Our Land Now Whose Problem

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Laura, far North Queensland 1993.  Gu-Gu Yalanyi land.

At a time when there are so many discussions about the environmental problems caused by our food production system, thinking of the land around us as a source of sustenance remains marginal to most sustainability arguments. Yet thinking of the land as sustenance and not as profit is a characteristic shared by societies that have sustainable food supply systems. The main feature of such systems is an ecological balance between the needs of humans and the needs of the environment. Learning such intricacies requires ecological knowledge of the land, weather patterns and many skills that are developed over thousands of years.  The original inhabitants of Australia succeeded in the management of their land without environmental problems such as land degradation, water scarcity, and the threat of devastating fires as we see now.

Today  agriculture takes up 70% of Australia’s total water use and is responsible for 16% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. Fuel dependency, and a disabled local food production are some of the problems that will see us facing greater problems in the near future.  Now most discourses on the subject of our high impact food supply system prescribe food literacy, consumer awareness, and alternative green technological solutions to the “environmental problem”.  Yet any form of environmentalism will prescribe a solution congenial to its own business or pursuit. And so there is an array of advice and remedy coming from a diversity of organisations and movements, but hardly any that will shift our responsibility and focus as individuals onto the land around us as a place we care for as our source of sustenance -as opposed to ownership and profit.  This is perhaps why as people capable of taking some responsibility for our food supply, (over 70% of Australians live in free standing homes with access to land), we feel none.  And the environmental problem remains un-owned, to be handled by the authorities.

This atomisation of our environmental activism and policy reflects the mentality that created our environmental problem. Land is seen as a perfectly divisible commodity that can be exploited for profit, turned into real estate, or locked up into national parks.   One way the Australian government deals with the damage caused by the overexploitation of land for example, is to create national parks under environmental protection laws.

These thoughts have taken me back in time to one day in my early twenties as I walked behind my Aboriginal friend Roy on the side of the road. He was dragging a kangaroo killed on the road but still fresh to take it home and cook. I was recently arrived in Australia and was looking forward to what, in my mind, was an exotic food, and one of this country. Then to my disbelief a ranger pulled up by the side of the road and within a few words threatened Roy with a penalty for removing the kangaroo as it was a “protected species” of the area. It was clear that Roy was Aboriginal, and obvious that the kangaroo killed by a car.  Yet the animal had to be left there to waste because of the environmental protection legislation that applied to it. During my time in Gugu-Yalangi land in far North Queensland I was witness to many other incidents of the kind.

The uncompromising stance of the ranger in the name of environmental protection, resonated with the way land was appropriated from Aboriginal people in this country. When the settlers arrived they systematically turned land cultivated by Aboriginal people into a cattle and sheep enterprise. Such brutal usurpation of land was reflected in the fast demise of large numbers of its original inhabitants. And such fast change in land use was the beginning of Australia’s environmental problems.

The following extract is testimony to the mentality of the times, dispossession, death and loss. It is a precious piece of writing which deserves more attention than I suspect it receives.  It is from a Journal of an expedition from Sydney to the Gulf of Carpentaria by Lt. Col. Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchel Kt. D.C.L. Surveyor–General of NSW in 1830.

“Fire, grass, kangaroos, and human inhabitants, seem all dependent on each other for existence in Australia; for any one of these being wanting, the others could no longer continue. Fire is necessary to burn the grass, and form those open forests, in which we find the large forest-kangaroo; the native applies that fire to the grass at certain seasons, in order that a young green crop may subsequently spring up, and so attract and enable him to kill or take the kangaroo with nets. In summer, the burning of long grass also discloses vermin, birds’ nests, etc., on which the females and children, who chiefly burn the grass, feed. But for this simple process, the Australian woods had probably contained as thick a jungle as those of New Zealand or America, instead of the open forests in which the white men now find grass for their cattle, to the exclusion of the kangaroo, which is well-known to forsake all those parts of the colony where cattle run. The intrusion therefore of cattle is by itself sufficient to produce the extirpation of the native race, by limiting their means of existence; and this must work such extensive changes in Australia as never entered into the contemplation of the local authorities. The squatters, it is true, have also been obliged to burn the old grass occasionally on their runs; but so little has this been understood by the Imperial Government that an order against the burning of the grass was once sent out, on the representations of a traveller in the south. The omission of the annual periodical burning by natives, of the grass and young saplings, has already produced in the open forest lands nearest to Sydney, thick forests of young trees, where, formerly, a man might gallop without impediment, and see whole miles before him. Kangaroos are no longer to be seen there; the grass is choked by underwood; neither are there natives to burn the grass, nor is fire longer desirable there amongst the fences of the settler. The occupation of the territory by the white race seems thus to involve, as an inevitable result, the extirpation of the aborigines; and it may well be pleaded, in extenuation of any adverse feelings these may show towards the white men, that these consequences, although so little considered by the intruders, must be obvious to the natives, with their usual acuteness, as soon as cattle enter on their territory. The foregoing journal affords instances of the habits of the natives in these respects. Silently, but surely, that extirpation of aborigines is going forward in grazing districts, even where protectors of aborigines have been most active; and in Van Diemen’s Land, the race has been extirpated, even before that of the kangaroos, under an agency still more destructive.

