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A new ecological restoration to feed people

Article by Russ Grayson 1997

RAIN FALLS and drains downslope, carrying the loose soil to accumulate in the valley below. Washed by millennia of runoff, the hills take a rounded shape of steep upper and gentler, lower slopes. Over time, trees and shrubs cloak the slopes and assume a pattern based on elevation and need for soil depth, tolerance to shade and wind and moisture requirements. NSW’s North Coast is a landscape shaped by water.

Other places, other cultures… here too there are so-called ‘humid landscapes’, those shaped by running water, and here, too, patterns of vegetation have evolved. But, unlike Northern NSW, local agriculturists have come into the mountain forests to interplant the natural trees with those useful to people. Over time, what was a natural forest has been changed into one that produces the food, fodder, building materials and firewood needed by the village communities in the valley bottoms. The production forest looks the same as the natural forest because the agriculturists have copied its structure.

Peter Hardwick likes this artificial, productive forest so much he would like to see it copied on the slopes of Northern NSW’s coastal ranges. His idea is to make slopes that were earlier cleared for grazing and farming into productive, perennial cropping systems. Peter wants to blend indigenous trees and shrubs — those that occur naturally in the region — with productive exotics from outside. The resulting system would reflect the soil, landform and geographic character of the region.

Before the loggers and farmers came, moist rainforest covered the lower slopes and the coastal plain in what was known as the ‘Big Scrub’. Most of this has been cut. Peter’s tree cropping system would not restore it but would develop a forest that produces not only for the needs of people but that stabilises the soils, restrains the rainwater and provide wildlife habitat in much the same way as the Big Scrub did.

Productive agroforest the solution to erosion

Soil erosion is a problem in the seasonally wet subtropical climate of the far north coast of NSW. The solution, according to Peter, is the agroforestry model incorporating trees of different uses. The eroded lower slopes could be rehabilitated as productive farming systems that would bring much the same environmental benefits as natural forests.

“This system would restore environments damaged by grazing and farming”, he explains. “The plant communities would copy the structure of the natural ecosystem and both restore the land and provide people with their needs”.

It was his work in designing and reestablishing native vegetation in road cuttings and other damaged landscapes that inspired Peter to develop his concept of productive restoration forestry. Named after the Aboriginal tribe that inhabited the area, his Banjalung Permaculture System would establish the different types of vegetation in zones determined by species’ needs for light, soil type and moisture.

The Banjalung planting system

“The natural ecology up to 100km inland of the coast consists of dry sclerophyl (Eucalyptus dominated) forest or rainforest on the ridges and plateaus, with rainforest and wet sclerophyl occupying upper and lower slopes”, he explained.

“Cabinet timbers, which would later be selectively logged, would be planted on the upper slopes. This could be a closed forest in structure — one in which the tree canopy covers 70 percent or more of the sky when viewed from below.

“Where the ecology favours moist rainforest along the lower slopes, tropical tree crops would be established above the frost line and these would include nuts as well as indigenous and exotic fruits in a mixed cropping system. The light requirement of fruiting trees and shrubs make an open forest structure — with a canopy covering less than 70 percent of the sky but more than 30 percent — more appropriate on the lower slopes.”

Farm dams would be located along the keyline where the steeper upper slope changes grade to the shallower lower slope.

“Earthworks that harvest rainwater are more appropriately placed on the gentler lower slopes”, Peter says. “Swales, excavated along the contour to minimise soil erosion, could be cut. Alternatively, bunds — raised contour banks — could be built. Strips planted between the swales or bunds would grow into mixed orchards of indigenous and exotic fruits and nuts.”

Villages and dwellings, with their home orchard for household use, would be built on the lower slopes. Even here, environmental design principles would be employed to treat household wastewater in reedbed biofiltration systems to make it suitable for the irrigation of home vegetable gardens.

Developing a local cuisine

An offshoot of the Banjalung system would be the development of a local cuisine.

“This would be a geographically distinctive cuisine based on the indigenous and exotic fruits, nuts and vegetables produced in the region”, Peter says. “It could be linked with various ethnic cooking styles to create a genuinely provincial cuisine”.

Provincial cuisines are not a strong feature of Australian rural areas although particular regions have become noted for the distinctiveness and quality of their produce — King Island cheese, Barossa Valley wines and so on.

Developing a distinct cuisine in Northern NSW would encourage the production of locally grown foods and, as it was developed, could prove an added attraction for tourists to visit the region. Were it to be sourced from Peter Hardwick’s Banjalung tree cropping system, that would further encourage environmental restoration of a type that can be eaten.

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