Vale John Sweet

Very sad news. John Sweet died on Thursday after a few years with cancer. His beloved partner Christene has cared for him through his illness, and John knew he was immersed in the love of family and friends the whole time.

He was the initiator of our “Sugar vs the Reef?” project, which he kicked off one day in January 2014, calling me up out of the blue with a preposterous idea: the redesign of the entire Great Barrier Reef catchment following the Yeomans Keyline method.

His ideas were audacious and he always thought at the massive scale required for regeneration of the landscape and climate, which is what made him a compelling collaborator for Kim Williams and I. John believed that artists, farmers and community activists working together could effect change and he tirelessly devoted himself to making this a reality.

Thanks to John Sweet, Kim and I were able to work in Mackay regularly between 2016 and 2019, getting to know some excellent people in the sugarcane farming industry, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and the environmental activism community.

He moved so easily and confidently between grassroots groups and politicians (local, state, federal) and was never afraid to tell them, very firmly, what needed to be done.

His belief system drew together diverse kinds of know-how, from the scientific, to the traditional, to the new-age. John strongly believed in the “wisdom of the elders” and embraced the opportunity to learn from the Yuwibara folks in Mackay, and the Australian South Sea Islanders who became core members of our working group.

His charm was so contagious, and his belief in social and environmental transformation was strong. It was this charm and belief that enabled him, over the six years I knew him, to gather together such a mixed community of people to work on the project of changing the world through the three Ms: – Minerals, Mulch and Microbes.

Last year, a wonderful article was written about John by Kirili Lamb in which his “triple M” philosophy (Minerals Mulch and Microbes) is articulated clearly.

For many years John was a core member of the Local Marine Advisory Committee (LMAC) of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), and GBRMPA went on to become a key partner and supporter of our Watershed Land Art Project at the Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens in 2018-19.

John’s greatest skill was connecting people with people. He loved all of his people, and included them in his vision – whether it was the guy who makes the wraps at the Cool Mango sandwich shop or the work experience kid at the Daily Mercury Newspaper, or Mackay Mayor Greg Williamson, or former Governor General Major Michael Jeffery (who became Australia’s national Soil Health advocate).

Photocopied handwritten sheets of A4 paper with underscored lists, and extended landline phone calls were his tools for transforming the world.
One of his most recent projects involved collaborating with other farmers in applying for a multi-million dollar grant to establish a vast network of regenerative agriculture demonstration farms across Queensland, to transform our cultures of soil stewardship. This proposition hasn’t yet come to pass but there’s no doubt it’s the right thing to do, and John knew it, which is why he had such clarity in his work.

John Sweet didn’t use computers or mobile phones but he had a stronger social network than anyone I know. Sometimes we joked that he was the “godfather of regenerative agriculture”. He was certainly the godfather of our project — always there to broker new relationships behind the scenes, then step back to watch them play out.

And now he’s stepped back for good, so it’s up to us to make it all play out.

—–PS – here is a link to a PDF version of this text which I posted on Facebook, complete with replies and tributes from others in the comments.