Send in the cleaners

Could cows be used for conservation in the Kimberley? Sure, it just depends on what you are trying to conserve.

I’ve never seen a weedier landscape than the Darram Conservation Estate on the outskirts of Kununurra. As I mentioned in my previous blog, one could mistake the ‘Weed Park’ as a site for Kimberley Weed Bingo instead of a ‘Conservation Estate’.

Darram is considered to be in extremely poor condition by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal land managers alike, both of which believe that there are few viable management approaches for improving its health. However, during our last visit in August, a Miriwoong elder offered a somewhat revolutionary weed management idea: “Send in the cleaners!” By cleaners, he didn’t mean teams of weed whackers or Aboriginal rangers wielding chainsaws and herbicides, he meant cows! He suggested that cattle would graze on the weeds and by doing so, reduce their density and ‘open the place up to how it used to be when it was healthy’.

Such an approach is almost unimaginable in a mainstream ‘conservation’ sense, and was scoffed at by the Kimberley land managers I posed it to. While they agreed that the cows would probably decrease the density of the weeds and open the site up, they argued that such an approach would not constitute ‘conservation’. This caused me to reflect on the meaning of conservation at Darram, in particular what is trying to be conserved there?

Does Darram mean to conserve a pristine, pre-colonial ecological state? No way. The site is so far removed form any ‘original state’ that this is impossible. Leaving the weeds aside for a moment, Darram is sandwiched between mango and sandalwood plantations on one side and Lake Kununurra on the other, which is a backwater created by a diversion dam built in the 1960’s to supply the newly developed township with water. About a third of it is now underwater because of the dam. To imagine what it even looked like before Europeans arrived is nearly impossible, let alone revert it to this imagined state and then maintain it that way.

Does Darram mean to conserve biodiversity? Perhaps, but if this is the case then it seems perfectly healthy and the weeds could be left alone – they represent the bulk of the site’s plant diversity and still provide habitat for a range of birds and reptiles.

Does it mean to conserve Aboriginal memories, values and heritage? Perhaps, but not currently. In its present condition, Aboriginal elders feel very little connection whatsoever to this place, and dislike even visiting or speaking about it. They describe it as ‘rubbish’, ‘sick’, ‘gone’ and ‘lost’ and prefer to change the subject to a healthier part of country. However, when prompted to speak about how they remember this place, elders share memories of an open savanna, upon which it was easy to ride horses and drove cattle. The area was used as a camp by Aboriginal stockmen while they drove cattle from nearby pastoral stations to the port and meatworks in Wyndham. All of their memories of Darram involve cattle and horses and highlight the significant role pastoralism played in the recent Aboriginal history of the east-Kimberley. For instance, each weed found at Darram has a connection to cows, pastoralism and local Aboriginal history. They remember that Kapok (Aerva javanica) was used by Aboriginal stockmen to stuff their pillows and saddles. They remember that the fruit of Passionfruit Vine (Passiflora foetida) was eaten by stockmen while travelling across country. They remember that Coffee Bush (Leucaena leucocephala) was introduced to the area as a feed-lot plant for the cattle by a charismatic station manager and good friend of many of the Aboriginal pastoral workers. They remember that Calotropis (Calotropis procera) was brought with Brahman cattle in the early 1970s when the region shifted its herds towards heartier cattle that were more suited to the Kimberley climate and landscape. This place and these weeds conserve personal and communal Aboriginal memories that are weaved into the place’s history.

Therefore, if Darram is being conserved for anything, it seems most feasible to conserve it for Aboriginal memories, values and heritage. If this were the case, cows belong there, and ‘sending in the cleaners’ is not an outrageous idea at all: the density of weeds at Darram would be reduced and the site could be ‘conserved’ as a tribute to the area’s pastoral history and to the significant role Aboriginal people played in shaping it.

Weeds in the Anthropocene

“By the test of unwantedness, there can be no weed in the absence of man. Ecologically, we suggest that man is equally necessary for weeds to be weeds.”   Harlan and de Wet, 1965

The Anthropocene has not yet been formally recognised as a unit of geological epochs, but that hasn’t restrained its rapid spread and use in the humanities and social sciences. The term is catchy because it conveys the enormous impact that we — going by the title of the famous 1956 collection edited by William Thomas Jr., Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth — as humans have made not just on, but to the Earth.

In a paper recently published in the Open Access journal Conservation & Society by lead authors Lesley Head and Jenny Atchison and a group of scholars (including Christian Kull and myself), the Anthropocene is used to highlight the reality of managing ‘environmental weeds’ in landscapes that have been enormously transformed by humans. Drawing together research and discussions held at the Wollongong Weeds Workshop in February 2013, the paper argues that rather than focusing on behaviour of ‘invasive’ plants to the exclusion of their equally invasive human agents, it is far more important to see how people actually go about managing the presence of weedy plants in their landscapes.

The key message is that most people (including those working for government agencies that are responsible for environmental and land management) recognise the futility of waging ‘constant war’ against weeds or trying to restore nature to ‘pristine’ conditions. Instead, they have developed adaptive strategies that establish boundaries of cohabitation between these weedy plants and their human counterparts. This recognition, along with the methods and strategies they have adapted and developed for managing environmental weeds, represents a sensible approach to living in the Anthropocene.

Environmental change and Indigenous vulnerability

My focus for the last week or so has been on literature concerned with Indigenous peoples’ perceptions of environmental change. This literature can be split cleanly enough in two categories: firstly, studies concerned with Indigenous peoples’ observations of environmental change, frequently but not always focusing on how these observations correspond to scientific understandings; and secondly, studies that go beyond observations to understand what these changes mean to Indigenous people, seeking how and why these changes might be significant to them. In this second tranche of studies there is an overwhelming focus on the vulnerability of Indigenous people to environmental change and the need to improve their capacity to ‘adapt’. Continue reading

“I’ve found Lantana!”

Snaking along a pot-holed road on the way to our next surf spot in eastern Java, loaded up with our surfboards and bags in the racks of our motorbikes, I caught a glimpse of the unmistakable flower of Lantana. Enthusiastic to confirm it was Lantana and show it to my companions, I braked suddenly and pulled off the road. “I’ve found Lantana! I knew it would be here! This is terrific!”. Continue reading