In rural communities, there has been a remarkable increase in suicide rates. But it is not what might be expected. The rural landscape is an industrial backdrop. Not the smokestack-filled urban conglomeration we usually equate with industry but rolling hills of grazing country.
So what is causing the distress in this otherwise idyllic backdrop?
Long-term diminishing marginal returns, ageing populations, droughts, market change and the cost of pest control and weed management accentuated by the loss of summer grazing pasture seem to have reduced the social status of these localities. It is these combined effects that are driving elderly farmers to conclude that they are part of an intergenerational failure.
So what has happened here? I am discussing the Monaro, a wool producing agricultural region in southern New South Wales, Australia. It was a thriving community and in the 1940s and 50s was at its peak.
Cattle and sheep grazing on the naturally treeless plains of the Monaro were quite profitable. There are local stories about farmers who brought a new car each year and sent their sons to Sydney’s posh private schools.
In the summer months, grazers would take their cattle herds to the Australian Alps to rest the subalpine country in a similar pattern to their European ancestors. During the cold winters, their cattle were brought down below the snowline. But the beginning of the decline first came with the Snowy Scheme.
During the 1950s the Australian government, in a post-war recovery effort, embarked on the snowy scheme. With the aim of turning the mighty Snowy River west to irrigate the Arid but productive soils of Southern Australia. But, the Government needed a way to pay for the infrastructure. The post-war years provided that opportunity. The development of an economically viable hydroelectric scheme gave them the payback to develop large-scale dams and piping infrastructure in the southern Alps.
It also created the opportunity to withdraw the high country leases and create a national park with the stated aim of protecting the hydroelectric authority’s water catchment. To the graziers who had high country leases this was the first of a series of devastating blows. At approximately half the carrying capacity it put added pressure on the sub-alpine country. The Snowy Scheme, as it was known, also required two service towns to be moved. The land that the new lakes would inundate also needed to be purchased. Property losses reduced the amount of hay that farmers could produce.
Within a relatively short period, Parks and hydro displaced traditional business. Farmland converted to lakes and a new industry emerged on the landscape. What had once been high country grazing would quickly become a wasted opportunity locked away and the source of plant and animal pests. Because there is a shortage of large predators in Australia dogs rapidly became the dominant predator in the new park. Wild horses, locally known as brumbies quickly became the biggest animals. Combined with a loss of revenue from land managers weed infestations in the rugged high country that soon became unmanageable migrated onto the grazing lands. Where grazers had employed a range of management solutions including the very historic practice of fire management to control weeds in the invasion, the land management portfolio now seems to be vacated. The Park service are under-resourced and within a decade wild animals, noxious plants and out-of-control regrowth became problematic.
Once upon a time, the men of the high country had kept the landscape under control. A collective of government employees now struggle to keep the environment in hand. On the adjacent rural holdings, the stories about wild dogs ripping the guts out of sheep left to roam the countryside until someone put them down they died a painful death became part of the new regime. Grasslands became overgrown, no longer suitable for native species that once invaded the fresh green picks that come through after a cold burn. Brumbies, one sent annually rounded up for commercial purposes were left to run wild. Regrowth becomes so thick that wildfires have a devastating impact on the landscape.
Managed fires on open grasslands, or during the cool months of the year predominantly burning undergrowth and leaf litter and keeping the Forest open and healthy, have gone. Natural wildfires that take hold in the thick wild bush burned devastatingly hot, destroying everything in their path. Native forests take decades to recover from these fires and often do not.
The combined loss of summer grazing and its ongoing poor management together with the continued obfuscation by, well-meaning but misguided greenies, is a double blow to the once hard-working but profitable rural entrepreneurs.
Not only has their water been taken to irrigate crops west of the great divide, but they have lost control of the water catchments that affect their land. This was just the beginning of a process that would turn once relatively wealthy settlers into peasant farmers in a single generation.
The snowy scheme did not just take some of the water it comprehensively took all of the water. The two major dams on the Snowy Scheme made no provision for regular flows into the Eucumbene or Snowy River below the dams. When they were both built, the overflow mechanisms were dam safety devices. Higher up in the Snowy the scheme also piped water away from natural watercourses to prevent losses in the new hydro system.
From this time all of the water in the upper Snowy scheme would be piped to its destination affecting any natural flows and environmental recharge. Water in natural systems collect into water courses through Overland flow and from groundwater is that discharged into tributaries and then into larger channels. This much is well-known. But as we now know, the groundwater levels are also recharged by watercourses.
With the Lucerne flats devastated and the lowlands inundated by new lakes, much of the highly productive country is removed from agricultural production.
Globally these landholders also found themselves vulnerable to other changes. Reliant on international markets for wool, lamb and beef declining wool prices hit them. The market for Wool no longer has a floor.
Believing that this trend might be short term, the government created a national wool trading system that provided for an artificial floor price. Wool was purchased and stockpiled for sale at a time when the prices were higher. But by the 1990s the system had broken down. By the turn of this century, it is just a memory.
Australians have always been sensitive to biosecurity. Notwithstanding a world of Johnny Depp’s who might think otherwise, Australia has been devastated by introduced species from rabbits to toads and a huge range of weeds. Unlike the older continents, we do not have our natural predators in the south-east. Noxious plants, feral animals and land degradation cost local farmers a small fortune each year. As commodity prices drop and the cost of managing farms rises farmers face diminishing marginal returns. But it is not all bad news; a more recent introduction into the landscape has been the growth and development of another phenomenon. Tourism has developed into a very volatile if fickle industry: If it can call itself an industry! Certainly, Snow tourism has had an unstable life. Developing in the 1970s as a phenomenon of European introduction, the ski industry as it was then known, attracted Australians and European immigrants to the only skiing location in Australia, the Snowy Mountains. But competition through cheaper transport in the USA, Europe, Japan and New Zealand has kept a firm lid on its potential growth. Out of season tourism has also had a positive impact on farm incomes, raising demand for niche products, on-farm stays, bush walking and cycling or car and motorbike touring.
Even so, climate and weather have had bigger impacts. In recent years snow has become less reliable, and hot, dry summers have given the region a reputation for fierce firestorms influencing the perception of this place as a tourism destination.
So, over five decades, the landscape has changed. Traditional summer and winter grazing patterns have been constrained to low country pasture. The industry seems to be agricultural but is also about large-scale hydroelectric and water management schemes and subsidiary industries. With declining marginal returns and declining on-farm wealth, this once prosperous lifestyle is losing its lustre. One farmer when talking about child abuse in the religious institutions of our nation told me “we are guilty of child abuse when we hand on the farm!”
Economic change has social, spatial and ecological impacts that grind social networks down.