Women’s recollection of farming and managing for drought in Australia during 2006-2010: What role for local government?
On 26 September 2016 Dr Janet Congues from La Trobe’s Shepparton campus presented her research into women, farming and drought in Victoria as part of the Centre for the Study of the Inland's seminar series.
Janet has worked in and studied rural communities and drought since 2004. As the current Rural Issues Thematic Group Co-Convener for TASA, Janet is passionate about the way the rural is represented; particularly marginalised groups who are often overlooked in favour of the more traditional rural images of Australia. Janet is currently working as a Research and Evaluation Project worker with FamilyCare plus teaches and continues her research at La Trobe (sociology).
Janet’s paper focused on the findings of her interviews with women who farmed in the Goulburn Valley, Victoria, between the drought years of 2006-2010. Women’s recollection of farming during the drought uncovered knowledge, experience and expertise that highlighted potential opportunities for local government to support rural communities better manage for drought in the future.
Women’s recollection of farming and managing for drought in Australia during 2006-2010
Listen to Dr Janet Congues' seminar on Women’s recollection of farming and managing for drought in Australia during 2006-2010.
Women’s recollection of farming and managing for drought in Australia during 2006-2010: What role for local government?
Janet Congues: Thank you Katie, for inviting me to present this seminar and for your kind introduction. I begin today by acknowledging the traditional landowners and paying my respects to the elders both past and present.
I take this opportunity to thank each of you for coming along today; I appreciate the chance to present my thesis which was successfully finalised last month – and yes I graduate from The ANU in December this year. I also want to acknowledge the tremendous experience of working with my primary supervisor, Professor Daniela Stehlik; the first sociologist in Australia to undertake research in the late 1990s that interviewed women who farmed separately from their husbands.
Today, the focus will be primarily on two chapters from my thesis. The first chapter is about the theoretical framework which is based on Smith’s Feminist Standpoint Theory, Bourdieu and the field and Heller and ideology. The second chapter to be presented is the findings chapter from the interviews which have yet to be presented or published. Before I begin I would like to briefly introduce the question on which my thesis was designed and to familiarize you with the Goulburn Valley and why this particular time in the Millennium Drought was important.
When I began working as a drought worker for the Greater Shepparton City Council, it was the women who spoke of how short-term crisis management positions in local government see a strong relationship between the community and local government build up only to be lost when the funding ran out six months later. They felt there was knowledge and history lost each time they had to start with a new worker. This was a pivotal moment that led me to ask:
What did women who farmed think was useful for farming and managing drought in the future?
- How did they manage for drought during 2006-2010?
- What was useful? What was not useful?
- How can this knowledge and experience be useful in preparing and managing for drought in the future?
Uncovering a congruence between the findings of the interviews with the women and the analysis of the GSCC reports, the question evolved to include:
What role is there for local government?
- What resources are available that rural women can utilise to enhance community networking?
The Goulburn Valley
Australia is the only country in the world that has implemented a risk management approach to drought. It did this formally in 1992 when it launched Australia’s National Drought Policy and removed drought from the Natural Disaster Relief Arrangements. Drought was now considered a hazard that people who farmed needed to manage and prepare for as they would any other risk to their business.
Aside from the Goulburn Valley being my home territory and the place where I worked as the drought worker for the Greater Shepparton City Council during the drought years of 2007-2009, this is an interesting location for the variety of farming industries; as most studies about women and farming focus on a particular industry within a particular region. As you can see, geographically the Goulburn Valley is surrounded on the east by the mountainous Great Dividing Range, to the west by flat lands that become The Mallee and throughout the valley are numerous rivers and creeks bordered on the north by the Murray River. The major city within the Goulburn Valley is Shepparton with a population of approximately 29,553 people and it is only 191kms or a two hour drive from Melbourne.
