The plains around Coober Pedy in South Australia’s Outback are pockmarked with human molehills great and small, turning this area into a vast lunar landscape.
Although each individual feels minute in the vastness of this desert, the influence of human activity on the environment is much bigger than a passing visitor might think.
In little more than a century, imported cattle have eaten away the complete natural food supplies of some indigenous animals, resulting in their migrating to other areas or their annihilation. The population of rabbits who have no natural enemies in this part of the world, has reached plague proportions and also had a severe impact.
Populations of possums, bilbies and rufous hare-wallabies have disappeared or died out. The food supplies of the nomadic Aborigines has been severely affected and, at the same time, their freedom of movement, essential to their livelihood as hunters, was restricted by cattle and rabbit fences.
More acute problems between the two groups arose around the use of water holes and the Aboriginal custom of burning the land regularly. The resulting conflict between black and white led to a short and bloody colonial struggle which was easily won by the whites, who had superior weapons. Historians refer to this episode as “the biggest and quickest land grab of all times.” This dirty war has still not been settled peaceably between the two sides. What separates both groups is a fundamental difference of opinion about the relationship between humans and nature.
In the eyes of the Aborigines, every human being must respect the earth and all that lives on it, in order to keep the cycle of nature intact and sustainable. The notion that land could be the property of individuals was unthinkable for them, and to this day their claims to land are always collective.
This basic respect for Mother Earth is further strengthened by religious ties with the landscape, wildlife and plants. For the European immigrants, on the other hand, land was an economic asset, there to be exploited by its owner regardless of the consequences for the ‘useless’ plants, animals or ‘savages’ who might get in the way.