The war on locusts in inland Australia, 1946-2010

On 8 June 2016 Professor Andrea Gaynor from the University of Western Australia discussed her paper 'The war on locusts in inland Australia, 1946-2010' as part of the Centre for the Study of the Inland's seminar series.

Andrea Gaynor is Associate Professor of History at The University of Western Australia. Primarily an environmental historian, she is currently working on an ARC-funded project on the environmental history of the Mallee lands of southern Australia, as well as projects on histories of fishing,and nature and modernity in Australia.

Andrea delivered the first research seminar for the new Centre for the Study of the Inland.

Overview

In Australia, the incursion of farmers into interior districts from the 1870s took them into locust country, populated in most years by localised high-density swarms of the native Australian plague locust (Chortoicetes terminifera). Less frequent, more widespread population booms were characterised by the farmers (and later their supporting agricultural institutions) as locust plagues.

Using examples drawn from the Mallee lands, Professor Gaynor's paper traces how the human settler population ‘made war’ with locusts on their home territory, as the two communities competed for the food being produced in these areas. Following the research of Edmund Russell, Gaynor’s paper focuses on human efforts to control locusts as illuminating some of the diverse relationships between war and nature: from the prevalence of military metaphors in early locust encounters to the use of RAAF planes to spray Lindane (a highly persistent organochlorine pesticide) over the Victorian Mallee in 1946.

While Russell concluded his examination of ideological, technological and organisational links between chemical warfare and pest control in the 1960s, Gaynor’s paper follows similar connections in the Australian context into the 1970s and beyond.

Prior to the 1970s, the war on locusts was widely conceived of and operationalised in conventional military terms— as defensive action against a hostile invader. While this paradigm was never abandoned, the creation of the Australian Plague Locust Commission in 1974, near the end of the Vietnam War, signalled the beginning of a shift in strategy. This shift was one more akin to counter insurgency, based on coordinated surveillance and mobile strikes on breeding events in the arid locust heartland.

By the 2000s, the locust control rhetoric closely mirrored that of the war on terror. The locusts remain, however, irrepressible, as a major outbreak in 2010 revealed.

The war on locusts in inland Australia, 1946-2010

Listen to Andrea Gaynor's seminar on The war on locusts in inland Australia 1946-2010.

transcript

The war on locusts in inland Australia, 1946-2010

Andrea Gaynor: Thank you for coming along, it’s lovely to see so many friends and esteemed scholars and new scholars. So this research really started as part of the Mallee Lands Project which I’m working on with Katie, Richard, Charles, and Ruth, although it’s inevitably taken me beyond the Mallee lands to the entire interior – to ‘the inland’. So I think it’s appropriate to be giving this seminar in the fabulous new Centre for the Study of the Inland. It is a work in progress, I feel like some of the ideas are still being digested, so feedback is very welcome.

Again, thanks for the opportunity to come here and talk to you.

So I’ll introduce our key subject, the Australian plague Locust Latin name Chortoicetes terminifera. These are often known as grasshoppers or locusts, interchangeably, and they’re found throughout the inland. They are usually solitary insects, but on certain occasions, they will come together and become what scientists call ‘gregarious’ and they then travel; they can migrate large distances in large flocks/swarms - I need to get my collective nouns right - large swarms! When it rains in the interior, in the arid lands, this is what will trigger a kind of swarming formation. So it rains, they breed, and when there are second consecutive generations, they can form large populations and these can migrate and if they find areas where it’s rained they can breed some more, migrate some more and then you get what has come to be called a locust plague.

So, locust country as you can see it covers a great deal of the interior, the inland. This is, of course, just the eastern part of Australia and I feel a bit odd putting up a map like this, being from the west. Today I am going to be talking only about the eastern locust country. We do have grasshoppers/locusts in the west, and we do have locust plagues, but to some extent, they’re a different species to the Australian plague locust which I’m focusing on today.

The story I’m telling today ends with the Australian Plague Locust Commission and this is the area in which it operates (shows map) it can see it here along with the Australian Plague Locust Commission bases and areas of responsibility for the other two locusts that they deal with, the spur-throated and migratory locust.

As land was grazed and cleared, the colonists unwittingly increased locust habitat and starting in the late nineteenth century large outbreaks became more common. So, I think these plagues were to a large extent of the colonists own making. You can see this chart, which has been compiled by researchers at the Australian Plague Locust Commission, shows that the outbreaks were quite irregular and highly dependent on environmental factors. So rains in the inland, followed by rain in surrounding areas allowed the locusts to become gregarious, breed and then migrate.

