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By Hungry Charley

The absolute failure of water and land management in Australia’s agricultural sector is starting to look like a slow-motion, out of control train-wreck in progress. While the Coalition Government is trumpeting a new ‘drought policy’, in reality, it is more of the same of what led us into this mess in the first place, while offering no acknowledgment of the failure of ‘market-based’ management of our natural resources or likely future climate scenarios.

Already the responses of the Coalition Government to the dire water shortages across much of the country, with nothing to alleviate the rapid demise of the lower Darling as an ecological system, show they have no new ideas, or rather are unwilling to contemplate others.

Following revelations by Four Corners in July that huge amounts of public money are being given to irrigators to expand their operations in the Murrumbidgee, now we hear the catchcry, “build more dams!” emanating from the National Party headquarters. This way it is claimed, more overland flow can be captured so that water will be available for towns and downstream users in times of drought. This time the intention is to target “higher rainfall” areas of the state, the proposed Upper Mole River Dam in the Border Ranges and the new Dungowan Dam on the Northern Tablelands of NSW. As well, the government announced a $650 million upgrade for Wyangala Dam, upstream of Cowra on the Lachlan River.

This dam focussed strategies has been advocated before, going back to the Coalition’s Dam Task force in December 2011 and have been underway ever since. The Australia Institute claimed that at least $200 million has been spent on dam upgrades prior to the latest round of announcements.

Investigations by Four Corners earlier this year showed Websters Limited received public money provided under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan’s $13 billion water infrastructure scheme, some $4 billion dollars, resulting in more land being cleared and more massive water storages in the Murrumbidgee. As scientists such as Richard Kingsmill and Maryanne Slattery have pointed out, this would just add further strain to the natural river system by removing yet more overland flow. These also have to be placed within the context of our complete failure to maintain a regulated and managed floodplain storage system, with most structures now un-regulated, particularly in the Northern Basin.

As the National Party elite gathered to announce the new public works for the proposed Dungowan Dam, the fan-fare was about outlining the future benefits to the community of the dam and who would be the benefactors and investors.

The Northern Daily Leader reported that Barnaby Joyce stated funding for the project has, “… been talked about as a three-way funded project between the state and the feds, with some from the growers.” The main beneficiaries are said to be Tamworth’s water supply, the environment and ‘downstream users’.

As there aren’t many people growing anything at the moment, one has to ask, who are these growers that are investing (and presumably benefiting) in these dams? Further investigation has showed that the location of the dams are in catchments where substantial investment in agricultural enterprises has recently occurred.

The Dungowan Dam will be placed in a relatively pristine area of the upper catchment stream, Dungowan Creek, which joins the Peel River near Tamworth. From here the Peel flows into the lower Namoi Catchment, historically a prime agricultural area which has seen considerable cotton development.

Some have suggested that one of the main beneficiaries of the Dungowan Dam will be the Tomato Farm at Guyra, part of the multi-national Costa Group following concerns about its future water supply earlier this year.

But 2018 was a big year for purchases from the big end of town, as reported in the Land, including in the Northern Tablelands, the Barwon and Namoi Valleys, for properties that are historically cotton or beef producing. Notable is the acquisition by Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting of ‘Sundown Valley’ and ‘Gunnee Feedlot’, part of her expansion into the Wagyu Beef / feedlot sector, primarily for the Asian market. She also bought the 3,234 ha ‘Glendon Park’ at Armidale for her beef enterprises for about $14 million.

Another corporate player, Stone Axe Pastoral, also bought up a number of properties last year including the 2,145 ha ‘Glen Alvie’ at Ebor for around $17 million and another $4 million for the nearby 784 ha ‘Alfreda’. The Land reported that Stone Axe is also the lessee of two significant New England properties acquired in 2018 by the listed Rural Funds Group, ‘Dyamberin’ for $13.4 million and ‘Woodburn’ for $7.1 million, all apparently for Wagyu beef production. Stone Axe is also in partnership with Gina Rinehart and John Dee with their beef investments in feed lots and Wagyu export operations in Warwick, Queensland.

Here we see clearly how the government is playing favourites in their plans to ‘drought-proof’ the nation. Stone Axe has received significant investment from the NSW Government, amounting to $3.3 million dollars, to assist their Wagyu operations at ‘Glen Alvie’ near Ebor.

This money was sourced from the NSW Government’s $150 million ‘GO NSW Equity Fund’, launched in 2017, along with fund partners First State Super and ROC Partners, the latter a Sydney and Hong Kong-based funds manager.

The other notable sale on the Northern Tablelands recently was the improved 1,500 ha ‘Tenterden Station’, west of Guyra, reportedly sold by Ray White Rural for $17m (with water entitlements) to a family from Queensland, whose identity was not released to the media.

In the Lachlan Valley, no doubt expecting to benefit from improvement to the Wyangala Dam, are the recently purchased ‘Jemalong Station’ and ‘Jemalong Citrus’ at Forbes, and ‘Merrowie’ at Hillston to offshore investors, including Optifarm Pty Ltd, a Netherlands-based investment company, for more than $115 million.

