PETER HYLANDS reflects on our own conduct towards nature and the impact our conduct has on indigenous cultures.
“We spend an awful lot of money on art galleries and concert halls so we can celebrate our own achievements and this is of course quite right and proper, but I think it should be taken into consideration that there might be another Rembrandt born, there might be another Mozart born, but if you exterminate an animal like this, it is gone forever and no amount of technology will recreate it”.
The hazards of filming in remote locations include being eaten, bitten or squashed by a range of wild things. The list of these wild things is long but includes crocodiles, alligators, pythons, tiger sharks, stone fish, hippos, lions, elephants, hyenas, taipans, brown snakes, cone shells, scorpions, mosquitoes and spiders. It probably sounds odd to say it, but I actually like the idea that the possibility of being eaten still exists in the ever diminishing wild places on earth.
In our lives we count ourselves to be very lucky in having lived with, and sometimes rescued, some of the most poisonous and dangerous creatures on earth. We learnt that it is perfectly possible to share the earth with wildlife. The most painful thing I can remember from years of close encounters with wildlife is a jellyfish sting off the coast of Penang.
The very worst idea is to go to a place, set up home, and then systematically destroy everything that surrounds you, callous and unknowing.
If we know about and respect the animals and plants that we share the earth with, and critically important for our species, that we protect and respect wild habitats and do not continue to endanger biodiversity, we will come to understand that the survival of species of all kinds, animals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects and plants, are directly linked to our own futures.
I often think about GERALD DURRELL and what he would think if he could see the state of these things today.
“People understand what we are talking about, people are starting to realise the rate and veracity that we are tearing up our ecology all over the world. This is not just a question of saving fluffy animals or a beautiful looking panda. In actual fact what you are doing is trying to save yourself and this is the most important thing. Animals are a barometer, they show you if they start declining, they show you that you are doing something wrong with your eco-system and if your eco-system collapses on you because of this, then you become extinct together with the animals”.
Culture and nature
We travel from Kenya via the Middle East to Australia, from living in a tent in the Rift Valley to a hotel on Sydney Harbour, the Sydney Harbour Bridge is above us. We go from a tent with no electricity or running water and surrounded by wild animals, to every comfort imaginable and only humans as companions. I am not far from my old office on Sydney’s Circular Quay, and outside, the hustle and bustle of ferries, which pass in a dance like procession in the view framed by our bedroom window. This is familiar territory, it is good to be back in this great global city.
Glass of wine in my hand, I reach for the hotel’s lavish publication sitting on the unit above the fridge. I flick through the pages of smiling faces, spas, vineyards, restaurants and beaches. There towards the middle of these pages is an article; climate change is unproven, the science is not there, the world is cooling and on it goes. I think to myself, what an earth is this doing in the pages of this book? I suspect this is a paid advertorial, unannounced, by a member of the highest per capita carbon polluting nation on earth, defending their patch and economic place in the world. Meanwhile the Maasai walk for water.
What I see in the natural world makes me think of the impact of its decline on the indigenous cultures of the world and the idea of the connection or disconnection of peoples to the natural systems of the world we live in.
In terms of human society, the world’s indigenous peoples are in the frontline when it comes to the impacts caused by the destruction of the natural world, whether home is deep in a rainforest, in a remote dryland or the most distant ocean, no one can escape our actions. We impact their worlds and a way of life and the cultural traditions that accompany it.
Make no mistake, indigenous people are our barometer too.
In Maasailand, drought has made life increasingly difficult, the often daily walk for women and children to collect water grows ever longer, the distance travelled by the men to find pasture for the cattle and goats grows ever further. The men face long periods away from home, so do the young male children who help their fathers to look after the animals. The young child with a spear minding the goats is a long way away from a classroom and education.
The reality for the Maasai is whether or not their traditional way of life is sustainable, given the significant changes to weather patterns in the Rift Valley. If the dry conditions continue or become more severe what can be done to defend and maintain long standing traditions? In the Creative cowboy series, Film essays of Maasai life, we explore the pressures on culture and community and on traditional ways of life from a range of external influences.
Many Maasai now see education as essential to the future of their children, particularly the opportunity to access senior school and tertiary education.
