Kachana Landscape Management Workshop 2004
History and introduction
By Chris Henggeler, Kachana Pastoral Company, September 2004
The back ground since 1985:
Hundreds of hours spent on foot and in light air-craft covering the rugged landscapes of the upper rainfall-catchment areas of the Ord, Dunham, Pentecost, King, Wilson, Salmond, Chamberlain, Train and Hann Rivers in the wild Kimberley region of North-West Australia have taken me from a search for challenge and opportunity to the gradual realisation that I may be witnessing a degradation of a similar magnitude to the one I witnessed in my youth when growing up in the water-shed areas of the Eastern Highlands of the former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
Although situations in Northern Australia and Southern Africa differ vastly, some similarities are disturbing:
- Water holes sanding up
- A steady decline in perennial stream-flow
- Flash flooding
- Drought effects
- Loss of biomass
- Loss of soil
- Loss of profitability in primary production enterprises
The Sabi River (Mozambique) used to support a healthy perennial flow and was dotted with reedy islands visited regularly by herds of cape-buffalo and other wild life that flourished along its banks. Now the Save (as the River has been renamed) is a major contributor of floodwaters to downstream Mozambique.
The Dunham River (on the right hand side as we look at the photo) has been engaged in soil-export for as long as local people can remember... But can the soil-building processes up-stream keep up with replacing the loss?
Much debate surrounds these issues and land mangers are confronted with much unsolicited advice. Not all seems workable and local knowledge lacks the scientific authority to challenge departmental decree. Two scenarios in particular, strike a chord with some of us who make the day-to-day decisions that directly impact the productivity of our broader landscapes...
Tim Flannery argues a case of a finite resource base in which humans have apparently been instrumental in the demise of Australia's mega-fauna, an associated wild-fire holocaust and resource crash. The result was a delicate ecological balance sustained by aboriginal burning practices and behaviour patterns. Since the more recent arrival of “modern-day” humans this balance too, has been upset... our management therefore will determine our future. (“The Future Eaters” by Tim Flannery ISBN 1-87633-421-5)
The Allan Savory school of thought suggests that four fundamental eco-system processes are continually at work in the shaping of what we see around us. Energy from the sun drives these processes enabling terrestrial systems to be part of a manageable and renewable resource base. Almost every human action can at some point in time be correlated to a direct impact on one or more of these eco-system function processes. The key to sustainability therefore lies not in what we humans actually do, but in the context within which we humans make our decisions. Savory is instrumental in influencing land-managers around the world to take a deeper look at the highly dynamic situations they deal with and then to define a single long-term goal that includes a description of the resource base (now and how it must be), the needs of the people who depend on those resources and what needs to happen to satisfy those needs. (“Holistic Management - A New Framework for Decision Making” by Allan Savory with Jody Butterfield ISBN 1-55963-488-X)
While both the above can lead us to conclude that modern-day Australians have inherited an environment that is not as productive as it could be, scientists like Dr Elaine Ingham and Dr Christine Jones point out that taking a closer look at soil and the life in soil is one of the surest measures to find out which way the economy of a farm or a nation is going: If soil erodes so does the basis of a nation's economy.
Soil would have been eroding off Australian landscapes for a very long time and for all sorts of reasons. While the apostles of modern science remain locked in debate the erosion process of our natural resources continues.
The process continued while new diseases depopulated large portions of aboriginal Australia.
The process continued while foreign land-management practices were introduced.
The process continued when industries failed.
Locally on Kachana, as in most upper-river rainfall-catchment areas that were not immediately suitable for commercial exploitation, we suspect a pattern of events that differs from that of the conventional commercially attractive areas:
- On arrival of the pastoral industry to a region the human "management" in these "inaccessible and unproductive" areas was progressively abandoned...
- As natural fuel loads increased (initially in areas that supported annual vegetation) so the fire-patterns began to change...
- Locally unprecedented chains of events were set in motion, providing unlimited fuel for political and academic debate...
- New biological vacuums were created and new combinations of species would fill them if succession would permit it...
- But under the net effect of local management actions succession seems to ignore government rulings, scientific speculation as well as opportunistic action by choosing to favour a regression from perennial to annual species until eventually there actually is less to burn...
- By 1992 when we took on the management of Kachana certain key areas could no longer support a fire...
- The October 1996 fire proved to be another milestone of dubious worth: the country has not been able to support a fire like it since...
Blaming the donkey, cow or owner for environmental destruction we see today is like blaming the opportunist who steels the battery out of a wrecked car for having caused the accident. The 'pile up' actually began when somebody simply took 'the foot off the accelerator' in a fast moving lane of ecological traffic: In this case the human who had been exhausting 100% of "excess fuel" into the atmosphere had suddenly (in geological time-frames) left the ecological equation...
It would seem that as she always does, Nature continued to call for balance: Managed and unmanaged "New Australian mega-fauna" tried their bit...
Were the old-timers more attuned to the land than we are? (I think so.)
Did the “environmental damage” attributed to the pastoral industry in the Kimberley begin with the introduction of cattle or with the lack of commercial justification during WWII when managerial abandonment once again affected vast tracts of land? (My guess is the latter.)
Looking at a broader Australian scene it is reasonably safe to say that pre Captain Cook this continent did not sustain a lifestyle for more than three million humans, all of whom happened to know what they needed to do to survive. It is equally safe to say that today the same continent could now no longer support the same type of life-style to the same number of humans even if they knew what needed to be done. The challenge has changed and old responses would fail.
“Making use of introduced mega-fauna to reduce soil-erosion, fire, smoke and pollution and to restore biodiversity and productivity to Australian landscapes.” is simply not a politically correct notion.
(Why else would a subject as important as this not attract political attention?)
By 1997 when a new statewide land act literally put us on the wrong side of the politically correct fence line, we were well on the way to exploring low-tech options to reverse undesirable trends in our rangeland.
The irony of the situation is that in the same year in which local graziers were exposed to “new” options to rejuvenate their landscapes, new legislation virtually wiped out any incentive to explore these options beyond immediate existing commercial enterprise levels...
This may not be all bad. There may also be short-term benefit in this: New and introduced technology needs to be tested before it is officially endorsed and promoted. In a sense this can now happen if we want it to...
In the Kimberley we have a number of “experiments” running concurrently:
- “Locked up” country in the Lake Argyle catchment managed by the Ag Department
- Pastoral management that adheres to the prevailing notion of “less, but higher gross-margin animals”
- Vast areas that are being managed to serve varied interests of Aboriginal groups
- Former pastoral country that has been destocked and is now managed by CALM
- Destocked areas that are now being privately managed for “conservation” type outcomes.
- A number of trials on Kachana using large herbivores:
Alligator Creek Revitalization Project