The other new dam which is listed to receive large amounts of funding is on the Upper Mole River near Tenterfield. The benefits of this dam however are expected to the electorate of Parkes. The Mole River flows into the Dumerasq, which feeds into the Barwon River, another area of intense agricultural development, including irrigation. Many of the storages currently holding water are found in this part of the country, as exposed ‘unintentionally’ by the Murray Darling Basin Authority recently.

Another recent big investor in irrigation and grazing properties is hedge fund billionaire Sir Michael Hintze, who has significant land holdings in NSW through a number of companies, particularly Premium Farms which has bought extensively in the Northern Basin and in the southern highlands. Some 40 properties are now managed by Richard Taylor (brother of Angus) of #watergate and #grassgate fame. Richard manages Future Farms and Angus still retains an interest through another shelf company.

At the same time of the Coalition’s 2011 Dam Taskforce, it seems Hintze started buying irrigation properties in the upper Murray-Darling, ‘Gundera-Red Camp’ on the Namoi River at Wee Waa and three properties he aggregated west of Walgett on the Barwon River (Mourabie, West Mourabie and Bynia). Hinze then picked up ‘Boolarwell’ at Talwood in 2014 on the Queensland side of the Dumerasq River. While it may be co-incidence that Sir Michael started investing at the same time the Coalition were putting their ideas down about a future full of dams connected by pipes, is it a co-incidence that all five properties mentioned could seek to gain from both the new dams at Dungowan and Upper Mole?

It still remains to be seen where the dam investment frenzy will go to next, but given the pattern of recent land investments, it seems that the government is backing a future for irrigation and intensive beef production. It’s a shame that these two types of production are perhaps the most water intensive.

Given the current levels of community despair at the deteriorating environment and levels of agricultural production under the current conditions, many would say these investment priorities are at odds with a sustainable future for our communities and environments. It is certainly at odds with any sense of community transparency or a climatic future where there is likely to be less rain to go around. However, none of these issues seem to figure prominently in the current Coalition’s thinking.


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  1. Judithw

    Dams don’t create rainfall.
    Given the recent news that the Amazon rainforest has been logged so heavily that it cannot sustain the rainfall it needs to survive, given the logging and burning in Gippsland that now sees the area in severe drought with rainforest ecosystems in a tailspin, and given the acceleration in land clearing across the nation, isn’t it time for total rethink?
    Replacing economists with scientists would be a good start – especially since both the economy and the environment are in dire straits with the current mob in power.

  2. Hungry Charley

    Our market system has failed to take into account our environment. The water market is just about the most corrupt ever set up and we can all see the result – it has to end – or we will just keep ‘digging the same hole’.

  3. RomeoCharlie29

    Which comes first in the matter of dam construction/expansion? The political donors or the community need? That comprehensive and obviously informed piece seems to indicate it’s the political donors who stand to benefit most, with a trickle down to the bought pollies and, if anything is left over, the poor bastards in the towns.

  4. Wobbley

    Cotton, cotton, cotton, isn’t the time to seriously look at alternatives already past? Hemp production of a grand scale, is in my opinion long overdue. The production of hemp for a superior result in everything from reduced water reliance, better and longer lasting environmentally friendlier products with the added bonus of less herbicides, pesticides and less intense ground disturbances. Seems logical to me to transition away from cotton to hemp but I guess that’s one reason the fascists aren’t interested, basic logic. Oh and coincidence with the funding of dams in certain peoples interest, yeah right.

  5. whatever

    There are a lot of medium-size coal mines around who would love to have a cheap supply of water on-tap for all the coal-washing.
    The father of a bloke I went to school with worked at the Picton coal mines, driving a water-tanker truck to and from the pits all day long.
    Sad to see many journo’s are now spreading the TalkbackRadio nonsense that proclaims “Every drop of rainwater just flows back to the sea, unless you have a dam to store it.”

  6. Robin Alexander

    Thank you for your very informative article! Living in NW NSW in middle of all this cotton business & now another threat to our water is that approx 4 coal mines have opened between Gunnedah & Narrabri a with licenses for water from our Namoi River? Look at our Namoi river not a deep wide river like Hawkesbury & Clarence systems? It is now fed by Keepit dam(Agriculture only)it is topped up by Split Rock dam! Everything bone dry! Walk one end to Walgett bone dry appart few rancid holes! Now we have state Gov allowing mines water from Namoi feed by Keepit that was agriculture only? Now mines taking from bores from Artisian basin purely only to wadh coal? Make one cry WATER so precious in AUSTRALIA & washing coal? How long will bores last already private landholders dropping hundreds feet? We also have SANTOS fighting to proceed with 850 wells in Pilliga forest western side Narrabri to COONABARABAN? Another 150 to be added in few years? Cannot guarantee artisian water will NOT BE DAMAGED BY FRACKING? Towns farmers depend on this water! PILLIGA FOREST last remaining native forest in NSW has many historical interest things in it but importantly it is main RECHARGE AREA FOR OUR ARTISIAN BASIN AREA! How concerning all this is? Yet others have flippant attitude because of business employment benifits? ALREADY major cotton growers been here since cotton first grown in Australia? Bought up thousands acres on HAY PLAIN once vast.nothingless? Now as far as eyes can see irrigated cotton? I Did say once water from Burrenjuck dam but maybe it is Murrimbidge dam whichever goes also to that wonderful food bowl GRIFFITH? On MURRAY RIVER with huge acreage Almond trees more being planted I read beyond those orchards they are developing on desert areas
    Vast cotton growing very extensive? Its like a madness for money has enveloped business mostly overseas? Like Gina with beef dairy purchases all sold overseas 500per cent profits few wages mainly here or would it be 457 that she exploits? Where will it all end one wonders?I wont be around but feel depressed thinking about my beautiful rich area country I have lived in? may not resemble it in few years Climate change? money greed?

