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Aboriginal Land Management, Lessons for Modern Australia

January 29, 2012

There is a certain difficulty writing about Australian Aboriginal nations land management practices as a white Australian.

How can anyone speak adequately on behalf of a paradigm and culture, from within the modern context descended from the very same genocidal, ecocidal, destructive, eurocentric, technocratic, imperialistic culture and society that have so affected global land care and the lives of Australian Aboriginal people?

The intellectual blinkers and dialogues that have historically prevented the modern nation of Australia (ceira 1788AD) from understanding and positively interacting with the Australian ecology and the oldest continuing cultures and nations on earth, still exist in Australian society, dialogues and cultures.

The Aboriginal people of Australia represent the oldest continuing human cultures of this planet. On a scale dwarfing into irrelevance the so-called ancient civilizations of the world, continuity demonstrated in oral histories and traditions, demonstrably accurate to the archaeological, paleontological, geological, and climatological record in excess of 60,000 years.

Imagine talking to a man who could describe to you from the personal experience within his family, the kinds of animals, weather, landscape, and historical events that happened in Egypt, forty thousand years before the pyramids were built.

Over such vast periods of time, unique in all cultures of the world, the nations of Australia demonstrated across an entire continent, practices that eventually placed them among the most environmentally sustainable and stable human civilizations ever seen, enjoying a society with greater levels of egalitarian peace, security, personal longevity and affluence than known contemporary societies around the world during that time.

Thanks to this paleolithic continuity of land management, eco-engineering, and culture. Life for Australians prior to 1788, was, as a general rule, easy, beautiful, long and safe, at least in comparison to most of the planet. Archaeological evidence today depicts Australians living well into their seventies, while in Europe 30 was a good innings.  A higher average than today.

Land management practices refined and adapted over the millenia created sophisticated endemic micro-ecologies of great beauty and abundance. Every inch of country subject to law, culture, caring for and adapting country. While the intensity of land management varied, early settlement writing and landscape artists, depict a continent of vast cultivated plains, a mosaiced landscapes that generated stability, abundance, resilience and fertility through land cultivation and management, intensive aquaculture, and water management and capture on the large-scale. A continent transformed into a state finer than a  European “nobleman’s estate”. Emphasising through law the interdependence of life, with humanity as the mechanism that sustained and maintained biodiversity, abundance and the ecological health of the continent

This, as intended, provided the best possible food security over time, utilizing what we would now think of today as a massive array of ‘super-foods’.

European settlers made fortunes and a nation from this heritage, stealing cultivated  land, cleared for roo and Australian fauna, and introducing the sheep and cattle that  transformed the Australian inheritance into obscene wealth, a ready-made farm, tens of thousands of years of work, ready for cattle and sheep, full of animals, birds and fish. The sky and rivers were dark with them, the plains and forests thick. The mosaically located life of Australia, from plain and pasture, with water for kangaroo, or the dense forest needed by koala, through the scientific and traditional practice of fire and land management, abundance was crafted, localized and insured against drought, fire, plagues and disease.

With the food supply of the peoples of a continent guaranteed by an ecosystem,-(despite ancient soils) religious law and spiritual ownership, culture and heritage. The uncertainty of life that left longevity so low throughout much of the rest of the world, simply did not exist. Over vast periods of time, through culture, worldview, spirituality and law, aboriginal Australian nations maintained one of the most peaceful cultures in the history of the world. Working on average two hours a day, with the remainder  taken up by family, friends, fun and religion. By all accounts at 1788, life, and the attitude to life in Australia was relaxed and happy.

The clash of cultures that occurred in Australia from 1788 onward are in many ways a depiction of the differences in values and practice of each. Early written records show that Aboriginal Australian people often saw the Invaders as: dirty and smelly, unhygienic, violent, barbaric, crazy and spiritually unwell.

Simultaneously, the Eurocentric dialogue of colonization often chose to depict Aboriginal culture and lifestyle as primitive, sub-human, while in many ways nothing could have been further from the truth. Just as Aboriginal people and cultures were marginalized in the narrative of Australian settlement, so too was 60,000 years of knowledge and wisdom.

As a result, within two hundred and something years, the indigenous people’s and cultures of Australia were subjected to what could be charitably described as sustained genocide, the soil and water were stripped, raped and degraded, more species than we would like to admit existed disappeared forever. Victim to ignorance and greed. Endemic Ecosystems dependent upon human management were drastically altered and damaged by invasive species, changed fire regimes, indiscriminate clearing, water depletion, damage and flow alteration, and the wholesale destruction, literal ripping and burning of old growth forest and ancient aboriginal lands.

Today, continent-wide, Australian soils are rapidly acidifying where farmed, and drastically altered “wilderness” is now wild. Due to human intervention much of the continent suffers from chronic water shortage, and increasingly fragmented ecology. What remains, is seriously threatened by introduced diseases such as die-back, pests (such as the cane toad), and human activity, including but not limited to urban sprawl, tourism, fire regimes,-(or lack thereof), mining, agriculture, dams and forestry. While fragmented concentrations of globally significant, highly endemic biodiversity and ecology remain vulnerable to these and other challenges potentially compounded by any climactic changes we may see in the centuries ahead.

One of the agriculturally defining characteristics of the ecosystems of Australia, is the overall and species specific response to fire.

Fire alters ecosystems, all life responds in different ways to fire, and the whole as gestalt, a fact not as well understood or relevant to the life of Europeans as it was to the indigenous people of Australia. In Europe as a general rule fire kills plants and fire kills plants in Australia too, but in Australia successive waves of colonization after fire are essential for the ecological succession and cycles. Different ecosystems in Australia require different fire regimes. Through understanding ecological functioning Australia was mosaic-ed with the ecological Australian equivalent of an old-growth garden paradise.

