Indigenous Australians knew how to look after the land

If we attempt to compare Aboriginal land use with those of the early settlers, we should broaden the meaning of ‘land use’. We should move away from the narrow European notion of agriculture and horticulture, to one which includes religious and cultural associations with the land, and one which allows the skills and the bounty of hunting and gathering to enter the picture.

Another difficulty is that the indigenous Australians, although sharing the same continent, and some cultural traditions, were not all alike. Regional differences in a land so large were bound to be great, though identification with, and care for, the land seems to have been practically universal. With that in mind, Aboriginal attitudes to their land will be seen as roughly uniform.

The common misconception about life in Australia prior to the arrival of the whites, and one which dates back to the time of Captain Cook, is of a race of hungry nomads, constantly ranging over an inhospitable land in search of game, victims of their own lack of industry, and incidentally unfit to lay claim to the land.

This view is now under constant attack, as evidence mounts to show the active participation of the Aboriginal Australians, not only in the management of their own survival, but as agents for change in the greater environment.

As the white arrivals would eventually do, the original inhabitants had built up an economic system which delivered regular surpluses, and allowed the population to grow, albeit at a sustainable rate. ‘They exploited the resources available to them, making the continent into a gigantic farm, but a farm which they worked with an eye to the future.’ (Bolton 1981, p. 8)

Using fire

Fire is the most versatile and important tool that a society of hunter gatherers can use. The original Australians used fire extensively, and as well as flushing out game which sought shelter in scrub, the fire served the purpose of thinning the bush, burning off the old feed, and promoting new growth. This new growth attracted more game next season. Different fire regimes were used throughout the country, with adaptations made for the needs of each locality. (Flood 1983)

Fire was not only used for flushing and attracting game, however. It transformed the landscape, though there is debate as to how much forethought went into that transformation. Major Mitchell, an early explorer, suggested that the Aborigines worked on their ‘runs’, which happened to carry kangaroos and other native species, in much the same way that the later pastoralists would clear ground, and improve pasture for their stock. (Bolton 1981)

The Aborigines actively used fire to promote the growth of ‘crops’ for their own consumption. (Kirk 1981) They also used it to extend the range of, for instance, cycad nuts, by clearing competing vegetation. (Flood 1983)

What did they live on?

The Aborigines did not depend on meat alone to feed them. In a normal year the population in most regions obtained at least half of its energy needs from plant foods. (Blainey 1982)

The methods they used to sustain life were adapted to the ecology of the region in which they lived. These ranged from hunting fat moths in the mountains to catching seals on the coast, from trapping eels in Victoria to cycad harvesting in the north.

They were gifted hunter gatherers. They manipulated their environment so ingeniously that they were able to lead a semi-sedentary life, with regular tribal gatherings and religious festivals. (Flood 1983) It is a long way from the picture of starving wretches stalking kangaroos, for their very survival.

They knew their land intimately, and all that it produced. Their knowledge had been accumulated over sixty thousand years, and their knowledge of botany was arguably their most refined. This may explain how they were able to survive in such a seemingly hostile environment with such aplomb. (Blainey 1982)

A common criticism of their culture decries the ‘fact’ that they never developed formal agriculture. A counter to that criticism is that they were so well-off that they had no need to increase the yield of their foods; nor did they need to store it.

This goes some way toward explaining the feelings that Aborigines have toward their land. They were provided with bounty, as long as they did their duty to the land. For the great unifying theme in Aboriginal Australian life was religion, and the core of that religion was man’s close, symbiotic relationship with the land. As Blainey so eloquently states,

‘Their knowledge of the land and all which it grew was supplemented by a spiritual belief that the earth would not continue to be productive unless they obeyed its rules and its deities. One aim of their religious ceremonies and many of their taboos was to maintain the fertility of the land and its creatures.’ (Blainey 1983, p. 202)

What did white land use look like?

The members of the First Fleet and those who followed them had no such tenderness for the land, or indeed for its original inhabitants. As the Aborigines followed the dictates of their religion, so could the Europeans be seen to be following theirs. As the Bible exhorted them to go forth and multiply, it also provided them with an attitude which separated them from nature, and made them masters of the natural world.

They were the products of a society which held the belief that it was man’s duty to enhance the productivity of the soil. In fact, the notion of the right to own property was inextricably linked to the end use to which that property was put. (Butcher & Turnbull 1988) This served a dual purpose-it legitimised their own exploitation of the land, and it robbed the Aborigines of any claim they might have made to the land, because the imprint of a black hand on the landscape was so subtle.

With legal and moral matters of ownership of the land apparently sorted out, the white invaders then proceeded to ‘farm’ the continent. They were not conspicuously successful to begin with. The Administration at Sydney Cove was sorely pressed to feed all the mouths in the colony. The problem was exacerbated by the urban background of most of the convicts, and of the guards.

They were poor overseers of the land, often because they lacked adequate financial resources and more importantly, they lacked even the most rudimentary rural skills. They had no prospect of learning them either, except by trial and error. Happily the destruction of the environment was limited by their technology. If they did possess any farming experience, it was mostly irrelevant or misleading under local conditions.

They did not realise that the Aborigines’ knowledge and exploitative methods were geared precisely to local conditions, and were the result of thousands of years of study. The land, though seeming to conform to their vision of benign nature, tamed for man’s use, appeared so by virtue of careful husbandry and sustainable use. (Bolton 1981)

The profit motive was present from the beginning, and once mere survival was assured, the principles of capitalist farming were applied. Though they were not ecologically disastrous when used in Britain, Australia’s older soils and specialised flora were no match for the rapacious appetites of 19th century capitalists.

The introduction of cattle and sheep was the beginning of catastrophe for the Australian environment. The first and most significant change was in the texture of the soil. The cloven hooves of the whites’ livestock destroyed the mulch of aeons in a decade. (Rolls 1981)

The vegetation changed, with the native grasses, used to the gentler feeding of the macropods, being destroyed by the different feeding habits of the sheep, especially. Men responded with ‘pasture improvement’, ploughing out the native grasses, using fertiliser and sowing inappropriate exotics. (Rolls 1981)

The trees were the next to go. They were seen as a nuisance by the first settlers, fit only to be cleared, and used for building or farming. Until the gold rushes of the 1850s the destruction was confined to the coastal valleys of New South Wales, but demand for building timbers increased greatly. Improving transport opened up the export for hardwoods, but from the 1860s pastoralists began ring-barking on an unprecedented scale. By 1892 clearance for farms and ring-barking for grazing were the major causes of deforestation. The bush was re-shaped irrevocably to accommodate the interests of graziers and their stock.

The native fauna was also profoundly affected. A quarter of a century after the arrival of the white man, many species faced extinction. Others prospered unnaturally – the balance was upset. The introduction of the domestic dog and cat was calamitous, as was the introduction of goats, pigs, brumbies, foxes and last, but not least, the ubiquitous rabbit.

It is unnecessary to describe the degradation of the environment around towns and cities, but it was at least as complete as that affected by the pastoralists. The gold-fields were even worse, creating waste-lands for miles around. All in all, the impact of the whites on the environment was catastrophic, with most of the damage still with us.

19th century white settlers were not wilful or wanton destroyers of the land. Most of the ecological damage occurred as a result of ignorance, and as a by-product of unthinking agrarian capitalism. There was a mistaken belief that the land was so bountiful as to be inexhaustible.

By contrast the original inhabitants had known all along that the ecology was a delicate thing, which had finite limits. They were not perfect custodians, but their reign of sixty thousand plus years was solicitous and successful. In just over two centuries we have undone much of that good work, and we appear not to be learning anything.

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