  7. guest


    you are right, dams do not create rainfall. There are some 30 private dams in the Murray-Darling basin. They remind me of people who have their money stashed in tax havens.

    It seems more and more of Oz’s assets are falling into the hands of fewer private people, the 1% diversifying into all aspects of our natural resources. In my mind, they do not “own” the land; they “lease” it for a short time only. And they seem to have gained the right to treat the land in any way they see fit. No interference from regulations allowed. Profits first. Government subsidies if required.

    I think we see the results of that kind of thinking. We are being robbed blind.

    You mention scientists, Judithw. Science has a bad name, especially for those people who follow only what they themselves think.

    Here is one scientist, who in the course of his writing, refers to many scientists and people following regenerative agricultural practices:

    “Crucially, [Peter] Andrews has shown (now supported by soil scientists and hydrologists) that if the landscape is functioning healthily, then a layer or lens of fresh water sits atop the saline water. The secret to restoring land and turning around salination is restoring that freshwater lens.
    “…[Andrews says] “Revegetate the land and reinstate the hydrology system.” This revegetation should encompass not just trees but plants of all kinds, and especially a healthy grassland replete with so-called weeds…
    “A key point [he] makes concerning rehydrating Australian landscapes…is that much recharge of water in Australia occurs on the once-vegetated ridges, and that revegetating these with deep-rooted and shrubs is a major solution.”

    Charles Massy, “Call of the Red Warbler: A New Agriculture and a New Earth” (UQP, 2017, p.156)

    So what is our great land-owning ‘agricultural elite’ doing? Ripping out the trees and plants as fast as they can, hiving water away in dams.

    Can we allow this to continue?

  8. New England Cocky

    @Robin Alexander: Now you understand why Barnyard Joyce wanted to dam eats flowing rivers and send them westward … for the benefit of foreign owned multinational mining corporations. Farmers were never considered.

    women supporting adultery support nat$ & screw us all.

  9. New England Cocky

    Uhm, some corrections from a local source …..

    1) “Dungowan Dam” already exists. Tamworth Regional Council has already purchased some agricultural properties to expand and upgrade Dungowan Dam, against considerable local opposition. The cost of water downstream for agricultural use is some of the most costly in NSW.

    2). “Some have suggested that one of the main beneficiaries of the Dungowan Dam will be the Tomato Farm at Guyra, part of the multi-national Costa Group following concerns about its future water supply earlier this year.”

    This would be geographically almost impossible. The Costas Tomato Farm at Guyra is literally at the top of the New England range on the southern outskirts of Guyra NSW, about 160km north and about 2,000 feet higher altitude than Dungowan Dam.

    3). The Stone Axe property purchases at Ebor NSW are a further 80 km north from Dungowan Dam and sit at about 3,000 feet altitude. Generally the Ebor district is considered almost drought proof because “If Ebor and Dorrigo are dry and yellow then we really have problems in New England”.

    4) Tenterden Station is also outside any effect from Dungowan Dam, being about 25km west of Guyra on the western fall at about 2,600ft altitude, too great a distance and an impossible engineering exercise.

    5) The Upper Mole River Dam will flow into the Dumaresq then the Barwon Rivers so will be benefit the 4/168 irrigation licence holders in the MDB who control about 75% of the MDB water allocations.

    The dams proposed by the nat$ are not for agriculture of any sort but rather to provide the water necessary for the about 4,000 CSG gas wells proposed by SANTOS for the Pilliga Scrub, near the two “grazing properties” purchased by Barnyard Joyce when his Campaign Manager, John Anderson owned Eastern Star Gas and went on to become Chairperson of the Northern Inland Railway (NIR) that passes a mere about 20km from this properties.

    Then there will be the coal miners and likely oil drillers following the pitchblende and opening up the NW NSW black soil plains for foreign energy consumers.

  10. king1394

    Give them more water, and someone will come along and want to use it. The city of Goulburn NSW had many experiences of limited water supply over the last few years, and a new pipeline was built to bring water from the Shoalhaven Scheme (Wingearribee Reservoir) to secure Goulburn’s water supply. Now there is a major proposal for a water-guzzling poultry processing business which will use up to 2.68 megalitres of water per day. This, along with plans for a further 3000 households in the town, will no doubt lead Goulburn back to crisis level water shortages in years to come.