There is far less wildlife in the Rift Valley than there once was, much of its destruction occurred in the earlier part of the twentieth century and much of what remains is in game reserves such as the Maasai Mara. The great biodiversity, the wildlife and the habitat of the Rift Valley have played a significant role in sustaining Maasai culture by providing other income sources through tourism and employment, much of it knowledge based. The Kenyan and Tanzanian Governments are very aware of this.
Maasai know a lot about their environment and the species with which they live, they understand in great depth the impact of a changing climate and its impact on their traditional sources of income. Loosing cattle or goats in drought is an economic disaster for Maasai families, it can also mean starvation.
What is evident about Maasai society is that environmental changes combined with external pressures will continue to have a significant impact on Maasai culture in the next few years. Not least, is the relatively new trend, and perhaps economic necessity of selling off traditional lands for development, partly forced by changes to the patterns of nature, including of course, rainfall.
“We find people who have had lots of cattle losing them and their life style completely changes. You find people moving to town to get other jobs… Climate change can be attributed to the loss of culture”
As well as the changing climate threat to indigenous culture and tradition, other threats can be imposed by non indigenous cultures on the traditional ways of life of indigenous peoples. The clearing of rainforests around the world is an example of this.
I will now take you to Australia’s Arnhem Land, when I look at the early photos of Oenpelli, taken by the British anthropologist Sir BALDWIN SPENCER about 100 years ago, it is possible to identify changes in vegetation, today there are fewer trees on the Oenpelli flood plain. The introduced water buffalo and cattle have done their work on the edges of billabongs, erosion and the destruction of native vegetation result, disturbing the breeding grounds of native birds and animals.
Sitting by a remote billabong in Arnhem Land is a different experience to the one it once was. We go back to 1935 and far away to Gordonvale in Queensland. The Australian Bureau of Sugar Experimental Stations released its first batch of cane toads imported from Hawaii (cane toads are native to Central and South America) at Gordonvale in that year, in an experiment to reduce the impact of cane beetles on sugar cane crops in North Queensland.
The cane toad had little impact on protecting sugar cane crops but proceeded to devastate wildlife populations including marsupials (such as Quolls), birds and reptiles. This happened because cane toads are highly toxic when eaten. The vast numbers of cane toads have also had an impact on other amphibian species in the parts of Australia where they now exist. For a very long time, little was done to slow the spread of the cane toad. In Australia the cane toad is not officially recognised as what is described as ‘a threatening process’, because not all Australian States consider toads to be a problem (cane toads have not spread to all of the states for now). There is a greater effort to slow the spread of the cane toad in Australia today but the problem is now so overwhelming and the cane toad is so widely distributed that it is too late to repair the immense damage done.
In the early 2000’s the cane toads’ front line crossed Arnhem Land and Kakudu, they have now reached the Kimberley in Western Australia, and, to the south, the southern parts of Queensland and on into New South Wales. Once established in a place, cane toad numbers increase rapidly, and disastrously for Australia’s wildlife, are highly toxic in all their developmental stages: eggs, tadpoles, toadlets and adult toads. They have no successful predators in Australia.
The enormity of the wet season in 2011 looks as if it has accelerated an increase in numbers of cane toads in Australia’s Northern Territory and North Queensland.
Traditional owner (Creative cowboy’s Knowledge, painting and country) JACOB NAYINGGUL talks about the impact of the arrival of the cane toad in Arnhem Land on a traditional way of life (from a conversation with Australian Broadcasting Commission’s TIM LEE in 2006).
“Yes, yes and traditional teaching. Goanna’s name is in teaching ceremonies, too. I’ve seen 50 or 60 dead Johnson’s freshwater crocs, bellies up, and I thought straight away they might have been having a feed at cane toads”
“It would be wise to recognise that and try to put some thought – how we would save the goanna”
For JACOB also, sitting by his remote billabong in Arnhem Land is now a very different experience, gone, much of the wildlife, and gone, much of the Aboriginal peoples’ traditional food source. As a consequence of an ill conceived act a long time ago, one thoughtlessly introduced species in Australia, will continue to have a significant impact on the traditional food sources of indigenous people. This impact risks, not only long held cultural practices, but the health outcomes for indigenous people, already suffering health consequences from the introduction and to the easy access of the modern western diet, fast and packaged foods laden with sugar and salt.
