Image: Dr Garnett (with locals) ‘inspecting’ the land for the Permaculture Institute, Myanmar (PIM) in Rakhine State, Myanmar – November, 2019.

Dr Johanna Garnett is an activist researcher well known for her contributions in the field of Peace Studies, primarily her research into youth and environmental peacebuilding in Myanmar, Southeast Asia. She commenced studies at UNE in 2006 as a mature aged student, learning online whilst also working and raising three teenagers as a single mother. This was followed by a Masters by Research in Environmental Advocacy and a PhD for which she received the Vice Chancellors medal for Excellence in International Relations in 2017.

Today Dr Garnett is focussed upon developing the first Permaculture Institute in Myanmar (PIM) with colleagues Than Shwe and Mrat Twan from the Network for Environment and Economic Development (NEED). In her own words:

“NEED, and other organisations like it in Myanmar, seeks to assist small holder farmers and agrarian communities in addressing localised environmental degradation and food security issues. NEED is educating rural youth from a variety of ethnic groups around the country – focusing on capacity building, providing new skills and knowledge that they can take back to their villages to assist them in alternative development, sustainable environmental and farming practices and new livelihoods. The focus is on environmental adult education (EAE) and organic agriculture, permaculture in particular. The Myanmar government is supportive of these grassroots, community organised initiatives, seeing the value in organic agriculture and leadership by youth, and NEED has a large network with international reach.

As an activist Dr Garnett is interested in helping to create change and her commitment to improving the lives of regional youth in Myanmar goes well beyond scholarly pursuits. In mid-2019 Dr Garnett purchased 9 acres of land in southern Rakhine State, in the west of Myanmar and this has become home base for PIM – a much-needed plot of land on which to develop a demonstration permaculture farm and school.

The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed Dr Garnett’s plans to conduct fieldwork into the training and alumni programs conducted by NEED however progress has not stalled completely. Colleagues in Myanmar chose to head to the PIM farm and begin land clearing and construction rather than return to their own villages during the peak of COVID19. A mixture of volunteers and local labour has seen the construction of driveways, fencing, dams and accommodation for farm workers. There are now two young farmers living on the land who have begun establishing garden beds and planting a variety of fruit trees and a new strain of organic rice.

Dr Garnett says “The aim is to develop the farm to a standard that will enable foreigners, particularly graduate students and permaculture practitioners from around the world, to visit and become involved in the training and practical aspects of this alternative development model.”

How does Dr Garnett manage international obligations from regional NSW?

“My ethnographic fieldwork involves lots of in-country travelling, long days with in-depth interviews and observation/field notes. This requires much planning and setting up an itinerary that fits with in-country partners to enable me to be as effective on the ground as possible. My time in country is limited by my heavy teaching load but luckily for me, internet is fantastic in Myanmar now, so I am able to keep in contact on the road – I am not limited by lack of technology.

Lack of finances and resources do, however, constrain my research as travelling to and within Myanmar is expensive. Apart from a very small UNE travel grant, all of my travel for fieldwork and conferences is self-funded.”

For an early career researcher Dr Garnett has been widely published including a co-authored paper in Conflict, Security & Development, a book chapter in Comparative Perspectives on Refugee Youth Education, Routledge, a pending chapter in Youth Beyond the City, Policy Press and a pending article on PIM for New Community Quarterly.

Dr Garnett teaches numerous sociology and peace studies units alongside supervising four international PhD students and a Humanities Minor Research Project domestic student. It’s a full load of commitments but nonetheless it’s clear that her heart is back in Myanmar where she says she has always felt right at home.

Story courtesy of the UNE International Development team.