Approximately 2/3s of the Goulburn Valley is made up of Dairy farms and Orchards, while the rest of the industries include beef, sheep, and grain cropping – such as wheat, canola and rye. Within the region some farms have access to irrigation water while others are dryland farms. I interviewed women from each of these industries. It is also important to note that because of all the rivers running throughout the region into the Murray River at Echuca, the people who farmed believed that together with access to irrigation water, the region had been drought proofed.
With approximately 25% of Victoria’s food production coming from the region it is not surprising that the Goulburn Valley is often referred to and taken-for-granted by those living in the region to be the Food Bowl of Australia which of course is often contested by other areas around Australia.
The Millennium Drought, as it is now named occurred between the years of 1997-2009 with the drought breaking sometime in 2010. The south eastern part of Australia endured below median rainfall consecutively throughout 2001 to 2009. To experience this many consecutive years of below median rainfall was an anomaly and was also a drought where even those who had considered their farming businesses drought proofed with irrigation, feed-banks and savings, struggled to manage ‘the crisis’ of this drought.
The reason for focusing this study on the years of 2006 – 2010 was that the Goulburn Valley itself had never before experienced two top 10 consecutive driest years; but that happened in 2006 and 2007. Therefore, 2006 became the starting point of the study.
From October 2006, when the Federal Government declared that most farming districts were experiencing Exceptional Circumstances (EC), funding was made available for a range of support services and drought programs. So from October 2006 through to the end of March 2010, all of the Goulburn Valley had been issued with an Exceptional Circumstance declaration. Until that point only certain industries and particular areas within the Goulburn Valley had been issued with an EC declaration.
While this is but a brief introduction to the Goulburn Valley, it gives you some idea about the location, a brief understanding of why my thesis’ timeframe is 2006 to 2010 and it touches on some of the complexities about how drought is constructed in Australia. Feminist Standpoint Theory
My thesis situated knowledge from the standpoint of women in their everyday. It is grounded from a feminist epistemological position that recognises that to date, women’s experience has not been recorded as a significant contributor to the enhancement of knowledge – and this is particularly true for the Australian agricultural sector. This thesis places women as the centrepiece of the discussion and insists that their knowledge be located as the primary aspect of the research.
To better understand Feminist Standpoint Theory and its value to the research, I will quickly define some key terms from the opening statement.
The standpoint of women is defined as the knowledge, expertise and experience positioned outside the cultural, taken-for-granted norms of masculine hegemony.
The everyday is the physical location of the standpoint; the space that women embody in a particular time and place.
Situated knowledge is that which is uncovered from the knowledge, experience and expertise of women. In my thesis, it is what I have used to inform the role of women, what they had done, how they thought about farming and the future viability of farming while at the same time uncovered aspects of ideological influence about expectations of themselves and the roles they identified for themselves. While these terms are clearly interrelated defining them like this helps to better understand the theoretical inferences made throughout my thesis when using these terms.
In a paraphrased quote from Smith, the standpoint of women was not about universalising ‘a particular experience’ but was a means to create ‘the space for an absent subject, and an absent experience’ where the voice was ‘filled with the presence and spoken experience of actual women speaking for and in the actualities of the their everyday worlds’ (Smith 2013, p. 107).
Feminist Standpoint Theory, Bourdieu & Heller
In order to better understand the location of the everyday, I drew on Bourdieu’s concept of the field through which to explore the meaning of place. As briefly defined here by Wacquant, the field is ‘an arena of struggle through which agents and institutions seek to preserve or overturn the existing distribution of capital’. Another way of describing it is using a very visual concept of a game.
Take for example the game of Soccer which is played on a pitch that in some ways sets the parameters or contains the rules of the game. Everyone who plays the game knows the rules and those who do not are taught the rules or they learn them. If you consider the concept of the field being like a game of soccer, you will come to realise there is also more to the field than just the pitch on which the game is played. It is contingent of players and referees plus it includes the spectators, the governing bodies, the team managers, coaches, and committees. So too in the field of farming. Imagine for a minute the field of farming – there are the people who farm, their family and extended farming families; there are workers, share-farmers, lease holders, then there are political organisations like the National and Victorian Farmers Federations, plus accountants, agronomists, farming businesses that sell products to the farmer, milk factories and so on. Now that you have a picture of the field of farming which is, here, illustrated by the board, where is the field of women who farm?
