Transforming devastated landscapes with permaculture

21 September 2018
The humanitarian crises that most of us only read about are often witnessed firsthand by alumna Rosemary Morrow, as she travels the world to help refugees and displaced people grow food.
Rosemary Morrow

Alumna Rosemary Morrow.

In June this year, the Iraqi government banned the country’s farmers from planting their summer crops due to a disastrous water shortage. While the blame game played out in that damaged country, Rosemary Morrow (BSciAgri '69) spent two weeks “on a vinyl sofa in sweaty Hanoi”, waiting for a visa to allow her to get over there and help.

It wouldn’t be her first visit to Iraq. But this time she had business near Mosul, the northern city so recently the scene of ISIL atrocities and of a merciless battle that had rendered it a virtual dust pile. Morrow had been asked to come and teach skills to a group of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) who were being sent back to their levelled neighbourhood.

“These are ordinary people just like us,” she explains. “Ordinary, good citizens now living with their families under canvas in a place that can be minus-15 degrees in winter and 50 degrees in summer.”

The skills that Morrow teaches are in permaculture, a term coined in Australia in the 1970s to describe a set of design principles for creating permanent, self-sustaining food production systems by mimicking nature’s ecosystems. The principles also apply to water, shelter, education and technology. It is, in effect, ecosystem rehabilitation with a social dimension.

This means Morrow could help the Iraqi farmers squeeze more out of their water-starved land, regenerating it in the process. “In Mosul, we’ll discuss food, water, housing, solar energy and feeling safe,” she says, with the assurance of someone who has confronted many similar situations. In fact, her dedication won her a 2017 Advance Global Award that recognises exceptional Australians working internationally.

Morrow started this work in Vietnam in the mid-1990s, when the Vietnamese government was establishing a program called Doi Moi, meaning ‘Reconstruction’. She was approached to make that trip by Quaker Service Australia, later becoming a Quaker herself, moved by the religion’s humanity, service and dedication to peace.

You must know that what you teach works. You can’t play with peoples’ lives when they’re hungry.
Rosemary Morrow

Thinking back to that first trip to Vietnam, Morrow realises what an ordeal it was. “It was as if the people were transitioning from one century to another,” she says. “We were in an old jeep with canvas seats, and the roads were terrible. Today the trip would take about three hours, but then it took us three days.”

She remembers always being sick with infections – stomach, eyes, ears – but says it was the same for the locals. She felt privileged to be among a people working for enduring peace, and remembers moments of transcendent beauty.

“There were no bridges, and so our jeep had just been pulled across a river on a raft,” she recalls. “Suddenly a bridal party arrived, all on bikes – the bride in white, sitting on the handlebars. They invited us to join them, and share their rice.”

Since those early trips, including one to Cambodia where she was caught up in a Khmer Rouge road ambush and someone in the vehicle ahead of her was killed, Morrow has crisscrossed the world at the invitation of humanitarian organisations and governments.

“Recently I’ve moved to the gift economy,” she notes. “I don’t accept money anymore. They pay accommodation, airfares and transport.”

Women in Kurdistan

No water, no toilets. Morrow says this Internally Displaced Persons' camp in the middle of Kabul could offer much more to the people who have to live here.

Morrow has worked all over Africa, in Albania when its dictator fell, in Kashmir, and many times in Afghanistan, where she says the soil of the capital, Kabul, is yellow and lifeless. “You’d be shocked at how few plant species, including trees, there are in the cities of these countries and provinces,” she says with a note of despair.

Morrow recently worked in the Solomon Islands, invited there by the Solwata (Saltwater) people who live on the lagoons and have always fed themselves from the ocean. Now they are learning to farm instead of fish, because rising sea levels mean they must soon leave their lagoon homes.

“Everywhere I’ve been invited, the land and the people have been on the edge of immense changes,” she says.

Now Morrow herself is determined to create change. She is deeply distressed by the plight of refugees and IDPs – people who struggle with loss, violence and rejection by the international community – and she wants to do something about it.

“We can transform refugee camps from places of misery, enforced suffering, idleness and degradation of land and spirit into humane, integrated settlements for refugees, run by refugees,” she says.

Morrow knows this is possible. She is also aware there are plenty of government and other agencies that will throw up obstacles.

With characteristic frankness, Morrow tells SAM that she didn’t really like the agriculture degree she completed at the University in the late 1960s. It treated land as a commodity to be exploited, she says, rather than as a resource to be cherished. She was particularly horrified by classes in which students were taught the easiest ways to bring down the greatest number of trees.

As she planned a career working on cattle stations for the Department of Agriculture, she knew she wanted a very different relationship with the land, but she wasn’t aware of any alternatives. Then a friend suggested she look into this new thing called permaculture.

It was a turning point – and it also made Morrow look at her agriculture degree differently. “It gave me the biology, chemistry and physics evidence I needed,” she says. “And people took me seriously because I could talk about them and integrate them. Permaculture is really applying these sciences through design principles.”

Talking to Morrow on the phone, she has the voice of a teacher: modulated and precise. In person, her face gives away more of the joy of what she does, but also the frustrations and the disbelief of desperate situations that she knows need not exist.

She lives simply in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, and has transformed what were once the front and back lawns into a productive and wildlife-friendly permaculture garden, doing most of the work herself using mostly recycled materials. She plans to use the same approach in Mosul: teaching people how to treat the wreckage of their city as the building material for what will come next.

“You must know that what you teach works,” she says. “You can’t play with peoples’ lives when they’re hungry.”

After two weeks of waiting in Hanoi, Morrow had to get back to Australia to teach another course. On the way she attended a training course in France, visited some former students in the French Alps who are learning to be permaculture teachers, and took a side trip to work with a small but dynamic team from Greece, Italy, Spain and the Philippines who have started a program called Permaculture for Refugees.

At the time of writing, due to changes to Iraqi visa rules, Morrow still doesn’t have the visa she needs to get to Mosul. “I’m going back,” she says with a twinkle in her eye. “I’m not giving up.”

Written by George Dodd
Photography by Louise Cooper

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