Deep in the Amazon rainforest, where communities cook on fires and live under palm-frond ceilings, lessons from semi-arid Albury are helping make life a little easier.
- Permaculture lessons from Albury are being shared across the globe
- Students are using their skills everywhere from the depths of the Amazon to the fields of Laos
- Albury TAFE teacher Rob Fenton wants to see more permaculture as the world battles climate change
Ilha de Marajó, a large river island in northern Brazil, is not an easy place to access.
For Awi Amazon Fruits’ agroforestry permaculture designer Gustavo Martins — a Brazilian who studied permaculture in Albury — the trip into the Amazon requires a flight to the gateway city of Belem.
Then it’s a 12-hour overnight boat trip on the Amazon River, before another boat ride deep into the jungle.
The region is home to the native acai palm tree, a lifeblood product for the community Mr Martins works with.
The residents are very poor and traditional Indigenous practices are fading fast.
“Sanitation is a mess,” Mr Martins said, who is now helping to teach the community permaculture methods.
Mr Martins uses skills that he developed in southern New South Wales to help the community make the most of their land and ensure it is sustainable for future generations.
Aussie lessons go a long way
Mr Martins left Brazil to study permaculture at the TAFE NSW National Environment Centre in Thurgoona, north of Albury, after securing a scholarship through the federal government’s Endeavour Leadership Program.
It was an exciting opportunity for him with Australia being the home of permaculture, which is the design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems that work alongside natural ecosystems.
But semi-arid Albury was a bit of a shock to his system.
“The environment was very different to what I was expecting,” Mr Martins said.
“I’m pretty much from forest areas in Brazil, a lot of rain, maybe like NSW and Queensland border on the coast.
“In the beginning I was disappointed but after I made it an advantage, because if I could understand the principles from an environment very different to mine, it would be easy to apply the principles to my environment.
“I think I can figure it out for any environment now.”
Two years after leaving Albury, he’s already seen the benefits of permaculture in his work with the remote Ilha de Marajó community.
They’ve been able to produce more acai, hardwood, cocoa, and cassava and “are eating better already”, Mr Martins said.
Permaculture practices are not mainstream in Brazil, a country where monoculture production, often on cleared rainforest land, is king.
But for Mr Martins, it’s the small wins that also count.
Many farmers on smaller properties are looking to permaculture as they battle huge inflation, which makes access to machines and fertiliser difficult.
He said permaculture could be the way of the future in Brazil.
“I really think we have to find a way of people living there (in the forest) and a good symbiosis with nature, instead of a permanent protection area and you can destroy the other area.
“That doesn’t work.”
Studies show that half of the world’s habitable land is now used for farming, according to Rob Fenton, head teacher of agroecology at TAFE NSW.
“Fifty per cent of the land isn’t providing the same level of ecosystem services it used to be,” he said.
He wants permaculture to be better used by nations to help address the decline of natural ecosystems.
Mr Fenton loves to see his students take back his lessons to places like China, Japan, Korea and the US.
However without community engagement, he warned permaculture’s potential could be limited.
“It doesn’t work without it,” Mr Fenton said..
Mr Fenton had hoped permaculture would already have become more mainstream amid climate change concerns, but said Australia continued to lead in the field.
“I’ve lived permaculture my whole life pretty much, and I know it’s such a beautiful way to live and such an easy way to live, but it just doesn’t seem to be growing as quick as I hope it would.
“This can be a lonely road at times.”
Lessons in Laos
Many farmers in Laos rely on subsistence farming, meeting their direct needs and leaving little left over for market.
Climate change is threatening even their smallest crops and harvest.
Rice planting that used to take place in March is being pushed back to May, and the weather is becoming less reliable.
Phaeng Xaphokhame, an agricultural extension officer for the Laotian government, is currently in Albury learning permaculture skills to help farmers in one of Laos’s poorest provinces face climate change and land degradation.
“I want to help change the way people do agriculture because we are being threatened by more flooding, more drought and more disease,” he said.
Mr Xaphokhame plans to establish a permaculture learning centre in Nong Khiaw, a village in Laos’ Luang Prabang Province. He’s already acquired the land.
He has used feedback from his colleagues in Laos and classmates in Albury to develop the plans over time.
He will also be taking back skills and plans to engage local farmers in permaculture, while leaning on what he has learnt in Australia.
“I came here to look for a network,” he said.
He’s excited to be able to tap into that now-global network as he soon heads home and begins his own journey to make the planet a little greener.