Now thinking about the historiography of locusts and human insect relations Ted Denison at ANU and the Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources have done some really terrific work on scientific response to locust plagues, although he situates these in the context of international ecological theory rather than the broader cultural context that I’m going to be talking about today. But still, his work is a really useful foundation for my own work.

I’ve also drawn ideas from the work of environmental historian Edmund Russell who has examined relationships between war and nature through the case study of insect pests and pesticides. And Russell argues that war and control of nature coevolved and each influenced the other in three main areas: ideas, material, and organisation. And these categories have informed my own work on locusts in the Australian context. Although Russell concluded his examination of the ideological, technological and organisational links between chemical warfare and pest control in the 1960s, whereas I’m following similar connections in the Australian context into the 1970s and beyond.

Now environmental historians are very used to the idea of war on nature, especially in places like the Mallee lands where settlers found the vegetation and the climate harsh and alienating and metaphors of war in battling the elements to produce farms and crops were ubiquitous. Here, too, there were material connections between a war on people and war on nature, for example, with ex-military tanks being used to clear Mallee woodland in the 1950s. Here’s a great example that I came across in Hyden [shows image] where somebody has even welded part of an old water tank to the top of a military tank to protect from the sun beating down on the Mallee. This was situated on the edge of a resort at Lake Magic which is a salt lake in the Hyden district. Curious thing.

So what’ different about the locust example is the ubiquity of connections which to me at least were quite confronting; so here’s an example of a literal war being waged against nature using the same strategies, techniques, even the same vehicles used to deploy war on humans. Change in one area influenced change in another in really quite obvious ways. Although in the case of Australian plague locusts, connections flowed mainly one way from war on humans to war on locusts. So this is essentially what I’m arguing. As such locusts provide an extreme case of the general pattern of the agricultural and pastoral colonisation of Australia, which involved the occupation of the country and the pacification of the indigenous peoples through military and other means.

So from the very beginning of colonisation military metaphors and means were deployed to control unruly and insurrectionary spaces and especially indigenous threats from the interior or the inland. This settler/colonial mindset combined with long-standing associations between locusts and warfare to make the Australian war on locusts a potent symbol of settler ambitions. As James Scott points out, the nature of military threat requires clearly defined and easily monitored and controlled state spaces. So I rely on Scott a little in interpreting particularly the latter part of this story.

So as the potential extent of locust outbreak areas in the interior was increasingly recognised in the mid-20th century, so was the state’s inability to monitor let alone control such vast areas. But from the 1970s, after three decades of almost uninterrupted engagement in warfare overseas, Australia was finally achieving centralised control and the technological means to make the unruly inland a state space. As the ongoing locust threat suggests, however, this project is far from complete.

So let’s start with the bible. I owe this one to Lil – who said ‘you should talk about locusts in the bible’ and she was absolutely right! So the entanglement of locusts and warfare goes right back to and perhaps beyond biblical times when locusts were one of the armies of God. So in Exodus, there’s a locust plague unleashed by Moses when the pharaoh won’t let the Israelites go to worship the lord. And this is intended to be a potent symbol of God’s power to be told among the Israelites for generations to come. Locusts had this incredible symbolic power. In the book of Joel, one of the Minor Prophets, there’s a fantastic description of an apocalyptic event involving a locust plague. So I’ll read a bit of the scripture for you: ….the land is like the Garden of Eden before them, but behind them, a desolate wilderness and nothing escapes them. Their appearance is like the appearance of horses and like war horses they run. As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of mountains. Like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble. Like a powerful army drawn up for battle. Before them peoples are in anguish, all faces grow pale. Like warriors they charge. Like soldiers they scale the wall. They march each on his way. They do not swerve from their paths.

This is the part of the story where God is testing the people of Zion. So when they assemble the congregation and pray to god, he has pity on them and relents and saying ‘I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eating, the hopper, the destroyer and the cutter, my great army I sent amongst you. So locusts in the bible are the lord’s army and a potent symbol of his power. But they’re very frequently represented in these highly militarised terms.

