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Permaculture in Pormpuraaw

The journey to finding myself in Pormpuraaw teaching Permaculture started back in 2008, when we actively sought to sponsor an indigenous person to take our first PDC here at Rosella Waters, co-taught by Darren Doherty and the PRI’s Geoff Lawton. Through conversation with Noel Pearson’s Cape York Institute, I was lead to Nick Maxwell, an officer with Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP). Nick was based in Bamaga at the time and had a future market garden project in the wings. Two men connected with the project were identified as future stakeholders in the project and drove down to do the PDC. Unfortunately, despite everyone’s best efforts, things didn’t work out as planned and the men lasted just 3-days of the course.

A year or two down the track; we again had numbers on our PDC to allow us to support a person in need. We contacted Nick again, now working in Lockhardt River on a similar project, and again two men were selected to attend our 2-week PDC prior to the commencement of APC10. Considering the previous experience we arranged things differently this time and put things in place to better assist as best we could. This time, with support from all 33 people on the course, both men graduated with their PDC certificate and returned to their homes with plans and ideas for a healthy community.

Nick was again transferred, this time to Pormpuraaw and we received a call from him with an idea to create a community garden. We had discussed previously how rather than individuals coming down to do courses in an unfamiliar and challenging environment, maybe we could go to their community and teach there.

A few weeks later, I found myself in an isolated indigenous community for the first time in my life. I had books and lessons plans in hand and planned to deliver an introduction to Permaculture and meet with community leaders about the project. Luckily through our experience from working to establish the Flexible Learning Centre Permaculture Gardens….we had mastered flexibility!

Pormpuraaw is on the West Coast of Cape York, about 500 kilometers from the tip of Australia, just south of the Edward River. It’s the home of the Thaayorre, Wik, Bakanh and Yir Yoront people. The town has approximately 700 people and is separated down the middle with the Mungkan language group on one side of the centre line of the town and the Thaayorre speaking language group people on the other. It is a relaxed, sociable community with a long running and successful commercial crocodile farm. In the wet, the community is landlocked, the only way in and out being by plane or barge. Pormpuraaw is one of the most beautiful places you could ever visit and the fishing is amazing!

So I arrive in March 2011 to meet with community elders and participants of the CDEP ‘work for the dole’ program and other interested parties about the community project. I explained that I was invited by CDEP Officer Nick Maxwell to deliver a series of training and education workshops in Permaculture design and implementation with the expressed aim of creating a Community Garden within the Pormpuraaw Community. For the next week we set about getting to know each other, developing trust and learning what shape and form such a project would be for the people of the community. It was important from the outset to establish that the project was going to be conceptualised, designed and implemented by the community. I was there to assist in that process and deliver training as is expected of CDEP programs in the region. Permaculture is not a replacement of traditional knowledge but there to work together with what already exists. Quite clearly, much of Permaculture has been derived from traditional cultures but establishing that understanding certainly led to an acceptance of me being in the community.

The Pormpuraaw Permaculture Cultural Bush Garden site had been decided before I arrived by CDEP and the community. It is located on the edge of town and is the first thing people will see when they arrive by road from the east coast. Situated just behind the state school rugby oval it will provide a visually aesthetic backdrop to those entering the community as well as a vibrant place for community members to share skills, knowledge and grow food for the local community.

The project has a number of aspects to it and the expected progression can be outlined as follows:

  • Community consultancy and scoping study
  • Permaculture Design Education
  • Implementation of Phase I – 100 sqm Mandala Garden
  • Nursery Establishment
  • Composting set-up
  • Phase II – Billabong Design
  • Billabong Implementation
  • Phase III – Food Forest Design
  • Food Forest Implementation
  • Phase IV – Chicken Tractor System establishment
  • Ongoing maintenance, educational workshops, food processing, sale of produce, community meeting space, social events and many other activities.

The benefits from this project are potentially numerous, the following list is by no means complete:

  • Positive community engagement & interaction
  • Skills in sustainable design for food production – animal, vegetable & fruit
  • Principles of sustainable design for permanent structures
  • Provision for safe & clean drinking water through correct catchment & storage
  • Skills in surveying/implementing road & access design to mitigate flood damage
  • Aesthetically beautiful environment for community to meet – Billabong setting
  • Understanding of what constitutes a healthy diet & how to prepare food from gardens
  • Transfer of cultural knowledge to younger generations, where garden provides the backdrop & learning environment
  • Improved health and nutrition for the Pormpuraaw community
  • Food security & community resilience in the face of peak oil & Climate change
  • Life long learning of new skills for students of the Pormpuraaw State School.

This first week entailed conducting community consultation, gathering support for the project and performing an audit on available community resources and participant’s skills and knowledge base that could benefit the project.

In going through permaculture principles with participants, it was no surprise at all that everyone took to it like a duck to water. David Holmgren’s principle cards were a great tool, and with very little prompting the participants were able to piece them all together. I have to admit it felt a little strange to me to be ‘teaching’ people in the community the concept of pattern and how it relates to functional design. Needless to say, the community has taught me far more than I have them and in a way Permaculture, it’s principles and ethics as I understand them, and therefore how I presented myself to the community, has been the thing that has helped to gain people’s trust and explain my intentions for being there, in their community.

