Sign In

Social permaculture for a troubled land

Social permaculture for a troubled land

I HAD JUST FINISHED watching Gary Caginoff’s video, A Garden at the End of the World, that follows Australian permaculture educator Rosemary Morrow on her assignment in Afghanistan for a Sydney-based NGO, when Fiona came home.

She had been at a course in something called ‘Appreciative Inquiry’, which is a process that has something to do with strategic planning for organisations and that is based on systems thinking. She told me that the process focuses on what is right with an organisation or its activities and builds on that, rather than focusing on what goes wrong.  ‘What we focus on grows’, says the course’s handout.

Maybe this is the way to think about Gary’s video, I thought. If so, then what is it that is right with the image it presents of Rosemary’s work, what aspects of it can we focus on to improve our own work? And if it is to be built upon by people involved in international development and in the permaculture design system of which Rosemary is a well-experienced practitioner, then what lessons does her experience as documented in the film offer us?

I was aware that having known Rosemary for quite some years my opinion might be a little biased. I was also aware that the setting for the film, Afghanistan, is the pointy end of what US writer, Samuel Huntington, describes as the ‘clash of civilisations’, the clash between cultures he said would emerge following the ending of the Cold War. I thought that using my own experience in international development, in the South Pacific and mainly the Solomon Islands might be a useful filter in defining learnings of use to those involved or planning to be involved in such work.

Permaculture and Rosemary

Rosemary and permaculture design are closely coupled. She teaches the skills of the design system and has done so in Vietnam, Cambodia and Africa as well as in Australia. She wrote The Earth Users Guide to Permaculture which I had the pleasure of launching in her home town of Katoomba.

“Permaculture offers people skills they can do”, Rosemary says in the film, explaining that if people can grow food then “ ..they can go on to do other things”. This truth was defined by Abraham Maslow in his well known heirarchy of needs when he put food and water as being among the basic survival requirements that people must have before they can go on to improve their lives. The others are personal security, health, appropriate clothing for the climate and shelter. It is these things that are conspicuously missing in Afghanistan.

Permaculture has its own code of ethics and so does Rosemary. Perhaps it’s not going too far to say that they coincide remarkably. According to Rosemary, both individuals and organisations need such a code to guide their work in the world.

Social permaculture — the key to self-help

So, this Appreciative Inquiry stuff about improving the work of our organisations and ourselves by building on what it is that we are doing right — what could I see in the film that Rosemary was doing that came across as positive, as ‘right’?

My own bias influenced the first thing that came across about her work. In my years as a permaculture educator, advocate and commentator I have noticed that the design system is good at doing physical things but less good at doing things involving working with people and the social side of design. I generalise, of course, and recognise the people/social skills work of people like Robina McCurdy and Robyn Clayfield.

So it was heartening to hear Rosemary talking about ‘social permaculture’, a topic we have discussed briefly in the past. She says that social permaculture is as relevant in Australia as it is in Afghanistan and I believe she is right.

Essentially, social permaculture is about social design, working with people to improve their ability to organise themselves to achieve their goals and to gain useful skills in the process of doing so.

In Afghanistan, Rosemary’s social permaculture was about building the capacity of the NGO (non-government development organisation) she was working for, Mahboba’s Promise, to carry out its work of supporting war widows and their families and working with internally displaced people, mainly children. Capacity building, as it’s known in international development-speak, or social permaculture in Rosemary’s words, is a means of assisting the NGO to do its people-care work more effectively so that people can manage their own future.

Another reason I found affinity with Rosemary’ approach to doing permaculture is that her social permaculture is not unlike my own work for local government in assisting new community food garden teams make a start. The lesson for me in this is that developing effective working relationships is essential to achieving other goals.

No cult-of-permaculture-hero

What else is there in Gary Caginoff’s film that is the sort of positive thing that could be used to improve the work of individuals within the permaculture design system?

