Settler Colonialism and Weed Ecology

Timothy Neale, Deakin University §

*All photographs are by the author

Two propositions to start: there is a significant parallel (or companionship) between settlers and weeds; and, there is also a significant parallel (or companionship) between the structures of settler colonialism and those of weed ecology. These are the propositions that I want to work through in what follows, propositions that draw upon both the significant existing body of work by Indigenous and non-indigenous historians, anthropologists and others on the ways in which nonhuman actors have been mobilised within projects of settler colonial territorialization, and more recent work, including my own, in settler colonial nations such Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand where exotic nonhuman species dominate many landscapes.

img_4483A prescribed burn on a property infested with the weed Gamba grass (Andropogon gayanus) in peri-urban Greater Darwin

So, what do I mean by suggesting the existence of these parallels or forms of companionship and, more importantly, what might they mean? Several years ago, I wrote an essay (Neale 2011) reflecting on my relationship, as a pakeha (settler New Zealander), with the brown trout (Salmo trutta) and rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). Drawing on the work of environmental historians such as Geoff Park (2006) and William Cronon (1995), I discussed the great labour that had been exerted in encouraging these “exotic” species to colonize Aotearoa’s catchments, depleting food and water resources key to Maori iwi and hapu in the name of “improvement,” recreation and the constitution of settler affects of home. As one author wrote in a 1960s fishing guide (Hintz 1955), once they were stocked with the descendants of trout harvested from northern English rivers, “the lake and the rivers and the riven hills give echo “Haeremai!” – Welcome!”

In essence, my argument was about what Cronon calls “the trouble” with wildernesses. The trout I encountered – lured from rivers bracketed by few signs of industrial modernity, and reached along dirt roads lined with curiously regular stands of Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) – seemed so “natural.” As a child, there was little to suggest that these species were matter-out-of-place, or that this experience was the outcome of significant amounts of past and present human labour, including not only the everyday work of maintenance and species management, but also, as in other settler colonial sites, the past and present exclusion of first peoples and the legal alienation of their territory. Like many others, I came to realize that I had been a player in the contrived “theatre” of wilderness, where settler colonial history and the entanglement of cultural and the natural are suspended to allow for select (settler) dramas to play out (see: Langton 2003, Banivanua-Mar and Edmonds 2010).

This is what we might call a first order demystification of ecology: in attending to the fetish eco-nationalist object, we start to see exploitative social relations. As “social natures” scholars have shown, from this insight we can not only unpack the contingency of given formations of species, but also attend to the contexts in which different species are put to socio-political work (to give a diverse sample, see: Braun 2002, West 2006, Halverson 2010). So, while one prevailing response in settler colonial sites has been to draw analogies between the traffic of humans and nonhumans across empires and their antecedents within the settler colonial project (after Patrick Wolfe) of “eliminating the native,” another prevailing response has been to denaturalize the various nominations – exotic, native, weed, settler, indigenous, feral, and so on – deployed to classify and organize life. As scholars such as Head (2011) and Trigger (2008) have argued, the scientific convention in Australia of using the establishment of the continent’s first European settlement in 1788 as the temporal marker for “native” and “exotic” nonhumans elides shifts in spatial and social belonging both before and after this ecologically arbitrary boundary.

humptydoo
A property in Humpty Doo, a town in peri-urban Greater Darwin.

That said, let me pivot to a weedy world I have recently engaged with in Australia’s Northern Territory. The Territory, to give a quick summary, is 1.421 million square kilometres of desert and tropical savannah inhabited by roughly 250,000 people, approximately a third of whom identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander (or “Indigenous Australians” in the official discourse). Since the first colonial explorations in the mid-19th Century, the Territory has been addressed as a “problem” of government, eliciting the regular production of utopic plans to transform it into a populous and flourishing “food bowl” for domestic and east Asian markets through engineering and biological fixes. These plans are the paraphernalia Australia’s “northern myth” (see: Lea 2014).

darwin_weeds
A handful of the grass species listed as ‘weeds’ in the Northern Territory.

Over the past century in Australia, more than 8,200 plant species have been introduced to improve the continent’s agricultural potential, the majority of which stem from attempts to expand northern pastoralism (in other words, to provide the conditions for an incursion of domesticated cattle); many of these introduced plants are now listed and governed as “weeds” (Cook and Dias 2006). One such species is a pasture grass sown widely from 1983 onwards named Gamba grass (Andropogon gayanus). Twenty-five years of cultivation later and it was declared a weed, by which time it covered 10,000–15,000 km2 – much of it concentrated in a core infestation in the Greater Darwin area. Its predicted potential invasion range is over 35 times that size.

Gamba grass’s weediness is described in the “grass-fire cycle“ concept. It forms large rank tussocks taller and denser than native vegetation that increase the availability of flammable organic material (or “fuel”), which in turn increases the frequency, area and intensity of bushfires, destroying native grasses and scorching canopies in such a way as to facilitate further invasion, monoculture, greater availability of fuel, and so on. By trying to transform the north to their ends, settlers have transformed fire, which has for millennia been a relatively benign ecological agent in the savannah, into a hazard to multiple forms of life. As of yet, we have little grasp of the consequences of this invasion in terms of biodiversity losses. We do know that a spreading blanket of Gamba grass now covers 20 percent of Litchfield National Park. Almost none of the bushfire practitioners I work with in the area believe the invasion can be reversed, let alone arrested. A landscape of dispossession is now shifting into a novel monoculture.

