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Biodiversity decline and diverted rivers – the Murray, the Darling and the fish kill

Biodiversity decline and diverted rivers – the Murray, the Darling and the fish kill

May 14, 2019 - 10:43am

Last week, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), released its 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. This landmark report does not bode well for our planet, claiming that “nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history — and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating”. While, unfortunately, this finding is not surprising, it is still always sobering to have the facts confirmed at global scale. My dear Swedish colleague, Marie Stenseke (@MarieStenseke), has been Co-chair of the Multidisciplinary Expert Panel of IPBES for several years now, and I know how hard they have worked. (One of their big challenges, not yet solved, has been to find appropriate terminology for ‘nature’, both with and without human influences.) Also released last week, a Nature article ‘Mapping the world’s free-flowing rivers’ by Grill et al., was a further sobering reminder of how few of the world’s rivers are still free-flowing along their entire length. The authors of that article remind us how important free-flowing rivers are for supporting diverse, complex and dynamic ecosystems, all a vital part of facilitating the survival of diverse species, including humans. The filling of Lake Eyre is currently reminding Australians of the gift we have in those unregulated systems. In their beautiful exhibition, Water Lore: Learning from the Drylands, Gini Lee and Antonia Besa provoke us to think about what urban communities can learn from areas where huge levels of water variability are the norm. Biodiversity and the flow of rivers have been front of mind for the first months of 2019. My year kicked off with being asked to join a multidisciplinary expert panel convened by the Australian Academy of Science to provide advice to the federal Leader of the Opposition, Hon Bill Shorten MP, about the reasons behind two distressingly large-scale fish deaths in the Murray-Darling river system, including circumstances that may have exacerbated the immediate causes of fish death. On 15 December 2018 tens of thousands of dead fish were reported along a 30 km stretch of the Darling River near the town of Menindee in New South Wales where dead silver perch (a critically endangered species), bony herring, golden perch and Murray cod (a vulnerable species) were seen in the vicinity of the Old Menindee Weir and Menindee Pump Station. On 6 January 2019, a second, larger fish kill event involving hundreds of thousands of fish was reported along the same stretch of river. Unusual amongst the deaths was the age of the Murray cod, with many individuals aged 20 years or older amongst those found dead. It was a challenge and privilege to work with this group of scholars. We rapidly brought together our combined data, literature and disciplinary expertise to analyse the reasons behind the swathe of fish deaths, including two further fish deaths on 28 January 2019 (millions of fish killed) and commencing on 4 February 2019 that occurred as we were undertaking our work. The final peer-reviewed report is available as: ‘Investigation of the causes of mass fish kills in the Menindee Region NSW over the summer of 2018-2019'. We concluded that the immediate cause of the fish deaths was thermal ‘stratification [of the water profile] and then mixing of a large volume of oxygen-depleted bottom water with the smaller oxygenated surface layer’. Importantly, these immediate causes were found to be in-turn attributed to the ‘interaction between a severe (but not unprecedented) drought and, more significantly, excess upstream diversion of water for irrigation’, thus ‘the root cause of the fish kills is that there is not enough water in the Darling system to avoid catastrophic decline of condition through dry periods’. This highlights how this is an issue of water management and river diversion, rather than one beyond human control. As with climate change denial, the downplaying of human impacts under the guise of ‘drought’ or ‘natural variability’ also downplays the extent to which we can and must take action on these issues. I will be discussing some of these issues and their emotional dimensions on 16 May 2019 in Melbourne as part of a panel at the Wettenhall Extinction Lecture 2019 which will focus on diverse ideas and perspectives relating to the impact of extinction on people and living systems in Australia.
A third maize harvest at the Sunraysia Burundian Garden