This I suggest is where the everyday comes in.
The everyday for women is both encompassed by the field and yet simultaneously external to the field. Imagine for a moment that the field of farming had an itemised agenda. In terms of prioritisation where everyone is contesting the field, the everyday standpoint of women would be considered extremely low on the agenda. Literature and data show that the voices of women are not prioritised within the Australian agricultural sector. A more obvious example of this was the policy decision to not count women who farmed in the census from around 1893 through to 1996. This was a deliberate action taken to demonstrate that Australia was a progressive and modernised nation where women were not needed within farming enterprises and thereby the government of the day could attract the ‘right kind of people’ to build up the Australian population.
While Bourdieu does not uphold a feminist epistemology ‘the field’ is useful for understanding and visualising the theoretical location of the everyday place for women as both encompassed by and external to the field of farming.
The third aspect to understanding this theoretical framework is to understand ideology. Smith defines ideology ‘as those ideas and images through which the class that rules the society by virtue of its domination of the means of production – orders, organizes, and sanctions the social relations that sustain its domination’. For Heller, ideology is deeply ‘rooted in collective historical recollection’ and while it is neither good nor bad, it ‘can be mobilized for great and dignified actions, yet also for acts of pointless revenge and the consolidation of the friend/foe dichotomy’.
Heller’s theory of modernity came from her wanting to make sense of massive destruction, tragic outcomes and irreversible damage like Auschwitz and the Gulag and how events like this can happen in a modern society without anyone questioning it. Briefly the two primary tools she uses are technological imagination and historical imagination. Technological imagination is about how things are done. It is outcome driven, future oriented and focused on problem solving. Historical imagination ‘is past- and tradition-sensitive, feeds on recollection, and mobilizes the human capacity towards expanded meaning-oriented thinking’.
Here’s the trick. When they work in tension with each other – like the tension in the rope between people playing tug-of-war Then there exists a double bind of modernity where ideology can be contested and extreme events rarely occur. When technological imagination and historical imagination work together, then ideology becomes so naturalised that it is extremely difficult to examine, question and contest.
The extreme crises that inspired this study were twofold. First and foremost, the writing of women out of knowledge is a critical issue especially within the Australian agricultural sector where it has maintained a hold of patriarchal hegemony using agrarianism and neoliberalism. The second crisis is the impact of drought and how a neoliberal approach to drought policy employing risk management, failed the government and failed the people living and working within the sector. Both agrarianism and neoliberalism are deeply embedded within Australian society and this thesis contests that within Australia, many people have adopted these values and function within these frameworks without too much conscious decision-making because they seem to be the natural order and are difficult to challenge. Further, these ideologies continue to oppress women and locate them in the roles of housewife and child bearer within the agricultural sector regardless of any roles they may have achieved as role models and leaders.
Point of Rupture
The final point made in my theory chapter goes to Smith who argues that when the experience of those not of the dominant social group fail to be recognised or interpreted it is often referred to as a ‘point of rupture’. My thesis identifies three points of rupture that establish that universal notions around farmer, farming, agriculture and the agricultural sector are gender specific and fail to incorporate women’s knowledge and expertise as farmers.
The first point of rupture relates to the history of women on farms and the agrarian notion of ‘farmer’s helpmate’. The second point of rupture was the field of women who farmed. The third point of rupture comes with the notion that women are leaders within the agricultural industry. This thesis contends that women who farm are significant contributors to the viability of farm businesses and they have the capacity to be political and community leaders, educated in agriculture and contributors to policy development.
