My posts are usually more serious than this one, but I’m enchanted by the otters that live along the Singapore River. Of course, they are wild animals despite their successful adaptation to urban life.
These days they’re experts at navigating the maze of drains and conduits developed here to help manage the equatorial downpours. They’re also quite territorial and will drive off other groups if they find their hunting areas infringed
I hope you enjoy this short video. The first part was shot on an iPhone 8 and the second part with a Sony Handycam (HDR-XR260).
It’s important to note that the otters haven’t shown this resilience all by themselves. There has been a concerted effort in Singapore to clean up the river.
When I first visited Singapore in 1972, the river was in a dreadful state, it had deteriorated since this image was taken in 1900.
The Singapore River was a typically and sadly abused river, a dumping ground from the time people settled along its banks. The growth of modern Singapore amplified that pollution to such an extent that the river was pitch black in many parts. My ecology class always hears about this during the aquatic biomes lecture when I talk about nutrition states of water bodies because the memory of the filthy state of the river still haunts me!
Safe to drink
Now through commitment and a concerted clean-up, the water, with a little filtering and treatment, is fit to drink. I’ve been drinking it for five years now.
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.”
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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, (email@example.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.
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.
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.
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:
This morning my colleague Prayoto Tonoto sent me a diagram. It illustrated the stages in the transformation of forests from closed canopy systems to the monocultural plantations that are such a major feature of Riau’s landscape.
Selective logging over a 20-year period. Logs are can be removed using push carts on portable light rail systems or slid along tree trunks. This opens up the canopy lowering humidity and making forest prone to fires in dry periods. If selection cutting is carefully controlled such impacts can be contained but regulation is difficult.
This process is not always legal and can involve incursion into Parks, Conservation areas and Reserves. It is also often at the expense of the land rights of Indigenous people.
Stage 2: More extensive illegal logging
This can also involve the use of small streams for log transport. Being non-selective this type of extraction can cause irreversible degrading of the forest ecosystem and loss of forest cover.
Stage 3: Slash & Burn Encroachment
Drainage of peat is essential for any agricultural crop (except for sago on the coast). In some cases, small ditches left from previous illegal logging are used to assist peatland drainage. Once an area is dry, fire is the cheapest means available for land clearing. On peatland, without rain, fires can smoulder and farmers are neither motivated nor do they have the capability to extinguish fires. When rains don’t come, as in the El Nino year of 2015 fires can spread, raging out of control.
Stage 4: Productive Agriculture
Next, the opportunistic patchwork is gradually transformed into organized plantations of palm oil and rubber. Pioneers are bought or pushed out by larger organisations that have acquired concessional access or land titles. In these situations, the focus is on legal compliance but auditing is difficult and breaches of codes continue.
Developing the diagram
The basic diagram, in the centre, is clear enough. Since we’ve both collected many images documenting this process I decided to combine some of them. Here is the result. I think it conveys a more accurate sense of what is going on in Riau.
This post is in collaboration with Prayoto Tonoto who has many years experience in forestry in Riau Province, Indonesia. He is now at Hiroshima University completing a Master of Engineering in Development Technology. His principal skills and expertise lie in Conservation Biology, Agriculture, Landscape Ecology, Carbon Sequestration, Land Use Change and Wetland Ecology.
Indonesia’s moratorium on peatland burning is failing. Focusing on Riau province, the region with the most extensive of peatlands, in the period 1 to 8 March, 2018, there have been 99 fire alerts in the following areas:
Kepulauan Riau Kepulauan 29
Between 2 – 3 March seven hotspots were detected in Riau Province, two of them in Meranti Islands, with Kampar, Rokan Hulu, Dumai, Indragiri Hulu and Pelalawan, each one hot spot. Of course, hotspots don’t immediately mean a fire is burning but images from the ground tell the story.
At the time of writing Riau still had forest and peatland fires in several districts. At Lukun Village in the Meranti Islands, 1,224 hectares of peat forest was burned in 16 days.
Estimates are based on drone observations at altitudes of 100 metres and supplements by satellite image analysis.
