Rowe Morrow has seen first hand the ravaged landscapes of Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Cambodia: poverty, drought, over-grazing, war and now climate change combining to rob a people of their food supply and their future. For over 30 years it has been her life’s work to help the poor to help themselves by teaching permaculture skills.
In her youth Rowe studied agricultural science at university winning a scholarship to complete a Masters degree at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1974, shortly after graduating, she was asked to go to Africa as a development aid worker with the British open universities program. Rowe was sent to Lesotho, a small, landlocked nation in southern Africa. “When I got there the people were hungry and the land was degraded and I realized I had nothing to teach them,” Rowe remembers. Agricultural science concerns itself with large scale enterprise; the people of Lesotho needed help on a human level. “I couldn’t really do anything, all I could do was fit into the conventional British system and write correspondence notes,” she says.
It was a frustrating time. Living in a shanty house in one of the poorest areas of Lesotho’s capital, Maseru, Rowe endured conditions of extreme heat and cold but considered herself lucky to have her own room in the cramped slum. “I ended up working on a literacy program for the herd boys who didn’t go to school as their job was to herd the cattle. By 14 they were sent to work in the mines of South Africa. Illiteracy resulted in them signing away their wages with a thumb print.” Rowe continued to write agricultural notes but was more concerned with the welfare of the people she lived with. “Living amongst the poor gave me a profound understanding of what they suffered on a daily basis,” she explains.
After five years there Rowe returned to Australia hungry for knowledge. She studied horticulture and environmental science. “I reasoned that agriculture should help the environment not degrade it but I didn’t know how. Then a friend introduced me to permaculture,” she recalls. Initially Rowe was skeptical of the new-age movement so she did a permaculture course and discovered that permaculture used a holistic approach to agriculture involving all the sciences she had studied. “I realized this was the way to solve a lot of the problems associated with food production,” she says.
Her next overseas posting was to Vietnam in the 1980’s, a country living in a time warp, recovering from war. “It was a land of 30 million bomb holes,” she says. “There wasn’t a bridge left, so naturally travel was very difficult,” Rowe says. “The Vietnamese are probably the best gardeners in the world but they had been forced to abandon their traditional methods of food production to grow rice during the war. All the old skills had been lost. They had to re-learn everything about growing food other than rice.” The Australian government supported a massive project of permaculture there and Rowe admits that she learnt a great deal. “I visited so many provinces and was taken into so many homes; it is a country I know well and love,” she admits.
After Vietnam, Rowe continued to work in troubled countries around the globe including Cambodia, Albania, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and India. “I see myself now working in the places where people are very hungry on small scale sustainable solutions,” she says. “With permaculture I can teach the same curriculum that I teach here in the Blue Mountains anywhere in the world as long as the principles applied are site specific,” she says. “It is profoundly satisfying to give people the knowledge they need to survive.”
Rowe has lived and taught in the Blue Mountains for many years, establishing the Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute with friend, Al Gore trained environmentalist Lis Bastian. The institute was started to disseminate information and galvanize the local community which already has a thriving permaculture following, offering a Certificate course in Permaculture Design and other short courses on vegetable growing, seed saving, poultry and bee keeping.
Rowe Morrow at home in Katoomba 2009 Photo: Jacqueline Forster
Rowe hints at an underground permaculture revolution in the mountains that bridges all interest groups. “Everywhere you go, from council to landcare groups, to the slow food movement and school gardens there are trained permaculturists who understand what they have to do to look after the natural environment and help us endure what is to come with climate change,” she says. Rowe also feels the institute could have a greater impact down the track providing resources for a sustainable future on a global basis.
Rowe’s personal commitment to the environment meant downsizing her home to a modest brick veneer property. “I once swore I’d never live in a brick veneer house with aluminium windows but I wanted to downsize and be mortgage free,” Rowe says. “Brick and aluminium require less maintenance and timber is expensive and in short supply.” Modest it may be but virtual self sufficiency was always Rowe’s aim. The house is rendered for extra insulation. Internal walls have been removed to lend an open feel and recycled windows and doors installed to allow better air flow. Everything from the renovation was reused on site, including wood from large pine trees that were blocking the northern sunlight. Solar panels provide electricity and the slow combustion fire brings warmth in winter. There are two rainwater tanks and two ponds. Rowe’s garden provides fresh vegetables and she also keeps a couple of chooks. Her motto is: “don’t be a victim or a burden”.
In April 2009, turning down the opportunity to address an international permaculture assembly in the US and gain recognition for her work, Rowe left the mountains to return to the people that matter most to her - the poor. In Afghanistan she hoped to set up a school. “One day peace will come to that country and the children will need skills to feed their people,” she says. Upon her return Rowe is looking forward to retirement from aid work. She will not be idle though. “I want to sit in my garden and watch the seasons change. I’ll teach and lecture and have time to pick the caterpillars off my vegies,” she says with a smile.
This article was first published in Blue Mountains life magazine April 2009
First published: April 2014