Sugar vs the Reef ?

diagram of change influence in cane farming
A grossly oversimplified and probably wrong-in-various-ways diagram showing flows of influence attempting to change the behaviour of cane farmers. (Based on conversations with a bunch of people since we’ve been in Mackay).

We roam around Mackay visiting farms and hearing about the experiments and inventions of farmers. And rumbling just below the surface is an anxiety. It’s the troubling undercurrent that got us here in the first place – the seemingly unsolvable tension of Sugar vs the Reef.

Kim and I have talked back and forth about all of this. Every couple of days we debate whether we were right to choose this name for our project. Is it too provocative? Too antagonistic? Is it going to push away the very people that we’re wanting to work with? Won’t it make farmers think we’ve already made up our mind? Won’t they see the name of our project and conclude this is yet another scheme to come down hard and tell them what to do?

In fact, the farmers that we’ve spent extensive time with would testify that we are not at all antagonistic. The main thing we do is listen. Our method of social engagement is one of honouring the deep knowledge of the practices of farming. We want to understand the personal histories and cultural traditions that underpin the lives of farming families. Our own naivety about industrial scale farming is something of an asset to us – we ask a lot of questions, we show interest. At our best, we make farmers more interested in themselves.

And we know there’s pressure. When you farm on the shores of the Great Barrier Reef, you’re under a lot of scrutiny. The GBR is “owned” by everyone, even people who’ve never been here. We regularly hear of international celebrities weighing in on the huge environmental management responsibility that this world heritage area represents. And you don’t have to look far to find reports which point the finger at farmers.

Here’s a typical headline from a bit over a year ago: “Sugar Farmers Major Culprits in Reef Pollution“. And another one, from 2012, which points to the use of a particular pesticide called diuron: “Great Barrier Reef Suffering from Australia’s decision to allow pesticides“. From 2007: “Great Barrier Reef Hurt by Farming“. And again (from more than a decade ago): “Appetite For Sugar Causing Massive Environmental Damage“. And here’s a highschool study activity called “Sugar’s not so sweet for the Great Barrier Reef“.

Whether or not these reports are “true” is not really my point here. At the very least, I think we can agree that terrestrial land use since 1788 has changed massively. Whatever vegetation was growing on this land before it was cleared for agriculture had a relationship with GBR which evolved over many thousands of years, as the rainfall draining from it fed the reef. So the rapid change to growing sugar cane as a monoculture was bound to have some effect. And growing sugar is probably not better for the reef than whatever was there before, right?

But anyway – rather than getting into the discussion about whether or not farmers are to blame, instead I want to consider what happens when blamey media reports start to proliferate. Some of the reports quote from media releases by environmental organisations like the WWF. This makes the reports easy targets for wanna-be debunkers, leading to a polarisation of debate – “environmentalists vs farmers”. Typical online argy-bargy of this sort results: “I don’t believe the WWF has done it’s homework properly and it’s common knowledge that they are against everything farming” (from a commentator in Mackay). There we go again: WWF vs farming.

The complex reality of the situation is thus destroyed by the “versus”. Greenies vs farmers; urban vs rural; intellectuals vs primary industries; and so on. Both sides dig in, blame the other, and positions become more entrenched than before.

How can change occur in this kind of set-up?

That’s what we’re trying to find out. Our project’s name puts a “versus” between sugar and the reef, then adds a question mark. We want to explore what can be done to go beyond entrenched positions.

Others do, too. A few months ago the ABC reported that “Great Barrier Reef debate leaves farmers frustrated over their negative portrayal on water quality improvements“. This article gets to some of the complexity in the situation. Here’s my (very much oversimplified) attempt at plotting out the process (the diagram at the top of this blog post is a version of this without the details):

A problem is identified (eg run off from canefarming). Scientific studies are carried out. These are then dramatised in the media, garnering attention, creating a sense of urgency. Government schemes roll out to provide incentives to canefarmers. Some canefarmers comply and adopt better water management techniques under Best Management Practices (BMP) schemes. Farmers complain that the BMP goalposts change every couple of years. Farmers become frustrated and disillusioned, and the take up rate of the schemes tapers off…

What characterises this cycle is the push from outside to make changes happen. But what if changes start to grow from within? Towards the end of that ABC article there’s a hint of movement in that direction – the engagement of behavioural scientist John Pickering by the Sugar Cane industry itself. Here’s more about it at the “Project Cane Changer” website. I will be keen to find out more about the Project Cane Changer process, and what it has unearthed so far…