Refugees, Eco Villages and Permaculture

In September last year refugee advocate and prominent barrister, Julian Burnside, proposed the Tasmania Solution for rehousing refugees. “If the historic resonance of the ‘Tasmanian idea’ is too much” he wrote at The Guardian Australia, “the same logic can be varied so as to benefit other parts of the economy that are struggling” and thus the Rural Solution. What Burnside proposes is that refugees should be seen as an economic stimulus in an atmosphere that deems them a burden. Burnside calculates that the Tasmania Solution would benefit the island state “to the tune of at least $1.5bn per year”.

To be sure, Burnside isn’t a policy maker. His solution is nothing but a well-devised fantasy, especially now with a conservative government in power who are set on being as mean as possible to the vulnerable throughout society. But the discussion he elicits is a healthy one. He proposes an innovative solution for a very important issue—an humanitarian issue.

The logic of the Tasmania and Rural Solutions is that refugees would create and fill a plethora of jobs in Tasmania and rural areas in other states. According to Burnside, there are some 96,000 unfilled jobs in rural Australia. Importantly, they would also create new jobs and give a boost to under-demanded services that are on the cusp of closing. In the case of the Rural Solution, the towns and regions in which these people would be settled have suffered from rural flight. Their inhabitants have long been moving away to better opportunities—jobs, medical care, entertainment, etc. Therefore, they are not likely to survive in their current position. These towns need to be stimulated or they will be lost forever.

I support Burnside’s proposal. I commend him for having the guts and creativity to propose it. Predictably the naysayers dismissed it as unrealistic and disrespectful to both Tasmania and rural communities. They say their communities are being treated as a dumping ground. This isn’t true. The proposal is strategic and has far reaching benefits, not only for the refugees but the existing residents and businesses.

I propose the idea goes a step further. Rather than just housing refugees in conventional houses and apartments, why not in eco villages? These villages would be designed, built and maintained by the refugees themselves, with the assistance of government departments and the private sector. They would be built on marginal land which would be replenished following the permaculture philosophy. This approach would teach the new Australians important skills and increase their employability, as well as giving work to local workers and injecting new money into the local economy. Importantly, the work carried out would be meaningful—give people a sense of worth and accomplishment. The refugees would be entitled to a share in the development by way of a taking equity in a cooperative ownership. After a time—and in accordance to their visa requirements—they could sell their share on the private market and move as they please or remain at their property.

Some income could be generated on site. The land would be rejuvenated using permaculture methods increasing its fertility and allowing crops to be sown, harvested and consumed on site and sold to the local community. Appropriate enterprises will be run from the properties to the benefit of the local and broader economies.

Local businesses would benefit. Local architects, builders, electricians, plumbers, glaziers, surveyors, hardware stores, timber mills, transport companies, cafes, restaurants, supermarkets, liquid stores, butchers, green grocers, accountants, lawyers, and doctors would support the project at all stages. These businesses would eventually come to hire some of the refugees as demand for their products and services increases due to the growing population.

Other job searchers or career changers shouldn’t be excluded. This is project should be open of anybody willing. Places should be limited to the space that is available and the carrying capacity of the particular community, but the projects should be active all across the country. This proposal is superior to providing poor quality government housing and indefinite government payments. It should come with conditions, but conditions that are rewarding and that treat its participants with respect and dignity.

Unfortunately many of the eco villages and intentional communities that have been built in Australia have been targeted at wealthy people. Most are unaffordable to low-income earners. This is a pity considering how cheap it can be to establish such a place using permaculture and green building techniques. Most current eco villages are over-engineered and built to a high-specification. Small houses can be built for less than $10,000 each. Marginal land for a community of 10-20 people, within 10-30km of a large regional centre, can be purchased for less than $200,000.

The point of my proposal is to take Burnside’s Tasmania and Rural Solution and add a sustainable twist to it. In discussions of population growth and urban and regional planning, the consensus tends to be that density needs to increase. This proposal is an appropriate way of addressing this challenge, by creating density and fertility on marginal land in a way to support communities in decline.

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