It would be but natural, even admitting these aboriginal inhabitants to be, as men, “only a little lower than the angels,” that they should feel disposed, when urged by hunger, to help themselves to some of the cattle or sheep that had fattened on the green pastures kept clear for kangaroos from time immemorial by the fires of the natives and their forefathers; but such cases have been, nevertheless, of rare occurrence, partly because much human life has been sacrificed to the manes of sheep or cattle. No orders of the local government can prevent the perpetration of these atrocities. Government Orders have been put forth in formal obedience to injunctions from home, and the policy of the local authorities has not been influenced by less humane motives.”

In this sad chapter Mitchell relates the death and devastation caused by Europeans and their cattle. The same text describes the land management practices of Aboriginal people, skilful use of fire to create open forests and grasslands for kangaroos to feed on. The use of land by Aboriginal people has been well documented by explorers and painters of the time. It is on this evidence that historians now challenge the assumption that Aboriginal people were “hunter-gatherers” or that there existed such thing as “wilderness”.

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Joseph Lycett, Aborigines using fire to hunt c1820. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia

Instead, one of Australia’s leading historians, Bill Gammage argues, that by the use of fire, Aboriginal people kept Australia looking very much like an English gentleman’s park, like the type of country estate seen in Great Britain. In his epic work, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia he makes use of an extensive collection of paintings that show no dense bushland as we know now. “So wilderness is something that Europeans made. There is no such thing in Aboriginal Australia”.

This may shed a different light on the “protect, promote and restore” campaign of environmental groups in Australia. As the parks depicted by the painters were nothing like the national parks we have in Australia today.

Martha Berkeley, Mt Lofty from the Terrace.  Adelaide c1840 Courtesy Art Gallery of South Australia Adelaide
Martha Berkeley, Mt Lofty from the Terrace. Adelaide c1840 Courtesy Art Gallery of South Australia Adelaide

Also through the skilful use of fire and understanding the impact of differing degrees of fire intensity to manage regrowth Gammage writes that “[Their] management made resources as predictable as farming … mere sustainability was not enough. Abundance was normal. It made life comfortable,” In other words here we have a society who through observation and care over thousands of years, developed an extensive food production system that was functional and sustainable.

In a conversation with Chris Tobin, a Darug man from Katoomba, I heard him refer to the Blue Mountains bush as “neglected land”.  Chris was explaining that land not managed by burns thickens and leads to fires that are too intense. Not only is severe fuel loads a problem for the people living in the Mountains today, also the type regrowth and landscape has been significantly altered.

Bruce Pascoe, historian and author of Dark Emu draws on the early explorers’ descriptions that account to sophisticated agricultural practices. Grain harvests, grinding of seed into flour, yam harvests and cultivating the land were common practice. He also refutes the assumption that Aboriginal people were “hunter-gatherers” and writes that “The Hunter-gatherer tag was a convenient lie promulgated by colonisers who ignored the possibilities of prior indigenous possession of the land”.

Pascoe tells of systems of food production and land management that have been blatantly underestimated in modern telling. Much could have been learned about the intricacies of the land of this country, but perhaps the greatest lesson missed is that a sustainable food production system requires understanding land as an ecology that can sustain humans. Our national parks exclude human interaction, do not reflect the ecology that existed here at the time of the arrival of the British people, and can in fact now be considered a threat to life and property in many suburban areas surrounding national parks due to the high levels of fuel in them.  And so their role in improving environmental problems may be revised.  Similarly environmental protection laws that prohibit the removal of fire promoting trees that endanger our lives and property due to bushfire are environmentally counterproductive.

Our food supply system is the main cause of land degradation and many environmental impact problems that threaten our food security. Mitigation strategies addressing our environmental problem such as food literacy and waste awareness is small treatment for such a big problem. Given that the events described by the explorers’ occurred only recently and that our environmental problems have developed so rapidly since, it may be time to reconsider our land-use culture, and the way we think about land. The original inhabitants of Australia managed well with out the threat of destructive fires, land degradation, water scarcity and food insecurity for thousands of years. Land was beautiful, plentiful, and sacred,  without the need for national parks.  So, if we are to take any responsibility for our food supply and its impact, we may have something to learn from their understanding and management of this land, -and our mistakes.

Paula Ajuria

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