Solutions to Australia’s rural crisis

April 29, 2017

Australia is the most urbanised country on earth. Almost 90% of Australians live in urban areas, while rural Australia, as of 2010–11, had only 134,000 farm businesses employing 307,000 people to manage 52% of Australia — 417.3 million hectares of land, including the 46.3% of Australia that is marginal land.

In rural areas plagues of feral animals destroy land management infrastructure, drive native plants and animals into extinction and strip vegetation from the soil and creek banks, allowing the topsoil to be flushed down the rivers by the increasingly intensive rain events or blown away in dust storms because rain is less frequent.

Meanwhile, a concentrated attack has been launched on land owners by corporations. Aboriginal communities have been moved from their traditional lands into townships on various pretexts, including by cutting the water supply to remote communities, so the mining industry can have free access to their lands.

The abolition of marketing boards and the fair minimum pricing regulations they set has allowed the supermarket corporate duopoly to drive farmers into poverty. The managers of our prime farmland — dairy, fruit and vegetable growers — are pushed out of the industry as farm gate prices remain below costs and food processing industries are moved offshore or run for investor profit rather than farm returns.

Both foreign and domestic corporate interests work with banks to buy up the best agricultural land by whatever dirty trick they can manage, so they can directly export our best produce for premium prices, leaving cheap and toxic imports, produced with polluted water and slave labour, for domestic consumption.

Once they own the land, there is nothing to stop these Big Agriculture corporations from establishing the toxic industrial agriculture that has destroyed American farmland and small farmers.

Farmers who manage to cling to their farms are increasingly crushed by lack of alternatives to corporate supermarket contracts and turn into powerless managers contracted to fill quotas with specified seed and toxic chemicals, at whatever cost to themselves and their land.

Mining industry

Unconstrained fracking and unconventional gas mining is attacking Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. The nuclear industry and the Adani and Shenhua coalmines will directly poison the Great Artesian Basin and Australian food production and the major parties have been bought off to allow it.

Traditional Owners, joining with farming communities and environmental activists, are maintaining the fight against the mining industry and keeping this industry at bay. But they are up against powerful interests that have unlimited resources to fight in the courts and lobby governments. This is a fight they cannot win alone. The power for real political change lies in hands of urban Australians, which is why ABC rural coverage has been gutted to keep the cities ignorant of the threat to their clean food and water and who is to blame for it.

For example, too many urban Australians believe farmers are the sole cause of land clearing. They are unaware that the Land cover change in Queensland 2012–13 and 2013–14 report shows tree coverage in Queensland has increased by 437,000 hectares over the three years, despite the clearing of 300,000 hectares in the same period. Much of the rest of the clearing was in the 80% of the state that was drought declared, where there was reliance for livestock fodder on resilient acacia and mulga, which regrow vigorously after rain.

Should we just lock up rural Australia in national parks? Not without funding enough rangers to manage them. All national parks are becoming areas where feral animals and feral weeds breed, both of which are making our native species extinct.

If we are to bring about the fundamental changes in agricultural production needed to secure a safe climate for generations to come, we need to unite against the power of the corporations. Working people, particularly farmers, are looking for alternatives. They are open to radical constructive solutions, and so there are opportunities for people with these solutions to build coalitions that can take the struggle forward.

The corporate control of our major political parties and mainstream media is encouraging division and building far right populist forces such as One Nation to divide and rule. We have to take the agenda out of the hands of the corporations, the corporate media and their rightwing political puppets.

Alternative budget

Methods of communication and organisation that bypass rural isolation, such as the internet, Facebook and non-Murdoch newspapers like Green Left Weekly, are vital tools. To tackle the xenophobia and hatred fuelling the growth of One Nation, we need to redirect the current “lifeboat politics” created by austerity.

This encourages working Australians to battle over budgetary crumbs to help their own communities and needy survive, at the cost of sacrificing refugees and foreign aid. The money is there to build a sustainable Australia that can look after everyone and continue to welcome those in need.

We have to consistently challenge the corporations and their major and minor party puppets, and call for closing tax loopholes and taxing corporations at least at small business rates; ending public handouts to mining corporations and the fossil fuel industry, private schools and private health care; and cutting the billions wasted on warplanes that don’t work and submarines we don’t need.

If we had an alternative budget incorporating these reforms, it would more than fund constructive solutions to: build sustainable Australian agriculture and food processing industries and the infrastructure required to service them; set-up a national feral animal cull and harvest to both protect our native species from extinction and to use as food and products; and pay for comprehensive public welfare, free health and free education.

It can also fund creating jobs building alternative industries in renewables and clean technology, such as electric vehicle manufacture; a government-funded and insured program to help farmers convert to sustainable agro-ecological methods; and infrastructure, such as high-speed rail, high-speed cheap internet and phone access for all Australians, large-scale renewable generation, and merchant-fleet building to supply our island nation.

And it would still allow funding for compassionate help for refugees and foreign aid.

Threat to water

The biggest threat to our future is the quiet war on our clean water. Australia is the driest continent that is farmable. Clean water is our greatest natural resource, and artesian water is our only reliable supply.

We don’t really know how our Great Artesian Basin works. Queensland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) consultants have developed a model that shows present groundwater uses are currently sustainable except in the aquifers used by the coal seam gas (CSG) and coal mining industries.

The DNR has no power to limit the water taken by gas and mining corporations. Their “unlimited” take will be more than 3000 gigalitres, or the equivalent of six Sydney Harbour volumes, in Queensland alone.

The only “new” water left for agriculture in other artesian aquifers from Roma to Toowoomba is 840 megalitres a year from the deepest aquifer, the Precipice. Some 5900 megalitres supposed to have been left in it from the old management plan have mysteriously disappeared. A bore into the Precipice aquifer will cost more than $600,000 — depending on depth — far beyond the reach of the average family farmer.

Santos has bought previous water allocations from the Precipice for “irrigation” at what they consider an exorbitant price of $4000/megalitre. This price values the water presently poisoned and wasted by CSG and mining companies at $240 million a year — for mining royalties paid to the government of $35 million a year

And then there is Adani. Adani has just been given a license by the Queensland government to take an unlimited amount of water, self-regulated, from the Galilee Basin, which they will have to drain to mine their coal, drawing it out through the coal seam and loading it with carcinogens to pump out into our catchments and water supplies.

We need to be proactive in working with Traditional Owners, local farmers, truckies and communities to organise a blockade of the Adani and Shenhua coal mines when construction begins. This is our Standing Rock and it cannot win unless support is coordinated with urban Australia. We need to show leadership, to coordinate and unite social, environmental and labour movements to take on the corporations, as none of us can survive without clean food and water, and we cannot stand alone. Join us.

[Elena Garcia is a co-author with Alan Broughton of Sustainable Agricuture versus Corporate Greed, available from Resistance Books, a free range cattle farmer on marginal land in western Queensland and a member of Socialist Alliance.]

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