Key research areas
Water is the life blood of the Murray Darling Basin and of inland Australia. Its presence and absence shape the patterns of human movement and occupation of the land. Water brought Aboriginal people to gather shellfish at Lake Mungo and its absence during the Last Glacial Maximum drove them away from the plains to make their art in the refuge of Gariwerd (Grampians). Wet years made the Mallee green and encouraged dreams of pastoral wealth. The rivers were the inland highways for the riverboat trade and agriculture brings economic migrants from many nations to settle in the regional cities of the nation's food bowl.
Landscapes and land use
The ancient history of the Australian inland is captured within layers of rock and sediments that constitute what we think of as 'land'. Land is the space where much environmental change is captured, in a deep-time sense, and made manifest. If land is eternal and foundational, landscapes are peopled, narrative spaces. For example, the use of waterways of the Murray Darling Basin for trade and livelihoods by Aboriginal peoples created ancient landscapes that remain sites of cultural and spiritual significance. The changed conditions of land and water use brought by Europeans dramatically transformed this environment. Climate change, and our interactions with the changing environment is now adding to the problems of salination and desertification. Landscapes, even those of apparently sparse wilderness, are therefore historically made by the social, political and cultural histories of the people that use, care and struggle for the land. As such landscapes tell us stories, their features can be read and decoded to enrich our understandings of the deep histories of Australia's Indigenous nations and the more recent stories of lives in dispossessed, possessed and settler-colonial landscapes.
Pastoralism and agriculture
As sheep and cattle, the 'shock troops of empire', pounded the ancient inland soil to dust, so began the radical social, economic and environmental transformation of inland Australia. Pastoral expansion went hand in hand with the dispossession of Indigenous owners, and was often the precursor to agricultural settlement. The clearing necessitated by agriculture brought further landscape and environmental change, the legacies of which still remain. Pastoralism and agriculture remain dominant forms of land use. But the nature of production has changed dramatically over the last 50 years , with industrial scale agriculture and land use replacing family farms, while the demise of the wheat board and collapse of the reserve wool price has left farmers exposed to fluctuating commodity markets.
Settlement and mobilities
Settlement and migration are dynamic drivers of social, cultural and economic change. They have profoundly shaped the nature of land use in inland Australia and continue to shape the history of these regions.
This research area encompasses the ancient and historical past, and speaks to pressing contemporary issues. Struggles for Aboriginal sovereignty, understandings of race, law and settler-colonial space are all incorporated within the study of settlement and link the Centre to comparative work in the US, Canada and New Zealand.
Inland Australia is a space of movement and flows, not just settlement. Migrants, grey nomads, itinerant workers, musicians, artists and even universities move in and out of this region, coming from near and far. Research in this area captures the breadth of La Trobe's regional expertise.
Mining plays a key role in the Australian economy and consciousness. Less well recognised is the impact mining has had on the environment of the Murray Darling Basin. From the gold rushes of the nineteenth century to the current practices of sand mining, salt mining, and fracking, the ongoing environmental legacy of mining in the Murray Darling Basin is profound. Other extractive industries such as forestry have also shaped human occupation in the box ironbark forests of central Victoria and the river redgum country along the Murray, creating on-going tensions as native forests worked for timber are transformed into state forests and national parks.
Climate and environmental change
People living in Australia's inland have experienced profound changes in the environment over 40 000 years, encompassing a time when the great water systems of Lake Mungo and the Menindee Lakes were full and megafauna grazed the inland plains, through the drying of the lakes following the end of glaciation and the anthropogenic changes of erosion and salination driven by European land use practices.