Rowe Morrow (BScAgr '69) has spent much of her life working in some of the most dangerous places in the world: war-torn Cambodia while the Khmer Rouge were still active; Uganda after the civil war in the north and AIDS epidemic, and more recently in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kashmir. Despite seeing little hope in any of these regions, she says “that’s every reason to be there”.
Rowe travels to places where people need to learn the tools for survival after their land has been destroyed, and teaches them how to restore their land in a way that will sustain both themselves and their environment using the principles of permaculture, a practice developed in Tasmania in 1978.
It’s a far cry from her cozy home in the Blue Mountains.
“Home is so nice, quiet, predictable, clean, easy and privileged,” she says, adding that her work is not about enjoyment.
“I am convinced that everyone must know about global warming in order to take steps to prepare their lives. I believe this is a human right. So sometimes I am bitterly unhappy and other times deeply satisfied. But it’s more about service than self-satisfaction.”
For 40 years, Rowe has been driven to fight for social justice. She believes “poverty is a particular form of violence,” adding, “I particularly detest the loss of human potential.”
This drive has sent her on a kind of restless quest for knowledge, which began at the age of 16 when she ran away from home to work on a cattle station in the Kimberley.
What she found was “a love of space and respect for natural environments and a detestation of racism, which was exhibited especially towards Aboriginal tribes which lived on the land”.
These things made a deep impression that would last throughout her life.
A Commonwealth Scholarship gave her the opportunity to study at the University of Sydney. She chose agriculture because, “I thought I already knew all about agriculture. It turned out I knew about cattle stations and nothing about agriculture.”
Over the years she continued her studies in Paris at the Sorbonne, in Reading in the UK and at TAFE, but it was permaculture’s holistic approach, which is built around ethical living, including sustainable agriculture and having a small carbon footprint, that seemed to offer the best solutions for the people and the environments in which she was working.
Rowe’s commitment to her work was reinforced when she became a Quaker.
“The values of my faith are a solid constant against which I measure my life. Peace, integrity, simplicity, community, environment, and the belief of the potential for good in everyone.”
In 2009, Rowe co-founded the Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute (BMPI) with community development specialist Lis Bastian. The not-for-profit teaches strategies to further social, environmental and economic resilience, and its non-formal education opportunities are accessible to everyone.
“The goal of BMPI is to offer recognition to people all over the world, such as the illiterate women in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh and the hundreds in East Timor who have completed permaculture courses and are working with nature and the environment and changing the world.”
Rowe has written many books on permaculture, including The Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture, but she doesn’t let the ethos define her. “I’m not wedded to permaculture and if there were anything better I would adopt that.”
She believes, however, that for now, it is the most comprehensive system available and should be practiced more widely – and that we don’t have time to wait for something more effective to come along.
“We need to provide an alternative for the big climate breakdown that is coming – drought, bushfires, more cyclones, more floods – and permaculture provides the basis for a more robust model.”