‘They could run their fingers through the soil’: the role of Aboriginal agriculture in curtailing deforestation

By Angela Heathcote | November 7, 2018

Two damning reports were released last week, finding that Australia is a hotspot for deforestation. We chatted to Bruce Pascoe, author of Dark Emu, about the findings.

At the end of October, the WWF released their Living Planet Report 2018, which found that Australia is one of the world’s deforestation hotspots, the only developed nation to make the list. The report went as far to compare the east coast of Australia to the situation in the Amazon, a ‘deforestation front’.

Another report by researchers from the University of Queensland, released right after the WWF report, demonstrated that just 20 countries contain 94 per cent of the world’s remaining intact ecosystems, and that more than 70 per cent is in just five countries, including Australia, giving us more responsibility to protect what’s left of the country’s wild places.

In the latter report, the researchers suggested that using Indigenous knowledge about land management was critical to ensuring the environment was well looked after. “The recognition of local community rights to land ownership and management could be a key way to limit the impacts of industrial activity,” one of the key causes of deforestation, the report reads.

Author of Dark Emu and an expert on Aboriginal agriculture, Bruce Pascoe agrees, adding however, that Australia is yet to come to grips with Aboriginal land management in a meaningful way. For Bruce, this means dispelling the myth that Aboriginal people were primarily hunter-gatherers and shining a light on the complexities of Aboriginal agriculture.  

“When the Europeans first arrived in Melbourne, for instance, they reported that they could run their fingers through the soil. Now, that’s almost impossible to imagine,” he said. “The grasslands that some of the explorers talked about was above the saddles of their horses. Now, it’s been eaten by cattle and replaced with exotic grasses. There’s been an enormous change.”

Bruce said that now is an opportune moment to acknowledge the impacts of European farming practices on the land. “Soil destruction and overuse of water has damaged the environment. Aboriginal land management, on the other hand, was very subtle, too subtle for an Englishman to even notice.

“They thought it was the natural condition of the world, and many of them even said it was like God had prepared this land for them. Well, it wasn’t God, it was Aboriginal people and they prepared it for themselves.” He said, however, that there is willingness from different parts of society to better understand how the land was managed prior to European settlement.

“Young Australians are into permaculture and they understand that we’ve damaged the country to a large degree and that we need to rethink how we look after country.” Farmers, who have at times had a turbulent relationship with traditional owners, are coming around as well. “Farmers are battling because global warming is reducing moisture in a country that was already low on moisture,” Bruce said.

“We’re possibly in a transition away from thirsty plants to native plants because some of the crops we grow now, won’t grow in the future. We can’t continue to take 90 per cent of the water out of the streams and hope that the environment will survive. If we continue to remove this much water just so we can grow these exotic plants, than we’re going to kill the country.”

As for Australia’s forested areas, Bruce explained that a lot of the forests now are full of young trees, after many of the larger trees have been cleared. “The bigger trees suited Aboriginal people, but European grasses don’t grow in the shade, so it makes a huge difference in land management.”

So how might these practices assist with Australia’s deforestation crisis? There’s no way to completely go back to the sustainable methods once used by Aboriginal people, Bruce said, but adopting Aboriginal practices in some way will be critical, not just for the environment, but for better social and health outcomes for Indigenous people. The report by UQ reaffirms that preserving the environment is “central to reducing their poverty and marginalization.”

Critical to these positive outcomes, Bruce said, is including Aboriginal people. “If we’re talking about including Aboriginal people, we don’t just include them as labour, ideas and heritage. They have to be seriously included, which means they need land. It will provide employment, giving people a sense of purpose. Everything to exclude Aboriginal people has been done, let’s turn it around.”