Wollongong-based visual artist Dr Lucas Ihlein is using art to draw attention to agricultural practices on Queensland’s coast where farming is impacting on the health of the Great Barrier Reef.

Dr Ihlein, with sugarcane farmer Simon Mattsson, UOW PhD student Kim Williams and artist Ian Milliss, is preparing to plant a dual crop of sugarcane and sunflowers to create a piece of land art at the Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens in Queensland. The goal, according to Dr Ihlein, is to expand the public’s understanding of the forces that affect farming communities, their efforts and struggles to control their environmental impact, and foster a more nuanced public dialogue around agriculture.

Though no seeds have yet been sown, as Dr Ihlein’s initial focus is on community consultations and planning, the project is already attracting attention. In October 2016, the project was featured by the ABC’s QLD Country Hour. Speaking to the program’s rural reporter, Lara Webster, Dr Ihlein explained that he hopes the project will help communities understand “what it’s like to be a cane farmer, and the relationship between the industry and the Great Barrier Reef”

“Sugarcane in this part of the world is such a dominant crop, and so it gets a lot of attention when people start to talk about water quality in the Great Barrier Reef,” Dr Ihlein told the ABC.

Dr Ihlein, who is an ARC DECRA Research Fellow at the School of the Arts, English and the Media at UOW, said it was a “breakthrough” when the Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens agreed to host the land art project, which also has the support of Simon Mattsson,  the Chair of grassroots organisation Central Queensland Soil Health Systems (CQSHS), and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA).

The Mackay and District Australian South Sea Islander Association (MADASSIA) is also a supporter of the project, which is historically significant.

“This year marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the South Sea Islanders in Mackay,” Dr Ihlein explained.

“The South Sea Islanders were ‘blackbirded’ or forcibly brought to Australia to work. They were essential in the establishment of the sugarcane industry.

“Members of MADASSIA are keen to use this land art project as a way to connect with their own complex cultural heritage in Australia – by engaging, like their ancestors, in the processes of planting and harvesting sugar cane, and telling their stories to their grandchildren and the wider public.”

As each of these groups comes on board, Dr Ihlein’s expectations of what his project may achieve grows.

“We’re excited about this project,” Dr Ihlein said. 

“It will allow all the complexity we’ve been wallowing in, the nexus of environmental management, economics, industrial relations and the cultural traditions of agriculture, to be focused through a set of concrete activities.

“Our hope is that the stories and experiences that this project generates will foster a more nuanced public dialogue around agriculture … We are also hoping to be able to generate new insights into what role socially engaged art can play by working in the field, beyond the relative safety of the university and art world environments.”

With PhD student Kim Williams, Dr Ihlein spent two months in Mackay from late August 2016 to conduct field work for the project and connect with farmers, environmental scientists and industry representatives. According to Dr Ihlein, many of the farmers he met with feel as if the sugarcane industry is unfairly singled out for attention amid the current environmental crisis.

“The farmers comply – as they must – to the minimum terms of the legal requirements for sugarcane farming. For example, they reduce the amount of nitrogen applied to their crops or use more accurate herbicide spraying techniques. But changes imposed from above tend to be expensive and last only for the lifetime of each government program,” he said.

“Many farmers have significant debt, the average age of a farmer is 58, and habits accrued over multiple generations are not easy to shift, so top down changes are not likely to be as successful as governments and reef scientists might wish. 

“What if farmers were to initiate their own changes, rather than waiting to be told what to do? That’s exactly what our project is interested to find out. Sugar vs the Reef? explores the emerging grassroots desire to transform (agri)cultural practices from below.”

In early November, Dr Ihlein and Dr Sarah Hamylton from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at UOW explained in some detail the problems facing sugarcane farmers and the Great Barrier Reef in an article published by theconversation.com

As explained by the co-authors, runoff from sugarcane farming (and other agriculture activities) is contributing to water pollution, which is increasing coral’s sensitivity to bleaching and disease and negatively affects the reef’s ecosystem. Poor water quality is particularly a problem in the inner waters of the Great Barrier Reef.

Initiatives aimed at transforming farming practices to reduce fertiliser run-off do exist and have had some success, but a lot more needs to change before the problem is contained. Dr Ihlein suspects that addressing social-cultural elements of agricultural farming will encourage farmers to commit to making more changes. 

The Sugar vs the Reef? project is based on the idea that there is a greater chance of influencing farming practices if the desire to improve environmental performance comes from within the farming community,” Dr Ihlein said, adding that the dual-crop at the Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens will exceed guidelines for best practice sugarcane growers.

Also on the horizon is an exhibition at Artspace Mackay regional gallery in late-2018 and an exhibition at the Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) in Melbourne in early 2019.

“My project at MUMA is titled Soil and the Carbon Economy and will be part of a larger exhibition called Shapes of Knowledge curated by MUMA’s Senior Curator, Hannah Mathews,” Dr Ihlein said.

Learn more: www.sugar-vs-the-reef.net