While there is much controversy relating to using feminist standpoint theory including the argument that situated knowledge is value laden and partial and therefore cannot be objective, my research aims to uncover both the knowledge, experience and expertise of the women who farmed during the Millennium Drought and to uncover that which is below the ideological surfaces of that which is assumed to be natural. The women who farmed may not have produced something that was extremely different to the knowledge that was already available but they may have knowledge and expertise that enhances what is already known and yet to be textualised. It is also important to ensure that the women’s experience of a phenomenon is reflected as their experience, that they could see themselves as part of the knowledge and that there was a place for their ideas, experiences and their knowing.
Methodology and Methods
The methodological means of actioning feminist standpoint theory was threefold.
- It had to start with the everyday voices of the women
- Use methods that preserved the women’s voices so that they were not objectified – so that they became the ‘knower’
- Account for the researcher who was embedded with the women’s everyday world – in other words reflexively acknowledge my position which in this case is as both insider and outsider.
I accomplished this primarily using two methods to gather and analyse the data.
The first was to undertake in-depth interviews with women who farmed in the Goulburn Valley during 2006-2010 and who were still farming when they were interviewed. Purposive and convenience sampling was used and all told there were 8 unstructured, in-depth interviews used.
The second method was to perform a text analysis of the GSCC Drought Program reports that were written throughout 2007 to the end of 2009. Examining the reports I used the method of interpretive document analysis. A limitation to this research was that the voices of Indigenous women and women from non-English speaking backgrounds were not represented. Further research needs to be undertaken to include these women in this research but this will be discussed later in this presentation.
The women who farmed
As you can see, by the list of names, these women came from a range of industries within the agricultural sector. The names that are listed are those who agreed to have their recollections used in the study. Each woman chose the name to be used and for most they are made up. These women’s ages range from around 30yo through to one who was over 80yo and still the person running the farm. All bar one have had children, some now have grandchildren and while most married into farming or came from a farming family, one woman, Sarah, the youngest together with her husband walked onto their new dairy farm in October 2006 – the day that Exceptional Circumstance was declared for the state by the Australian government. Some of the women are highly engaged in their communities, others are involved politically, while others are not.
The everyday location of these women is both encompassed by and external to the field of farming. At this point I want to elaborate on the field of women who farm. My starting point for my research was to categorise the women into three groupings:
- Off-farm employment
When I set out to interview the women, what I wanted to do was to choose women who represented each of these classifications. What I discovered was that the field of women who farmed was more complex.
Those who I had considered to be more of a traditional ‘farmer’s wife who predominantly worked in the house, in fact worked on the farm, at times worked off-farm and was often involved in decision making depending on what was needed. Those who worked in off-farm employment still often worked on the farm, contributed to decision making discussion and often carried the load for managing the household too. The entrepreneurial women who farmed, while they predominantly worked in the farm business, at times also held off-farm positions and primarily were responsible for the maintenance of the home.
This brief overview of the positioning of women within the field of women who farmed provided a starting point from which began the design of the research methods for this thesis. Significant to the stability of this base point was the recognition that the concept of field was moveable and potentially transformable.
The women who farmed and drought
Most of the women interviewed came into farming because their husbands were people who farmed. Jennie, was one woman who had inherited a share of her dad’s farm and it was she who brought her husband back to the farm in the 1980s. She remembered the 1945 drought when her dad bought truckloads of paddy melons to feed to the cows to keep them alive because of the shortage of water and feed. She remembered ‘the pet old monster of a cow who could crack the paddy melon for all the others because they could not get in but she could’. She was about 7 or 8 yo at the time. Now she is trying to decide to sell the farm but she faces a difficult time because even though she is over 80yo, her husband and son do not want her to sell the farm, even though they cannot help her to run the farm. It is also a difficult decision because the farm had been in the family a long time. You see her dad’s grandfather had been the original selector on the land.
