1983: The desert is dying

The Lost Stories are Bill Mollison's articles published in the print magazine originally named Permaculture, then International Permaculture Journal and finally the Permaculture International Journal that was published between 1978 and 2000.

All stories and other content ©Permaculture Australia unless otherwise noted.

Story by Bill Mollison, May 1983. Edition: 12.

SEVENTY PERCENT of the Australian continent is either arid or semiarid. This land accounts for 34 percent of Australia's cattle and sheep production but the shift from little direct manipulation of the environment, except for regular, patchy burning, to the pressures of extensive cattle grazing has had a profound effect on the land.

One of the areas most affected is open woodland country at the base of hills. This often happens to be preferred country for both the cattle industry and for outstation sites.

The removal of the vegetative cover often followed by soil erosion was not the only effect of European land use. The extinction of several native animals and the extremely reduced numbers of many others are the results of predation by introduced animals and changes in the plant composition and cover induced by grazing animals. Many of these native animals were important food sources for the hunters.

As Europeans settlement proceeded in the arid zone, feral animals became abundant. They include donkeys, horses, cattle, camels, goats, rabbits, foxes and cats. In general, the feral stock thrived and expanded to the limits of their climatic tolerance, and in many places exist in considerable numbers.

The effect of cattle on virgin range in Central Australia has been shown to be great. Within one year the abundance and diversity of the vegetation fell by two-thirds, but even then it was ten-fold that of country that had been grazed for many years. There is little doubt that the grazing of the fragile desert communities by feral animals will, in the long run, have severe deleterious effects on the natural plant foods of the animals and on the land itself.

It has been estimated that in some areas 200 square kilometres were required to support one person in the 1950s.

Some aboriginals had personal knowledge of areas exceeding 52,000 square kilometres. Yet in richer country densities reached one person every twelve square kilometers, a density of 200 people for each two and a half thousand square kilometres. The pastoral industry which now occupies much of this richer land supports only a handful of whites.

Changes are taking place. In 1978, 34 percent of land in the Northern Territory was held by Aboriginals. Today, including all land with land rights claims pending, the figure is approaching 57 percent.

In an overview document produced for the United Nations Conference on Desertification held in Nairobi, Kenya in 1977, the causes and symptoms of desertification were described:

"...In its initial stages desertification may merely involve a shift to a more desertlike and less productive ecosystem, with water, energy and nutritional balances less favorable to plant growth than before. But land use in arid regions poses problems which continually menace the prevailing equilibrium.

"This is at least partly because of fluctuations in rainfall between drought years and good years which not yet predictable are difficult for the land user to respond to effectively.

"For example, in dryland pastoral economies, large numbers of stock tend to build up during runs of good years, too many to be supported through the inevitably ensuing drought.

"There is a natural reluctance to cut back on stock numbers in the first dry year and a tendency to hang on until drought is seen to be established. But, by that time dryland pastures are probably being overgrazed toward a state that threatens eventual regeneration.

"By this time too, prices for surplus stock will probably have shrunk because the market is gutted and destocking through sale of surplus numbers will be opposed by economic forces.

"For the same reasons, destocking may be prevented during the periods critical to the regeneration of pastures following the rains that end drought."

Part of the reason for this reluctance may also be the fact that in some societies livestock is regarded as the resource base, instead of the land and its vegetation.

Dryland farmers, too, show a tendency during runs of good years to extend their cropping onto ever-more-marginal lands into areas of higher climatic risks, pushing back the oastoratist in the process. This is particularly the case when pressure on the land is increased through population growth or restrictive systems of land tenure or the short-sighted introduction of mechanisation.

The expectable but unpredictable onset of drought will find the marginal land prepared for planting stripped of its protective natural vegetation and vulnerable to erosion. Such land enters a run of dry years without defenses and may emerge in too-degraded a condition to support even livestock. Removal of fine topsail materials means the loss of the most productive and nutritious portions of the soil complex, while sterile sand accumulations cover plants and good soil. A further harmful effect of high velocity sand drift is the destruction of young crops by the blasting impact of moving sand.

Foilowing the 1958-64 drought in Australia's north, large areas were denuded and cattle numbers dropped. Yet those areas recovered after rain. The recommendation after the drought was that stock numbers in the Alice Springs district should be restricted to 300,000 head but populations rose to 500,000 and stayed at that through four or five good years.

In 1981, following two dry seasons, owner-manager Bill Prior of 1812 Hamilton Downs, 50km north west of Alice Springs, said, "If it stays dry we are overstocked, but we can't afford to run any less."

Aboriginal burning increases food availability

Aborigines knew that long-unburnt country was poor as a food resource. Once burnt and the appropriate increase ceremonies performed, only then would the food plants produce in abundance.

Many of the favoured Aboriginal food plants appear in the early regenerative phases following fire. The fires rarely extended over large areas.

The effect of traditional burning regimes was to produce a series of small patches of country at different stages of recovery from fire with associated different plant and animal communities. This almost completely eliminated the risk of large-scale wild fires which would have been disastrous for any group attempting to survive in a completely burnt out area.

Why not gardeners?

Why didn't Australian Aboriginals become gardeners, particularly at Cape York where they had contact with the Papuan-influenced yam gardeners of the Torres Strait Islands?

Australia has numerous plant species which could have been developed. The answer may well amount to personal preference. With no population pressures pushing them toward intensive food production and the normally plentiful and varied food supply available, the freedom of the nomadic lifestyle offered much.

While following a lead on Terminalia ferdinandia, an Aboriginal food plant that tastes iike an English goosaberry and contains fifty times the vitamin C of an orange gram-for-gram of edible plant, I was much encouraged to learn that professor Alan Truswetl, Jenny Brand and Vic Cherikoff at Sydney University have researched and analysed the nutritional constituents of over one hundred native food plants and intend to continue until over three hundred are completed.

The principal vegetable staple throughout the desert, wherever they occur, are the rootstocks of Ipomoea costata and Vigna lanceolata, the fruits of Solanum, especially S. chippendalei and S. centrale, Ficus and Santalum, the seeds of various acacia and of such herbs and grasses as Fimbristylis, Panicum, Portulaca and Eragrostis.

Native plants have evolved in highly specialised adaptations to the ecosystems within which they occur. Gary Nabhan, who works among North American Indians in Arizona, estimates that introduced crops sometimes require two to five times the water a native crop needs.

In view of the fact that mere may be as many as 800,000 plant species on the earth it is remarkable that the world's population is almost completely dependant on three major cereals and perhaps ten other widely cultivated species.

Here in Australia a race of people have utilised the indigenous vegetation to supply 70 to 80 percent of their diet for 30,000 years. Yet that knowledge, which is largely part of oral history, is being lost to us as the old people die and the plants become extinct.

The outstation movement

The outstation movement is a new development among Aboriginal communities in Central Australia. Tribal groups of 30-100 members have begun to move away from the larger settlements dominated by white people and have set tnemselves up in smaller units where their traditional culture can be reserved. The long term survival of these communities will depend on their ability to survive in a drastically altered environment.

Now, with many traditional food sources extinct and much traditional knowledge lost, the work of preserving remaining species and the culture which went with them becomes urgent.

Let's face it. It's not just a question of plant diversity. We need cultural diversity. Particularly where that culture can offer, in Gary Nabhan's words, "Insights into the mutually reinforcing connections between spiritual life and skilful care for the ecological integrity of food producing land".

The location and conservation of native, desert-adapted crop varieties holds more promise than any other strategy for Aboriginal self-reliance initiatives such as the outstation movement.

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