Environmental Science
articles by Will Kemp

Creatures of the underground

Most people rarely think about what lives below the ground. If they do, they might think about rabbits and earth worms – or, if they’re in northern Australia, they may think of ants and termites. But these creatures are only a small and unrepresentative proportion of the vast collection of animal life that lives in the soil beneath our feet. It is literally crawling with an incredible array of tiny creatures – many of which look distinctly freaky.

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Marine conservation in South Australia


South Australia’s marine environment is unique. It has more diversity than the Great Barrier Reef, and about 85% of the organisms found there are found nowhere else (DEWNR 2013). Ocean upwellings, which bring nutrients to the surface, and deep canyons are important contributors to the biodiversity in this region (Nieblas et al 2009, Schmidt et al 2010, van Ruth 2010). There are also more than 100 offshore islands which are valuable conservation areas (Robinson et al 1996).

Some parts of South Australia’s marine ecosystem are stable and in good condition, but other parts are in poor condition and getting worse. This is partly due to pressure from fishing, aquaculture, shipping, and mining – all of which have management practices which could be improved (Government of South Australia 2012). Read the rest of this entry »

Markets for ecosystems service provision


According to traditional economics theory, the market is a system through which prices are set according to how much a product costs to produce and how much consumers are willing to pay. However, in this scheme, ecosystem services are considered to be “externalities” and therefore have little or no effect on the market price of a product. This problem is exacerbated by the “public” nature of many ecosystem services (Turner et al 1994). History shows that relying on market forces to preserve biodiversity is ineffective – mainly because environmental destruction does not have an immediate economic effect (Gowdy & McDaniel 1998).

However, market based approaches can be developed which help overcome the environmental limitations of the traditional market economy. Market based incentives, such as auction contracts for conservation, have been used with some success in Australia over the last decade or so. One such program in Victoria was shown to have produced considerably more biodiversity than a fixed price scheme (Pascual & Perrings 2007). Read the rest of this entry »

Water and irrigation in Australia


Fresh water is an essential resource for human life, and ensuring we have a sustainable supply is of critical importance. Global water use tripled during the second half of last century – mainly due to increasing agricultural demands – and the world’s population continues to rise. If we do not address the issue of water sustainability, there will be a big increase in the number of water-stressed people over the next few decades (Hayashi et al 2013).

Australia is the driest inhabited continent (Smith 1998) and we are highly dependent on dams and irrigation systems to maintain our standard of living. However, damming rivers has had a disastrous effect on downstream ecosystems and irrigation has caused a considerable amount of sailinisation (Kingsford 2000, Connor et al 2012). Climate in Australia is very variable and global climate change means conditions are likely to get more extreme. Well targeted research and policy is essential if agricultural production is going to survive into the future (Wei et al 2011). Read the rest of this entry »

Modelling potential futures for land use and ecosystem services

Ecosystem services

Ecosystems provide many benefits to human society, including food, water, timber, climate control, soil formation, tourism, and recreation. Collectively these can be termed “services” and a value can be placed on them (Bryan 2014). Humans have always been dependent on services provided by ecosystems but, until recently, the main concern has been with services which provide tangible products – particularly those which can be sold for profit, such as food and timber. However, there is increasing awareness of the value of those services which, until now, could not be traded – such as clean air and water, erosion control and climate control (Close et al 2010).

Failure to understand the importance of these services has contributed to problems like climate change, soil erosion, and salinity, and a growing awareness of those problems has driven research to identify ecosystem services and quantify their value. Although such services are an important part of what can be considered as our natural capital, they have previously been considered “externalities” in economic terms and little or no account has been taken of them by businesses and governments (Close et al 2010). Rees (1998) describes the economy as a parasite on nature and a sub-system of the ecosphere. Read the rest of this entry »

Magic Mountain

Warning: this article contains names of Aboriginal people who have passed away.

