Aboriginal, Australia, Dryland Irrigation, environment, geography, history, indigenous

In the land where the crow flies backwards

S.S. Nile on the bed of the Darling River south of Bourke, NSW, during a drought. The image was taken by the journalist C. E. W. Bean for the Sydney Morning Herald, circa 1909, (Australian National Maritime Museum on The Commons, object no. 00017014).

This isn’t a long post just a footnote about the Darling River, it picks up on my post about the Darling River in March 2018.

I’m prompted to revisit this issue by a well-researched article, Shipwrecked at Brewarrina: Drought reveals historic Wandering Jew paddle steamer, from Jessie Davies.

Jessie’s article is about the Barwon River at Brewarrina and the remains of an important feature of European river history

For urban readers, the Murray Darling Basin Authority says this about the Barwon-Darling River system:

The Barwon–Darling river system is in north-western New South Wales. It takes in the Barwon River, from upstream of Mungindi at the confluence of the Macintyre and Weir rivers, to where the Barwon meets the Culgoa River. At this point the river channel becomes the Darling River and the Barwon–Darling system extends downstream to the Menindee Lakes.

In her article, Davies only makes brief reference to Indigenous occupance along the river system, yet this is an ancient presence. She observes, in reference to the wreck of the Wandering Jew, “Now, its rusted iron body lies for all to see in the river’s muddy waters just above the town’s iconic Aboriginal fish traps.”

Indigenous Occupance

Davies’ passing reference reminds me that the story of Indigenous settlement along the inland rivers is quite a remarkable one.  Paul Dutton, whom I follow on twitter, also drew attention to the antiquity and success of Indigenous settlement along Australia’s inland rivers, in a recent Tweet.

People learned to live with the irregularities of the continent’s climate and didn’t only survive but prospered. The Brewarrina region of NSW is home to Ngemba, Ualarai, Murrawarri and Wailwan people. Today they are custodians of an intricate series of stone fish traps across the Barwon River.

Fish traps at Brewarrina

This complex array of linked weirs and ponds extends for 500 metres along the river. There is flexibility in the design allowing people to adapt the system to varying levels of river flow. People use their extensive knowledge of different fish species and the variations in flow to ensure suitable catches.

This is just one story of sustainable environmental adaptation and management that was such a feature of Indigenous occupance.

Bill Gammage, in his book The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, provides numerous examples of Indigenous settlement along the inland rivers of Australia. I won’t cite many but just draw attention to the book. I consider this work essential reading for every non-Indigenous Australian.

Rules of Indigenous management

Gammage explains that three rules directed all management of Australia before 1788:

  • Ensure that all life flourishes
  • Make plants and animals abundant, convenient and predictable
  • Think universal, act local

The fish traps at Brewarrina are just one example of the principle that applied to the whole continent.

Brewarrina fish traps

The fish traps are known as Baiame’s Ngunnhu [pronounced By-ah-mee’s noon-oo]by the Ngemba people. These are arguably the oldest known human constructions. Apparently constructed on a large riffle, they were first described by a European in 1848 by William Colburn Mayne, the Commissioner of Crown Lands. Gammage references Mayne’s description:

In a broad but shallow part of . . . where there are numerous rocks, the Aborigines have formed several enclosures or Pens, if I may use the word, into which the fish are carried, or as it were decoyed by the current, are there retained. To form these must have been a work of no trifling labour, and no slight degree of ingenuity and skill must have been exercised in their construction, as I was informed by men who have passed several years in the vicinity, that not even the heaviest floods displace the stones forming these enclosures. The Aborigines catch immense quantities of fish in these and are also enabled to destroy great numbers of fishing Birds of various kinds that are attracted to them by their prey thus imprisoned; and from these two sources the Tribes in that locality derive a considerable portion of their subsistence.

Gammage also reports from another source which explains that in addition to the major stone traps, “Several hundred successively smaller traps caught dray loads of fish.”

Chris Graham the publisher and editor of New Matilda, and former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine, wrote further in this for his February 2019 article, OUTBACK TOUR: Australia Has One Of The Oldest Human-Made Structures On Earth. Meh?

