A few falls of rain - even some very significant falls of rain - will not be enough to deal with the problems of the Murray Darling Basin.
I grew up on the Murrumbidgee River where my parents had an irrigation farm. Like most teenagers, I didn’t take a lot of notice of what was going on around me but by osmosis I did learn something of farming and of irrigation, water allocations and the like. My first 12 years were spent on a dry farm an hour from Wagga and there we were always extremely conscious of water usage. So the shift to a riverside farm with what seemed like an endless supply of water was like going to heaven.
Both my parents, and my mother in particular, were keen to retain as many trees as possible on the farm. They discussed the importance of shade for sheep, of how clearing led to erosion, and a very significant part of the farm we owned was retained as bushland. This was also the case for my father’s cousin and in the scrubby bush of the hill, I saw my first echidna.
I mention these things, because when I came to write my PhD on what I called “wild politics”, I realised that I had learnt more from my country upbringing than I had realised at the time. Water conservation was one thing, separating rubbish was another. But the greatest thing I learnt was that nature is very local. Local knowledge is what allows a farmer to farm continuously over several generations without exhausting the land.
So when I travelled to Bangladesh in 1993 and spent time in the countryside there, this lesson was brought home to me with great intensity.
I was shocked to discover that although Bangladesh is a very poor country, it has great fertility in its land. From the parched soils of Australia - even the irrigated ones - I could hardly take in just how many people were supported by the small farmers there. And the rivers - I had never seen such wide rivers with so much water flow in them. This was a country suited to irrigation because the alluvial plains were rich with the deposits of enormous rivers.
It made me think about the farming practices that are the norm in Australia. To cut a long story short, I spent the next eight years researching the insight that came home with me from Bangladesh, namely that farming practices has to be in line with natural resources.
And so when I hear on television that farmers in Bourke are not going to get their water allocation, what shocks me is not that, but rather that the government has until now supported the idea that irrigation in Bourke and other far western parts of New South Wales is a good idea.
It's crazy, as crazy as its opposite, the suggestion to drain wetlands. Both are ideas past their "use by" date. It is common knowledge that soils in Australia are poor. When in 2005, I went back to Bangladesh and talked with farmers there about farming in Australia, there was disbelief that a farm of 100 acres could be unsustainable, could not support the farmer and her family. And many farms larger than that are no longer sustainable.
It is time to re-examine what we are farming, where we are farming, what methods of farming we are using in which localities. There are many things we can learn from Indigenous peoples in this venture. There are some things that farmers who have come to Australia from diverse backgrounds can teach us.
Perhaps we need to consider intensive small plots in some areas where by returning organic matter to soils we can create soils better than they are now. Perhaps there are areas where we should nurture local plants and work out ways we can use them for food, for construction, for the multiplicity of other purposes that humans pursue.
There are far too many different environments to suggest a blue print, but what can be suggested are some underlying principles:
- work with the ecology of the place, not against it;
- build networks where local knowledge can be pooled;
- councils and governments listen to the people who live on the rivers and who know how the flows work, how the variations in depth or gigalitres shift seasonally or in a rough cycle of years or decades;
- grow plants that are suited to the environment and the climate - avoid irrigating deserts, clear felling forests, over fishing sea beds, planting monocultures on rich alluvial soils;
- connect with the land, the rocks, the rivers, the stories of the place for therein lies much knowledge;
- contribute to biodiversity and social diversity, move away from large-scale one-size-fits-all solutions;
- decentralise power; listen to the women, the poor, the people who live close to the earth;
- avoid privatising public land and avoid privatising knowledge through patents and too much emphasis on the knowledge economy;
- consider relationship a central element in working with the land, indeed consider the land as a relationship;
•think of politics as a connection with the wild and sustain the wild in urban, suburban and rural setting; and
- develop and nurture a wild politics.
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