  11. Phil Pryor

    The old country party was always infested with slimy sluts who would do anything for some money and notice, barebumming to foreign corporations included. They are the core of bad behaviour for more than a century, with land abuse, erosion, ruining groundwater, thieving ancient aquifers, introducing pests, poxes, weeds, exotics and the most unsuitable and stupid practices. They demand arttention and money for stuffing the nation’s environment more than anyone else. Going to Shore or Kings was intended, not to educate, but stuff with supremacist class garbage about worth, privilege, roles, positions, status. And, they are excrementally, fraudulently useless. Bludging, rigging, speculating, abusing insider info, that is the way, the way of the crook, the liar, the traitor.

  12. Hungry Charley

    G’day New England Cocky! Thanks for those comments. Yes there is a small Dungowan Dam currently there, but as the govt and Tamworth mayor have stated the new works will be a ‘brand new dam’ completely, I don’t know if it is in the same location. You are right those tableland properties I mentioned are higher than Dungowan, but there are other dam options for those which may be subject to upgrades. Also don’t forget they may introduce water pipelines which could be pumped – ‘National Water Grid’. Yes an omission here was not to mention the take by mines, but it is so complex, it deserves its own story. The growth of mines in the Namoi Valley is a great concern. AS someone who lives in the Pilliga, we have held Santos off for eight years since they first introduced their EIS, and will continue to resist. Some decisions on this are expected early next year.

  13. Zathras

    In most of the world the real purpose of dams is to capture melting winter snow for re-use during the Summer months and sometimes to create hydroelectric power.

    I guess we can forget about the snow and Snowy 2 is looking like a dud but even a thousand new dams won’t matter if it doesn’t rain.

    A resource-based economy is also off the table so all we have is one that relies on shortages and the control/ownership of limited resources. Unless someone can make a dollar out of it nothing is ever likely to happen. The NFF (No Family Farms) is also unlikely to do anything beyond the usual self-promotion.

  14. Miriam English

    Amazing article Hungry Charley.

    Zathras, your comment “even a thousand new dams won’t matter if it doesn’t rain” is right on the button. There is overwhelming evidence now that if you cut down the trees the rain goes away. In order for rain to get inland we need coastal forests, but the first thing “developers” do is chop down all the trees. It used to be called “improving” the land, and farmers were paid by the government to get rid of the trees. Vast tracts of land were systematically devastated over the past couple of hundred years.

    Australia wasn’t a very moist place to begin with — personally I believe the Aboriginals mismanaged the land, drying it out over thousands of years by wracking it continuously with fire, but they look like responsible custodians compared to the insane European invaders who quickly eliminated something like 95% of the forest in Australia. And with the forest went most of the rainfall… it was only downhill from there. Irrigation and dams slowed our descent, but they can’t help much anymore.

    Using water for fracking gas and washing coal is the height of lunacy — it doesn’t even make economic sense anymore as renewables are now cheaper than either of those, so investing in them is just plain stupid. Any government assisting in that is peopled by morons.

    The only thing I can think of to fix this is to take away their markets.

    Don’t buy meat. It’s unhealthy for yourself and the environment. The 2 major causes of cancer are smoking and eating too much, especially meat. If people can understand that and dramatically cut back on meat consumption we can send the cattle farms broke, while improving our own health and repairing the environment.

    Cotton is more tricky. Plastic fibers are better in many ways — they are cheaper and plastic is a wonder material that is a far more sensible use of oil than burning it. Unfortunately plastic fibers end up in the environment and cause damage in the bellies of animals (frogs, worms, insects, and larger animals like birds and the rest of the ecosystem, including us). Until more microorganisms evolve to digest them, plastics will continue to build up and burden the environment. I have to agree with Wobbley — hemp is a much better option than cotton or plastic fibers. Even better would be if we could use petroleum to make something like cotton or hemp or bamboo or sisal or silk that is environmentally beneficial to creatures consuming it (cotton, hemp, bamboo, and sisal fibers are long-chain sugars, silk is protein). Then it could be made in massive amounts without devastating the land and would quickly eliminate the market for cotton. There is a common plastic called polylactic acid, often used by 3D printers. It breaks down to be harmless food for microorganisms, but is made from starch rather than petroleum, commonly from potatoes, I think. We need something made from petroleum.

  15. guest

    Miriam English,

    “personally I believe the Aboriginals mismanaged the land, drying it out…”

    In his book “Dark Emu”, Bruce Pascoe, ch 6, discusses the Aboriginal use of fire. He quotes (p. 173) from Tim Flannery (2010):

    “As the term firestick farming suggests, the Aboriginal use of fire resembled agriculture in some ways: it yielded certain crops at certain times, suppressed weeds and was carefully controlled…Aboriginal people are fiercely protective of their clan lands
    , excluding outsiders or inviting them in as conditions warrant. There are also clear rules about who has the right to what resources and highly resolved mechanisms to resolve conflicts and penalties. This has enabled Australia’s Aboriginal people to act as keystone species of the continent’s ecosystems for 45 000 years. As the Europeans displaced them, Australia’s fragile environment collapsed into a far less productive and diverse state.”

  16. Michael Taylor

    Miriam, fire stick farming had a two-fold purpose.

    One, it was – as we do – a burn off to minimise the risk of bushfires.

    Two, after a scrub or forest was burned it would attract animals (prey) to the feed off the new growth. But the bounty was not just for them: once the animals came to feed off the new growth the Aborigines would not hunt them for three days, giving the ancestors first hunting rights.