He observes that:

Despite Aboriginal people being banished from Brewarrina, and shuffled multiple times between missions in western and far western NSW, the custodians of Baiame’s Ngunnhu stubbornly continued to tend to their fish traps, and preserve them for future generations.

This continued into the 1970s, when the NSW Government decided to dam the Barwon with a weir, to provide water for irrigation for the few dozen farmers in the region. They built it right at the head of the fish traps, creating a pool upstream that sometimes stretches, in wetter times, for over 100 kilometres.

Now a National Heritage Place.

The Baiame’s Ngunnhu are now registered as a National Heritage Place. In the citation, the Australian Government acknowledges that:

The Ngemba people of Brewarrina used their advanced knowledge of river hydrology and fish ecology to trap and catch large numbers of freshwater fish. The unusual and innovative fish traps, known as Ngunnhu, are still visible in the Darling River, and have strong social, cultural and spiritual association for Aboriginal people with connections to the area.

The National Heritage listing goes on to explain that, the Ngemba people are custodians of the fishery, but maintenance and use of the traps were shared nations in the area, including the Morowari, Paarkinji, Weilwan, Barabinja, Ualarai, and Kamilaroi.

Baiame allocated particular traps to each family group and made them responsible for their use and maintenance. Neighbouring tribes were invited to the fish traps to join corroborees, initiation ceremonies, and meetings for trade and barter.

Lessons for contemporary Australia

Intensive irrigation farming, particularly cotton, is wildly out of accord with the environmental limits and with the practices adopted by Indigenous Australians. Their approaches were not merely sustainable, but they delivered certainty and abundance. We have a lot of learning to do.

I’m reminded of the line in the song, ‘The Land Where the Crow Flies Backwards’. Though the version I first heard was recorded by the late Gary Shearston, it was written by Dougie. I’m pleased I’ve found the original from Dougie Young.

The White Man took this country from me, he’s been fighting for it ever since.


Douglas Gary Young (1933-1991), was Aboriginal songwriter and singer, was born on 30 August 1933 at East Mitchell, Queensland, he was the sixth child of Queensland-born parents Frank Young, white labourer, and his wife Olive Kathleen, née McCarthy, a Gurnu woman. Read more about Dougie here in Indigenous Australia

Australia, Dryland Irrigation, environment, geography, National Party, Politics

Cubbie: An Uncle’s Tale

This is a story from Ronni Salt, @MsVeruca on Twitter. I’ve restructured it a little and added some supporting links, articles and active graphics.


“Back home at the farm,” she said, “uncle called and regaled us with a yarn about Cubbie Station, the largest private water holder in the southern hemisphere.” The gist of his story is this.

Cubbie is a series of holdings located near Dirranbandi and St George in South West Queensland. It’s total area is 930 sq kilometres containing 22 sq. kilometres of irrigated fields. These days it’s owned by a Chinese and Japanese consortium. It can suck up to 500,000 megalitres of water from . . .the Darling Riverine plains, starving the rivers, towns & floodplains downstream of water. (A megalitre is 1 million litres of water) To emphasise, Cubbie Station’s water allocation can leech the equivalent of an entire Sydney Harbour out of Australia’s waterways yearly.

Since uncle sat on several federal environmental committees back in the 90s, and 2000s, he was familiar with David Kemp,  Minister for Environment and Heritage from November 2001 to July 2004 and also Vice-President of the Executive Council from October 1998 to July 2004.

Uncle also met John Howard in those days, along with a new senator from Queensland, a man that always had ‘an aggressive interest in Cubbie Station.”

Buying Back Cubbie

In 2002-05 Cubbie Station wasn’t doing too well & was quietly on the market. The asking price was about $300 million & uncle says his fed govt committee contacted David Kemp & the Howard govt in 2004 urging them to purchase the property.

This committee was made up of scientists, academics, farmers & Indigenous reps & they all warned the federal govt that Cubbie Station’s massive water holdings were a disaster waiting to happen. The fed govt had the opportunity to put all those millions of litres of water back.

This move to buy back Cubbie and its water rights drew widespread support.

In 2006, WESTERN NSW mayors and irrigators are urging the Government to buy Australia’s biggest irrigated cotton farm, Cubbie Station, as the most effective means of returning water to the stressed Murray-Darling Basin.