A third maize harvest at the Sunraysia Burundian Garden

May 6, 2019 - 11:36am

by Olivia Dun, Natascha Klocker and Lesley Head In March this year, a third annual maize harvest BBQ was held at the Sunraysia Burundian Garden, a one-acre plot of donated land in Mildura, Victoria. The third annual harvest attracted over 70 Mildura locals, including the Mayor and newly elected Victorian Independent MP (Ali Cupper), to taste some barbecued African maize that had been farmed by members of Mildura’s Twitezimbere Burundian community. The Sunraysia Burundian Garden originally kicked off as a pilot demonstration component under a former ARC Discovery Project ‘Exploring culturally diverse perspectives on Australian environments and environmentalism’ and we are pleased to see it is continuing to run under its own steam. May 2019 marks three years since we presented our research findings from interviews with members of Mildura’s Twitezimbere Burundian Community at the May 2016 workshop ‘Diverse people, diverse crops: Exploring agricultural possibilities in the Sunraysia’, which we co-convened in partnership with Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities Council (SMECC) and (the then) Mildura Development Corporation. Our research with Burundian migrants in Mildura, conducted in 2015, revealed some had relocated to Mildura after spending time living in larger Australian cities, motivated by more affordable rent and a strong desire to farm. Our research revealed that despite being experienced farmers, none of the Burundian migrants were farm owners in the Sunraysia region, primarily because they could not afford to rent or purchase farmland. Through the interview process, they expressed an overwhelmingly strong desire to farm in Australia. They wanted to grow food for subsistence/food security (and eventually for sale), to gain access to culturally important foods, to improve their physical and mental health, reduce isolation and inactivity, and to build connections and create a sense of belonging. They saw an opportunity to put their farming skills and experience to use in the Sunraysia landscape, but lacked access to land. They were landless farmers. During the research interviews, Joel Sindayigaya, the President of Mildura’s Twitezimbere Burundian Community Association, asked us, "is there any way possible to bring a request forward about how people [in our Burundian community] might be able to receive help to have something to do, like farming…?" After we provided this context during the May 2016 workshop, Joel articulated this same request to the workshop participants asking for help to access around four acres of farmland. Unbeknown to us, amongst the workshop participants were members of a local food movement in Mildura which had formed in early 2016 around common concerns about the lack of locally-grown fresh produce in Mildura. To address their concerns they had been identifying underutilised land in their region to ‘match’ it with people who wanted to grow food for local consumption, but who did not have access to land. Unfortunately they hadn’t, until the workshop, been able to find people with both the time and skills to farm. Immediately following the workshop, a meeting was convened between the research team and local food movement members, who confirmed that they were happy to provide the Burundian community with free access to one acre of farmland adjacent to their business. This moment kick-started the Sunraysia Burundian Garden, the inaugural pilot demonstration of the Food Next Door model, an initiative (then unnamed) that matches landless farmers with unused land. The first maize seeds were sown in September 2016 and the first harvest BBQ was held in February 2017. An ABC Landline episode in April 2017 captured this pilot project.  The pilot project prompted the expansion of Mildura’s local food movement with the core group of local food movement members forming a not-for-profit cooperative, Food Next Door Co-op, in 2018. Now that the pilot phase has ended, the Burundian community continues to grow food on the pilot site and plans to commence trialling peanuts and African beans on another 4-acre plot in Mildura donated by a private land owner. They are also keen to farm on an even larger plot at the proposed Food Next Door Co-op community demonstration farm which has recently been promised $600,000 in funding under the Victorian Government’s Regional Partnerships model. While the pilot and follow-on activities are still a fragile experiment with an uncertain future, they have served to highlight the increasing presence and role of migrants and cultural diversity in Australian rural towns, and the ways in which farming can effectively create a sense of belonging for such migrants.  The full story about the Sunraysia Burundian Garden has been captured as a book chapter ‘Bringing Together Landless Farmers and Unused Farmland: The Sunraysia Burundian Garden and Food Next Door Initiative’ we co-authored with Deborah Bogenhuber, Joselyne Kadahari, John Niyera and Joel Sindayigaya in the book Reclaiming the Urban Commons: The past, present and future of food growing in Australian towns and cities co-edited by Nick Rose and Andrea Gaynor. The book was launched at a well-attended event on 25 October 2018 at the William-Angliss Institute in Melbourne. It’s been exciting to tell this rural city food story alongside the many urban-based examples in the book.
School of Geography Climate Change Retreat

