teach a women’s course in the USA in 1986, and then in 1987 she and Bill Mollison taught the first permaculture course in India together.

“It was incredible to see what our graduates there did. There was an illiterate untouchable from a poor rural village... and it was the first time in her life that she’d ever had any acknowledgement. When she received the certificate at the end of her course she burst into tears and gave me the most fierce hug I’ve ever had in my life. I burst into tears too... I had realised during the course that she had the most phenomenal memory because she didn’t depend on the written word.

“I was back in India for a conference eight months later and that woman had set up over 200 kitchen gardens in her own and neighbouring villages and was training other women to be barefoot permaculture teachers.”

Robyn said the underlying philosophy of what she does is about creating a ripple effect.

“You train the trainers and leave people empowered to solve their own problems,” she said. “One of the beautiful things about permaculture is because it’s based on principles rather than techniques, it’s very adaptable.”

Over the years Robyn has been asked to run courses in Bali, New Zealand and Taiwan and has helped set up an organisation called the Cuba Australia Permaculture Exchange (CAPE).

“It was set up after meeting the Cuban delegates at the International Permaculture Conference in Brazil in 2007. I went to Cuba for six weeks to do some consulting on projects and some follow-on training. I visited 40 projects in total and got to travel the length and breadth of the island and it’s very inspiring what they are doing there under very difficult circumstances.”

Cuba was forced to make radical changes to their economy and their way of life when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. Cuba had been reliant upon the Soviets for the majority of their petrol, diesel and fertiliser, but their supply was cut to just 10% of pre-1990 levels. Cuban industry and agriculture were paralysed and the government quickly moved to make public land in urban centres available for food production. The transition has become known as the “special period” in Cuba and saw sustainable agriculture practices adopted, a massive drop in car use and major changes to industry, lifestyle and diet.

In 2007, the World Wildlife Fund State of the Planet report identified Cuba as the only nation on earth living within its ecological footprint and at the same time achieving a high standard in the United Nations Human Development Index.

The idea of an ecological footprint is calculated by taking the world’s population and dividing up the resources in a way that assumes equitable distribution. Therefore, if everyone on the planet lived like the average Australian, we would need 3.7 planets’ worth of resources.

“The issue of footprints is at the heart of all the other problems we are seeing. If we were living within our ecological footprint we wouldn’t have problems with climate change, or peak oil and all these other resources that are peaking,” Robyn said. “The challenge is how do we reduce our footprint? Cuba didn’t do it voluntarily... But the Western world has to do it by choice unless we get some terrible disasters that foist it upon us. The politicians are just sort of propping up these collapsing systems, particularly the economic one, and I think the economic trigger is probably the most important one for people to reduce their consumption and their waste.”

She said of all the things we could learn from Cuba, it is their systems for urban agriculture that were most impressive.

“The city of Havana is growing 80% of its vegetables within the city or peri-urban area... In Australia food is something like 44% of our ecological footprint. From the practices that are used to grow it and then the food miles; the transportation and the energy consumed there... There is an amazing capacity to grow a lot of our food very close to where we live and that way we’ve got food security... That’s something that’s starting to shift in Australia. There’s a lot more interest in community gardens and so on.”

Robyn’s next challenge may be in Afghanistan.

“I’ve been approached by a woman who has been working for many years in Herat, western Afghanistan. The Dean of the Agriculture faculty is very keen on introducing permaculture. There are major issues they have to address in terms of food security. They’ve also got a legacy of massive environmental contamination and pollution from the Russians. Herat got the worst when the Russians invaded in the late 70s.

“I remember when I went through in ‘76 the pomegranates were the biggest and juiciest I’d seen anywhere. Now the inside of the fruits are black, so there is some serious contamination there.

“We’ll have to look at the situation, see how widespread that contamination is... There has been a lot of bio-remediation work done using fungi. There’s also what are called mop-crops; crops of mustard are good at taking contaminants out of the soil and then you harvest that and compost it somewhere. There are always challenges. We’ll look at cities and look at the possibilities of urban and peri-urban (urban fringe) agriculture, we’ll look at the resources there are, what degree of organic water there is. There may be cultural taboos on the use of composted human manure.

“Herat is home to some very ancient varieties of grapes and carrots. In the markets you get all these different coloured carrots... it’s the seat of a great biodiversity in terms of many food plants and I’m interested in seeing what of their traditional systems are still in tact and to see how we can build on those with permaculture.”

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