6th Jan 2011, Cairns, Sugar and the Cane Toad

Fri 6 Jan 2012 11:07
From Cairns southwards the coastal plain is Australia’s biggest sugar cane producer, exporting sugar to much of south east Asia, NZ & USA.  The cut cane is transported by narrow gauge railway, much of which runs alongside the highway, and still has some steam engines.
The cane industry started in the early 1800s and needed labour.  Once the convict supply ran out, they turned to the Polynesians, who were thought to be tough enough for the backbreaking work of cane cutting.  Cutters were brought in as indentured workers for 3 yrs, though they couldn’t read the contract they had to put their thumb print on.  They worked in harsh conditions with a diet of “damper and syrup”, very little medical care, and low wages.   But the Polynesians enjoyed possessions, and many went home with a pocket watch, rolls of cloth, fancy clothing, knives and tools.
With the beginning of the White Australia policy,. 8000 of the 9000 odd Polynesians were sent home.  Of those allowed to stay, few could continue to work because the unions stopped them.
The industry is now highly mechanised and efficient, and prides itself on its green policies.  The cane leaves used to be burned before the storks were cut; now the leaves are shredded and put back on the land, and the leafless canes are cut to go for crushing and processing into sugar. 
It is amazing driving through this country – miles of bright green canefields edged by the narrow gauge railway, meeting the sea on one side and sheer, rainforest peaks of the Great Dividing Range rising into the clouds on the other.  Nobody seems to swim in the sea here, except in enclosures; these idyllic waters are infested with marine stingers, which can be fatal, and saltwater crocs.
Cane toads – were introduced in 1935  from South America to control the cane beetle, which was decimating the crop, and the growers were desperate.  UNFORTUNATELY, the adult beetles were too high on the plant, or in flight, and the toads couldn’t eat them.  But they did eat just about everything else.  Also, they have poison glands, so birds, snake and mammal predators eating them died.  The birds learned to eat just the good bits.  But many snakes and small carnivorous mammals hav e been decimated; the toads are thriving and gradually spreading south in their march towards nsw, and west to n.t. and w.a.
Bizarrely, there is a project going on to educate some of the small mammals.They breed captive populations and give them raw cane toad sausages (not in the supermarkets yet) which have been doctored to make them unpleasant.  The hope is that, on release, these little carnivores will avoid cane toads and so survive, and teach their children to do the same!  Fingers crossed.

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