The Federal government refused saying “the compulsory purchase of irrigation entitlements is not on its agenda.” 

Uncle continued, “It was environmental vandalism of a kind I’ve never seen before & the Queenslanders were the biggest vandals.”

So, the Howard Govt sought advice from the Nationals. The Nationals sought advice in particular from a young gun candidate who lived in the area that. They had up for the Senate in the 2004 election. The new guy had a large accounting practice in the Cubbie Station area & his clients also included many of the irrigators sucking the #MurrayDarling system dry.

Journalist Phil Dickie flags the problem as early as 2001.

What was now consolidating as a major problem had already been flagged by journalist Phil Dickie, back in May 2001. Phil’s investigative journalism was highly regarded and had already been instrumental in bringing on the Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption in Queensland.

In this instance Phil wrote;

Rogue elements of Queensland’s farming and fishing communities seem to have a fairly simple approach to natural resource management – use, grab or destroy as much of the resource as possible while tying the government up with an endless stream of demands for more and better consultation.

Down on the lower Balonne however, where Queensland’s one-third share of the Murray Darling Basin slips into New South Wales, the strategy has come suddenly unstuck.

The Queensland government, staggered at the scale of a two year dam building orgy that threatens to completely derail attempts to cap water usage on the river, last month slapped a ban on the bulldozers knocking up dam walls all along the river.

Years of lax interpretations of tax laws has meant that in rural Queensland an outdoor dunny can need more planning permission than a 50,000 mL dam with walls no more than 4.99 metres high.

Around St George and Dirranbandi, cotton growers and water hoarders now have about 40,000 hectares of dams at best four metres deep in an area where the annual evaporation rate is about two metres a year.

More than half of this storage has been shoved up in the last two years in such a way that extensive leakage of the water resource is going to be as much a factor as massive evaporation.

Around a third of all the storage is on just one property, Cubbie station, with enough capacity to more than swallow up Sydney Harbour. Cubbie holds licences which mean that in a good year, even more water than this can be taken from the river, for the total payment to the State of just $3700 a year.

“Effectively, their water is free,” said Queensland Natural Resources and Environment Minister, Mr Rod Welford.

For St George Irrigation Area cotton grower Ray Kidd the water is anything but free. He pays about $30,000 a year for his allocation of around 1000 mL from the government’s Beardmore Dam, and pays even when the government can’t supply the water.

Of course such commentary failed to stop the events uncle revealed in his story

The Sinkhole Exposed

Continuing he explained that Cubbie Group Ltd donated thousands & thousands of dollars to the young gun’s senate election campaign. According to uncle, the young gun was good friends with many in The Sinkhole – the nickname given to the powerful irrigators and National Party supporters of that area who take all the water meant for the rivers, floodplains and towns along the darling.

Further explaining the work of The Sinkhole on  29 August 2005 The Sydney Morning Herald published an opinion piece under the heading, A National Party that is anything but. It’s lead paragraph confirms uncles view. It reads:

At the Lightning Ridge Bowling Club last Tuesday, 45 farmers confronted the Sinkhole. It is an uneven struggle. The Sinkhole is huge, wealthy and politically connected. It is a goldmine for the few and a disaster for the many. It also serves as the embodiment of the National Party’s drift towards becoming a collection of featherweights, opportunists and “states-rights” fundamentalists who call themselves “Nationals” yet are anything but.

National disgrace perhaps. This is a party that won 5.8 per cent of the national vote at last year’s federal election and is now in the process of blackmailing the 94.2 per cent who didn’t for vote it.

The Sinkhole, for example, breaks every rule of communal morality. It is better known as Cubbie Station, and it is an act of economic war by one state, Queensland, against another state, NSW. Cubbie is a source of rage for the former NSW premier, Bob Carr. Privately, he urged his fellow Labor Premier, Peter Beattie, to buy the station and take it out of production for the national good. Beattie was sympathetic, but Queensland is Queensland, the bulldozer is still king, and the Queensland Nats will die in a ditch to protect Cubbie Station.

Consequences of large scale Cotton Farming

These Aussie Fishermen Cradling Dead Fish 

One of the young gun’s prominent & vocal supporters in his race for the senate was a man named John Grabbe, who was also coincidentally the Managing Director of – Cubbie Station.

