Permaculture Pioneer Robyn Francis


Award-winning international designer, educator, presenter, innovator and founder of Permaculture College Australia.

It was 30 years ago that I accompanied Bill Mollison to India to teach the first full Permaculture Design Course (PDC) there in 1987. This year I returned to India to honour the anniversary as a keynote speaker at the 13th International Permaculture Conference (IPC), held in Hyderabad, and as lead teacher of the IPC-PDC.

I hadn’t been to India for 27 years. Some changes were conspicuous, such as the arrival of the digital age with smart phones in use everywhere, but much remained largely unchanged, such as the general intensity, chaos and noise of the traffic with its incessant honking of horns, just the old Ambassadors have been replaced with modern Japanese cars. The intermingled smells of incense, curry, traffic fumes, open sewers and decay brought back old memories. Out of the city, life in the villages and for the rural poor appeared much the same, however I noticed a lot of land under cotton production, which I hadn’t observed previously in this part of the Deccan Plateau.

Padma Koppula addressing the welcome ceremony of the IPC-PDC

Padma Koppula addressing the welcome ceremony of the IPC-PDC

The course was held at Polam Farm, about an hours drive from the town of Sangareddy, east of Hyderabad. I arrived a few days before the course was due to start to acclimatise and help with final preparations. A team of volunteers were working hard to get the site ready to host not just the course but also the many hundreds anticipated for the IPC convergence. Rooms were still being constructed, pit toilets being dug, waste water systems excavated, dodgy power lines connected to teaching venues, and far too many things to organise in a short period of time but magically it seemed to manifest at the last moment, against all odds and just in the nick of time.

We had 77 participants arrive to do the PDC from 27 different nationalities. This was my 148th PDC and by far the most culturally diverse. My co-teachers, Rico Zook, Govinda Sharma. Clea Chandmal and Narsanna Koppula were supported by 8 Teacher Assistants (TAs), most of whom had just completed the teacher training course with Jude Hobbs and Rico. We broke the course participants into smaller units of affinity groups, each lead by a TA, who met with them daily to check in with everyone’s progress and take care of any trouble-shooting and act as a liaison between teachers, staff and participants.

Teaching team:

Teaching team: (left to right) Gopi Sankarasubramani (India), Govinda Sharma (Nepal), Hui-i Chiang (Taiwan), Jude Hobbs (USA), Clea Chandmal (India), Starhawk (USA, Rico Zook (USA), Robyn Francis (Australia)

Teaching team: (left to right) Gopi Sankarasubramani (India), Govinda Sharma (Nepal), Hui-i Chiang (Taiwan), Jude Hobbs (USA), Clea Chandmal (India), Starhawk (USA, Rico Zook (USA), Robyn Francis (Australia)

We had two key teaching spaces, one was a beautiful outdoor classroom under the shade of a grove of Neem trees with view to the distant lake, the other was a large shed roof with colourful fabric walls for sessions requiring data projector. We occasionally divided the class up for some sessions based on climate or cultural themes, however most of the course was conducted as a single group for the core PDC curriculum.

The final days of this extended PDC course was split into 4 specialist advanced streams dealing with Agriculture, Water and Earthworks, Urban Permaculture, and Social Permaculture with an additional 4 stream teachers and 10 additional participants. Starhawk was co-teacher of the Social Permaculture stream with me. We had a wonderful time working together with our 18 participants developing skills for working with people, dealing mainly with communications, strategic planning and facilitation skills.

The PDC course design projects were done within the streams. I was amazed at the outcomes of our Social permaculture students designs, which began with developing a strategic plan for the owners of Polam Farm, and from this creating a physical design to realise their vision.

The end-of-course concert or talent show was one of the best ever, complete with several Bollywood dance acts and a hilarious skit sending up the idiosyncrasies of each of the teachers.

A definite highlight of the program was the visit to Aranya Farm to see first hand how Narsanna has transformed a semi-arid wasteland into a food forest and productive demonstration farm, and to meet some of the local women farmers he works with. Narsanna was a participant in the first PDC in India in 1987 and also did a refresher with m at Penukonda in South India in 1990.

Narsanna showing the class around Aranya Farm

Narsanna showing the class around Aranya Farm

After the course we had a few days of rest and recuperation in Hyderabad before joining the larger international permaculture community for the 2-day IPC public conference at the Agricultural University Auditorium.

The IPC attracted over 600 participants from 63 nations. The Aranya team, lead by Narsanna and Padma Koppulla, did a stupendous job of decorating the venue with seed collections, clay pots and baskets. The opening ceremony was in true Indian style with a noisy brass band leading us to the seed display in the market tent and then into the lobby of the auditorium.

Stunning seed display greeted us in the lobby of the auditorium

Stunning seed display greeted us in the lobby of the auditorium

The opening address by Vananda Shiva focussed on the problems of agricultural chemical corporations, GMO crops and the urgent need for farmers to reclaim sovereignty of their seeds. This was followed by a series of short talks by members of the original team who brought Bill Mollison to India, Vital, Gopal and Vasant. It was a great pleasure to reconnect with them. I then delivered my keynote presentation on Women as Agents of Change and innovators of community and grassroots action around the world,

The conference presentations I saw were immensely inspiring, and what I most appreciate about these events are the personal connections, especially with former students and colleagues from around the world and discovering the exceptional work they’re doing.

In a world that can seem so overwhelming with bad news, it is heartening and invigorating to be so powerfully reminded that the world is full of good people doing amazing work, effecting positive change on a local, many on a national level and some on an international level. I feel proud to be a part of this international permaculture community and the good it is achieving world wide.

 

Robyn Francis

November 2017

With deep gratitude and heartfelt thanks to all the Aranya IPC team, the volunteers, the PDC organisation team, the Polam Farm team, the teaching team and wonderful TAs, and everyone who contributed to making the IPC events such a resounding success.

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Contact Me

74 Cecil St Nimbin
(300m past Showground)
less than 1km from Nimbin's main street

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