In Australia, of course, Aboriginal people will have traditions around locusts, and probably still do, but I have found very little about these. Certainly the settlers, however, imposed their own ideas about these native insects. So in the first recorded locust plague in Australia in 1844, the language of war was evident. For example (and thanks again Trove) we have something from Jerrys Plains, inland from Newcastle, in December 1844: ‘We’ve had a few remarkably cold days and nights which have operated like a Russian winter on the armies of locusts and grasshoppers, there is scarcely now one to be seen’. And again, you can see the terminology of grasshoppers and locusts was quite interchangeable. In the same year, when locusts fell upon the gardens and parklands of the infant township of Adelaide, it was suggested that the only effective remedy would be fire. Intriguingly, Aboriginal people in Adelaide said they’d never seen locusts in such numbers suggesting that even at this early stage grazing and clearing in locust country had provided conditions that encouraged gregariousness and migration. The colonists hypothesised that Aboriginal burning regimes had previously kept the locusts in check, and as these ceased, the insects were able to proliferate.

There were further locust plagues in the 1870s, 1888, 1891, and 1908 and these too were described using military terms. Landowners and settlers responded using fire [describes image – getting to them by burning]. So they used fires, ploughing up egg beds and with resignation. Some regarded them as a hazard they could do no more about then frost or hail, but into the 20th-century insecticides such as arsenic sprays were more widely deployed.

It was recognised quite early that the locusts came from the inland. During a plague in 1928 retired NSW government entomologist Walter Froggatt - he’s the guy who said that cane toads would become a pest. He declared his belief that locusts emerged in the western districts of NSW before making their way south and east into the agricultural districts. Though the collective noun for gregarious locusts is a swarm, even Froggatt referred to ‘large armies of locusts’ although is language was otherwise fairly neutral.

Now following hot on the heels of the Great Depression a really major outbreak occurred in 1934. And at this time newspapers provided a blow by blow account of the distribution of the swarms, the damage incurred, as well as the success of countermeasures. During this plague, the main strategy for combatting the advancing swarms was to mix arsenic with bran and lay the baits in their paths. A special report of the Argus conveyed the excitement of tackling the insects – quote: ‘An intense campaign of poisoning will begin tomorrow morning when the volunteers will rush to the area taking with them about 5 tonnes of poison which will be mixed with bran and spread in front of the insects’.

So the language of war was widespread in the reporting. Things like: ‘uncultivated areas were attacked’, there was ‘an invading horde’, ‘a campaign of poisoning’ farmers met to ‘discuss the plans for an attack on the swarms of grasshoppers’. However, this language wasn’t ubiquitous and was tempered by the more neutral language of natural disaster.

Poison baits were widely deployed although some spoke out against this practice, for example during the 1934 outbreak in the Mallee, Alex Chisholm, he of Mateship With Birds fame, cautioned against the widespread use of poison as this also killed the birds that preyed on the grasshoppers. He declined to describe these as allies so he didn’t use the militarised language. Instead, he suggested that we needed more knowledge of where, why and how large-scale outbreaks occurred. Similarly, James Barrett pointed to the ways in which insect plagues could be checked by carnivorous birds, and he used the example of his own pet brolga and the example of the seagull monument in Utah, which was raised by the Mormons after the miracle of the seagulls that were sent to destroy a locust plague. He finished with a call for more national parks, as James Barrett, would in order to preserve the balance of nature. So these advocates who saw nature as something to work with rather than against, were, however, in the minority.

Now the 1934 plague highlighted the lack of understanding of locust habits and movements and it really stimulated research on the locusts by researchers from the Waite Institute in South Australia and in New South Wales and Queensland by the CSIR in cooperation with state departments of agriculture. And both teams emphasised the importance of the inland in outbreaks and relevant areas were mapped. Locusts were also the focus of imperial research efforts, receiving top billing in an entomological conference held in London in 1935, which is the subject of this newspaper article. The convener of the conference Dr Neave of the Imperial Institute of Entomology declared that locusts were ‘man’s only serious competitors for natural dominion. If man relaxed his war on insects, the latter would get the upper hand’. So entomology had a critical role in imperial as well as national dominion over nature.

