After the disappointing lack of small people with hairy feet in the Balonne Shire, the next thing you are likely to notice is, well, not much at all. It takes a bit of a closer look to reveal the charms and quirks of this area to the untrained eye. Much more has come clear after my second trip to St George.
Last week in Brisbane, one of my interviewees told me to look out for a lady in the DERM St George office who has a soft spot for wombats. I had been in the office on a previous visit, but now I started to notice wombat paraphernalia everywhere. Posters, fliers, pictures, and news articles were pasted to the walls. A life-sized wombat piggy bank guarded the door. I was able to watch a short video about the endangered Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat, of which scientists have been attempting to establish in new colonies around Queensland. According to the video, "nowhere has anyone ever moved such a large burrowing animal." They are typically very sensitive animals that suffer in new situations, but the relocated colony is apparently thriving. The best part about pursuing this wombat craze was that I scored a "Save the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat" water bottle.
The ladies restroom at the office also has its own special style. Someone has set up little displays on hot pink washcloths involving scented candles, soaps, lotions, fake flowers, and other girly stuff. I'm going to miss this place!
I have begun to understand just how important cotton is to the communities along the Condamine/Balonne River. Wheat, sorghum, chickpeas, and other dryland crops are farmed to some extent (also beef and wool), but cotton is the real economic boon for the area. This year was a record harvest and the holding lots in front of the St George cotton gin are still stuffed with bales waiting for processing. Many farms have had bales sitting in the paddock for a month now waiting for space to open up at the gin.
The bales are primarily these long blocks about the size of a semi truck trailer. Making them involves several people working to stuff cotton into a modular pressing machine and then tarping the top to protect the bale from weather. Some farms are moving to machinery that creates round bales and only requires one person to operate.
There are not many alternatives to farming to support these remote western Queensland communities. Because of limited water availability, the state has already capped use, meaning that any growth in productive capacity will have to come from on-farm efficiency measures since no new water is available for development. The federal government will buy water back from farmers that is needed under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to return flows to the environment, but although these willing sellers will be compensated, the cutbacks may have negative impacts on communities that rely on the agricultural sector. If a community loses too much population or productive agricultural capacity, it may also lose needed services such as doctors, schools, development investment, etc. Young people will leave to seek opportunities elsewhere. People who might want to leave to seek opportunities elsewhere aren't able to sell their home or property, creating a trap. Debt builds. Ultimately, the community becomes dependent on government assistance. This decline has already been seen in some towns due to the prolonged drought Queensland suffered until late last year. With the rains, some communities have bounced back, but at a much lower operational capacity and with unknown potential for true sustainability.
Seeing the rivers full of water, bird life, and fish makes it difficult to imagine that in the very recent past the Balonne was nothing more than a trickle in a dry riverbed. I contemplated the awesome resilience of the environment from my hammock after a long day of interviews...