Water, water everywhere
One hot and windy day on Erub BULLY SAILOR described to me his fight for sea rights. These rights, so essential because of the plundering of the sea and destruction of the reefs by fishing fleets coming to the Torres Strait, diminishing the future livelihoods and food sources of the islanders.
This led me to contemplate some of the other issues faced by the salt water or sea people of Northern Australia (both Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people).
For at least a generation the ‘walls of death’, that is when drift nets become ghost nets, have floated silently through Australia’s Northern seas, nets lost and discarded by fishing trawlers and fleets from distant lands. These nets, up to four kilometres in length, continue to fish as they float unattended through the ocean, an indiscriminate and silent slaughter in the ocean, and later when the nets are washed ashore, an indiscriminate slaughter on the land. The dolphins, the turtles (there are six species in the region), the sawfish, the dugongs, the sharks, the fish, the birds, the seals – the list goes ever on.
In the last few years a remarkable thing has happened, in collecting these nets from land and sea, an indigenous art movement has come to life. Here is an extract from the GhostNets Australia website.
“The remoteness of northern Australia restricts access to plastic recycling plants in both other parts of the country and the world. Consequently disposal of the huge amount of rubbish found on these beaches has placed an enormous burden on local refuse systems (mostly landfills). A solution to this dilemma has been through an innovative project where GhostNets Australia, through its large network of renowned fibre artists, facilitates workshops that marry traditional weaving and fibre techniques with these modern materials. The result is fantastic artworks”.
The discarded nets are collected by indigenous rangers and the artists themselves, if animals and fish are still alive they are disentangled and set free. What needs to happen of course is for the regions governments, particularly of South East Asia, Japan and Taiwan, to toughen the laws relating to international fishing activities and to register and inspect fishing nets on a regular basis. All nets should have an electronic tag so that owners can be identified and lost nets located. While indigenous people are in the frontline of the consequences of this destruction and desecration of the sea and its creatures, current behaviour can be in no one’s interest, particularly that of the international fishing fleets themselves.
What is obvious from our own travels in the Torres Strait is that some of the regions islands are very low lying and only just above sea level while islands such as Erub (Darnley Island) have volcanic origins and have, as a consequence, a significant amount of land that is well above sea level. Conversely, the top Western group of Torres Strait islands, mangrove country, composed mainly from sediments deposited by the rivers of nearby New Guinea, are very low lying and increasingly subject to flooding. There are of course a number of other islands, particularly the coral cays, in the Torres Strait facing a significant danger of flooding.
The Torres Strait Regional Authority estimated that:
“Approximately 27% of our island communities are affected by climate change”
The changes are higher tides, stronger winds, changing rainfall patterns, increasing temperatures and changing disease patterns. Many of the trends and patterns occurring in the Torres Strait are unknown to oral histories, which means there are no ways of knowing what the changes will bring, changes well beyond the ability of the islanders to influence other than building defensive walls to keep the sea out, a short term solution at best. These changes are delivered to the islanders by the polluting industries of the western industrial countries and of Asia.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park ends as the Australian mainland ends at the tip of Cape York Peninsula, the park ending where the Torres Strait begins. the ecosystems to the north of the park, the corals and the species that live there unprotected.
PETER HYLANDS comments on some of these issues in Australia’s precious and remote places:
“Because of the destruction of habitat and other influences such as the spread of the cane toad affecting a decline in Australia’s biodiversity this is a time when Australia’s islands should be acting as an ark for many of its endangered species. Even the remotest and most precious islands are now under significant pressure from foolish managed investment schemes, mining and resource activities, inappropriate tourism developments and the establishment of detention centres to name but a few. Destruction of biodiversity or cultural assets can be the result of ignorance or can just be a case of being out-of-sight and out-of-mind. Barrow Island, Christmas Island, in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park major industrial developments on Curtis Island and Balaclava Island, the danger of port developments to islands such as Peak Island and the dangers of industrial development to the reef itself, then the significant West Atlas oil spill or the environmental and cultural destruction on the great Murujuga (Burrup) are examples of how things could have been done differently – there are so many more.
Australia’s Kimberley is now also under great pressure from resources and energy developments, once places or species or cultures are destroyed they can never be made again. The legacy of these actions, turns out to be particularly hard on indigenous people, causing loss of country and culture, long term displacement and division within communities. The later, so often part of a game plan to achieve the required outcomes. Australian media are so often missing in action when it comes to these matters”.