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

Clearing trees and shrubs from the Australian landscape was seen as development — adding value to otherwise worthless land.

“It was very much a social norm at that point,” she said.

Still today, farmers that contravene that social norm, like Kate, can be treated harshly.

Seabrook said this harsh attitude is partly based on fear and defensiveness.

“There’s this mental thing that if you’re feeling guilty — and I think a lot of farmers have been made to feel guilty — you then get very cross if someone is sitting there and they can actually survive very nicely thank you with 30 percent of native vegetation on their land,” she said.

Kate’s experience seems to support that.

“When you’re jammed into a corner, you don’t want to see anything else. They’ve been jammed into a corner,” she said.

Kate said her neighbors can see that during drought, she still has shrubs on her property for cows to eat, so she does not need to buy as much hay. In hot weather, her cows also have shade, so they can be more productive.

“They don’t like to be told they’ve done something wrong, because it’s irreversible. We can still clear, but they can’t reverse what they’ve done,” she said.

Kate also thinks not clearing her land aligns her with “greenies” in the eyes of her neighbors, and that threatens them. She said farmers fear conservationists will stop them from being able to farm their land in a way that makes a profit.

Seabrook’s research led her to a similar conclusion. She said farmers and graziers quite justifiably fear that one-size-fits-all rules that ban any clearing on their property will prevent them from being able to make a living.

The view of development that holds that native vegetation must be eliminated was established over centuries. It began in Europe and was imported with the European invasion of Australia. It was multiplied by official government policy that forced landholders to clear.

So it is perhaps not surprising there is anger at more recent laws that tried to flip those policies.

In the 19th century, Australian states started passing laws that forced landholders to clear their land, and direct government incentives for clearing land continued through to the 1980s.

A lot of farming and grazing land was leasehold, and unless landholders cleared some percentage of the land — sometimes 90 percent — the government would take it back.

Early clearing was centered around where Europeans colonized. It started around Sydney Cove, on land that is the territory of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. It then spread to Victoria, and later to South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland.

With its fertile soil, Victoria was the fastest and hardest hit. It is now Australia’s most cleared state, with 66 percent of its native vegetation gone.

Queensland was late to the game, but the clearing occurring there now outweighs the clearing in all other states combined. Rates there are rising and sit at about 395,000 hectares per year — steadily nearing the peaks the state saw in the 1980s and early 2000s.

Since Europeans arrived, Australia has lost more than 40 percent of its forested area.

A Guardian Australia analysis of national vegetation data, showed less than 50 percent of Australia’s original wilderness still exists, leaving the majority of its original native vegetation cleared or significantly modified.

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