Real Permaculture

Vanuatu is one of the finest examples of a mature permaculture. Indigenous ‘Ni-Vanis’ practice permaculture because it has worked for them for longer than settlers have been trying to understand and live sustainably in Australia.

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But they don’t call it permaculture, they just do it.If there are any big issues facing Vanuatu it’s a result of dodgy big business, the introduced plagues of disease and Christianisation, the scars of slavery and the leftover inadequacies of joint Anglo-French colonial administration.

One thing we share in common is that women do most of the hard work, work longer hours, get lower pay and fewer perks. So we aren’t that different. Their men enjoy getting smashed too: but unlike alcohol, their traditional brew of kava doesn’t encourage violence or cost much to make.

Their capital, Port Vila, and its smaller northern city, Luganville are pretty cosmopolitan places and these are what most tourists get to see. Further afield indigenous (kastom) practices in Vanuatu are relatively widespread, relatively well respected, becoming less tainted by westernisation the further you get from bitumen roads. Six years ago I last visited the islands of Efate, Tanna, Espiritu Santo and Malekula, places where you get a better feel for the real Vanuatu.

So many of the fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices that they grow also grow here in my garden, part of ‘Bellis’, Brisbane city’s first sustainable house and garden. The cultural contrasts become more evident when you look at what we use, how we prepare our food and how we grow things. My knowledge of the traditional uses of indigenous plants here and in Vanuatu is limited, but growing.

Being an organic gardener and instilled with four generations of my own families traditional knowledge of organic growing means I spend more time, money and effort growing food at home than the average Ni-Vani. However my reward is producing more food per square metre than a Ni-Vani garden. Organic gardening is (so far) the most productive way to grow food sustainably ever invented. And organic growing allows western cultures to produce more varied and more refined – even designer-niche products better suited to our higher expectations. I found Gardening Australia magazine on sale in Port Vila shops and the TV show is screened weekly, so there’s some cultural crossovers.

The Ni-Vani concept of a garden is also different from a western garden: rarely fenced and often owned and maintained by a community on traditionally owned land. Ni-Vani gardens may have a few more weeds, less ornamentals, use little or (usually) no fertilisers and they use fewer organic remedies (if any) to control pests and diseases. But I did find a small selection of Yates products for sale at a Luganville hardware store, another sign of cultural crossovers.

Want an instant fence in Vanuatu? Insert 2-3 metre long Beach Hibiscus, Hibiscus tiliaceus marcots into the soil and watch them grow without stopping. Things just seem to grow there. Like us, Ni-Vanis grow plants from divisions, cuttings and seed, but their incredibly young, deep, fertile, well-watered soils mean little aftercare is needed. Importantly we westerners often grow selected, genetically identical cloned cultivars with special virtues. Which is why I pay $30+ for a young grafted citrus tree while a Ni-Vani would simply sow seeds from their smaller, less juicy, heavily seeded citrus trees. But they grow so much of everything there’s always enough for everyone. And they just sow and sow and sow, then select the best and let them look after themselves – in the fine tradition of Seed Saver philosophy – which happily ensures genetic diversity and adaptability to local conditions.

I believe that permaculture is the way to re-equip Australian parks and streets for sustainability – offering us an easy way to achieve food security, ideas for basic ‘do-it-yourself’ post-cyclone accommodation, beauty, and a chance to garden together as a vibrant community. There’s many, many more positive reasons to go this way. Why choose parks and streets for a permaculture makeover? Because it’s a low maintenance, cheap method of small scale farming that requires little technical skill and can use many or a few people.

Why reserve domestic gardens for intensive organic growing? Because that’s where we already live, so it’s easy to provide a plot with extra care and attention. Most Australian cities are located on our most fertile, most reliably watered soils, one of the few things we can thank those ham-fisted colonists for. Most of our city gardens are connected to mains water, strategically expanding the range of plants that can be grown whilst improving food quality and diversity.

City organic gardens and permaculture streets and parks would then be ready to feed our nation if prolonged, widespread drought and Climate Changes occur that are worse than already predicted. Or we hit a dramatic Tipping Point from which there’s no escape. With ten years or so until Peak Oil is over, every fruit tree planted this spring will be heavily cropping by the End of Oil, by which time non-organic supermarket food will have become as unaffordable as it is unsustainable.

To help convert Australia as it is – heaven downunder – into a 21st century version of paradise these would help us all:

  • An equitable division of labour and equal treatment at work between the genders (make politicians and unions work);
  • Reserving home gardens for intensive, organic food production (make councils and planners plan);
  • Getting out there and permacultur-ing urban landscapes (get gardening);

Gaining political independence in 1980, Vanuatu could teach Australia a lot. If we listened. Why not visit and learn for yourself…it’s on eastern Australia’s doorstep and is currently a terror-war-free zone.

21st century Vanuatu: successful, peaceful, sustainable, multicultural – all of which stem from a mature permaculture.

Jerry Coleby-Williams Dip. Hort. (Kew), RHS, NEBSM, MAIH