The process of community consultation could have gone for much longer than we did but with a keen interest to get things happening, we forged ahead. There is so much ‘talk’ everywhere, especially in these communities that people were motivated to get some action on the ground. With that in mind, everyone was then led through a series of design exercises to practice the application of Permaculture principles in functional design, before approaching the design of the community garden. Prior to the design they visited the proposed site and did preliminary observations of the natural energies entering the site so as to design for their capture or limit their effect on the site.

During this exercise the participants observed:

  • The morning sunrise & sunset positions in both Winter and Summer
  • The Sun arc over the site at different times of the year
  • Direction of incoming winds:
    o Warm
    o Cooling
    o Destructive
  • Possible fire entry into site
  • Direction of entry into site of animals both domestic & wild
  • Unsightly views they wanted to block
  • Views they wanted to keep

The Future Community Space

The old Nursery needing repairs

Proposed Site of the
Mandala Garden

Site of planned Billabong

I’ve never had so much fun doing a sector analysis! These guys certainly didn’t need a compass and their knowledge of seasonal changes was amazing. I felt very privileged, as I have throughout the entire project to date, to be involved with such amazing people.

Another planning tool the participants learnt was to place the different elements of the proposed design into zones of activity. Again, this made complete sense to everyone with the idea being that you made things easier for yourself and used the least amount of energy!

In this case, there were already existing structures on site that students had to work around which presented an additional challenge that a ‘bare’ site does not.

At the end of the first week, the community had completed a concept plan for the proposed community garden and considered its staged implementation. They had learnt the principles of design as applied to sustainable, functional design. Most importantly they had seen how the project could provide a powerful vehicle for community engagement and a place to transfer traditional knowledge and understanding to younger generations.

The next generation learns about Worm Farming

Since March I have been to Pormpuraaw an additional three times for one week at a time. The garden is leaping out of the ground; the school kids, CDEP, Council, RFDS, Indigenous Health Services and event the Jimmy Little Foundation have and continue to be involved in some way. In November young Rangers will be heading out to collect and propagate bush tucker & medicinal seeds, cuttings and seedlings — such an important aspect of the overall project design. But more on all that, with more pics, next time….


  1. Hi Kym excellent work. As a 15 year resident of Weipa and having been involved with a number of projects with aboriginal communities you are making light of the challenges you have overcome and the amazing progress made . What the communities on the Cape need is not another project that comes in and says ” you should do this !” but a real attempt to get the communities to find their own solutions , with a little help and guidance from people like yourself. I worry greatly about the implications of peak oil ,peak finance and peak everything on the aboriginal communities of the Cape. It seems that amongst the first of things to go in societies hitting various constraints is the social safety net. While long term the communities are better off without various scenes , interventions, and welfare payments, the fact that this has gone on has fostered dependence on the very scenes that while misguidedly seeking to alleviate various social problems in the communities are in fact perpetuating them.
    If there is anything I can personally do to assist in your efforts , ie advice, contacts etc , please don’t hesitate to ask.

    Cheers Tim Barker. PRI Australia

  2. Great story Kym. I hope the participatants are as inspired about Permaculture as I am.
    It would be good to know if there is a womens group involved in this project who may like to connect with our Cooktown group who are interested in learning how to use the food plants we are growing, in meals, preserves, medicines etc.
    Please use my contact if there is any interest.. Judy

  3. Wow! Great story Kym. To quote you on “There is so much ‘talk’ everywhere, especially in these communities that people were motivated to get some action on the ground.” I think you sum up a lot of what is happening out there in our communities. I have a great respect for our first Australians and we could learn a lot from them and if you ever need a hand on these projects Kym. Please let me know.

  4. Thanks Tim, Judy, Nick and Louise for your kind notes. I have just come back from being up there for another week and this time I took my good friends Rob & Jules from Bamboo Solution FNQ to run a bamboo construction workshop which went really well. We’ve left tools in the community, some boo poles and planted a number of varieties which we hope will, in time, provide for a micro-enterprise opportunity in furniture production to support the project along with an additional source of food in shoots. The climate suits the boos perfectly and with the long dry they should get some good quality timber from them as well. Going up again in November to work with the young rangers on bush tucker seed/seedling collection and propagation for our next phases of the project. Cheers again.

  5. Hi Kym,
    I bet we ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

    All systems go and full steam ahead for the New Year. bet it brings great things in remote communities. It’s the crest of the second wave.

  6. Great story Kym. I have just been browsing the web in search of examples of permaculture in Indigenous communities; challenged by recent news reports about the prevalence of lack of fresh food, diabetes, and obesity in Aboriginal Australia, and what you’ve facilitated in Pormpuraaw seems to me to be a model that could be applied very widely. I’m really interested to keep in touch with progress

  7. And now in 2022?? Are there real results? What has come out of these projects??? Please love some follow up stories! Hopefully this wasn’t another example of ‘talk Talk’ white people trying to promote themselves.

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