[Note: this post originally appeared on the PRI's website, and is reposted here with the hyperlink index included at the end of the article. There are many valuable references linked to throughout the piece, which may be more conveniently accessed after you have read the article in its entirety.]
We can change the world. We’ve all felt it, that overwhelming urge which every permie gets when they graduate from their PDC, that burning desire to share our excitement, to spread the good word, to let the rest of world in on the little secret we’ve just discovered: “WE’VE GOT SOMETHING HERE THAT CAN REALLY HELP US ALL, IF YOU WOULD ONLY JUST LISTEN!!”[i]
And it’s true. We are on to something. We really can solve all the world’s problems in our gardens.[ii]
Though before we beginners rush out to save the world, it is important that we step back, slow down[iii], take a brutally honest look at ourselves, and identify the gaps in our experience, knowledge, abilities, and skill-sets that we need to fill - before we take the plunge of working in international aid.
The old saying goes: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and this is especially true when it comes to foreign aid. Listen to any seasoned permaculture aid worker[iv] long enough, and they are bound to tell you dozens of frighteningly embarressing stories[v] of well-intentioned aid gone wrong, or at least being less effective than they could have[vi].
After completing my 72-hour PDC at Southern Cross Permaculture Institute (SCPI)[vii] in December 2011, I was eager to rush out and do my part to help end poverty[viii].
After all, I have ten years of experience in small business, taught finance and real estate all over the State of Hawaii, and was able to make a lot of people a lot of money back in the days when I ran my little firm[xi]. Surely, I told myself, I had something to contribute?
|RICK'S DAILY COMMUTE TO TEACHING |
THE PDC IN NEPAL, 2001.
So I asked Rick Coleman[xii], who in his 18+ years teaching permaculture has worked in some of the harshest conditions, on every continent [except Antarctica], with some of the poorest people in the world, if I had what it takes to work in Overseas Aid and Development.
His answer was direct, painfully simple, and borne from the frustrating perspective of bearing witness to countless aid agencies inadvertently making mistakes – and risking countless lives – in well-intentioned, but ill-informed efforts to make a difference:
“Have you ever grown enough food to feed your family?”
Erm, hmmmm, uhhhh…..Right. Good point. He had me, and he knew it; and he went on to say:
“When we work in the developing world, the stakes are very high: if you make a mistake, someone goes hungry, someone cannot feed their child that day. We must design carefully to avoid precarious situations, or we are taking extreme risks with people’s lives.”
Bill Mollison said it himself, in the Global Gardener series where he takes us on a tour of his tropical garden[xiii]:
“Once you’ve set up your own home, so that you can leave it for 2 or 3 months and it just gets better, so that you are free to travel, then you can go and teach other people.”
- Bill Mollison -
Then, perhaps sensing that in three short sentences, he may have crushed all of my hopes and dreams for ever working internationally, Rick planted a seed:
“You can build upon your strengths and experience in business and finance, take that and translate it into permaculture aid. For example, microfinance and enterprise development could become your core strength in this field.”
“You can grow into an effective teacher, though first you’ll need to study the pedagogy of how to teach permaculture - it’s one thing to tell, and quite another thing to teach.”
…and so seven months later I wake up in a ger [yurt], my belly in knots[xiv] from too much tsu-te-tse [traditional salty milk tea] drunk the night before, and dash outside, into the achingly cold morning and over to the pit latrine at the edge of the hasha [family compound], which has been dug barely high enough so that I can avoid embarrassing splatters - if I can only squat deftly enough.
|CLASS PHOTO IN ZAVKHAN PROVINCE, NORTHWESTERN OUTER MONGOLIA|
I’ve spent the last six months living and working on Rick’s farm: shovelling shit into no-dig garden beds[xv], wheeling wheelbarrows around landscaping projects[xvi], swinging a hammer[xvii], slinging strawbales around houses made of natural and recycled materials[xviii], loving every mud-splattered minute of it and doing all I can to learn and skill up, and somehow be helpful enough to justify a spot on the team for his next overseas consultancy…
…and now, I am waking up in the Outer Mongolian province of Zavkhan, supporting a Sustainable Aid consultancy for ADRA Mongolia[xix], who has sponsored us to teach the country's first-ever Permaculture Design Course[xx], to the nomads whose herds had been decimated by increasingly harsh winters.
Rick’s team includes Kat Lavers [of Transition Towns Darebin[xxi] and The Plummery Urban Permaculture Demonstration Site[xxii] in Melbourne], a young though experienced permaculture teacher and activist, and, well …me. Bek[xxiii], my good friend and PDC classmate is also there, because he is a native of Mongolia, and also happens to be the Director of Food Security for the NGO – who have done a good job in laying a foundation for permaculture to become well-integrated into their design solutions and operations by investing in their staff’s Permie-powers.
You should try gardening here: -40 C winters, ancient beach sand for soil[xxiv], super short growing season, and little access to water. Some co-operatives are watering 20 plus acres by hand[xxv], and apart from that Mongolians don’t even like to eat vegetables – they’ve never had the luxury of being able to choose a vegetarian diet.