There are five topics that best identify the impact drought had on the everyday lives of the women:
3. Animal and Orchard welfare
5. Financial strain
During 2007 access to hay ran out and people who farmed had to resort to all kinds of foods to feed their animals wherever they could lay their hands on it. So for example, Susan sourced feed for her cows including bread and hot-cross buns, marshmallows, ice-cream cones, straw, peaches, oranges and orange pulp, bi-carb soda, molasses licks and pellets. Sarah managed to get hold of some palm-kernel extract to add to the straw so that the cows could get some kind of energy along with the fibre. Susan spoke of the risks she took to feed her cows accessing hay that people had cut from the sides of the road. Aside from all the rubbish like coke cans and cigarette butts, there were weeds including deadly nightshade. When she fed her cows bread, they had to be strategic in the distribution because too much bread all at once and the cows would bloat up and die. While Susan and I laughed when she described the first time the cows saw the marshmallows in their pellet feed holders as they walked into the dairy it was actually an indicator of the lengths the women went and the risks they took sourcing feed for their animals.
Water was a major issue. This was a region that thought it was drought proofed. In 2006 it was the first time irrigators did not receive a full-allocation of water at the beginning of the season. In 2007 and 2008, both seasons began with zero percent allocations and people’s worlds were turned upside down. Regardless of how much water the irrigators received, they were still expected to pay their full water bill. This was a point of anger for many as they believe the expectation was unfair and unjust. Why should they pay for something they did not receive?
Making decisions about the culling of herds and of trees in orchards was heartbreaking for most people who farmed. Chris spoke of the time when after purchasing a mob of 300 sheep they started dying and they lost more than half. ‘that was the worst thing I’ve ever done is pull dead sheep out from under trees and create a fire…’ All because they had eaten a weed called Hellitrope at the previous owner’s place. Others sent their herds to the slaughter yards because they could no longer feed them. As the women spoke about their animals and their trees, it was the heartache they felt with the loss of life, that you could still hear in their voices as they recounted their stories.
The health and well-being of the women and their families was also impacted significantly. Susan spoke of crying for no reason, Chris hated giving up work but felt she had to so that she could better support her husband, while Ellie spoke of being torn because she had to go with her son to hospital for major surgery while being unsure about the decisions her husband might make about his life while she was not at home.
Meanwhile all the women spoke of the debts they were still paying off or had just finished paying off three years after the end of the drought. Most had accessed the Exceptional Circumstance interest relief subsidy and payment to subsidise their incomes.
These programs just mentioned were also part of the ways in which the women survived. In my thesis the drought programs are mainly discussed in the chapter about local government, yet curiously when I asked the women about which drought programs they used they found it difficult to recall which programs and support services they accessed.
Of most significance to the study was the way the women prioritised social connection. This will be discussed in more depth shortly but doing things like keeping the children connected to sporting clubs and joining a craft group or Landcare were important strategies that the women acted on to survive the drought.
As to the future of farming, while some were adamant there was a future, others made sure to deter their children from entering the sector because they saw no future. One point of consensus was that unless you had family where you could enter farming through succession planning, it would be very difficult for any young people to purchase their own farm. Many suggested that it was better for young people to work as an employee if they wanted to farm.
There was also no consensus on climate change. Some believed the science, some did not believe, but all agreed that the cycle of drought periods was real and was a feature of Australia’s climate rather than an aberration.
One of the dominant themes that came through the interviews and was also recorded in the GSCC drought reports was that women took action to make sure that they were socially connected to others during the drought. Whether it was starting up their own friendship/support groups, meeting a friend for coffee, seeking advice from a GP or participating in larger community based activity/industry groups these women all sought support off-farm to survive the drought with their well-being intact. Catherine initiated holding the Women on Farms Gathering in Shepparton during 2007 because she felt the women who farmed needed something to spur them on. She also actively engaged with her local council to gain support from them to help financially with in-kind access to function rooms. Sarah became involved with the Victorian Farmers Federation and Murray Dairy and worked towards policy changes that better supported new farmers in the industry. Joan was involved with United Dairyfarmers Victoria as the secretary and proactively through their auspices helped to access grant monies to put on social events for the local farmers for which one event included a night with Denise Drysdale.
One of the key findings in all of this talk of networking and seeking support was when Sarah started talking about the future.
