Health of the people; health of the land

In his line of work, Greg Packer travels the region extensively.

Greg is Senior Land Service Officer /Aboriginal Communities with Riverina Local Land Services (LLS). It is his job to engage with Aboriginal communities, conducting cultural site assessments on farming properties and to provide advice to his LLS colleagues.

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On his travels in the current drought, Greg can’t help but see changes in both the landscape and the people of the Murrumbidgee area.

“I’ve always had a connection to land. Aboriginal people have got that connection and I suppose since I’ve been in this role, I’ve taken more notice of the environment around me. Now, every time I go for a drive, I look for a scar tree. It’s sort of top of my priority list.

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“This drought has a huge effect on how we work. Our travel and stock reserves, for instance. There's hardly any feed on them, and I know the rangers have heaps of problems about trying to get drovers onto those traveling stock reserves because of it. That's a huge impact on the farming community.

“It's really hard on the farmers, and if farmers are doing it pretty tough, so are the Aboriginal community. I've got a lot of family members that are shearers, and if farms are selling their sheep, well that's one less sheep that they've got to shear. So that's less money in their pockets and if meat prices go up, it affects everybody.”

Greg believes this ripple effect has been felt by communities right along the Murrumbidgee River.

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“One of the Aboriginal communities I work with out in Hay had a meeting recently. They live on the river and the council is looking at water, digging a bore. I think that's really sad for a town that's living on a river, where they've got to actually go boring for water to drink in their community.

“We also have a plant called Old Man Weed. It's an Aboriginal tradition to make this plant into an ointment for rashes or breathing difficulties. Anything really. And they were saying that when they're making the Old Man Weed now, the plant itself has changed because of lack of water. So, it's got those little effects. They're not making as much now.

“I think Climate Change is having an impact on the landscape and something more needs to be done about it. I don't think anyone is taking the river system seriously. I'd hate to think what the world's going to look like in 20 years’ time if nothing's done about it now. I want to see a future for my grandkids.”

It’s clear to Greg that part of the issue is disconnection from land.

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“You look at when people go fishing. Some people go there and they just fish; and they just get as many fish as they can. You walk into any pub and you see truckloads of fish on sticks and everything. Aboriginal people would just fish for their meal. You know? And that's the difference. There's no respect for fish life. We need to go back to traditional days and just look after and respect the land that we live on.

“We've got a couple of programs running now along those lines, like the traditional burning we’re doing. You burn against the wind, so it goes really slow. And you do it in two parts where it burns onto each other and you can stand there and actually see animals move away and then, when the burn's gone through, they go back.

“We've got New South Wales Rural Fire Brigade on board now. We've done a couple of burns with them; and it was very hard to try and get them to look at the ways that we burn, because when they go and burn, they go out and do a hot burn. Any animals that were in it would be burned or whatever, but now they've done a few burns with us and gone away and done some training, they're really on board.

“We did a burn out at Henty, then after got two inches of rain. We went back two weeks later, and it was as green as anything. The animal life was back there. There were more birds, there were more seedlings in the air and all that stuff. And they could really see the difference in it.”

After decades working in the Health sector, Greg is clued into the mental health of people he encounters in his present job.

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“I’ve been at LLS for nine years now. Before that I served 28 years in Aboriginal Health and was a manager for about 20 of those years. I’ve gone from the health of people to the health of the land.

“I’m on a lot of committees and see a lot of different people affected by drought and I think mental health is one of the issues that keep coming up, especially for farmers who have so much to deal with.

“After working in health for so many years, I want to tell people to see some professional help if there is a problem there that they aren’t addressing.

“It’s about recognising that there is a problem. It’s about being more aware and talking to people. Saying, ‘I’m doing it tough. I’m not coping’. Heaps of farmers are doing it pretty tough. Get together and talk to each other. It’s not necessarily an issue where they’ve got to take medication. If you can be a support to other people, I think that’s the best way to deal with things.

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“And it's not only about the men; the farmers themselves. These men are often in families. If they're going through a difficult time, well, their partner has got to be going through a difficult time, too. And you find that if the parents are going through stuff, the children will be going through stuff. Rather than just focusing on the farmer himself, we need to focus on the family.”

The Australian Government resource Head to Health has digital mental health and wellbeing resources, for yourself or for someone you care about – visit headtohealth.gov.au.

 Anyone who is experiencing a mental health emergency (themselves or others) should call Mental Health Line 1800 011 511, Lifeline 13 11 14 or call 000.

Monica McInnes