Post by Olivia Dun & Natascha Klocker
It’s been over a year since we started working on the project Exploring culturally diverse perspectives on Australian environments and environmentalism. The project is funded by the Australian Research Council and also includes our colleagues Lesley Head, Gordon Waitt and Heather Goodall. So far this project has prompted us to think about Australian landscapes, agriculture and back/front-yard spaces in new ways. Our work on the project primarily centres on the town of Robinvale and the rural city of Mildura within the Sunraysia region. This region spans a corner of north-western Victoria and south-western New South Wales united by the Murray River and the possibility of irrigated agriculture. We were drawn to the Sunraysia because one third of horticulturalists in the region speak a language other than English at home (Missingham et al. 2006). The Sunraysia is also host to diverse horticultural industries including table grapes, dried fruit, citrus, almonds, olives, carrots, avocado and asparagus, accounting for much of the national supply of these crops. Our aim is to explore the contributions that ethnically diverse residents make to farming in this region – through their labour, businesses and growing practices.
This week we have been in Mildura seeking out ways to engage with the city’s Burundian, Congolese and Afghan refugee communities. We’ve been accompanied by Paul Mbenna (project research assistant, Kiswahili speaker, social worker). Upon arrival at Mildura airport, one of us (Olivia) was greeted by the apologetic tones of the AVIS representative regarding the dirt on the exterior of the rental vehicle. “What is it?” Olivia asked. “Bee poop”, he replied, explaining that there is a large swarm of bees right next to the area where returned rental vehicles are cleaned. None of us knew that bees pooped (although we fervently Googled this topic over dinner on our first night). Olivia, keen to avoid showing too much city slicker ignorance swiftly responded, “No need to apologise, we need bees, I’m happy to have bee poop on my car”. That bees do indeed defecate is of course obvious, as soon as one thinks about it. But the point here is that researchers like us (from the city) can learn all sorts of things about nature, farming and the environment from the moment we land in this horticulturally-rich region of Australia.
The major focus of our research is to better understand the important – and frequently overlooked – environmental and agricultural knowledges of recently arrived migrants and refugees. To conduct our research we have built a relationship with the Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities Council (SMECC), a key organisation providing services to the culturally and linguistically diverse populations arriving in the region. This past week, thanks to SMECC, we were able to host an event that allowed us to connect with the Burundian and Congolese communities living in Mildura. Over a meal of BBQ corn, sweet potato, chicken and sausages combined with chips, wali nazi (coconut cream rice) and kachumbari (tomato salad), we had a chance to introduce our research and to recruit interviewees for our project. We were welcomed into a number of families’ homes and were able to ask them about their farming backgrounds. Most were farmers before fleeing East Africa and have a wealth of food growing experience. Many of our interviewees are keen to continue to grow food in Australia – for cultural, health and economic reasons. Joel – a member of the Burundian community, and our co-researcher – grows beans and maize on any small parcel of land made available to him. Right now, he is growing these crops in his own backyard and on SMECC grounds, but he yearns for access to a more sizeable plot. While it’s too early to pre-empt our research findings, access to land and the costs of water are emerging as important barriers for newly arrived communities who wish to grow food. There are particular challenges for those who are rental tenants – as landlords are often unwilling to have their lawns and flowerbeds uprooted in favour of edible gardens.
Our research in the Sunraysia region will continue for at least another two years and is motivated by the idea that recognition of the cultural environmental capacities of ethnic minorities can challenge environmental thinking to move beyond the ‘constraints of western philosophies and colonial legacies’ (Goodall 2008:16). The diverse environmentalisms, and agricultural and environmental knowledges, of migrants and refugees may come to provide important resources in response to the multiple and profound ecological challenges of the Anthropocene (Klocker and Head 2013). But, as we hope is clear throughout this blog, this topic also raises important and urgent questions about the ways in which migrants and refugees are supported to settle into their new home in Australia. For those who were farmers in their countries of origin, access to land for growing food matters, in many fundamental ways. And its lack is felt very keenly.
Goodall, H. 2008, Will environmental history save the world?, History Australia 5: 13-16.
Klocker, N. & Head, L. 2013, Diversifying ethnicity in Australia’s population and environment debates, Australian Geographer 44(1): 41-62.
Missingham, B., Dibden, J. et al. 2006, A multicultural countryside? Ethnic minorities in rural Aus, Rural Society, 16(2): 131–50.