12 December 2018
The Australian Jesuits

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Dark moments in Australian agriculture

Cecily McNeill |  09 October 2018

In the first years of European settlement many colonists reported the unusual quality and friability of the soil. “The kangaroo grass in the Colac region of Western Victoria was so high it concealed the flocks of the first settler, G T Lloyd." Orchids, lillies and mosses flourished among the grain crop, and: "The ground had been so protected by mosses and lichens so thick that it was difficult to ride across the country at any pace exceeding a farmers job trot," reports Le Griffon (DE 23).

Exceptionally hot and dry

Australia’s drought situation has become extreme and life-threatening in the 230 years since European settlement destroyed Aboriginal pasture lands. Summers on the continent have grown increasingly hot and dry with the Australian Bureau of Meteorology report for the year so far saying the weather has been “exceptionally dry over the mainland southeast, with significant rainfall deficiencies continuing to affect large areas of eastern Australia at timescales out to around two years duration… Deficiencies have increased in both extent and severity at each of the 6-, 9- and 18-month timescales across eastern Australia and parts of Western Australia.” As well, maximum temperatures have been the highest on record.

The globe is warming as never before. Scott Morrison has discounted the idea of pulling Australia out of the Paris Climate Agreement but he stops short of contributing more money to the Green Climate Fund holding to his assertion that Australia will meet its emissions target “in a canter”. The Energy Security Board, meanwhile, advises that ‘a business as usual scenario will mean the electricity sector will “fall short of the emissions reduction target of 26% below 2005 levels” by 2030’. 

With this in mind, Bangarra’s dance interpretation of Bruce Pascoe’s classic account of Aboriginal agricultural and aquacultural practices is timely. The dance theatre’s performances in Sydney and Melbourne, show a growing interest in the subject of Pascoe’s 2014 book Dark Emu. (Listen to his TedX talk “A real history of Aboriginal Australia, the first agriculturalists" here).

It is not beyond understanding that Australia is a drying continent. Pascoe’s writing shoots down the claim of Terra Nullius. He suggests this was promulgated to assuage the consciences of the first Europeans who wanted to replace Aboriginal methods with their own European practices. They introduced sheep and cattle which systematically destroyed the land's verdure originally cultivated by Aboriginal farmers. 

Ancient grains better for dry conditions

Pascoe draws on the academic work of the adjunct professor at Southern Cross University, Ian Chivers, who writes of “stunning examples” of long term grain food production “that had no degrading impact on the environment, that did not require expensive fertilizers or pesticides, and grew without the need for irrigation water” (43). Chivers calls on farmers to return their pastures to the ancient grasses cultivated by the first agriculturalists – perennial, adapted to dry conditions and resistant to local pests – instead of persisting with moisture-hungry rices and wheat.

Further, he suggests Australians might develop their palate for kangaroo meat – animals that are, again, used to a hot, dry climate. Pascoe writes of kangaroo flesh having a low fat content and being free from impurities because the animals don’t need chemical drenching. As well as having good tolerance of a harsh environment, “their feet do not break up the surface of the soil or compact it – both of which lead to erosion,” (53). But Pascoe recalls when Ross Garnaut prepared climate-change policy for the Rudd government in 2008, and promoted “kangaroo farming as a way of conserving the land and cutting greenhouse gases, because cattle are greater polluters than motor cars, the press could hardly contain their contempt” (53).

Calls to cut methane emissions

New Zealand has also been encouraged to change its farming methods as a way of reducing methane emissions. The former government’s science advisor writes that cutting methane emissions is a way of buying time. Peter Gluckman suggests in a paper to the new prime minister that farm management practices that could be employed immediately might reduce animal emissions somewhere between 2 and 10 per cent. “…reducing global methane emissions quickly will [reduce] the peak warming temperature and the rate at which CO2 emissions need to be reduced ...The delay will allow more time to bring direct CO2 emissions to net zero.”

In a reference to Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ (2015), Aboriginal writer Sherry Balcolme writes for Social Policy Connections of the interconnectedness of everything. In a paper titled “What Aboriginal Catholics and other Christians offer the future of this land”, she says “Our spirituality is so entwined with our culture, customs and lore, they cannot be separated and exist together”. Living for more than 60,000 years, Balcombe says there was no need in Aboriginal society for fences, buildings, shops or police. When the first Europeans arrived, Aboriginal people had no concept of private ownership.

Ancient ecosystems interracting

Pope Francis emphasises the need for a comprehensive understanding of how ecosystems interact to disperse carbon dioxide, purify water, and control illnesses and epidemics. “Once they become conscious of this, many people realize that we live and act on the basis of a reality which has previously been given to us, which precedes our existence and our abilities. So, when we speak of ‘sustainable use’, consideration must always be given to each ecosystem’s regenerative ability in its different areas and aspects.” (LS140).

Pascoe writes of European explorers describing the country as they travelled through it having the appearance of an extensive park, in the words of explorer and surveyor Major Thomas Mitchell, “We crossed a beautiful plain; covered with shining verdure, and ornamented with trees…” without acknowledging the work of the original inhabitants. Such acknowledgement would have been difficult given the settlers’ task of appropriating the land for their own use.

Pascoe ends Dark Emu with the challenging statement, “It seems improbable that a country can continue to hide from the actuality of its history in order to validate the fact that having said sorry, we refuse to say thanks (228). Morally speaking an acknowledgement that we are all Australians should lead to a sharing of education, health and employment on equal terms. Given the current predicament, it is “not a bad place to start,” (229).


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