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The myth of settler pioneerism

Unpacking colonialist agriculture practices and the idea of the pioneer.

Art by Laura Bancroft.

Commonly found throughout nationalist history and lore is the idea of the ‘Pioneer,’: Those who came before us, founders, discoverers, and Firsts. Colonialism and settler discourses rely heavily on this idea to drive the continuity of the settler-colonial state, and serve to erase those who truly came before, such as the Indigenous peoples of a land. 

Beyond the naming of places after so-called pioneers, agriculture was a prominent way colonisers established dominance over land. Until recently, narratives of Indigenous peoples being ‘hunter-gatherers’ were peddled to depict them as ‘uncivilised’ and ‘savages’ to prove they had no territorial claims compared to the ‘civilised’ European settlers who knew how to farm. In Australia, Many early British settlers were granted hundreds of acres of land where they built large estates and farms. Modern suburbs that sit atop these former estates often take their names from  these settlers, erasing their original Indigenous names. Agriculture and farming thus cemented a permanent place for settlers in the new colony. The construction of the ‘pioneer’ has deliberately justified and excused colonial expansion over centuries to establish the image of settlers as persevering and innovating in a new land. In reality, pre-existing Indigenous knowledge was essential to these efforts. For instance, many early ‘explorers’ relied on Indigenous paths and guides to navigate terrain and ‘discover’ new areas. This is true not only in Australia, but in other colonies too. 

Much of Israel’s pre-state history rests on the veneration of kibbutzim. First founded in 1909 by the Yishuv (the Jewish residents of Palestine prior to the establishment of Israel), a kibbutz is traditionally an Israeli agricultural commune. Today the number of kibbutzim has grown to 274. Long hailed as ‘socialist’ communes, the aims of kibbutzim were to create a rural egalitarian utopia, infused with Zionist nationalism. Despite Zionist claims of “making the desert bloom,” Palestine’s fertile regions and tropical climate were already ripe for the successful establishment of these communes.

Agricultural practices were tied to the mass displacement and forced dispossession of Indigenous peoples. The violent acquisition of land in Australia disrupted traditional Indigenous ways of life, resulting in violent clashes between Indigenous people and settlers, as Indigenous people were continually dispossessed of their land and denied access to food and water sources. Farms became sites of resistance where crops were burned and cattle were killed, sometimes as means of obtaining food, other times, it was retaliation for settler violence targeted towards Indigenous people. Efforts were also made by the colonial government in the 1800s to ‘civilise’ Indigenous peoples by introducing farming and gardening activities into protectorates and missions. 

In Palestine, villages, towns, and cities were ethnically cleansed of their Palestinian inhabitants to make way for newly-established settlements, including kibbutzim, and the newly-created Jewish state of Israel in 1948. 

The introduction of European farming methods and non-native animals had a great ecological impact. Indigenous plants and animals reacted negatively to European crops and animals, and the introduced species were consequently designated as “pests.” The introduction of non-native animals also led to a decline in, and the extinction of, many native species. Between 1870 and 1910, dense forests were cleared, and with them native flora and fauna, to convert them into dairy pastures. The destruction of these forests for farming purposes greatly disturbed the environment, leading to decreased rainfall, large-scale fires, and an increase in floods, erosion, frosts and pests.

In the case of Israel, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), a non-profit organisation dedicated to buying and developing land, planted thousands of non-native pine forests across historic Palestine. These forests were planted in part to cover up the ruins of Palestinian villages and towns that had been depopulated and destroyed since 1948. The extreme flammability of these non-native trees have greatly exacerbated Israeli wildfires, notably in 2016. 

The Aussie farmer is frequently construed by the media and politicians as a passive victim of climate change.While there is some truth to that, the agriculture industry has caused an untold amount of environmental harm over the years since colonisation. While many farmers are presently struggling, modern agricultural practices which are rooted in Western colonial techniques, have proven unsustainable in the long-term. Furthermore, the growth of industrial agriculture and increased trade has facilitated pollution, and the exploitation of natural resources. In Australia, land clearing, deforestation and irrigation have threatened biodiversity and resulted in land degradation through soil erosion, salination, and waterlogging, to name just a few.

Kibbutzim were mostly driven by Labour Zionism, the same strand of Zionist ideology that oversaw the construction of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Today, these settlements are supported by the Israeli Right through the evocation of Jewish ties and history to the land as a justification for continued land theft and settlement. Regardless, Zionism, no matter its political alignment or form, is the same nationalist ideology responsible for the destruction of thousands of olive trees, the seizure of Palestinian land, and the disposession of Palestinians from their land. Palestinians living in the West Bank continue to experience water shortages and face violent attacks by settlers. Many Palestinians rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, and agriculture forms a large portion of the Palestinian economy. Yet it has faced an economic decline due to Israel’s continuing military occupation and settlement expansion. Palestinians face shortages and increasing restrictions as they are increasingly isolated from international markets and forced to rely on Israel for economic support.

In Australia’s rural areas, the struggles of Australian farmers are prioritised over Indigenous peoples, who are equally, if not more, affected by climate change and the state-sponsored destruction of sacred sites and degradation of Indigenous land. In the West Bank, Jewish ties and history spanning millennia are evoked by the far-right to justify the expansion of Israel’s colonial settlement project and the continued destruction of acres of Palestinian land. In both cases, it is evident that notions of pioneerism continue to drive dispossession and displacement today. 

The establishment of settler societies and introduction of foreign species did not innovate in any way, it simply destroyed pre-existing practices. Without Indigenous knowledge and access to vast fertile land that had been tended to over time, much settler pioneering would have not succeeded.

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