  17. Zathras

    To be fair, many Australian tree and plant species rely on fire to reproduce. That’s why some forests (the native ones) tend to recover so quickly.

    It wasn’t the aborigines who cleared vast tracts of land, creating the thirsty dustbowls we have today or introduced african grasses to feed overgrazed landscapes or to decorate their suburban yards.

    Even after 40+ thousand years of occupation it was still a fairly pristine place when settlers arrived. Look at what we’ve managed to achieve in just 200 years despite the scientific knowledge of what we were doing.
    The time may have finally arrived when we have to reconsider the results of our actions and make some significant changes to agricultural practices. Continuing to put a bandaid on a gaping wound no longer seems to work.

  18. Hungry Charley

    There is absolutely no evidence that First Nation people burnt the whole country regularly and over large areas. IN fact all evidence points the other way, it was used strategically to promote beneficial use of a particular area – usually much smaller than the surrounding unburnt country. White people like to overstate the extent of firestick farming because we ourselves still don’t understand the nature of fire in this country. In fact after 200 years, it seems we still don’t understand much at all.

  19. johno

    Well said Hungry. I have a native garden around my house. The introduced exotic weeds my nemesis. Every spring I hand weed, some glyphosate and some burning.
    Re mining, I couldn’t imagine there would be any form of mining that did not use vast amounts of precious water.

  20. Hungry Charley

    ** Correction ** I referred to “Murray Darling Commission” should be “Murray Darling Basin Authority”.

  21. Matters Not

    While in the fixing business – perhaps ‘prey’ could also be substituted for ‘pray’ at 10:44 pm? Seems a better fit.

  22. Aortic

    There’s your main problem, right there in the photograph.

  23. Miriam English

    The reason Australian vegetation is so adapted to fire is that it has evolved to do so over the 60,000 years the Aborigines subjected it to fire — it had to adapt; those that didn’t vanished. We are left with those that had good strategies for survival, such as welcoming fire (eucalypts) so that their competitors would be destroyed, using fire to trigger seeds to germinate (wattles) so beating their competitors, using fire to trigger flowering (grasstrees), and so on.

    When the Aborigines first came here, Australia was a very different place. There was a vast inland sea surrounded by rich forests across much of the continent. There were great herds of diprotodons (volkswagon-sized grazing wombats), 9 foot high short-faced kangaroos, enormous nightmarish carnivorous birds paleontologists call “the demon duck of doom”, great big scary marsupial lions that had the most powerful jaws of any land predator known, small carrion-eating wallabies, the Tasmanian tiger lived on the mainland, a giant eagle took small animals and probably children, and much more. The Aborigines exterminated all these, just as humans everywhere else on the planet exterminated the megafauna.

    Their burning has short-term positive effects, as noted by some people above, but the long-term effect of preventing compost from building up from leaf-fall meant the soil became progressively depleted over tens of thousands of years. That was worsened by the fragile nature of Australian land as the most ancient land on the planet, with very few nutrients added from volcanoes, and the changing climate delivering less rains. The added burden of ecological destruction saw massive loss of forests and consequently the inland sea.

    And the invasion of the even more destructive Europeans is delivering a much greater catastrophe unfolding in a tiny fraction of the time the previous people managed.

    I don’t understand why people elevate the Aborigines to some mythical status — they are just people, like humans everywhere. To make them special smacks of racism. They deserve equal rights and their remaining lands deserve full protection under the law — not allowed to be stolen like we’ve stolen everything else any time we think it has something of value.

    They managed the land reasonably well over the 60,000 years they were here, taking most of that time to deplete the ecology and reduce much of the country to desert, unlike the “civilised” people in the Northern Hemisphere who swiftly turned the fertile crescent into desert in just a thousand years or so.

  24. Michael Taylor


    I’m damn sure I typed in ‘prey’. That’s what I get for not checking.

  25. Hungry Charley

    Miriam your first sentence is completely untrue I’m afraid. Vegetation didn’t adapt to fire over the last 60 000 years at all. This is an extremely unscientific and misleading thing to say. Eucalypts and fire adapted vegetation communities have been evolving in Australia for millions of years. It is in the scientific literature that the drying conditions associated with the ice age cycles and Australia’s drift north were the main forces promoting the spread of ‘xeric’ or ‘fire adapted’ natural communities, it goes with increasing aridity. To say there is no evidence for something ie. landscape-scale regular burning – is not elevating ‘Aborigines to mythic status’ – it is just stating the known facts or lack thereof. Also giving value judgements like “… they managed the land reasonably well”, is in my mind racist, given our shocking history. Just stop and do some reading – try this one

  26. Miriam English

    Hungry Charley, my statement is correct, and yours is too. The vegetation adapted to conditions before the Aborigines entered Australia, and to the persistent burning after they spread over the continent. How could it do otherwise?

    I’m aware that Australia was already drying (I mentioned that in my comment, but perhaps you missed that in your rush to dismiss me). That made Australia much more sensitive to ecological disturbance and destruction.