And the young gun senator from Queensland’s name? Barnaby Joyce.

Barnaby Joyce and the Shepparton Pub Talk

Still a militant advocate for the irrigators Barnaby Joyce has, according to journalist Phillip Coorey, confirmed that under Malcolm Turnbull’s Prime Ministership he effectively made Turnbull:

take water away from the environment portfolio and give it to him so he could protect upstream interests.

 Phillip Coorey’s assertion in an article from 27 July, 2017, is based on the recording of a speech made by Joyce in which he rubbished the ABC Four Corners report on the previous Thursday night while talking to irrigators in a Shepparton pub.

While the recording is available in the original article it is worth drawing out two paragraphs by way of conclusion:

He said:

We have taken water, put it back into agriculture, so we could look after you and make sure we don’t have the greenies running the show basically sending you out the back door, and that was a hard ask,” he said in the recording.

A couple of nights ago on Four Corners, you know what that’s all about? It’s about them trying to take more water off you, trying to create a calamity. A calamity for which the solution is to take more water off you, shut more of your towns down.

Asia, economics, environment, geography, Health, indigenous, Indonesia, Oil Palm Plantations, peatlands

Jambi Province Sumatra where 90% of fires are deliberately lite

jambi_29_07.jpg
Peatland fire near Rimau Baku Tuo village, Sadu local government area, Tanjung Jabung Timur Regency, Jambi Province, Indonesia. From: Prayoto via WhatsApp

Yesterday, I woke up and stepped out of my 19th-floor apartment, on the way to church. Passing the light well, its orientation one that scoops in sea breezes, the first thing I smelled was that familiar odour of distant fires. I realise now that it was probably blowing in from Sumatra’s Jambi Province, Desa Rimau Baku Tuo, Kecamatan Sadu, Kabupaten Tanjung Jabung Timur, to be precise. Checking the wind direction this seemed most likely.

Desa Rimau Baku Tuo. This area borders the Berbak National Park. Haphazard, clearing and the use of fire endanger national park forest margins.

Why burning now

It’s the dry season in Jambi so it’s the ideal time to burn off areas of peatland forest. Fire is used to clear land in preparation for development of palm oil or wood pulp plantations.  Many corporations in the palm oil and wood pulp industries regard the forest land as unproductive and ripe for ‘development’.

Peatland clearing moratorium

In December 2016, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo introduced a blanket ban prohibiting the draining and clearing peatland. The ban also applied to concessions already licensed to plantation companies.

The initiative was widely hailed as a step forward and a practical strategy for dealing with the disastrous fires plaguing Jambi and neighbouring provinces and the massive forest loss.

The fallacy of development

This so-called development imposes high costs. Present practices lead to:

  • destruction of forest ecosystems;
  • deaths of endangered animals;
  • dispossession of Indigenous peoples like the Orang Rimba;
  • the release vast amounts of carbon from carbon-rich peatland soils;
  • pollution of drainage systems with pesticides; and,
  • peatland shrinkage on cleared land facilitating potential ingress of seawater in coastal and estuarine settings.

In 2015 such was the scale of the problem that the fires caused massive air pollution, transboundary smoke haze, disruptions to air traffic, numerous respiratory and pulmonary health issues and made a major contribution to global warming.

Any attempt to calculate the externalities involved with this so-called development is difficult, but the scale of the ecological, human and planetary costs is significant.

While a country like Indonesia benefits from the export of palm oil, voices within are also expressing concern about the way the externalities might be approached.

There is a surprising lack of freely available research findings on the questions of externalities in the palm oil industry.  ‘Palm oil the hidden costs‘ by Rachel Goehring University of Nebraska – Lincoln, (rachelksutton@gmail.com) makes an effort to explore some of the externalities.  Clearly, more work is required.

Tragically, around 90% of the fires in Jambi are still deliberately lite and the burning of forest land is often done at night to avoid surveillance. Once started they spread quickly.