These trout and gamba stories present a rough ground for the comparisons with which I opened this piece. “Weed,” it needs to be said, is a term of moral differentiation in relation to belonging. Plants typically become weeds when they physically inhabit “cultivated ground” to the exclusion or injury of desirable plants and become, therefore, undesirable. Settlers, moving into an area governed by priors and ordered according to a priors’ ecological governance, have historically acted in much the same way. Their strategies of territorialization involve not simply physical exclusion and structural discrimination, but also the distribution of nonhuman agents – whether in the name of “improvement,” “development” or something else – to reorder spaces and places according to their own allied imperatives. Once these species become known as “weeds” they are too well established to actually extricate.

img_4487
Gamba grass seeds caught in a vehicle’s grill. Vehicle transport is a key vector of the species’ invasion.

But this kind of comparison, between settlers and certain species, presents a set of problems to an ecological anthropology of settler colonialism that is worth spelling out. The first problem I’m going to name the suppositional prior. In short, the belatedness of settlers and weeds – imposed on a prior order – reflexively (re)posits the natural in a precolonial (singularly-indigenous) era. This is, I suggest, connected to a theoretical issue with both settler colonial theory and weed ecology themselves, which, in critiquing the present, often require firm boundaries around the category of the native. In other words, to focus on settler colonialism, the theory of the elimination of the native requires the supposition of an essentially native object. This brings me to the second problem, which I call the agonistic present. Weeds, like settlers, are materially persistent; rarely can they be removed from a space they inhabit, or be eliminated altogether. Where exit is not possible, what we can do is change the dominance of these problem actors by living with and against them. This is an agonistic project of spatio-political reterritorialization; an agonistic project of future-making which is, I suspect, not aided by the supposition of a static prior.

Writing about Gamba grass, Head and Atchison have suggested that the ideals of control that underwrite contemporary management are illusory, if not self-defeating (Atchison and Head 2013, Head and Atchison 2015). This species is, like many of the aforementioned 8,200, embedded in ways that exceed our technical capacities. And so, in my encounters with this one grass species and the practitioners wrestling with it, I have begun to think that a decolonial ecology might be one in which invasive species are made otherwise rather than eradicated; targets of both hostility and hopefulness. These are speculative thoughts voiced in the interest, foremost, of seeing where they might lead and spurred, at least in part, by the fact that “exotic” and “indigenous” are unstable terms for the settler and Indigenous people I encounter. There are certain clear problems with making interspecies comparisons – for instance, evoking dubious ideas of essences, speciesism, and fantasies of perfect governability – but there are also potential benefits to thinking settler colonialism through ecology. Weeds, like settlers, are problems in place; problems of disproportionate power amongst others; problems of counterproductive ends amongst others. Settler colonial ecologies are sites of entanglement; sites of lively emplaced articulations; sites in which the terms of belonging are, for better or worse, open to agonistic contests.


Works Cited:

Atchison, Jennifer, and Lesley Head. 2013. “Eradicating bodies in invasive plant management.” Environment & Planning D: Society & Space 31 (6):951-968.
Banivanua-Mar, Tracey, and Penelope Edmonds. 2010. Making settler colonial space: perspectives on race, place and identity. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Braun, Bruce. 2002. The intemperate rainforest: nature, culture, and power on Canada’s west coast. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Cook, Garry D, and Lesley Dias. 2006. “Turner Review No. 12. It was no accident: deliberate plant introductions by Australian government agencies during the 20th century.” Australian Journal of Botany 54 (7):601-625.
Cronon, William, ed. 1995. Uncommon ground: toward reinventing nature. 1st ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.
Halverson, Anders. 2010. An entirely synthetic fish: how rainbow trout beguiled America and overran the world. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Head, Lesley. 2011. “Decentring 1788: beyond biotic nativeness.” Geographical Research 50 (2):166-178.
Head, Lesley, and Jennifer Atchison. 2015. “Governing invasive plants: Policy and practice in managing the Gamba grass (Andropogon gayanus) – Bushfire nexus in northern Australia.” Land Use Policy 47:225-234.
Hintz, O. S. 1955. Trout at Taupo. London: Max Reinhardt.
Langton, Marcia. 2003. “The ‘wild,’ the market and the native.” In Globlization, globalism, environments, environmentalisms, edited by S. Vertovec and D. Posey, 141-70. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Lea, Tess. 2014. Darwin. Sydney: NewSouth.
Neale, Timothy. 2011. “Acclimatised exotics.” Hue & Cry 5:115-125.
Park, Geoff N. 2006. Theatre country: essays on landscape & whenua. Wellington: Victoria University Press.
Trigger, David S. 2008. “Indigeneity, ferality, and what ‘belongs’ in the Australian bush: Aboriginal responses to ‘introduced’ animals and plants in a settler-descendant society.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14 (3):628-646.
West, Paige. 2006. Conservation is our government now: the politics of ecology in Papua New Guinea. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


Timothy Neale is a Research Fellow at Deakin University’s Alfred Deakin Institute for Sustainability and Globalisation in Melbourne, Australia. His research examines environmental knowledge in settler colonial nations, particularly in relation to rivers, forests and ‘natural hazards’. He is the co-editor, with Stephen Turner, of Other people’s country: law, water and entitlement in settler colonial sites (Routledge, 2016) and the author of Wild Articulations: environmentalism and indigeneity in northern Australia (University of Hawaii Press, forthcoming). To find out more, or contact him, see http://timdneale.net.


This post is part of our thematic series: Life on the Frontier: The Environmental Anthropology of Settler Colonialism.

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