    It seems strange that you think I’m being racist in my feeling that that the Aborigines were simply humans, destructive like people everywhere, but at least were not as damaging as the Europeans… while you prefer the myth that the Aborigines were somehow perfect managers of this country, despite their lack of written records and inability to test management methods and techniques to collate best results; they simply used word of mouth to miraculously hit upon the perfect way to manage an increasingly fragile ecosystem. You believe that their arrival here and large-scale extinctions of all the megafauna with the resultant ecological collapse were mere coincidence.

    By the way, I do read… enormous amounts. But thank you for the link, I actually have that book, and it is already on my extremely long reading list. Plenty of other books will have precedence over it though. A sheep farmer doesn’t strike me as a convincing arguer for understanding ecological impact. (With their hard hoofs and tendency to eat vegetation down to the ground, I see sheep as second only to goats as a destructive form of livestock.)

  27. guest

    Miriam English,

    what we are trying to discuss in a small space and time frame is exceedingly complex and difficult. Scientific people are still grappling with it because of that difficulty, because of the uncertainty of matters such as dates of the arrival of the first nation people, the extent of their occupation of the land at any time, the dates of the extinction of the megafauna, and roles of natural bushfires and a changing climate after the break-up of Gondwana land as Australia headed away from Antarctica towards the equator.

    Writing about this topic discusses the problems of assigning to people the actually killing of megafauna, the role of ice ages, the nature of low heat mosaic fires compared to high heat natural bushfires, the nature and distribution of various kinds of flora and their ability to survive fire… It was only in the 1960s that scientists and historians began to look at the history of the arrival and presence of our first nation peoples. There is much to learn in the presence of uncertainty.

    Your comments seem to have a certainty which does not appear in the literature.

    As for a sheep farmer not being “a convincing arguer for understanding ecological impact”, some one such as Charles Massy, a merino sheep farmer, has a PhD in Human Ecology, well qualified in theory and practice. His book (2017) describing regenerative agricultural practices compared with mechanistic European practices makes clear the differences in ecological impacts.
    “Moreover, an absence of love is seen in the ongoing colonial psyche in Australia and its lack of remorse for our Indigenous people’s loss of sacred country.” (p. 498-499)

    It is interesting that often people are turning to first nation people about native foods and land practices. They know that trees, for example, aid in the falling of rain. They know about the flow of water. They know about the seasons. They know that the practices Massy criticises are destructive.

    Perhaps there are things we might learn – and some we might un-learn.

    ” I believe that love is the essential ingredient in human and human-Earth relationships. It is clear that pouring herbicide on the Earth is not an act of love, nr is aggressive ploughing, clear-felling healthy forests or the simplification into monocultures of complex creative systems, nor locking up animals in cobfined cages and feedlots and stuffing them with food and additives they were not coevolved for. Instead, these activities represent the culture of death.

  28. corvusboreus

    Anyone who, in the right conditions, has watched visible wisps of evaporation rising from canopy vegetation can understand, at a visceral level, the sense behind the science surrounding the water storage and rain generation capacity of forests (whose total living mass is usually comprised of over 50% water).
    Meanwhile, here in NSW, the government has recently amended forestry regulations to allow, amongst other things, logging up to 5m from catchment headwaters.

  29. Zathras

    Beyond all the discussion the important fact that we should all remember remains –

    “In Nature there are neither rewards nor punishments. There are consequences”. – Robert Green Ingersoll

  30. Miriam English

    guest, I heartily agree that it is a complex subject, though a few points can clarify it to a great degree. The megafauna existed perfectly well for millions of years. Then the first human invaders came. We have found eaten remains of megafauna in ancient human settlements, so they definitely overlapped. Then all the megafauna suddenly disappeared, the same way they did, coincidentally, whenever humans entered other pristine lands.

    As for the degradation of the land, that’s unavoidable if, over tens of thousands of years you send organic matter off into the atmosphere as smoke instead of letting it build up the soil.

    Whenever I mention this, people become very angry at me for daring to suggest that Aborigines are just normal people who destroy their environment like all other people since time immemorial. I weep at the loss of all the knowledge held by the Aborigines. It was unforgivable what was done to them by our forebears and it is unforgiveable what is still being done… by both sides of politics. I weep at the loss of biodiversity caused by the first Australian humans, and I weep even more at the catastrophic loss by this recent wave of super-destructive European humans.

    I grew up in the bush. Some years ago I went back to see where I’d spent my childhood, and it’s all gone — everything! I loved living there, walking for miles in the bush, spending time reading in my favorite caves, dozing under trees on my favorite rocks, watching the birds, lizards, snakes, ants, enjoying playing among the ferns, watching strange long-stalked drosera catch insects, watching trigger plants slap pollen on visiting insects, patiently watching spiders weave webs, watching yabbies crawl about in streams. All gone.

    For about 150 thousand years humans have walked this Earth and we seem unable to learn to look after our world.

    Well… some of us seem to be starting to get it. It’s about damn time.

  31. guest

    Miriam English,

    the only known possible evidence that humans and megafauna co-existed in Australia is at Cuddie Springs in SE Australia. But even that is contentious.

    Your idea of “persistent burning” does not match the actual method of burning applied by Aboriginal people. The mosaic patchwork approach did not mean massive widespread burning occurred. Some plant species were not burnt at all, such as rain forest and salt bush. Burning occurred seasonally only in part of the year.