I thought about this after watching the video and realised that there is something missing in Gary’s film just as there is something missing in Rosemary’ personality. It is something that from time to time creeps into permaculture when people go out to work in lesser-developed countries, especially when they do this solo, offering workshops here and there then moving on.

So what is it that is missing? It’s ego, or ego of the wrong type. Despite all her work in Australia and overseas, Rosemary does not come across as a ‘permaculture hero’, a saviour bringing ‘the knowledge’ to those less fortunate. Although not so common now in permaculture circles, the gung-ho ‘hero’ image harks back to the bad old days of international development when the ‘expert’ descended upon village communities to bless them with the knowledge of how to do things and then left them to work it out for themselves.

Rosemary might not be a gung-ho permaculture hero but over the years she has taken the ‘hero’s journey’ in the Jungian sense of the term by journeying out from her everyday life in Australia to modestly offer her skills where people might need them. In doing so, she has overcome fears and challenges and transformed herself through gaining insight into her own essence and that of other peoples, then sharing what she has learned with others on her return. It is in this sharing that Rosemary’s meeting with film producer Gary Caginoff has been fortuitous because the medium he is expert in has made Rosemary’ insights available to all with electricity and a video player or computer. If you were of superstitious frame of mind you might say that their meeting was synchronicity rather than accident.

While Rosemary has more than enough accomplishments to claim the status of permaculture hero, thankfully it is Rosemary’s modesty that is most impressive and refreshing.

Meet the producer

That’s Rosemary. What about producer Gary Caginoff?

Gary has Lysis Films, his own production house in Katoomba. It was he who produced A Good Home Forever, Rosemary’s story of how she retrofitted her house for energy efficiency.

The Garden at the End of the World is a far different film whose mood is set with the opening images of mountains and mist accompanied by singing in the traditional style. It continues in this steady, measured pace for its duration, without dramatic bursts of activity and energy.

You get the sense that Gary has a feeling for landscape as the venue in which life is carried out from the images where he slowly pans the camera across vistas of mountain and plain. Another sense you get is that he uses the video camera like a stills camera to capture portraits of people. Young and old, they appear though the film looking to camera as if gazing directly at the viewer. This adds to the film’s power.

All of this could lead to describing Gary’s production as a ‘visual’ film in which Rosemary’s pieces to camera and scenes of her sitting talking with children in the orphanage, intercut with reportage footage of conflict, provide counterpoint.


Good stories often have return and reflection written into them. Rosemary’s time in Afghanistan was a return to her past.

We learn in the film that Rosemary had come this way — through Afghanistan  — in 1975. The few years around that period, from the late 1960s to the ill-fated Soviet invasion of the country in 1979, was a unique time when people made journeys that are no longer possible. Off they set from London in van, old bus, truck or on foot hitching to venture down through Turkey and across Asia to their fabled destination, Kathmandu.

It was an escape from Western civilistion as much as it was an escape into the world for a generation searching for something different to what industrial society could offer. The route is well described in Rory Maclean’s Magic Bus — on the hippie trail from Instanbul to India (2007, Penguin Books, UK), a documentary travelogue by the writer who traversed the trail 30 years later. It was heartening to know Rosemary had been somewhere on that trail in its heyday.

Now, that overland trail is no more. Borders have closed. Wars have intervened.

A undercurrent of dilemma

This is not a political film. It is critical of all protagonists that have brought war to this country these past 21 years — the Soviets, the Taliban and assorted warlords, the present intervention by NATO-led forces. All have left the country in ruins, in what Gary Caginoff describes as a “political, social and environmental nightmare”.

As a production about a remarkable woman and the NGO, Mahboba’s Promise, the film does not delve into the dilemma that is presented by Afganistan’s potential future although the scenes of ruined buildings that permeate the production are a constant reminder of this. Yet, watching the film, this dilemma resurfaces in mind and Gary, in describing the history of big power rivalry in the region, reminds us of it.