Meanwhile, in the context of increasingly worldwide military unrest, a locust plague emerged in QLD in 1937. And in one of the most militaristic approaches to this – an article published in the South Australian Mail reported thus: ‘Hopper plague in QLD. War declared’ and it went on to say ‘the Grasshopper Extermination Bill, rushed through parliament a few days ago, was a formal declaration of war that has been raging for three weeks. All landholders whose properties are infested have been conscripted where they have not previously volunteered’. Here the language of war is used to describe and justify landholder obligations in the event of a locust plague. Two years later, Germany invaded Poland triggering World War Two and I think this conflict, World War Two really played a key role in consolidating linkages between war on humans and war on insects, which was continued into the Cold War context of the Korean War and the Malay emergency and especially the Vietnam War.

Several authors have written about the development and deployment of the organic chlorine insecticides as part of the war effort, for example as John Perkins has shown, DDT was a compound developed under wartime conditions in Switzerland, first to safeguard food supplies, and second to protect the Swiss from Typhus brought in by war refugees. It was enthusiastically taken up by the US for food security reasons as well as military health reasons. Whilst such pesticides also played an important role in the Australian context, and there’s probably a lot more to be said about their role in linking military and capitalist networks, today I’m going to be focusing on the role of aviation as well as more general approaches to organisational strategy in the defensive of locust control.

Now the loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse to the Japanese off Malaya in December 1941 provided an early indicator of the importance of air power which came to dominate the war in the Pacific. While the success of British long range bombing campaigns against German cities was more controversial, I think to the population listening and watching from home, air power was seen as a really critical component of the successful military strategy. But there were also other airborne dangers. Although it wasn’t widely publicised at the time, malaria caused more Australian casualties than wounds in the Pacific theatre. And the ability of the Australian troops to keep fighting in Papua was solely reliant on the acquisition and distribution of anti-malarial drugs and other mosquito control measures. So anti-malaria units were established within the Australian military which undertook spraying with DDT as we can see here and physical destruction of mosquito breeding sites. And in 1945 RAAF Beaufort planes also began to spray DDT in New Guinea, New Britain, and Bougainville in order to protect troops. Now while DDT was ineffective against locusts, in the context of the broader significance of air power in the pacific war, as we shall see, this activity of controlling mosquitos using airplanes certainly made an impression on Australian farmers.

Now in Australia in the 1940s the insecticide of choice for locust control was BHC or benzene hexachloride otherwise known as gammaxene or Lindane. Gammaxene was one of the new organic chlorine insecticides developed during the Second World War and it was inspired by the example of DDT. Gemmaxene is a potent neurotoxin and a likely carcinogen it’s also persistent in the environment although it’s got a half-life of about 15 months in soil so it’s not as persistent as DDT. It is however highly toxic to fish and bees and it causes egg shell thinning in birds as the organic chlorines do and an international ban on its agricultural use was implemented in 2009 under the Stockholm Convention on POP or persistent organic pollutants. It’s quite nasty staff.

In spring of 1945, an RAAF aircraft equipped for DDT anti-mosquito spraying was used to treat a Rutherglen bug outbreak which threatened to destroy the stone fruit crop in Northern Victorian. Now after the Rutherglen bug had been dealt with attention turned to the locusts, which were unusually prevalent in the Victorian Mallee during that season. Now the equipment and the techniques used to spray mosquitos in the pacific war were found unsuitable for these agricultural purposes, but the CSIRO and the RAAF worked together to modify the aircraft and the approach that they used to achieve better results against the locusts and the Rutherglen bug. To find the best carrier for the pesticide solution they sought the assistance of the chemical warfare section of the munitions supply laboratories – I didn’t realise we had a chemical warfare section, but apparently, we did. Tests showed that diesel made the best and most effective carrier solution, so they sprayed gammaxene in diesel mixed into diesel. After a further process of field experimentation and modification, satisfactory results were achieved and the results were written up in an article in the Journal of Agricultural Victoria, jointly authored by Ag Department and the RAAF flight lieutenant who led the operation and the Ag department’s chief entomologist.

So in 1946 further testing of aerial applications of insecticides was contemplated, but events were overtaken by the discovery of concentrated locust egg beds in the Mallee and the Victorian Agriculture Department approached the RAAF to see if the aircraft and crew from the Laverton airbase could assist in preventive spraying. Now while there was already the one aircraft that they used against the bug and locust outbreak previously, the Ag Department wanted more. So the RAAF had to get some planes out of storage; they’d been used in the pacific war and they needed reconditioning and considerable work and modification. But the RAAF set about this work and made a total of four aircraft available. So the anti-grasshopper operation in the Mallee using the RAAF planes to spray gammaxene commenced in October 1946.