A footnote from Prayoto Tonoto

The function of peat land as the global climate regulator has been threatened by human activities through deforestation and plantation, including the peatlands in Jambi. Berbak National Park is covered by 110,000 hectares of peatlands. Most of the land changes is detected in August-October represent the temporal complexity affected by fires. Under the regulation, the farmer is allowed to use fire for land preparation under 2 hectares. However, fire utilization is prohibited for land preparation in concessionaries. The Result showed fire tend to occur in peatland every year. Land covers before fire occurrence mostly were bush and disturbed secondary forest. On average, 21% was converted into forest plantation and 27% was converted into palm oil plantation, the rest areas were community land.

Prayoto’s complete work is available at
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322750553_JAMBI_PERIZINAN_HOTSOT_2015

 

Uncategorized

Congratulations to #CUGA on the Athens Wildfire Relief Fund – #AthensWildfires

The Combined Universities Greek Association  (CUGA)has organised an Athens Wildfire Relief Fund.  Here are some images from their site.  Click here to donate

The fires, which broke out on Monday evening, have led to countless reports of horrific experiences as well as stories of survival.

 

CUGA suggest that if you have any question please contact the CUGA Facebook page or email them at at cugagreeks@gmail.com.

For more information check the following:

Hellenic Red Cross

ABC News

The West

9 News

#AthensWildfires

Bali, Personal comment, religion, terrorism

When opposition to the death penalty is not opposition to the death penalty

My focus isn’t generally on such immediate and potentially controversial matters but recent developments in Britain cause me to consider the issue of capital punishment. I won’t address the British problem directly, other than to describe the background. My interest is closer to home in matters that are and were similar.

Amon Kotey, left, and El Shafee Elsheikh.

The case of Kotey and Elsheikh

It’s alleged that Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, captured in eastern Syria in January 2018, were members of a four-man cell of Isis executioners in Syria and Iraq. It’s further alleged that they are responsible for killing journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and British aid workers Alan Henning and David Haines.

We all know about the despicable ways ISIS administered the death penalty.

It has now emerged that both Kotey and Elsheikh have been stripped of their British citizenship stripped, presumably because they were considered members of a proscribed terrorist organisation. Now they face a judicial process, not in Britain but in the USA, where the death penalty is likely to apply if convicted.

It’s complicated. Usually, when British citizens are charged with a capital offence in another country the UK government seeks an assurance that they will not be subjected to the death penalty. British Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, has written to the US attorney general, Jeff Sessions saying:

“I am of the view that there are strong reasons for not requiring a death penalty assurance in this specific case, so no such assurances will be sought.”

Reaction in the UK where the death penalty has long been abandoned has been strongly critical of the government’s position.

2002 Bali Bombings

When Bali bomber Amrozi was sentenced to Death, Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard played the populist card, as usual. In an interview with the late Mark Colvin he said:

Some people say that I should be thumping the table and saying don’t execute the man. I’m not going to do that because I do respect the judicial processes of Indonesia. I also believe for me to do that would offend many Australians who lost people, who legitimately feel as decent Australians that a death penalty is appropriate.

Howard’s association of decency and judicial murder was Hammurabic in tone. Notions of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’, this primitive sense of justice, resonated well with the mood of some. Simon Crean, Leader of the Parliamentary Opposition wasn’t much better. He said:

“The fact is he committed a crime on Indonesian soil and he faced justice under the Indonesian judicial system. I’m not quibbling with their decision.”

At the time my reaction was just, what weak bunch Australian politicians can be, such an opportunistic lot.

Only Duncan Kerr, former Attorney General, impressed me. He was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald speaking against the against the clamour for blood saying:

“Principled opposition to the death penalty cannot be switched off and on”.

Like many Australians, he expressed something I was feeling at the time when he said:

“I am torn apart by these events but nothing will remake the lives lost or repair the hurts suffered.”

In the same article Duncan Kerr also quoted Australian Federal Police (AFP) Commissioner Mick Keelty who said:

“. . . it would be better to have the bombers locked up as common criminals for the term of their natural life than to give the platform they want to incite others to follow in their footstep,” adding “Our leader’s statements not opposing the use of the death penalty may well be turned against us in tragic circumstances . . .”

Mick Keelty understood the dangers of Shahid, something that Amrozi clearly welcomed, as this image of him after the sentence shows.