    The drying out of the continent had been happening for a very long time. Climate change over time had a big impact. We see it now.

    As for changes in our own life-times, there are many tales we could tell. I myself could roam freely in foothills where housing was sparse and birds and animals were abundant. Fences were few. Luckily, there are many birds where I live now. But the spread of suburbia, with houses cheek by jowl, is covering some of our best agricultural land.

    And children travel from one box to another in a box on wheels and spend their time in front of screens. If they play sport, it is inside a box or on a grassed or bituminised area.

    I have seen Japanese student visitors terrified of birds, afraid they might peck their eyes out. Koalas they like, because they are “cute”.

  32. Zathras

    Humans coming into a new environment are no different from cane toads or any other introduced species. An influx of nomads walking over a land bridge into Gondwana may have killed off all the giant wombats but we’ve lost a few local species this year already and seem set to lose many more soon.

    The difference is that we are completely aware of our impact yet choose to do nothing about it. The former may have done things to stay alive but we do it simply for pure profit. Ignorance is no longer an excuse but nobody seems to care.

    I didn’t grow up in the bush but in my lifetime I’ve noticed several changes over the decades – simple things like where have all the flocks of sparrows gone and when was the last time I had to scrape dead insects off my windscreen?

  33. wam

    Dams are depriving down stream areas from water and those should be compensated for their loss
    The wasted water due to evaporation should be addressed.
    The hundred of kms of open irrigation channels and the huge shallow lakes have had their day in the sun.

    Miriam I grew up in the bush as well.there were no rivers so water wash very precious. So all my life I have been careful with water.
    When I took a friend back, some 60 years later, I recognise nothing, the school, the dirt roads, the houses were all gone and replaced by $m beach shacks
    My darling’s experience is the opposite. She adores water guzzling lawns, sprinklers and dish washers freely abuse the water,

  34. Miriam English

    Zathras, exactly. The early inhabitants can’t be blamed for their destructive habits, but we certainly can. They only had oral history and extremely limited ability to collate information or tools to repair damage, but we have more than enough information to show us what we should be doing and astonishingly powerful technology that could let us rapidly fix things.

    Thankfully some people are slowly moving in the right direction. It is very slow though… when the world is changing breathtakingly quickly. Extinctions have risen to around a 1,000 times the “normal” rate, with nearly half of all species worldwide likely to go extinct by about 2050 if we don’t change our ways.

  35. Miriam English

    Sorry guest, I neglected to answer your comment.

    As I said, the megafauna managed fine for millions of years, then coincidentally disappeared when humans entered Australia. Given the fact that the Moas disappeared shortly after Maoris entered New Zealand just 600 years ago, the North Americal megafauna disappeared shortly after humans entered that continent, and the South American megafauna disappeared from there when humans arrived too, it seems like a pretty clear pattern. To argue that this time was different — it was climate change (which incidentally is what the Maori representatives have been arguing lately to rewrite their history) seems incredibly unlikely and goes against everything we know about humans.

    We are very, very smart, and we work out ways to kill all the big predators (understandable) then they feast on all the largest food animals available until they are gone. We always think the world is bigger and more resilient than it is.

    The Aborigines are normal human beings just like you and me. They deserve the same respect. It always seemed to me that the racists who denigrate them, and the people who put them on a pedestal, both are uncomfortably alike in dehumanising them. Just like our forebears they exterminated the megafauna. (My ancestors of a few generations ago came from England, Scotland, and Ireland. There used to be bears and lions and wolves in those islands and in Europe.)

    In my opinion, even from a practical standpoint it is dangerous to make special pleading for the first Australians. If you try to make a case that they had a mystically balanced relationship with the land, then those who don’t buy into that mysticism (or have a different, Jesus-style mysticism) can completely dismiss them. Then, for example, current QLD Labor government can then happily steal their land (as they have done) — something they’re unlikely to do to a farmer.

    One thing all humans do very effectively is exterminate everything around them (except their domesticated animals and plants). This is something we all need to get under control or we risk massive ecological collapse like nothing seen before.

  36. DrakeN

    Miriam English:

    “The Aborigines are normal human beings just like you and me.”

    In many respects they are significantly superior to “you and me.”

    It’s just that we have no foundations in our own ‘culture’ on which to base any comprehension of that.

  37. Miriam English

    David, thanks for the links. They are very interesting, but don’t necessarily give the conclusion you want.

    The first two simply move the extinctions a little later, while also noting that human populations look like they didn’t rise greatly until around that same time, coincidentally. That means it could well have been the original humans… which, given the history of humans worldwide seems pretty likely.

    The third article basically says that it wasn’t the cold that killed the megafauna, but the warm spells, which they note had happened many times previously with megafauna managing to survive, but when humans entered the scene they suddenly went extinct.

  38. Miriam English

    DrakeN, I can point out that tardigrades are superior to humans in many ways, but this adds nothing to the conversation.

    People who have dark pigment in their skin survive strong sunlight better than those with less pigment or lighter pigment, while the latter manage much better in conditions of low light levels. As I say, this adds nothing to the conversation.

