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Lessons to learn from history

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Howard Pedersen, from the Kimberley Institute, delves into the resource-rich Kimberley’s history of development and finds a chequered past.    
The Kimberley was promoted as an economic El Dorado for the colony of Western Australia from the 1880s. Its vast tracts of land were promoted as some of the best pastoral lands in Australia which would sustain a very large European population after settlement. The whole region was mapped with pastoral leases which became available through a lottery process. Cattle runs in the East Kimberley and sheep stations in the west Kimberley were quickly established.

The sheep industry soon became unsustainable.
Wool growing was too distant from markets and there were problems with sheep disease and conflict with Traditional Owners.

The sheep were eventually replaced by cattle and the present 99 pastoral leases cover just over half the Kimberley, equivalent to the size of Victoria. The leases are owned by a variety of interests, from Aboriginal owners and big corporate interests, including multinationals. At one stage the whole cattle industry provided meat for hamburgers.

A lot of investment has gone into saving the beef industry. At one stage there were three meatworks (at Wyndham, Broome and Derby), making them big private employers in those towns. Now these abattoirs are closed; it is more profitable to round up the cattle by helicopter, truck them to a port and ship them to Malaysia, Indonesia or Singapore.

These direct live exports are the only way the industry survives.

The Ord River Irrigation Scheme is arguably Australia’s biggest white elephant.
The brainchild of pastoralist Kimberley Durack, it was Charles Court as state minister (after the 1959 election installed a Liberal government) who convinced Prime Ministers Menzies and Holt to fund a $400 million development.

This was no mean feat, given that all previous feasibility studies had panned the idea.

Undeterred Charles Court hired his own consultants, thus providing him with reports more favourable to the plan. Lake Argyle, Australia’s largest artificial and the town of Kununurra were created in the 1960s and Lake Argyle finally constructed in 1971 by damming the Ord River.
Americans as well as Australians from the southern states were attracted to the cotton farming but (apart from a successful first year) the cost of the insecticide needed outstripped any profits made.

The cotton industry lasted just two years.

Bananas, maize and mangoes were tried without success and a major investment in the 1980s a sugar industry, complete with new refinery, succumbed to a world sugar glut. A recent joint partner agreement between the state and federal governments to expand the Ord River Irrigation Scheme seems to ignore this history.

The Kimberley has always been seen as the answer to many problems, from being the food bowl of Australia to providing water for towns in the south (via a pipeline no less).

Howard Pedersen believes that the history of failures in the region means that we need to discuss how these resources should be used for both the Kimberley itself and further afield for Australia.
Ridding ourselves of a European agricultural mind set might be a useful first step.

With Governments eagerly looking to exploit the river systems in the north where almost three quarters of Australia’s rainfall occurs, the question must be asked whether this nation has the capacity and imagination to avoid the destructive mistakes that have caused the near ruin of the Murray Darling.

Now that’s a dam good idea.

Text: V.B. August 2009

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