School of Geography Climate Change Retreat

Apr 8, 2019 - 3:20pm

Last Spring many of us were unsettled to read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report Global Warming of 1.5°C, an IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. This report highlighted the crucial importance of action to reduce emissions in the next decade for determining the options that will be open to communities to respond to climate change thereafter. Members of the School of Geography (SoG) at the University of Melbourne had been discussing for some time how to be most effective in our climate change response. To try and leverage something as a collective that goes beyond our existing teaching and research contributions, we organised a Climate Change Retreat in Melbourne’s Dandenong Ranges on 4-5 February 2019. The idea behind the retreat was to provide a time and place to reflect on, discuss and brainstorm responses to climate change, both as individuals and as a collective. Kicking-off with our own in-house expertise, Jon Barnett updated colleagues with an overview of the latest key climate change science. In a sobering presentation, Jon reminded us: We are now locked in for an increase in warming of earth’s climate of between 2 and 2.6 degrees Celsius. The task is now to determine how we can live with this warming trend while slowing down greenhouse gas emissions. The more we slow emissions, the more we slow warming, and the greater chance we have to adapt to avoid catastrophic impacts. Since the 1960s, the only times where there have been decreases in global greenhouse gas emissions has been during financial crises e.g. there was a slight dip in greenhouse gas emissions following the collapse of the Soviet Union, 1997 Asian financial crisis, and 2007-08 global financial crisis. Further setting the tone for the two-day retreat, seven SoG members then provided one-minute reflections and/or provocations for retreat participants to mull over as the retreat continued. One activity was a fishbowl exercise where we imagined we were 12 years in the future. We were asked to freely discuss all the things that had happened in the prior twelve-year period to have enabled the School’s (imagined) achievements with respect to responding to climate change. Anyone in the surrounding standing circle could join the discussion by tapping a participant in a chair and swapping positions with them. This exercise yielded around 23 imagined outcomes by 2031 and some of the steps involved in achieving them, a good outcome for a day’s work. The second day of the retreat was spent developing working plans for six priorities plucked from amongst the 23 actions identified during the prior day of the retreat:  Changing the public narrative about climate change Developing a School of Geography ‘climate bus’ project Promoting interdisciplinary research on climate change at the School of Geography Building the School’s capacity in critical Indigenous studies Creating PhD scholarships for climate-affected applicants Focusing on ‘quick wins’ for climate change action and sustainable practices, including examining our purchasing, catering and air travel Stay tuned throughout the year as I report on our progress on these goals. All-in-all the two-day retreat was a success, not least because it allowed staff to bond, share concerns and take positive steps forward in relation to an issue we often feel anxious about and overwhelmed by. As one small step forward, a number of us joined students of all ages at the School Strike for Climate in Melbourne on March 15.  
Talking Vegetal Geographies

Talking Vegetal Geographies

Apr 8, 2019 - 11:17am

I was invited to present at a panel session on Vegetal Geographies at the 2019 American Association of Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting held 3-7 April in Washington D.C. As I’m trying to reduce my flying (certainly not claiming sainthood here!), I offered to present by video. The question posed for panellists by session organisers Paul Moss, University of Minnesota, and Megan Betz, Indiana University, was “Vegetal Geography: Is it a thing?” (see p277 of the AAG Program). For those who missed it and others interested, the 4 minute video is below. It was filmed in Melbourne’s Lincoln Square park, the closest vegetated patch to the School of Geography, University of Melbourne (thanks to Olivia Dun for technical assistance).   Some links to my core publications on this very topic: Head, L. 2017 The Social Dimensions of Invasive Plants. Nature Plants 3: 17075. Head, L., Atchison, J., Buckingham, K. and Phillips, C. (eds) 2016 Vegetal Politics: Belonging, practices and places. London and New York: Routledge. Head, L., Larson, B.M.H., Hobbs, R., Atchison, J., Gill, N., Kull, C. and Rangan, H. 2015 Living with invasive plants in the Anthropocene: the importance of understanding practice and experience. Conservation and Society 13: 311-318. Head, L., Atchison, J. and Phillips, C. 2015 The distinctive capacities of plants: re-thinking difference via invasive species. Transactions Institute of British Geographers, 40(3): 399-413. Head, L., Atchison, J., Phillips, C. and Buckingham, K. 2014 Vegetal politics: belonging, practices and places. Social and Cultural Geography 15(8): 861-870. Head, L. 2012 Decentring 1788: beyond biotic nativeness. Geographical Research 50: 166-178.    
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