Now the squadron leader reported that the operation was highly successful, and of great value to the agriculturists, ‘the modification that resulted from the test should make a big improvement to our anti-mosquito technique should it again be necessary to undertake such work’. He predicted that the spraying would continue for several weeks, as it did, and that the aircraft would also assist with the cut-worm plague in the flax crops. He noted that RAAF capacity to spray insecticide should also be maintained to protect personal who were still stationed in New Guinea and New Britain as well as those on exercises in remote island areas. However, he continued that the RAAF was attempting to dispose of its Beaufort aircraft and wondered if it might be best to encourage a civil agency to take over this task and then contract to the air force as required. So you can see that there’s this very detailed and complex linkages between the war on pests, the war on locusts, the war on mosquitos and military objectives. When in November 1946 the Ag department asked for more resources to extend the spraying campaign the RAAF replied that a manpower shortage made this impossible, but committed to the current level of support for as long as possible. They also proposed that Mustang aircraft might be used to spray locusts as part of pilot training exercises. So again, locust control is thoroughly entangled with these military objectives.

In 1948 the NSW Agriculture Department published a brochure on recent developments in grasshopper control, in which they recommended the use of improved bran baits using gammaxene but they also noticed that farmers were really resistant to carry out this baiting. And they attributed this resistance to ‘widely publicised accounts of aircraft distribution of DDT in the wartime malaria control campaign’. And a similar trend was apparently evident in the USA as well. Farmers were completely captivated by the idea we could use airplanes in this way, to completely wipe out pests. In the 1950s another locust plague approached in the Mallee The Victorian Department of Agriculture again sought the assistance of the RAAF, and when they were told that the RAAF wasn’t in a position to assist the Premier of Victoria Jack McDonald wrote to Prime Minister Robert Menzies to see if he could get the RAAF to cooperate by providing three Dakotas. However the RAAF really couldn’t spare the aircraft, maybe because the Korean War had broken out by this stage but again it did assist by providing spraying equipment, a tanker and radio equipment and ground staff. So the DC3 aircraft were provided by Qantas Empire airways and Australian National Airways (I can’t imagine the DC3s engaging in spraying, but apparently they did) in an operation that was materially and conceptually combined with civil and military. So at this point, responses to locusts were still organised as responses to imminent threats as they emerged. The focus was on defending the agricultural areas, there was no systematic strategy, forward surveillance or control. But a more coordinated approach was suggested by technical officers at a conference convened by the CSIR in May 1947. Now, this meeting recommended that a control campaign using a new strategy of outbreak suppression should be carried out in the Macquarie area of NSW. A basic principle of this strategy was that the whole campaign should be completely controlled throughout and financed by all the governments concerned. However, the plan was delayed in consultations about the costs among the premiers and ministers of agriculture. It was revived at a similar conference in 1949 but the premier of Victoria wouldn’t commit to the scheme on the scale proposed.

Now the summer of 1952-53 saw a major outbreak starting in western NSW, which proceeded south. And it was later reported in retrospect that ‘the Victorian Department of Agriculture cooperated by attacking swarms in southern NSW to prevent the invasion of Victoria over the Murray River’. The campaign involved 29 days of constant aerial spraying of organic chlorides using both RAAF and TAA planes, both charging the state for their services – the RAAF charged half of what TAA charged. This prompted yet another conference to discuss the possibility of coordinated early control and this was held in Canberra in May 1954.

Now one of the key questions raised in light of the 1952-53 experience was whether it was better to attempt to control grasshopper plagues by the present conventional methods or by attacking the primary outbreak areas. While there was some enthusiasm for further research on outbreak areas and a general consensus emerged that plagues came for the interior, there were doubts about the feasibility of outbreak suppression and a key issue was organisation. So the minutes of these meetings or of this particular meeting are captured in a publication in the National Library and there Dr Ken Key who was the principal research officer in the division of entomology at the CSIRO said ‘a campaign against the plague locust needed the same kind of organisation as a military campaign or that used in fire control’. And the CSIRO head of entomology Dr Nicholson likewise suggested that what was needed ‘was complete control over the organisation of the campaign on a quasi-military basis’. He suggested that an officer be appointed to patrol likely outbreak areas so that the treatment could be applied as swarms were beginning to migrate from the outbreak areas before they reached the agricultural zones. Ultimately the conference recommended that this patrol officer should be appointed and a trial be conducted of this strategy of outbreak suppression involving an intensive campaign that demanded a much more intensive attack and control organisation and these are the terms in which it is described. The trial should be carried out as a joint commonwealth/state operation and at a time that is likely to provide an evaluation of the technical feasibility and economic practicality of the strategy. It would involve a highly developed intelligence service to be able to locate all the swarms in or near the outbreak area and there would also be a military style structure of labour working in gangs under the supervision of field officers who in turn would be under the direction of an entomologist and relevant equipment and materials were to be kept on hand for rapid deployment. Now QLD was slightly indifferent to this plan and Victoria dissented as the state with the least interior land it continued to adopt a defensive position, remaining more concerned with crop protection than swarm destruction.

