Biodiversity loss is a genuine concern, but is a blanket approach to its reinstatement the ideal landscape management plan?
Reinstating biodiversity, or the attempted re-creation of indigenous landscapes, is a noble goal in a continent that stands accused of having the worst extinction rate in modern times.1 The native plant movement of the 1960s and 1970s, landcare, revegetation programs and responses to recent drought have generated a greater biodiversity focus in the built environment and design professions.2 Considering the historically slow acceptance of the Australian landscape, this recognition of its genius loci and the steady departure from the formerly dominant formal European landscape paradigm is certainly a huge step forward.
While biodiversity conservation is an important and pressing concern, biodiversity reinstatement and restoration, which attempt to re-create destroyed (pre-European) flora and fauna, should be more strategically applied. This article argues that biodiversity reinstatement has become a “blanket” approach and that in most cases, urban areas with little or no indigenous biodiversity value could be better utilized for urban agriculture in light of current environmental and food-system crises. Biodiversity restoration fails to recognize that the majority of urban practices are not compatible, respectful and symbiotic with the needs of indigenous flora and fauna. Two examples are the incompatibility of vehicles and fauna and the conflicts between fauna and humans.
Biodiversity restoration often fails to recognize pre-European landscapes as Aboriginal creations – dynamic landscapes that were shaped by Aboriginal cultural practices such as the use of fire and hunting. There was not the nature/culture dualism or “disconnect” that pervades our current society. Biodiversity restoration in urban environments can also fail to recognize the far-reaching implications of individual actions and choices on wider landscapes and biodiversity, such as the impacts of food choices.
Although most urban areas contain a surprising amount of biodiversity, this diversity is sourced from a wide variety of countries and environments, much like the nation’s own multicultural heritage, and thus it is a complex mix of species and relationships. Yet the blanket approach of biodiversity restoration focuses only on local indigenous species. This is akin to a “monocultural” approach that only serves the pre-European indigenous culture. By excluding exotic edible species from urban regimes we would need to either get all food from “bush food” sources or admit that we are happy to degrade other landscapes through unsustainable global agriculture.
The pre-European Australian landscape supported an Aboriginal population estimated at only 315,000–750,000, balanced with what the landscape could sustainably carry from bush food.3 It is paradoxical that a significant proportion of the Australian population (currently around twenty-two million) is in agreement with indigenous biodiversity restoration approaches; however this does not extend to wanting to live in ways that are sympathetic to the necessary active management of this landscape. Given this, why do we aim to re-create a landscape in which we mostly do not wish to live? To resurrect a destroyed landscape without also resurrecting and living by the same cultural practices that enabled it is a strange nostalgia. It can only be attributed to an idealistic and aesthetic appreciation of landscape.
What is the ultimate purpose of biodiversity restoration? Will Australians not wishing to live an indigenous way of life return to where their ancestors came from once the Australian landscape systems have been duly reinstated? Biodiversity restoration is idealistic in this respect. It offers an approach to reinstating flora and fauna but no significant strategy for reinstating sustainable living practices. Water, food and shelter are the fundamental requirements for human existence and the biodiversity reinstatement paradigm does little to directly serve these most basic needs. We need landscapes that fundamentally provide for our current and future culture, not a romanticized, and sometimes inaccurate, vision of how it was before European settlement.
We are in the midst of global environmental crises. Strategic and considered landscape management is fundamental to addressing the effects of these crises. Why should indigenous biodiversity restoration, as an idealistic landscape management technique, take precedence over alternative practices that better address global environmental crises? While restoration may be appropriate for certain areas (such as those adjacent to conservation zones, sand dunes and waterways), urban areas with little or no indigenous biodiversity value could be better utilized for urban agriculture. A more sustainable food supply could help counter the environmental and food-system crises, while also benefiting macro biodiversity. Small-scale urban agriculture makes sense in urban environments where nutrient-rich green waste and wastewater are abundant and problematic for indigenous biodiversity. Indigenous biodiversity makes sense on the urban fringe and beyond human activities in appropriate locations that link diverse remnant habitats.
Global agriculture has an enormously detrimental effect on the environment and biodiversity. Food products and their embodied systems of industrialized agriculture are degrading immense areas of landscape in “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” locations. These systems of agriculture typically have widespread effects on the local biodiversity of each region through toxic pesticides, fertilizers and chemicals that pollute soils, waterways and groundwater, not to mention farmers culling native “pest” species that find their agricultural crops more appealing than the surrounding indigenous flora. This is exacerbated by the food miles travelled by the average shopping basket.4 Eating sustainably helps to strengthen biodiversity.
Biodiversity does not simply entail indigenous biodiversity, as biological diversity encompasses all life forms. Agrobiodiversity (agricultural biodiversity) is a much more pressing concern to twenty-two million Australians relying on the Australian and global food systems for their daily sustenance. These food systems are rapidly reducing agrobiodiversity. Since 1900, the world has lost more than 90 percent of the global genetic biodiversity in now-extinct food plants, as a result of industrialization and globalization of agriculture.5 As a signatory of the United Nations Convention on biological diversity, Australia has an obligation to preserve agrobiodiversity, an obligation that is failing to be met as we no longer maintain seed banks of edible species.
Indigenous biodiversity undoubtedly has its place in landscape regimes and serves a fundamental role in shifting from an anthropocentric culture to one that considers other species and life forms. This article does not suggest that indigenous biodiversity should be abandoned, rather that it should be examined appropriately with respect to context. One such successful marriage of edible “foodscapes” and indigenous biodiversity is the organic farm and permaculture education centre, the Food Forest in Gawler, South Australia. From denuded land devoid of productivity and biodiversity, it now grows around 150 varieties of edible crops, while about 25 percent of the land has been revegetated with indigenous species, attracting numerous native species of fauna. A healthy colony of brush-tailed bettongs has been established in the fruit and nut orchards and the bettongs (woylies) adore soursob bulbs (oxalis), a common weed and pest species to farmers. It is another win–win scenario where food crops and fauna species coexist in an indigenous and exotic harmony that is mutually beneficial.
Indigenous biodiversity and food production: it does not have to be one or the other; it can be both. Biodiversity loss is a legitimate concern; however, a blanket approach to its reinstatement does not optimize landscape management. Our landscapes are complex, interconnected and dynamic. When any doctrine becomes an unquestioned assumption or dogma, it is high time to challenge its premises and examine the legitimacy of its outcomes. We need to grow more food in and around cities. Instead of artificially attempting to reinstate biodiversity we should be instating diverse productive plants, supplemented by biodiversity approaches that deliver ecosystem services tangible to local communities, such as those that come from revegetating waterways and coastal sand dunes. Let’s make informed landscape management decisions and personal choices in cities to benefit the wider biodiversity, health and environment quality of our Australian landscapes and the global environment.
1. Tim Flannery, “Beautiful Lies: Population and Environment in Australia,” Quarterly Essay 9, (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2003), 33.
2. Michael Archer and Bob Beale, Going Native: Living in the Australian Environment (Australia: Hodder, 2004), 332.
3. Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Year Book Australia, 2002,” on the Australian Bureau of Statistics website, abs.gov.au.
4. Sophie Gaballa and Asha Bee Abraham, Food Miles in Australia: A preliminary study of Melbourne (Victoria: CERES, 2008).
5. Koanga Institute, “Seeds,” on the Koanga Institute website, koanga.org.nz./seeds.