Uncategorized

Orang Asli in Malaysia confront the curse of palm oil

Scene from the video “The Curse of Palm Oil”

This is not a video that I’ve shot but it is such an excellent way of showing a landscape and presenting the voice of Peninsula Malaysia’s Orang Asli.  I want to make sure that it has as much exposure as possible.

WIt is particularly important that the Orang Asli, the Indigenous people, are heard.

The Curse Of Palm Oil from Contrast VR on Vimeo.

My current project

I presently working with a colleague on a resource that covers some of the issues raised in this video.  We will be going a little deeper than this video but in a different medium.

This project began as fiction, as a fusion of the problems confronting a variety of Indigenous people in Sumatra. As we’ve gone deeper into the project it has tended to focus more on one group, though the issues they confront are similar to the issues confronted by Indigenous people all over the world. Ultimately we want to visit the Indigenous people we are writing about.

The myth of emptiness

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about the myth of emptiness. The myth was doctrine termed Terra Nulius by Australia’s European colonisers. Whatever the specific terms employed by a nation-state it is predicated on the failure to recognise prior customary rights to land. Both before and after independence Indonesian governance was preoccupied with the problems of the densely settled core, Java, Madura and perhaps Bali, and saw the empty spaces beyond as ripe for resettlement.

Peninsula Malaysia

In peninsula Malaysia, where this video is set, the development of the rubber industry in colonial times and the subsequent development of the oil palm industry in post-colonial times, showed insufficient regard for the customary rights of the Orang Asli.

It’s pleasing to hear their voice, but I suspect that in this case there remain few opportunities for them to enjoy the closeness to the land and nature that gave rise to their culture.

Asia, environment, geography, indigenous, Indonesia, Oil Palm Plantations, peatlands, Riau

Unregistered Plantation in Riau Encroaching on Giam Siak Kecil Biosphere Reserve

Figure 1: Clearing on the margins of an unregistered plantation in the Siak Kecil area of Riau Province

When I first saw this image it saddened me. I had already travelled through the region, not precisely this spot at 0° 59′ 54.9996′ N, 101° 53′ 3.0012′ E, but further to the north and west.  Travelling by helicopter afforded an excellent view of the numerous forms of natural habitat destruction that is such a feature of Riau Province.

Years earlier, Indonesian friends had insisted that Riau Province was the most corrupt province in the country. Now, this was a big claim and I took it on board as somewhat of an exaggeration but after visiting the place, I’m not so sure. Now back to the main point of this post.

Locating the image on Google Maps.

As a first step in delving deeper into this image I decided to locate it on Google Maps which meant converting the coordinates to the decimal scale 0.998611 N, 101.884167 E. This allowed me to plot the image’s location. There were several images taken from a location further south.

I’ve shaded the camera icons red so that they stand out on the map.

While attempting to locate the site on a map of Riau landholdings, I was fortunate to come across this map.

RIAU TGHK LANDHOLDER
Figure 2: Land holdings and land use in Riau

I’ve loaded it as full size so readers can examine this map in detail. It has latitude and longitude clearly marked. The area in question is a little hard to discern so I’ve also clipped the relevant section of the map.

map_segment
Figure 3: Segment of Land holdings and land use map

The cleared area, pictured in Figure 1, is on the border of the Giam Siak Kecil Biosphere Reserve, which is also the customary land of the Indigenous Sakai people. It appears to extend into the reserve. Such clearing opens up opportunities for illegal logging inside the reserve and leaves it prone to the danger of wildfire, particularly given the extent of forest debris visible in the image.

Also, note that the cleared area in Figure 1 is on the border of an Unregistered Plantation. Research conducted in 2014, found that occurrences of fire by land cover type, land management systems, landholders, and proximity to roads and canals showed that:

The registered companies implemented a zero-burning policy to obtain a sustainable management certification. This certificate is mandatory for all palm oil companies in Indonesia. In contrast, unregistered companies do not follow the policy” it is also evident that they are more likely to use fire to develop plantations. “Oil palm plantations by unregistered companies were more prone to fire (8.5%) than those by registered companies (3.3%) or smallholders (2.1%)

Figure 4 shows an isolated Sakai house deeper inside.

Figure 4: Sakai dwelling in the Giam Kecil Biosphere Reserve