The pastoral industry's debt to Aboriginal people

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The pastoral industry's debt to Aboriginal people

Since last December's High Court Wik decision, which confirmed that native title and pastoral leaseholds can co-exist, relations between Aboriginal people and pastoralists have been under renewed scrutiny. MARTIN TAYLOR has written a pamphlet on the social and environmental costs of the pastoral industry in Queensland. He spoke to Green Left Weekly's JENNIFER THOMPSON about the industry's history and its role in the push to extinguish native title.

The pamphlet, Bludgers in Grass Castles: Native Title and the Unpaid Debts of the Pastoral Industry, shows that the success of the pastoral industry is not to due to hard work alone, but also to the appropriation of Aboriginal land, the exploitation of Aboriginal labour and the misuse of the environment, according to Taylor.

The title was derived from Mary Durack's Kings in Grass Castles, about the Durack cattle dynasty.

Taylor's inspiration came from a statement made in 1896 by Archibald Meston, the first protector of Aborigines in Queensland. Meston wrote: "It seems well to consider our debtors' account with the Aboriginals. Queensland has so far alienated about 10,000,000 acres [4 million ha] of freehold land, and leasehold about 300,000,000 [121 million ha] for pastoral occupation.

"For this we have received about six and a quarter millions in cash, and for the leasehold land we receive about £332,800 annual rent. Since the year of separation [creation of the colony of Queensland], 1859, or even since 1842, we have not expended £50,000 for the benefit of the Aboriginals, and have never since then or before paid them a single shilling in cash, clothes or food, or even an acre of land." (From A History of Queensland: From the Dreaming to 1915 by Ross Fitzgerald, University of Queensland Press, 1982.)

That quote, Taylor told Green Left Weekly, shows an attitude more progressive and more honest about the system and how unfair it remains than today's federal politicians and the National Farmers Federation. Taylor set out to add up the debt owed to Aboriginal people by the pastoral industry.

Sections of the Queensland pastoral industry participated in the genocide of the Aboriginal people. By 1920, the indigenous people had been reduced from at least 120,000 to 20,000; this involved at least 10,000 direct killings.

Aboriginal resistance to European "settlement" was overcome by massacre and poisoning. Brutalised Aborigines from the south were imported to form the Queensland Native Police, which was used as a death squad against Aborigines. Disease also ravaged the population.

Despite this, many Aborigines remained on their land. By federation in 1901, they formed half the pastoral labour force. They were paid only in rations.

After federation, the state government took control of Aboriginal labour. Aborigines were employed on "contracts" that paid only a third of a white worker's wage. Aboriginal culture was decimated by assimilation policies such as the removal of children from their families, relocation of groups to missions and reserves, and the imposition of apartheid-like curfews and movement restrictions.

"The state managed the Aboriginal population as a labour pool to serve white business demands", Taylor explained. Ironically, the 1967 federal referendum empowering the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal people was, Taylor notes, "the last straw for Aboriginal labour in the cattle industry. Equal pay was now enforced, and pastoralists simply sacked Aboriginal workers."

Citing historians Henry Reynolds, Dawn May and Ross Fitzgerald, Taylor summarises the early years of the industry in Queensland: "There was a big push on squatting in the 1840s-1860s throughout Queensland. The Pastoral Act was forced through in 1869, the first act by the colony of Queensland ... to legitimise the occupation."

There was a belief in the 1860s, Taylor argues, that this land was made leasehold with the long-term view that land use could change.

"The pastoral leasehold was really just a quick fix to deal with the fact that squatters were there. The government didn't want them to own these huge tracts of land, because they wanted later to encourage closer settlement", Taylor said.

It turned out that closer settlements, including the small freehold lots granted to soldiers after the first world war, proved unworkable. Economic development and increasing capitalisation of the pastoral industry led to the large pastoral companies accounting for the bulk of production and leasing the bulk of the land. This has caused a shrinking rural population.

Taylor contrasts the low productivity of the pastoral zone — predominantly on publicly owned crown land under pastoral leases — with the wheat, sheep and higher rainfall farming zones — together known as the broadacre zone.

"The arid areas cannot possibly support very high cattle or sheep densities, so the stocking rates have to be very low. Therefore to get the same sort of income, even for a family operation, you need a very large area just to run enough cattle."

The largest leaseholder in Australia at the beginning of 1997 was land speculator and "cattle king" Sidney Kidman's company, holding 11,700 square kilometres. This was overtaken by finance company AMP's Stanbroke Pastoral Company, which now owns 13,000 square kilometres.

The rent on these pastoral zone holdings, as a proportion of the livestock income, is lower than in the broadacre zone. This is an implicit subsidy, declares Taylor.

"A 15% increase in production efficiency in the broadacre zone could completely cover all of the cattle production now in the much larger area of the pastoral zone simply because of the very low viable stocking rates. You can't put livestock on it at a very high rate without devastating consequences", Taylor explained.

The high cost of pastoral production can be measured in the devastation of native plants and animals. Taylor cites studies which show that across Australia at least 19 mammal species, mostly marsupials, 20 bird species, three amphibians and 76 plant species have been driven to extinction since 1788. Ten per cent of native mammals and 1.5% of native plants are endangered.

The situation in the pastoral zone is worse, he points out. Thirty three per cent of mammal species are locally extinct, and 23 species are endangered, including one wombat species which has only 15 breeding females left. Another 29 species are vulnerable.

Of the 93,000 square kilometres of brigalow forests in the moderate rainfall belt in NSW and Queensland, one-third was cleared between 1945 and 1953, reaching 65% by the early 1980s. With its destruction went the habitat of 45 mammal species alone, resulting in the extinction of eight. By 1989, 38% of the mulga country of south-west Queensland had been extensively eroded as a result of pastoral activities.

Taylor reports that an outcome of the campaign of scare-mongering about native title has been the deliberate destruction by pastoralists of signs of Aboriginal occupation. In May, a pastoralist boasted to Brisbane Courier-Mail journalist Tony Koch that he had driven a bulldozer "through the bora rings and they finished up in the creek — never to be found again".

Rumours of destruction of sites around Carnarvon Gorge cannot be confirmed because the local Gungarri people are not allowed on the leases, "which is precisely what this whole argument is about. Part of native title rights is the right for Aboriginal people to go on to leases to examine, document and revitalise their cultural heritage, and they're not being permitted to do so."

In Queensland, there is heritage protection legislation, but Aboriginal people do not have to be asked for their opinion or judgments in protecting their own heritage.

Taylor does not see pastoralists as the only source of the problem: "It is all the financial operators, the banks, the people in parliament, land speculators, real estate people — all the people who have gained by the occupation of the land by the pastoral industry and who stand to benefit", he said.

[Martin Taylor's 36-page Bludgers in Grass Castles: Native Title and the Unpaid Debts of the Pastoral Industry will be published by Resistance Books in association with Green Left Weekly in December. It will be available for $3.95.]

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