thomas m wilson

Bagarap Empire

February 18th, 2009

Bagarap Empire is a phrase I have borrowed from Fred Smith, a Canberra-based musician who I met last weekend at KULCHA in Fremantle.  Fred has worked in Papua New Guinea and knows that in pidgin ‘bagarap’ means ‘to go wrong’ (i.e. the root in English would be to bugger up).  My reason for choosing these words to begin will become clear soon enough.

In the 1920s in Western Australia the British government and the Australian government cooperated to create the Group Settlement Scheme.  This scheme saw hundreds of British men and women immigrate to south-west Australia where they were given a bit of land in the forests of the south-west.  Usually they would start up in a location along with around 20 other families.  They were to clear the land – ‘improve it’ – and were given a plot of land to themselves to create a dairy farm. They were paid to clear the land and the government stocked their farms.  When the farm was successful they were to repay the Western Australian government for all the assistance they had been given.  They would often ringbark the karri and jarrah trees.  You can imagine the sight at a plot of land at say, Northcliffe, with a full moon shining down on a field of deathly white trunks and branches.  At the end of the square plot of land they’d cleared would be the wild, dark forest towering up.

A ghostly spectacle, isn’t it?  The British empire sending out unemployed men and women to a far flung land they’d taken in their name and then telling them to kill an ancient, beautiful and biodiverse ecosystem, one that till now had captured and sequestered carbon for nothing and filtered water and provide habitat and native foods.

The following photo is circa 1924.

Guess what?  You can still see that same image today.  With the difference that you would be further north and they are Indonesian men and women standing in a field cleared of lowland rainforest.  I am talking about West Papua.  In a part of Meganesia that is even more biodiverse and critical in preventing global warming through capturing and storing carbon than south-west Australia the Indonesian government has had the arrogance to claim the land as theirs.  And then to skin large sections of it clean.  Like in the Group Settlement Scheme of south-western Australia in the 1920s, the Indonesians now carve out chunks of beautiful forest and set down poor men and women from the homeland.  Like a British family standing in a denuded clearing in the 1920s, I can see an Indonesian family standing in a cleared patch of rainforest in 2009.  Empire-sanctioned violence against culture and nature put them both in new moonscapes.  Welcome to the world of Bagarap Empire.

This would be a sour note to end on.  Sometimes clearing forest is useful for dairy farming.  I mean, I do eat yoghurt after all.  You probably drink milk and eat vegetables.  Too much of the south-west has been cleared, and much of the food south-west Australia grows is exported and this is arguably far from ideal, but certainly not all land-clearing must be evil.  The last image I’m going to leave you with here was taken recently by a guy I know, Stuart Halse, flying low over Denmark, again in the south-west of Australia.  So…  Can you feel the love?