So in 1955, this recommendation went to the Australian Agricultural Council and was approved. The authorisation occurred at the end of a major plague, it also took place in the context of a military conflict in the near north of Australian, the Malayan emergency. The Malayan government had responded slowly to the threat posed by communist guerrillas, but in the early 1950s conflict had escalated rapidly. In 1954 Australia was involved in a joint exercise called ‘operation termite’ - again note the link with invertebrates - in which combined air and ground assaults destroyed 181 communist camps. Further Australian troops were committed in October 1955. Now here was a model for addressing the locust problem in Australia: you pinpoint the enemy through careful surveillance then you destroy them in a decisive, coordinated, joint action to prevent proliferation and counter attack.

However after the successes of 1954/55 Australian troops in Malaya were largely responsible for a long mopping up campaign involving extensive patrolling, watching for contacts in rubber plantations and guarding the new villages. Troops rarely encountered communists leading to frustration and tension. In an ambush in 1956, for example, the Australians killed two communists but lost three troops in the ambush. So this kind of conflict demonstrated the difficulty of containing controlled state space in a hostile environment.

Now back in Australia the trial locust campaign was planned for 1958, but a 1959 meeting had decided against it. Boris Uvarov who was an international leading locust researcher and head of the British Anti-Locust Research Centre from 1929 to 1966 – so this guy was Mr Locust. He attended the trial campaign management committee’s meeting in November 1959 and there he suggested that a trial on a single outbreak area in one year would not likely be successful, rather what was required was a dedicated and coordinated body to launch a large-scale offensive strategy against emerging locust threats. So in light of these comments, and the absence of a present plague threat, the committee abandoned their plans for the outbreak suppression trial and instead recommended continuous monitoring pending the establishment of an interstate locust organisation to lead monitoring and control efforts. Now Boris was an influential character here, but I’m arguing that the broader ideas of the nature of conflict also influenced decision making. So as Australian’s engaged in a drawn out and frustrating and often fruitless campaign against an invisible and sparse enemy in the jungles of Malaya, in the absence of a major locust threat enthusiasm diminished for small-scale intervention that was unlikely to produce an immediate and conclusive victory over the locust hordes.

Now more locust control meetings were held during the 1960s but the status quo was maintained in the absence of major locust activity and it took another plague in 1973/74 to spur further action. In the meantime, research continued (and I can see we’re going to run out time so I’ll cut it a bit short). At this time they conducted some detailed research in the interior, in south-west QLD in particular, using regular transects to mark locust habitat; also they discovered that locusts would migrate at night which was something they hadn’t realised before, so it solved one of the key problems of how the locusts got from isolated, arid inland areas to the agricultural belt. But at the same time, Australian troops were deployed in the jungles of Vietnam, engaged in search and destroy missions against the Viet Cong. James Scott has characterised the large spread use of agent orange in Vietnam as one example of the unprecedented effort to reclaim non-state space for the state during that war. So defoliating large sections of forest, for example, was intended to render it legible and safe for government forces, and I think perhaps there are resonances here with the work of the locust researchers who were making the interior and its denizens known.

Now after the Vietnam War the incoming ALP Government in 1972 implemented the Defence of Australia policy focusing on defending continental Australia against external attack rather than military objectives outside of Australian territory; and the emphasis here was on surveillance and on local, agile, strike capacity and this would lead to the establishment of constant patrols by units in northern Australia and over the horizon radars. And here again there are resonances in locust control – the patrols followed the lead, in some ways, established by the agricultural council in conducting surveillance for locust outbreaks, while from the 1980s entomological radar would be deployed in locust research and control operations.

