Turning Water into Wine, Beef and Vegetables: Material Transformations along the Brisbane River

Veronica Strang

Abstract

The Brisbane River starts high in the Jimna Ranges in a network of small streams that are often no more than a thread of green in the dusty hills. By the time it reaches the Port of Brisbane, it has been captured, used and turned into many things: beef and vegetables, fruit and wine – things that can be bundled into containers and shipped to the trading partners on which Australia relies.

This paper is concerned with the transformations through which ‘natural’ resources are acculturated and commodified, in the process becoming not only economic resources, but also material expressions of human agency and identity. As the most basic and most vital ingredient of all organic products, water can ‘become’ almost anything. It is therefore, like money, broadly perceived as an abstract symbol of wealth and power, defining the relationships between those who have access to and control of water, and the wider populations whose material needs they supply.

In Queensland, as in other parts of Australia, there are growing political and economic tensions between rural communities and the enlarging urban populations who now compete for increasingly scarce water resources while also demanding that environmental health should not be sacrificed for economic gains. The implications of this shift have been severe: farmers who formerly enjoyed a primary social and economic position as ‘primary producers’ now feel beleaguered, undervalued, and resentful of the loss of control implied in newly competitive water allocation processes. A wider shift from farming into residential development or recreational use of land is also reframing Australia’s economic relationships with other countries, introducing new forms of ‘productivity’ and empowering different groups of people. This paper considers how these changing patterns of commodification are changing the social and cultural landscape along the Brisbane River.

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