What is this dilemma with Afghanistan that runs as a constant anxiety in the background of today’s big powers? It is this. Were Afghanistan again to fall to the Taliban, Pakistan could be destabilised (given the complicity of that country’s intelligence service in past support for the Taliban and the presence of Taliban in the country) and, were an allied force to gain control, they would find themselves with nuclear capability. What would the US do in these circumstances? More pressing, what would nuclear armed India do given the history of Indian-Pakistani conflict? Would they seek negotiation? Stand by and watch? Or would they perceive a great danger and act? And would that acting be more than diplomacy? Would India act by taking out Pakistani nuclear weapon capability, presumably with conventional weapons, but could it go nuclear? If either of the latter, how would the Islamic world react?

This is the potential nightmare both the US and India are well aware of, especially given the recent resurgence in Taliban activity. It is not explicit in the film, but if you have followed trends in the region, it might be implicit.

How to use this video

Gary’s story of Rosemary and Mahboba’s Promise would be useful as the centrepoint of a group discussion around international development and the role of the permaculture design system in it.

Focus questions in a discussion could be about what permaculture has to offer peoples in circumstances such as those found in Afghanistan; how social permaculture could be improved to increase its effectiveness; now that aid workers are targetted by combatants, how could their personal securty be improved; which of Rosemary’s experiences and insights could be of use in Australia?

This is a film that is both a documentary and a travelogue of a journey through a ruined land. It is stark in its contrasts of the impacts of war with the everyday lives of people trying to create new lives, of ruined city and the bare beauty of the mountains, of the conditions in the country and the efforts of one woman small of stature but big of goodness in doing her small part to put things right.

The film ends with one of Gary’s video-come-stills-images. Seen through a window, a young girl sits in a room. Outside stands a bicycle. It is raining. I think it was the rain that raised in me a sense of hope that something really will rise from the chaos of this unfortunate country, that just as the rain nourishes the soil and the plants that grow in it and the animals that graze upon them, so too will the work of Rosemary Morrow and Mahboba’s Promise create new lives for Afghanistan’s people. Is this too much to ask or hope for?

I asked at the start of this review what it was that was right, that was positive about the film that viewers could focus on to make their work in the world all that better. Now I have the answer. It is the example that, no matter where we are, we can take those small steps to make life better for those around us. These can be modest things like the capacity building that Rosemary describes as social permaculture… and other little things that we can do.

In writing this the words of TS Elliot, about how experience can change perceptions of the everyday, come to mind. His words, I realise now, are about that ‘hero’s journey’ I mentioned before, a journey we can undertake wherever we are simply by finding the courage to take that first step beyong the familiar and the comfortable. The words are something that The Garden at the End of the World, in bringing us the tale of Rosemary’s own journey, remind me strongly of. Let’s finish with TS:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of our exploring
Shall be to return to where we started
And know the place for the first time.


Purchase Garden at the End of the World

The Garden at the End of the World Facebook

Download the Garden at the End of the World study guide (pdf 1.1MB)

Find out  more about Mahboba’s Promise

Comments (4)

  • Gary Caganoff
    July 22, 2010 at 6:40 am

    Thanks Russ. What a beautiful review of the film.

    Just to note that the film’s Study Guide is available for download from the website:


  • Jana
    July 23, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    Thanks, Russ, for this thoughtful exploration, adding a resource to a resource. Ro facilitated the permaculture design course that has gotten so much started here in Darwin and I appreciated the very thing you mentioned – her lack of the wrong kind of ego. It was all about the material and it’s potential to enliven and transform communities.
    Appreciate Inquiry is a fantastic way of delving into things, so I’m glad it got a mention and like how you put it to use. “Doing more of what works” feels so countercultural in our problem-solving oriented society, but it’s brilliant and energizing if you give it a go.
    I’m looking forward to seeing the movie and working with the study guide with others here in the Top End…thanks again.

  • Mark Brown
    July 28, 2010 at 5:50 am

    Thanks Russ – I have purchased a copy for Purple Pear and TT Maitland and look forward to seeing the work book too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.