She saidSarah, dairy: “We need to value our social networks…part of the policy needs to be putting human capital needs…to have a value put on it, but it’s going to need to be given a financial value in terms of the position or a person to do it as a job and that needs to be there all the time because to network with people you’ve gotta have a foundation to network from - not just six month contracts…”Chris, sheep: suggested that “…your personal network had to be strong and you had to drag the men with you. Things have to be put on…”
Catherine, orchard: pointed out that “…[farmers] used those services successfully and now they want to use them again but they’ve gone and that’s really sad because the government needs to know that they should continue those services because that will help stop depression…”
This was moment of realisation for me, that there was some congruence between the women’s stories and the findings of the drought reports’ document analysis.
What role for government
The original question led my research to discover the proactive response of women in crisis, to focus on shoring up their personal support mechanisms so they could better support their families and local communities.
My analysis of the interviews and drought reports revealed that Local Government can play an integral role towards supporting their rural communities to prepare for and manage drought. My analysis of the interviews and drought reports revealed that Local Government can play an integral role towards supporting their rural communities to prepare for and manage drought.
- Legitimise the voices of women through writing evaluation reports of community activities
- Be a conduit between rural communities and the Australian and Victorian governments to promote rural policy development suited to the needs of its the local community
- Work with rural communities to better prepare for future droughts and other crisis events through a dedicated position that oversees community development in the rural sector.
This study began with an early question: what knowledge do women have that enables them to adapt and manage for drought during 2006-2010? It then asked the women interviewed just how such knowledge and experience could be utilised to prepare and manage for drought events in the future.
The evidence has highlighted how women’s resourcefulness, decision making and social networking were aspects of their management strategy and the study considered just how these maintained and supported the social capital essential to survival and sustainability. Any future drought policy needs to ensure that social capital is both maintained and strengthened and the thesis found that there is a critical role for local government to play supporting rural communities better prepare for and manage for drought.
Rather than being a passive player waiting for a Federal declaration and then for a State government hand-out of funding, this study concludes that local government must be part of any future drought policy development, and it needs to invest now for long term success and community resilience. Such investment could include an ongoing community development position that has a long term responsibility. This way, when the crisis of drought comes again, there will be no need to run ‘sausage sizzles and jumping castle’ events to boost community morale. Instead there will be a more valuable focus on liaising between the rural community and service providers, disseminating quality, up to date information and strengthening strategies that will enable not just a survival, but rather a thriving which enables the community to recover more rapidly.
This thesis also concludes that there is much to be gained if the agricultural sector included more broadly the knowledge of women who farm. This means a better appreciation of the value of women’s knowledge, of their networking capacities and of their keeping their families and communities connected socially and up to date with the information they gather through those networks. This study has shown that until that happens women will simply continue to be seen as the ‘glue’ that holds farming families together while the agricultural sector renders them invisible to the field in decision making and knowledge building. While valuing the building of social capital is not seen as ‘agricultural’ as it is not considered as a component of production, nevertheless it is a strong and powerful aspect which has enabled the Goulburn Valley to survive through a once-in-a-generation crisis and which should be recognised by governments as crucial in supporting any future risk management approach to drought.
The stories of how these women who were interviewed managed for drought focuses on the untouched, unacknowledged capacity that women have to navigate their way through a world that refuses to value their knowledge, experience and expertise. They provide insightful ideas about how drought can be managed better in the future and these ideas need to be adopted, acknowledged and given value for their contribution.
Today, my research has started to focus on women who farm in the Punjab, using that as a basis to better recognise what they do in the part of India to farm and manage for drought. This will form the base from which interviews with women from our local Punjabi community in the Goulburn Valley will be conducted. The aim here, is to tap into knowledge and experience that they brought with them to Australia that might assist other people who farm in Australia to better manage for future droughts.
Please note: this presentation was based on my doctoral thesis: Women's recollection of farming and managing for drought in Australia, 2006-2010: What role for local government? which is available through Open Access ANU.
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.
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.
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.