    I’m struggling to find a polite way to point out that if, as you suggest we have no way to comprehend such superiority… how do you know?

    Why this weird need to see them as superior? It strikes me as a very dangerous double-edged sword. You’re playing the same game that racists use when they want to see them as less-than. I’ve never seen any reason not to see them as our brothers and sisters — just people — deserving the same respect all people deserve.

  39. Miriam English

    David, thanks for the link. That’s a very interesting article. I’ve saved it to go through its numerous links later.

  40. Miriam English

    Roswell, I knew there were many more jobs in renewables than fossil fues, but I had no idea it was ten times higher! Very cool. Good ammunition for arguing with coal afficionados in the future.

  41. leefe

    Miriam English:

    I don’t know if you have read Bill Gammage’s “The Biggest Estate on Earth” but, if not, I advise it.

    According to his documentary sources, there were reliable water sources right across the continent, including in areas we now consider desert. Those areas also supported grain and other edible vegetation types, as well sufficient animals for sustainable hunting. And, prior to compaction through trampling by hoofed livestock, the soil was light, friable and moist — again, even in areas we now consider to be arid or even desert.

    Yes, aboriginal occupation and land use had an impact. Some of this – particularly during the learning and adjustment phase – was negative. But they did better for 60,000+ years than we have done in the last 200, despite our supposed greater knowledge.

    Rather than dismissing out of hand their knowledge and practices, perhaps educate yourself a little more thoroughly as to exactly what those were before commenting? Because you do sound as though you are arguing from belief rather than evidence.

  42. David Higham

    You’re welcome,Miriam.

  43. Miriam English

    leefe, perhaps you might do me the courtesy of going back and reading what I actually said, instead of arguing against what you think I said. It was very similar to what you just said. (Incidentally, in my novel Selena City I mentioned that point about hard-hoofed animals vs the softer-footed kangaroos and wallabies.)

    No, I haven’t read “The Biggest Estate on Earth”, but reading the blurbs and reviews of it, it sounds like I might agree almost completely with what the author says. I’m well aware of early European explorers remarking how much the country resembled open parkland. I’ve often argued that what the Aborigines did should be considered farming — as I said in my earlier comments, while not as destructive as ploughing the land, it was nevertheless destructive. There is no escaping the fact that tens of thousands of years of sending potential compost literally up in smoke must impoverish the soil.

    This land was certainly not terra nullius — there was invasion, conquest, and deliberate extermination, and given the recent shameful QLD Labor government decision to steal the land of the Wangan and Jagalingou people it’s clear it’s still going on. It should stop. They are our brothers and sisters, not separate from us. When seen as separate then it is easy to discriminate against people.

  44. Joseph Carli

    ” There is no escaping the fact that tens of thousands of years of sending potential compost literally up in smoke must impoverish the soil.”…..there must, by the fact that there is so much of the actual historical procedure that is unknown, be more than a degree of presumption in that “fact”.

  45. Matters Not


    knew there were many more jobs in renewables than fossil … no idea it was **ten times higher**!

    Often remaindered that there’s lies, damn lies and statistics and perhaps one should stress there’s also definitions so that we are actually comparing the metaphorical apples with apples. The article provides a clue or two re the methodology problem.

    The pair defined defined the green economy broadly, covering everything from renewable energy to environmental consultancy.

    Possibly a case of – Tell me what answer you want (or don’t) Accordingly, one should be cautious in citing the ten times multiple – although in this post-truth world anything goes apparently.

  46. Matters Not

    And occasionally I am reminded. Then there’s the stuttering problem as evidenced by defined defined. (Apologies).

  47. Miriam English

    Excellent point Matters Not. (I seem to be saying that a lot.)

    Joe, you may wish to disagree, but it doesn’t really change facts. If you send nutrients up in smoke instead of letting them compost then it must impoverish the soil. And doing this over tens of thousands of years, the effect must accumulate. Also, when the winds blow the ash away, and rains wash the ash into creeks and rivers and out to sea, that further depletes the nutrients. Also, by removing cover, the ground dries and provides less habitation for soil enriching organisms.

  48. Joseph Carli

    Miriam…in the perfect “organic gardener’s” world of measured and exacting soils, what you say may get the Diggers Seeds ; “mulching tick of approval”…but that may not measure correct on many other solis and conditions where fire is a known an essential to break and germinate native seeds…a condition of sites and soils that I would surmise that after “tens of thousands of years” the local natives would be quite aware of…perhaps even more astute in the manner and severity of application than even Cossi and the team from Gardening Australia.

  49. Miriam English

    Joe, you don’t need fire to germinate seeds — even wattle seeds — they merely take advantage of it. They have to; with the first Australians using fire as an agricultural tool, if they didn’t take advantage of it then they would lose the race.

    What is this obsession with fire? It is destructive, just like Roundup is. People should not be using it for agriculture. It forces the plants to become fire-adapted and to encourage fire and depletes the soil. One of the big reasons bushfires are such a problem in Australia is because the flora has adapted so well to it. (Please note that I said one of the reasons; it is not the only reason.) One of the big reasons Australian soils are so weak is because of repeated burning of mulchable organic matter.

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