Mapping Riau’s Fires
The embedded map shows the approximate location of some of the larger fires burning in Riau in during February and the first week of March 2018. I must acknowledge the assistance of Prayoto in sharing much of the data for this map. Working between maps he generated using GloVis, and Google maps that are easier for me to disseminate to educational networks has been challenging if only because GloVis uses complete statements of latitude and longitude in degrees, minutes and seconds and Google uses a decimal system. In the end, I abandoned precision for speed. Consequently, some of the fire areas I’ve shown are approximate. The map will be updated as more data comes to hand.
Mongabay highlights problems of fire and finance
Mongabay Indonesia has provided excellent coverage of the present problem, that would seem to indicate a failure of the peatland burning moratorium. It is important to acknowledge that only one fore, in the period covered, was on a RSPO classified oil palm concession. moratorium As of 26 February the Regional Disaster Management Agency (BPBD) in Riau, identified 731.5 hectares of fires while the Riau University Research Facility assisting the Peat Restoration Agency (BRG) identified 1,224 hectares of forest fires.
According to Haris Gunawan, Deputy 4, at BRG suggests illegal logging activities, canalisation and fuel availability as possible causes of the fire near Lukun village
Presumably, he is suggesting that the logging activities might employ fire for clearing or that illegal loggers were using fire for other purposes. Their presence was clear because of the wood-lined paths, for forest timber extraction, were found along with a forest hut and no doubt other evidence;
The construction of five kilometres of peatland drainage canal, up six metres wide and four meters deep, that cause drying and increased flammability of peatlands during the dry periods
He also observed that BRG has a peat restoration project in Lukun and there was no fire around the project.
Serious fires occur within a few kilometres of the restoration site and have not intervened BRG programs. Haris Gunawan stresses that restoration activities cannot be stand-alone initiatives, that concession holders must also make an effort. This is a sound principle as restoration activities can be undermined if drainage canals continue to be cut in other parts of the same peat dome. In essence, if restoration strategies are to be effective they must be must holistic and involve whole peat dome management
Penyengat Village, Siak, also has an active fire but the remote forest location is making it difficult to extinguish. He estimates, it has burned about 80 hectares in the last 10 days
Firefighting budget trimmed
Adding to the problem the provincial budget for forest firefighting has been cut from Rp29.3 billion to Rp6.6 billion, a 77% reduction. Tarmizi, Head of Research and Advocacy of Budget Transparency Forum (Fitra) Riau, said
“I do not know why this year the budget is so drastically reduced. Even though the authority of forestry management is Provincial Government and no longer in the district. A big responsibility, minimal budget allocations, this is also a problem” he told Mongabay , last weekend.
He explained that the funds are spread across agencies, the Office of Environment and Forestry, the Regional Disaster Management Agency and the Plantation Crops Department. All of which have programs for forest and land fire prevention.
He considered, the budget of fire handling every year at least Rp30 billion, the same as the previous year. The funds, he said, should contain a peat recovery program.
BRG itself allocated Rp49 billion. The amount is outside of the donor agency. Such a budget is for rewetting programs, revegetation and revitalization of living resources in six areas of hydrological unity.
BRG targets 140,000 hectares of peat recovered this year. For five years to 2020, about 900,000 hectares of damaged peatland in Riau will be recovered.
“Peat in Riau 5 million hectares. It hurts 20 years. (Target restoration) 900,000 hectares work five years, let’s see five years later. The areas that are now burning are not in the intervention areas (BRG), “said Haris, in front of a number of agencies in Riau firefighting unit, last week.
Dealing with peatlands holistically
Haris Gunawan explained that BRG, is “not tackling forest fires, but restoring healthy peat to reduce burning vulnerability”. Others have criticised BRG for being less a than effective in applying a holistic approach to peatland restoration. In the Desa Lukun area, for example, the damage to peatland caused by two big companies PT.LUM and PT NSP has resulted in drying and increased flammability. So, fire has been a persistent problem in this area notably in 2014 and now again in 2018. Lukun highlights the problem that dealing with peatland restoration must be comprehensive. Peat domes are part of a system and their restoration requires cooperation between all stakeholders throughout the drainage system, from headwaters to the coastline.