Monday, 11 May 2009

Internship at the PRI in Australia

Before leaving it was a tough job to briefly explain the nature of my internship to those asking what I was going to do in Australia. Well, I'm going to work for the Permaculture Research Institute. Hmm. The blank look in many people's eyes implied a further explanation could be in place. Permaculture comes from words 'permanent agriculture' and it could be classified in many ways. Quoting the PRI website Permaculture "is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way". The concept was formulated by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the late 1970s and is now hitting the mainstream all over the world.

I came across the term for the first time when somewhere in Youtube I bumped into maybe the most famous five minutes of permaculture, "Greening the Desert" video clip, where a badly salted desert was brought back to life, growing fruit trees and even mushrooms only with the rainfall that landed on the area naturally. It was in the same time when we had an ongoing course at TAMK about water and environmental issues in developing countries. The video was almost too good to be true, and I decided if that's possible by using permaculture, I want to learn permaculture too!

PRI is an educational center and a demonstration site for sustainable ways to provide for our living. It's a farm like setup with teaching facilities, own solar power and drinking water systems, reed bed for gray water treatment, composting toilet, vegetable garden, cows, ducks, chicken and food forests all cycling together supporting the functions of each other as well as the needs of the staff and interns on site.

What I've learned here puts my environmental engineering degree into a whole new context. Hearing people talk about sustainable use of natural resources these days usually makes it sound like the glass will be half empty in any case, that the consumers now have less at their disposal. That doesn't sound too appealing to many people, and often I've heard someone say "we can't go backwards". However the truth is if we don't change directions now, we will soon end up where we're going. The evidence is out there, these days it's in the news every day. We don't need any more of it do we, it's time to move on and switch on the repair mode. And it is possible, to take a new approach, a new direction and overcome the challenges that careless exploitation of resources has caused. Australia is a good example of this, having suffered from drought for ten years now. The permaculture projects that I have visited or worked for are now moving towards repairing the dry and exhausted country, bringing flowing water back to the creeks, planting trees and building soil meanwhile the neighboring farmers continue spraying, plowing and grazing their land and getting less and less returns for more and more inputs every year.

In my opinion the difference and excellence of permaculture is that instead of going to a battle against the problem, whether it is the so called weeds, lack of water, erosion or running out of oil, we can start living the solution by designing our lives according to principles and patterns of nature. This way we can create the systems that provide for our needs (for example food production or drinking water) and in the same time contribute to the well-being of the system itself (building soil instead of eroding it, recharging creeks and aquifers) and thereby make them become better and more abundant for the next generation.

In more practical terms permaculture just arranges what was always there in a different way, so that it works to conserve energy (or water, or soil) or produces more than it consumes. The main framework for permaculture is operating within the three main ethics; care for the earth, care for the people, share fairly and return the surplus to the system.

To learn more, there's an interesting documentary "Farm for the future" by BBC was recently released and can be found online at

Mari, Environmental Engineering student at TAMK

picture by Tashi

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