Fri, Mar 09, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Why Australia is becoming more of a sunburnt country

Less than 50 percent of Australia’s original wilderness still exists, thanks to the colonialist view that development of land means eliminating native vegetation

By Michael Slezak  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

Kate (not her real name) and her husband have run cattle grazing properties in central Queensland for more than 30 years. On remote and isolated properties like that, communities are usually close-knit and neighbors rely on each other to survive.

However, Kate said her neighbors hate her family. Their crime? Not cutting down enough trees.

“Within the 30 years that we have not cleared, they went from saying ‘You don’t understand,’ they then say ‘You have to do it’ and then ‘You don’t want to clear? What’s wrong with you?’” Kate said. “It’s now come to hate.”

In regions like that, neighbors rely on each other for safety and security, as well as social connection, but Kate’s family is left without that security.

A storm recently ripped through one of her cattle grazing properties while she was off the property, and the power to her and the surrounding properties was knocked out.

“Nobody gave us a call. Nobody told us so that we could put on our generator,” she said.

Kate said sometimes their neighbors have even taken matters into their own hands and cleared trees on her property without her permission.

“When there are no fences — they come in and clear knowing very well it’s my land,” Kate said. “That’s vandalism — coming and clearing — because they know that is where it hurts most.”

Julie — also not her real name — owns another block of land in central Queensland.

“Conservation is probably the wrong word in terms of, I just think the country should be in good nick,” Julie said, describing why she does not clear aggressively on her land.

She said the vegetation helps to keep rain on her property, rather than allowing it to wash off into the Channel Country.

The trees pull up trace elements from deep in the sandy soil and the leaves fertilize the ground. They also attract birds, which keep some of the bugs under control.

Julie said neighbors see her as weird for not clearing — and also for being a woman running her land without a man. As a result, she said her neighbors have stolen her cattle and shot her dogs.

“There is still a huge cultural thing about the male conquering everything,” Julie said, trying to explain the attitude of her neighbors.

The unsocial, sometimes threatening attitude of others in the community, is why Julie, like Kate, wanted to protect her identity.

Kate said she does not blame her neighbors for their attitude. She sees it is an attitude that has become deeply embedded in the Australian farming mindset over many decades.

She seems to be right. Clearing the landscape seems deeply embedded in Australian law, history and culture.

The clearing of giant trees was celebrated by one of Australia’s most iconic poets, Dorothea Mackellar, who coined the phrase “a sunburnt country” in her poem My Country.

In her poem Burning Off, she hails the clearing of a native landscape using fire, the felling of a giant tree and its replacement with a field of wheat.

University of Queensland landscape ecologist Leonie Seabrook spent years speaking with landholders around Queensland about what drove them to clear or not clear, and studied the policy and legal drivers of that clearing.

“Into the 1980s, there was still this perception that there were endless forests and it didn’t really matter,” Seabrook said. “That generation that were in control at that time, they saw development of wild areas as being a good thing. If you had farmland, you developed it.”

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