Despite the classification by the British empire as flora and fauna, The aboriginal peoples of Australia practiced high cultures and extensively cultivated the land. The land was cropped, seed were stored, seeds were ground, at least some twenty thousand years archaeologically before the next people on earth learned about flour and trading tracks that crossed the continent transported seeds, culture, objects and goods.

Rivers were dammed for aquaculture and farming along vast lengths with weirs and canals made and inland, while and tidal flats made into low water ponds, wells cracked through rock and dug through earth, irrigation dug, and sophisticated aquaculture practiced on the large-scale.  While Aboriginal people near the oceans hunted with dolphin as partners, ate seal and whale, fish and turtle, along with the huge variety of vegetables and other foods of the ocean.

The land, each count was traveled through cyclically as a spiritual pilgrimage by its people, seasonally following the rain, climate and land, every piece of the country was burned, intelligently and cyclically with traditional variation passed down seasonally and geographically and religiously, therefore houses generally very temporary unless staying in one place, for several months or yearly, when more elaborate houses of varied local design and materials were maintained.

Aboriginal Australian People were more than competent builders with wood and stone, but due to, culture, lifestyle, religion and cultural values were sedentary for only parts of the year.

Thus fire, along with water storage, was central to Aboriginal animal husbandry.

Farming Fauna in Australia did not require fences, religious and culture values and practices would make burning another’s land or even killing on another’s country unlikely or unimportant, and due to the lack of higher order and larger predators, along with the variation. The ecology stayed put.

Oral history discusses predators and megafauna extinct thirty odd thousand years before the “neolithic” hit Europe. Perhaps with the demise of these predators, for whatever reason,-(human ecocide is often postulated) and the subsequent lack of mammalian higher order predators in Australia, besides the thylacine, devil and later, dingo, combined with the spiritual, religious, culture and law, ensured that fences were not needed in Australia to ensure the health of animals.

Kangaroo for example likes rich green grass and open space, so if you create those conditions with some trees nearby for shade, you can guarantee that kangaroos will like it and remain there for the readily available food and comfort. Likewise letting undergrowth and fallen trees and branches from passageways across the forest are optimum conditions for smaller tree dwellers, who make noise when they come to earth and are then easy for predators like the thylacine to find.

Many food plants and fungi for animals and humans regrow with more vigor after fire, many benefit from the chemicals and begin to seed or grow, some die, some retreat into the earth and then regrow, and with each different response and each different plant or fungi, regimes of scientifically applied fire can shape the nature of the ecology and fertility of the area along lines as controlled as the cultivator who starts it desires.

Fire judiciously utilized creates richer food and conditions for Animals, locates them and supports them. Enriching the most fertile land, an alluvial valley and river system cleared from the forests for grass perhaps. Unfortunately for Australian people prior to 1788, the conditions preferred by European animals also.

Eating seasonally from an ecosystem crafted and sustained by law, culture and practice, provided the greatest possible stability and protection for human life. Having some few hundred foods available, is very nice and good for health, happiness and quality of life, while ecosystems survive, plagues, disease, climatic changes, fire, drought, and adversity better that single crops. Although population control was practiced by Aboriginal Australians prudently rather than reactively, there is no historical record of them ever experiencing starvation prior to the advent of white colonialism in Australia. The carefully managed land was simply too abundant. Culture and community too strong.

Today the ecology of much of Australia is drastically different, different species and ecologies are dominant, a great deal of the abundance and diversity has disappeared, while the culture and community vibrancy of much of modern Australia is renowned among migrants for its non-existence and largely disconnected from land and ecological management.

To give an indication of the sophistication of culture, even today in many small areas within many countries around Australia there are several thousand species of plants on the land alone, concentrated, endemic, the majority flowering. let alone the ecology in its entirety. Aboriginal Australians understood the impact of different fires on different plants and indeed ecosystems at different times in different ways and as a whole, managing the tapestry of life in Australia.

Australia is lucky, with sophisticated and deep knowledge of each living thing and place the ecological systems could be maximised and protected by its people to enhance  the longevity, fertility, beauty, diversity, endemic concentration and food productivity of every sphere of life present.  as a whole a sophisticated landscaped garden paradise, or so it was described by early settlers and landscape artists. the land was intelligently taking into account a wide range of different principles and knowledge, fire was sacred and there was a great deal of knowledge in many levels about its application in country.

Water and waterways were even more carefully managed and often more carefully built for. Extensive continent-wide aquaculture was super abundant, enormous surplus’ generated. Forests, jungle, alpine, woodlands, grasslands, deserts, bush, scrub, salt land, wetlands, floodplains, rain-forest. of trees covered in nuts suitable for any use including flours and hundreds if not thousands of different nutrient rich and tasty foods. Let along the knowledge and management of ocean and river people.

Many early records of settlement record aboriginal people working no more than two hours a day, which includes cooking and food preparation, even in the most physically demanding regions of the country. While white people saw this as a lazy, aboriginal people could not understand why white culture did not want more time for family, fun, life, spirituality and instead wanted so many concerns.

Aboriginal Australians did not create the technologic behemoth that has laid waste to the planet, but on the upside they lived in paradise without walls, sustainably, -(since the extinction of the mega-fauna) for over 40,000 years, traveled widely, and had long beautiful happy lives involving a great deal of time with family and friends, other people and having fun.




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