Now 1973 saw the advent of a major locust plague, the first for 20 years, which affected agricultural areas in NSW, QLD, SA, and VIC. In October 1973, the NSW government approached the commonwealth for assistance to combat the locusts. In response the Minster for Defence provided four army aircraft, helicopters, soldiers, you name it. Now there’s some footage here, but we’re running short of time so I won’t play it. QLD also appealed to the federal government for assistance in April 1974 the army was sent in with misting units mounted on land rovers to ‘fight a locust war’ (as it was reported) over a 160 km radius from Emerald. So again this is the old anti-locust strategy of defensive action against a hostile invader implemented using actual military personnel and equipment.

Now I go on to argue that at this time there was a convergence in organisational thinking between the military and agricultural. The experience of Vietnam suggested that the division of the defence force into the army, air force and navy had hindered our efforts in Vietnam so there were calls to consolidate them into one simple defence force that was argued in 1973 and implemented in 1976. At the same time the Australian Plague Locust Commission was established - this had been envisaged in the early 1950s and finally became operational in 1976. So when it became operational the capacity to adopt this idea of outbreak suppression was finally available as was a military framework for it. While continuing to defend the agricultural lands against invading locust armies, the Australian Plague Locust Commission would coordinate surveillance and undertake rapid mobile strikes on swarming events in the arid locust heartland. So this was guerrilla warfare and the Viet Cong had shown us the importance of environmental knowledge, surveillance, preparedness, and mobility in maintaining control of territory. So this suppression strategy had been around for a long time, but it was only in the 1970s - after we had been through Vietnam - and we had changing paradigms of warfare becoming dominant. And I think that played a role in legitimising and operationalising this strategy.

Although conventional spraying still took place in major outbreak years, this surveillance and rapid strike model became the dominant approach to locusts in subsequent decades as research increased and understandings of the conditions in which locusts became gregarious and migrated from the arid interior.

Australia played a leader role in developing a biological control agent based on the […] fungus but it’s possible to say that this had something to do with Australians involvement in the Gulf War or Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in the 1990s where biological and chemical warfare were really big, but I think that it’s just really a response to the growth of organic farming and the awareness of environmental sensitivity to conventional pesticides, so it’s not all about the military. However, the linkages between war and locust control continued in the light of the September attacks and the Bali bombings of 2002. And of course, in 2002 we have the launch of the anti-terrorism campaign with the slogan ‘be alert not alarmed’ and this seeks to enrol all Australian civilians in the fight against terrorism by calling a central hotline. And we can see very much that language reflected in this brochure issued by the New South Wales Department of Agriculture 2004 [shows image].

Securing landowner assistance had been a key problem for organisations seeking to control locusts in spite of the various noxious insect acts from the 1930s that required landholders to treat locust infestations on their properties, so it’s not surprised that we see this kind of language that’s also been used to mobilise civilians against the perceived terrorist threat being used in relation to locusts and of course the strategic shift is evident here is from conscription to counterinsurgency.

So another major outbreak occurred in 2010 and the reporting again mirrored the language of conventional warfare but we also see a rather less combative or more adaptive response reflected in this rather pragmatic billboard erected in the Victorian Mallee in 2010 [shows image].

To conclude, Rob Nugent in his 2010 ethnographic Memoirs of a Plague, which investigated human responses to locusts in various global contexts, argues that our reaction to the natural phenomenon of locusts may arise from long-held prejudices and myths rather than the reality of the threat they pose. While it’s debatable that locust plagues in Australia are natural rather than a legacy of settler/colonial land modification, I’ve attempted to show in a similar vein that responses to locusts have been shaped to a great extent, or to some extent, by evolving conceptual and material linkages between locusts and warfare. In settler colonial, Australia the biblical significance of locust plagues was stripped of its meaning, no longer a symbol of Gods power only the notion of locusts as military opponent remained.

If sheep were the shock troops of empire, locusts were increasingly seen as the wingmen of indigenous resistance; an unpredictable and mobile inland core whose irregular incursions into settler territory were deeply unsettled. To control the locusts was not only to defend the occupied pastoral and agricultural territory but also to master the unruly inland, making it a state space which was known, patrolled and amenable to central control. The changing nature of responses owed much to prevailing military technology and ideas about military strategy. The ongoing war on locusts highlights the entanglement of war on humans and war on nature as a key element of modernity.

And thank you very much to all those people who provide pictures and thank you, everybody, for coming along and listening.

Find an expert

Search our experts database.