Old man took me up the mountain, said ‘Son this is your life’,
Showed me all my spirit dreaming, why there’s so much strife
Healed the torment in my mind, pointed out the white man’s bull
In his old black natural way, he said “you’re half caste walking full”.
(Magic Mountain, Bobby McLeod)

Magic Mountain, by Bobby McLeod, is a country music song about the singer discovering his connection to country and culture as an Aboriginal person, and the effect that had on his life. Read the rest of this entry »

First Australians – “We are no longer shadows”

The key dimensions of colonization covered by this episode of the SBS television series, First Australians, are Indigenous dispossession and the myth of “terra nullius” which was used to rationalise it.

For over two hundred years, the legal fiction of terra nullius – i.e., the idea that nobody owned Australia when it was claimed by the British – was assumed to be the basis of the land tenure system in Australia. There were attempts to dispute the notion of terra nullius during those two centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1980s when convincing legal arguments were formulated (Reynolds 1992).

The judgement in the case of Mabo vs Qld in 1992 finally dismissed the doctrine of terra nullius and described it as contrary to fundamental common law values and international law (High Court of Australia 1992). This judgement meant that ownership of Australian land by Indigenous people had continued beyond colonization until the present day – except where it had been extinguished by land grants from the crown. Therefore, all crown land was available to be claimed by Indigenous people who could prove ownership. Read the rest of this entry »

Indigenous environmental management

Summaries and discussion of four peer reviewed papers

This article summarises and evaluates four peer reviewed papers which report on various aspects of Indigenous environmental management in Australia and overseas.

Carter, J L, and Hill, G E 2007, ‘Critiquing environmental management in indigenous Australia: two case studies’, Area, 39, 1, 43-54.
This paper compares two contrasting experiences of working with Aboriginal communities in northern Australia. The studies aimed to investigate the commercial potential of sea cucumber harvesting by Aboriginal communities. The author describes two different models of joint management of natural resources and compares the challenges of working with them. The models described are an Aboriginal owned land area and a co-managed national park.

The Aboriginal owned land area was managed by a community outstation resourcing agency (CORA), which made decisions by consensus at community meetings and resourced a ranger program. The co-managed national park area was managed by a board of management (BOM), which consisted of one member of each of the four clan groups represented, along with four senior public servants. The BOM was chaired by a traditional owner who had the casting vote.

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The movie

On one level, Avatar is just more of the same mushy, melodramatic, commercial fare that Hollywood churns out all the time. However, the underlying plot is interesting in its portrayal of a scenario that has played out all over the Earth many times throughout history. It is a movie about colonization, the plunder of natural resources, and the dispossession of indigenous people.

The colonisers are portrayed as a mix of soldiers, scientists and miners. These characters are a divided up into “goodies” and “baddies”. Good scientists and good soldiers, bad soldiers and bad miners. The standard plot – baddie turns goodie, falls in love, nearly dies, and then kills the chief baddie and saves the world – is interspersed with a narrative of indigenous connection to the environment and their opposition to dispossession and environmental destruction, which loosely parallels the experiences of real indigenous people and their struggles for survival. However, in this movie, the indigenous people win and the colonisers go home – which is a scenario that is rarely seen in real life. Read the rest of this entry »

Changes in the population structure of Acacia papyrocarpa (western myall) in chenopod shrubland in South Australia


The arid chenopod shrublands of South Australia have been heavily degraded by sheep grazing since the 19th century. Acacia papyrocarpa is an ecologically important tree in these communities. It is habitat for many species of animals and plants which are not found in the open, it also plays an essential role in nutrient cycling and local hydrology. A. papyrocarpa is a very long lived tree – with some individuals possibly living as long as 1000 years – and recruitment occurs extremely slowly, depending on climate events which occur only a few times a century. Mainly due to grazing by sheep and rabbits, senescent trees are not being replaced by seedlings at a fast enough rate to maintain the population, and the tree and its associated ecosystems are threatened. We counted A. papyrocarpa, assigning individuals to one of nine age classes, and compared the age class distributions with a similar study which was carried out in 2000. This study appeared to show that these populations of A. papyrocarpa have begun to slowly recover. It is not clear what the cause of this recovery is – or even if such a recovery is, in fact, taking place – but, if it is, it may be related to reductions in the rabbit population due to the introduction of myxomatosis in the 1950s and calicivirus in the 1990s. Read the rest of this entry »