[permaculture] Article on Robyn Francis

mIEKAL aND qazingulaza at gmail.com
Thu Dec 17 08:44:21 EST 2009

Permaculture guru leads the way

Andy Parks | 17th December 2009


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

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

“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

“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

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

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

“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

“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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