Sugar versus the Reef? is the provocative title of a new project by a north Queensland cane farmer and a New South Wales artist.
The pair intend to create a land-art project at the Mackay Botanical Gardens.
Cane farmer Simon Mattsson and artist Lucas Ihlein have put together plans to plant sunflowers and cane in a six-hectare plot.
They intend to build community understanding of what it is like to be a cane farmer, and the relationship between the industry and the Great Barrier Reef.
Mr Ihlein is a Wollongong-based artist.
“We are interested in it [the garden] for its aesthetic qualities — what it actually looks like, what is the shape of it — but really what we are interested in in the long run is what kinds of things can be triggered from that,” he said.
“What kinds of cultural changes can happen, what sort of dialogue will emerge when the botanical gardens is the host of this unusual plantation?
“Sugar cane 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 of the water quality in the Great Barrier Reef.
“The fingers of accusation are often pointed at the farmers, so my overall project is an investigation of what that kind of relationship is … if you do want farmers to reduce run-off into the reef, how are you actually going to achieve that?”
Mr Ihlein said one of the big factors was not just physical or biological, it was cultural and social — the ways of doing things that had developed over decades.
“As an artist I am really getting under the skin of sugar cane farmers and working out why they do the things they do,” he said.
Getting the farming message out there
Mr Mattsson is one of those cane farmers, and he is working directly with Mr Ihlein to get the plantation in the ground once plans and funding have been finalised.
He has been vocal about ways to reduce soil and nutrient run-off, and one of the ways he does so is by planting beneficial crops, such as sunflowers.
He said he hoped the garden would be a successful educational tool.
“From a practical farmer’s point of view, the idea is to grow the sunflowers planted at the same time as the cane, and that will give me that protection of the soil much quicker than the plant cane will,” Mr Mattsson explained.
“Since I started this process I became aware of the aesthetic value of those sunflowers, and that is where Lucas comes in and helps me out with the idea of extending that knowledge through art … making a broader number of the community aware.”
South Sea Islander connections
The project will also provide the South Sea Islander community of the Mackay region with an opportunity to raise awareness of their connection to the sugar cane industry.
Starrett VeaVea is the chairman of the Mackay and District South Sea Islander Association.
“My introduction into cane was helping my dad cut some cane but I got sacked from that very fast. I was either cutting it too high or cutting it too low,” he said.
“Speaking to the elders, crews used to cut a few tonne of cane a day to make a wage.
“Any recognition we can have is great, and with this proposal it will be a great recognition.”