Steve Cran with his garden in Uganda after four weeks.
Steve Cran with his garden in Uganda after four weeks.

Solving poverty with permaculture

Billen Cliffs permaculture trainer Steve Cran spent a couple of months in Uganda earlier this year as part of a project to increase self sufficiency in one of the world’s poorest countries. He left again on Wednesday for another three-month stint.

“It’s a long term project. I reckon it will take about five years before we start swinging things around, but the politics may slow it down. We’ll see what happens,” he said.

The project is called the Global Sustainability Corps and aims to train an army of “sustainability field workers”.

Steve said stage one was to train 50 young people, who would then train another 500, and so on until thousands of Ugandans have been trained in the practices of growing their own food in a sustainable way.

Steve said poverty in Uganda was “off the scale” and there is a culture of aid dependency that has been created over the past 40 years.

“There’s warfare and all sorts of problems, but everyone is aid dependent and relies on the trucks coming in to deliver low grade food... It’s a disaster that’s been created by aid. The aid industry is ineffective, it needs a revamp from people who have experience on the ground.”

Steve has been a permaculture designer, trainer and innovator for almost 20 years. He has pioneered sustainability projects in East Timor, Bali, Aceh, and rural Aboriginal communities before going to Uganda.

His path to becoming a permaculture trainer actually began in the army.

“I started in the infantry doing exercises in the bush all over Australia for about nine years and I saw the bush was disappearing...We went to a place on the map and there was a suburb there! When I got out of the army I was lost for a few years, I’d been brainwashed... I went to Canada where I’d lived as a kid and saw they were clear-felling all these forests and I thought ‘I’ve got to do something about this’ and then I saw a program on TV about permaculture and that was it for me.”

He started doing suburban backyard designs in Brisbane and then a housing development in Caboolture that included a bike track with fruit trees planted all the way along it. Steve then went out to Wilcannia in western NSW.

“That place was out of control, but we were able to stabilise the town using permaculture. Crime went down 90% over two years and I realised I had a knack for community development work,” he said.

After working in Aboriginal communities for a few years, Steve went to East Timor.

“I arrived with a backpack and left five years later,” he said. “There were lots of organisations teaching and using permaculture. It was one of the few things that really worked in that country where millions of dollars were poured in.”

But after six cases of malaria and five of dengue fever, Steve was ready to come home.

“I came back to Australia to have a rest but then the tsunami hit and within a few days an Indonesian organisation asked me to go to Aceh to help stabilise the food security situation,” he said.

Steve was surprised by the extent of the devastation when he arrived.

“We surveyed about 1000kms of damaged coast. It looked like an atomic bomb blast.”

Steve helped set up a school called the GreenHand Field School that has trained over 10,000 people and is still running. It’s an example of what Steve calls a “go and grow project”.

“Some organisations get some good projects going, but mostly it’s the usual stuff. I call them ‘stop and flop’ projects because they fail as soon as the NGO leaves or the funding finishes. You know your project is good if it continues to grow after you go. That’s a ‘go and grow project’.”

Steve said Uganda presents a new set of challenges, with the north of the country rapidly turning into desert and almost no wildlife to be seen.

“You’ve got to introduce the culture to where it sticks, where there is access to underground water and fertile soils... You can’t help people out in the dry desert. If the food aid didn’t exist they wouldn’t be there.”

Some of the people Steve has been working with are young offenders.

“We’re training up the Karamajong warriors to create a new kind of warrior, the green warrior,” he said. “We have to give the youth a new role and make them part of the food security solution.”

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