The Northern Rivers Region
The Northern Rivers is in the Far North Coast of New South Wales (NSW), Australia. It includes the local government areas of Ballina, Byron, Clarence Valley, Kyogle, Lismore, Richmond Valley and the Tweed. From the outset of European settlement the region was intended for food production, although the timber industry dominated the local economy for some time. An early observer explained the rich food resources for people who knew where to look:
…the scrubs abounded with paddymelons, bandicoots, oppossums, snakes, lizards, grubs, turkeys, pigeons and yams. The open country was plentifully supplied with kangaroos and wallabies. The swamps provided an endless variety of game including ducks, geese, swans and coots. The rivers and creeks were teeming with fish.
Duncan Macfarlane noted the meat, but the traditional custodians also had a varied diet of berries, seeds and fruit. The region supports a wide range of agricultural activities, from intensive agriculture to broad acre cropping and grazing. Cropping and grazing is generally carried out in the flatter, inland areas although there are still extensive plantings of sugar cane on the coastal plains. In the north of the region, between the Richmond and Tweed valleys lies a plateau of rich volcanic origin which supports a range of sub-tropic fruit and vegetable crops.
A number of agricultural industries in the region have been established for many years; bananas, dairying, vegetables and sugar cane. Downturns in markets and returns in these industries in the last fifty years has led to the growth of new enterprises including coffee, macadamias and plantation forests. A landscape once associated with the interests of dairying has given way to horticulture and beef cattle.
Although agriculture retains a significant presence here, both in terms of the culture of the people and the region’s attractiveness to visitors, the ‘Rainbow Region’ as it is sometimes called means a range of things to different people:
[T]here are many (or no) Rainbow Regions in north-eastern NSW, depending on how people imagine and belong to the area. For Aboriginal people it is Bundjalung country, little understood by generations of white settlers; for dairy farmers dispossessed by the restructuring of their industry, it is a site of loss; for the hippies or ‘alternative seekers’ who came following the Aquarius Festival of 1973, it is a place of experimentation of promise; and for many artists, entrepreneurs and tourists it is a beautiful and dynamic environment, a ‘happening place’ of inspiration and possibility. (Wilson, 2003: 1-2)
Regional agriculture is coming under increasing pressure for competition for land from non-agricultural uses. Food producers are also shifting their practices, informed by market pressures, technological changes, and health and environmental concerns (to name just some examples).
The Landed Histories Project
The Landed Histories Project is a collaboration between Southern Cross University researchers and food producers in the Northern Rivers. It aims to develop a series of case studies of land histories in the region, to explore diverse local responses to the changing economic, social, cultural and ecological dimensions of food production.
The aim of our work in 2012-13 has been to develop Landed Histories as a methodological approach, which we offer to other researchers, community groups, and individuals beyond the Northern Rivers as a unique lens to consider both the past and the future of agriculture and land-use more generally.
Each case study included on this site provides an intensive examination of the development of farming practices and attendant transformations of local ecologies of defined blocks of land. Through these biographies of particular plots of land we are developing localised analyses of the wider historical trends in the political economy/ecology of the area. We do not intend to suggest that the farms included here are representative of the experiences of others in the region, or beyond. The nature of a case-study approach is that many stories remain untold, and those that do appear do not (and cannot) speak for others, no matter how apparently similar they might sometimes appear. We would welcome any additions you may be able to offer. If you are in our region and would like to add your story to this site, please don’t hesitate to contact us. If you have something to add to the stories already here, you can also do so by commenting at the bottom of any story.
Aboriginal Landed Histories
Although this is not the place to develop a detailed methodological discussion (a forthcoming academic journal article is dedicated to that task), we acknowledge a debt to Indigenous scholars who have centralised land and ecology as historical agents interacting with humans, and suggest that one important future direction is to develop Aboriginal Landed Histories.
We do however, acknowledge the absence of the perspectives of Indigenous Elders or knowledge holders in the project. This initial project has focused on settler adaptation, and the impact of the land on the settlers who sought to make lives in the Northern Rivers. This is not to suggest that Aboriginal people have not produced food on these lands. However, it does point to some of the politics that has pervaded the access to farming land of indigenous people throughout our recent history.
Indeed, numbers of NSW Aboriginal communities were successfully farming in the early twentieth century (some for over 50 years) when they were forcibly removed from Reserves at the time of solider settlement – Historian Heather Goodall (1996) calls it the second dispossession. The developmental focus of the work thus far has therefore been at odds with the sort of care and attention to indigenous landed histories that we would wish to apply to this project. In choosing to stay silent in regards to the Traditional Owners’ business, we hope this silence is understood as a respectful one – it is certainly intended as such.