Tuesday, August 08, 2006

So what has changed?

In 1993 I wrote:

The drought of the early 1890's led to fundamental changes in the way the Western Division was viewed; at this time Henry Lawson (1990) wrote in his poem "Bourke":

"No sign that grass ever grew in scrubs that blazed beneath the sun;
The plains were dust in Ninety-two, and hard as bricks in Ninety-one.
On glaring iron-roofs of Bourke the scorching, blinding sandstorms blew,
No hint of beauty lingered there in Ninety-one and Ninety-two.

This was reflected institutionally in the 1901 Royal Commission, which was a landmark in that it concluded that the nature of the land itself imposed special constraints on any attempt to populate or utilise it (NSW Parliamentary Papers 1901). It is also only through the chronicles of poets, like Lawson and the myriad story-tellers that represent the Bushies oral tradition that we know of the experiences of the pastoralists. These are not incorporated into scientific discourses but are powerful in shaping the ways in which pastoralists interpret their world of experience - we are the bush, as our collaborators observed. The study of Pretty (1991) of the 3-4 fold increase in agricultural productivity in 17th - 19th century Britain is salutory as it was achieved by farmers without either institutionalised science or extension.

One hundred years later the headlines exclaim:

"Dirt poor. You think you have heard it all before .... about how Australia's farmers are suffering. But not on this scale, not in this way. The vast plains of our state's west have become a disaster area - for both people and their properties. Hopes and dreams are being eroded, just as surely as the land itself." (Wahlquist 1992).

In 1993 I asked: So what has changed?

According to Asa Wahlquist, still writing on this subject, 'things are bad, very bad, for much of the western division. How bad we will probably know only when the drought ends and the exodus begins.' The situation seems much as it was to me.

Elsewhere Asa attacks Jared Diamond's conclusions about Australian Agriculture and chronicles some of the changes for the better that she perceives. Almost daily the media runs a story on land management or water and the letters pages reveal the range of perspectives that exist on these issues. Thus far, however, I do not encounter many who feel new dams are part of the solution.

My original comments were published in Ison, R.L. (1993) Changing community attitudes. (Invited Keynote Paper) The Rangeland Journal 15, 154-66.

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