I am glad that I heeded Rick’s advice, took time to build my Permie-powers, and then found seasoned, successful teachers willing to take me under their wing; this way I gain invaluable on-the-ground experience that cannot be gleaned from a website, classroom or two-week course [no matter how intensive]. I am able to collaborate on design solutions, make attempts at reading the landscape[xxvi], and bounce ideas around within the safety net of my more experienced companions.
Most importantly, this minimizes the chances that I will make any beginner’s mistakes[xxvii] that could cause a family to go hungry.
“A Permacultural System looks at designing for the extremes. Especially when working in aid, we design first for Survival, then Subsistence, then Self-Sufficiency, and then Abundance of Harvest [where crops can be bartered or given away]. Finally, we can move on to Commercial production.”
– Rick Coleman –
My primary role here is to support the other two, and document the project with photos[xxviii], video[xxix], and a daily blog[xxx] that we can use as a teaching tool for other permies wanting to develop the experience, knowledge and skills necessary for working effectively in Permaculture Aid. In true multi-functional-permie-fashion, I’ve also arranged with my AQTF, nationally accredited T.A.F.E. level Permaculture Diploma [xxxi] Instructor that my blog can do double-duty and count towards my assessment tasks in the course.
My secondary role is to assist in setting up and conducting any practicums, like building a compost heap[xxxii] or any of the other fun learning activities every permie gets to do on their PDCs. Then, the best surprise ever: in week four of the project, Rick works with me and draws from my experience to develop a lesson plan for the session on Microfinance; then he asks me to teach the session, and all of a sudden I am teaching business and finance to the descendants of Ghengis Khan’s fearsome army[xxxiii].
Dreams, even the really weird ones, really do come true.
|KNOWLEDGE WAS TRANSFERRING BY DAY 2 OF THE PDC.|
DEAD WEEDS, PREVIOUSLY SLASHED AND REMOVED FROM THE SITE,
WERE BEING COLLECTED TO BE USED AS MULCH, CYCLING NUTRIENT BACK INTO THE SYSTEM,
RETAINING SOIL MOISTURE, AND IMPROVING SOIL QUALITY OVER TIME.
It’s now been four months since I got back from the Mongolian Permaculture Project, and I am currently living in an entirely different place (Hamburg, Germany), and working on new and different projects; but that, my friends, is another story for another day.
Right now we’d like to tell you about an opportunity to make your dreams [however weird] of working internationally as a permaculture aid worker come true:
|GRADUATING CLASS OF MONGOLIA'S INAUGURAL PDC CLASS OF 2010.|
The Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD)[xxxiv] and ADRA Mongolia[xxxv] are looking for a suitable candidate for an expenses-paid, 12 month volunteering opportunity, in conjunction with AYAD and ADRA. The successful candidate must be under 30 years of age, and have minimum qualification of Permaculture Design Certificate[xxxvi] or equivalent diploma / certificate in related field [such as Horticulture, Ecology, Agronomy, etc].
The official position title is “Food Security Technical Officer, specialising in permaculture and organic gardening”.
Duties will include: “assisting to teach refresher courses to Food Security Staff in permaculture principles and practice, developing appropriate permaculture manuals, conducting field assessments to community gardens, and providing technical advice and research on implementation of identified permaculture practices in the Mongolian context.”
The successful candidate will report to ADRA Mongolia’s Food Security Director, who is a PDC graduate with a background in agronomy and hydro-engineering.
You’ll have to be quick though, applications for the position close on January 19th, 2011 …share this article and help spread the word to anyone else you think might be qualified and interested!
Contact me, or ADRA Programs Director Michelle Abel, for more information and to get your application started.
[i] Geoff Lawton’s ‘Through the Eyes of Permaculture’ 2:00 youTube video
[ii] Geoff Lawton’s ‘Solving All of the World’s Problems – in a Garden’ 9:29 youTube video
[iv] permaculture.org.au ‘Geoff Lawton: All the World's Problems Can be Solved in a Garden'
[v] Rick Coleman’s ‘MULCH and the Problem with Agronomists in the Third World’ 1:18 youTube video
[vi] Rick Coleman’s ‘AID AGENCIES and the Problem of Sharing Resources in the Third World’ 2:29 youTube video
[x] permaculture.org.au ‘Rosina Buckman living smart on the sunshine coast'
[xiv] theGreenBackpack.blogspot.com ‘Mongolian Permaculture Day 11: Tsergiin Gol Zaygal Co-Operative'
[xviii] ‘How to Build a Strawbale House in 6 days, part I' 3:38 youTube video
[xx] ADRA Mongolia website: ‘Permaculture Training Teaches Greater Effectiveness With Less Effort'
[xxiii] ‘Mongolian Permaculture Day 7: Hydroelectricity in the soum' 1:11 youTube video
[xxiv] theGreenBackpack.blogspot.com ‘Mongolian Permaculture: Day 18 - Forest Field Trip'
[xxv] theGreenbackpack.blogspot.com ‘Mongolian Permaculture: Day 9 - Tudevtey Soum and Oyogni Shim Co-Op'
[xxvi] ‘Mongolian Permaculture Day 4: Reading the Landscape' 2:58 youTube video
[xxviii] ‘Mongolian Permaculture Days 4 and 5: On the road’ 3:25 youTube video
[xxix] ‘Mongolian Permaculture Day 6: Mapping Design Options’ 3:55 youTube video