Environmental Mismanagement in Australia's Far North

Article excerpt

For almost a century Australians have been concerned about the settlement of their tropical north (Basedow 1932; Crowley 1960; Graham-Taylor 1980). Because of the region's sparse population and its proximity to Asia, they have feared they would lose it to a land- and food-hungry "yellow horde" (Western Australian Parliamentary Debates 1925; Willard 1967; Crowley 1974, 274, 293; Chapman 1992). This xenophobic anxiety, deeply imbedded in the White Australia policy, was formally encoded in the Federal Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. The White Australia policy prohibited the entry into Australia of any person who could not, upon command of a government officer, write a passage of fifty words in a European language, a test that the federal Parliament agreed was to be given only to non-Europeans (MacIntyre 1920; Borrie and others 1947; Spate 1968, 154; Clark 1981, 5, 131-132).

One outgrowth of Australia's xenophobia was the undertaking of a joint venture between the federal government and the government of Western Australia to encourage settlement by Europeans in the Ord River Valley [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], in a region known as the Kimberleys (Cannegieter 1964, 375). Planners and others projected that after building two dams, one of which would create a huge artificial lake, 75,000 hectares would be opened to irrigated farming in Western Australia and the adjoining Northern Territory (Robertson and Chapman 1985; DAWAWA 1987; MAWRNW 1990a, 1990b). Construction of a diversion dam began in 1961 [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED], and in May 1963 the first farm was irrigated. Several other farms began operations the next year, and by 1966 thirty-one of them had been allocated to settlers. Soon more than 2,500 hectares were under cultivation, 90 percent of them in cotton (Young 1979, 25; Walker 1992, 185).

In April 1969 work began on the main or Ord River Dam. When the dam was completed in 1972, it created Lake Argyle, which provided a more certain supply of water and offered the potential for a considerable expansion of irrigated farming [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]. For a number of economic, institutional, and biological reasons, cotton and sundry other large-scale agricultural endeavors failed, however. Not until the 1980s did a more diversified strategy that included horticulture and forage crops for cattle produce a small but viable farm economy. By 1996, 10,500 hectares were under cultivation in the Ord. Although the area farmed fell far short of initial hopes and aspirations, some planners predict that by the year 2020, with private infrastructural development, 60,000 hectares of farmland will be irrigated (Johnston 1993, 6; Neales 1996).

For decades Australians have considered the Ord River Scheme an economic failure, and it has frequently been tagged as the continent's shining example of a great white elephant (Davidson 1965, 1982; MAWRNW 1990a, 1990b; Walker 1992). Unfortunately, few Australian critics have been willing to acknowledge the real origins of the scheme - xenophobia, foremost, but also various benefits of a noneconomic or nonfarm nature: nation building, the perceived threat of an Asian invasion, and tourism. By the early 1990s the small town of Kununurra and the surrounding region were attracting more than 100,000 tourists a year and generating more income than farming produced (WADA 1985; McQuie 1990; Johnston 1993).(1)

In another and no less significant key, few students of the Ord River Scheme have noted that it is an egregious example of state mismanagement and exploitation of a distant periphery for the benefit of those whose real allegiances lie some 3,200 kilometers distant. Like all faraway frontiers, Australia's north has been seen as a resource to plunder.


Assuming that irrigated farming would be successful, the ultimate life of the Ord River Scheme would depend on how well the watershed was safeguarded. …