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Muddy Waters
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Muddy Waters

Production Details
Life and Death on the Great Barrier Reef
Duration: 52 minutes
Writer and Director: Sally Ingleton
Producers: Sally Ingleton, Stuart Menzies and Tony Wright
Film Australia Executive Producer: Franco di Chiera
Production Story
Four years ago I learnt to scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef. At the time I was working on a project far out in the Coral Sea and was fortunate enough to dive in some of the world's most pristine and untouched coral gardens. Later I went diving in Indonesia and was shocked by the contrast. Many of the reefs close to shore were bleached, covered in algae and in a general state of poor health. Whilst some of this was due to global warming, the majority was due to human impact.
I found myself wondering if parts of Australia's Great Barrier Reef were also showing signs of ill health. And if so, who was taking its pulse?
I began doing some preliminary research towards the end of 2000. I travelled to Townsville and met with several key players who are involved in studying and protecting the marine environment of the 2000 kilometre-long Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
I was in search of a story that would show the challenges involved in looking after such a pristine piece of the environment that is subjected to commercial pressures such as tourism. To my surprise all stakeholders identified that one of the biggest threats to the reef lay on the land, not in the sea. Scientists are convinced that water pollution from the excessive chemical and pesticide use in agriculture - primarily sugar cane and bananas, is severely damaging the in-shore reefs. The sugar cane industry has made many efforts to improve the land management practice of their members but as the average age of a cane farmer is 60 years, change may be too late.
This topic is currently polarising several communities in far north Queensland who are experiencing a clash of philosophies as to what is most important - the survival of old family industries such as sugar cane or the growth of 21st century industries such as tourism.
At stake is the future biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef.
In 2001 both the Australian Film Commission and Film Australia provided assistance to develop the project. In September 2001, I approached December Films who agreed to produce the film. Film Australia further developed the project and committed to fund production under the National Interest Program in February 2002. The documentary was pre-sold to SBS Independent.
Muddy Waters is set in the wet tropics between Cairns and Townsville. The land story was centred around the rural community of Tully that has an annual rainfall of over four metres. It is one of Queensland's main centres for sugar cane and bananas.
Muddy Waters CrewThe logistics of filming Muddy Waters were complex, as filming on or in water always takes three times as long. We were fortunate to have the full cooperation of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) who let us travel with the team of research scientists aboard the Lady Basten to the wet tropics and to Princess Charlotte Bay on the Cape York Peninsula. Filming began in April and we were on board for nine days and fortunately had perfect weather. Rory McGuinness was the cinematographer for both topside and underwater. Filming underwater took considerable time and was a huge juggling act, with the Digital Betacam camera and its protective underwater housing weighing over 50 kilograms.
All the macro filming had to be done on board while the coral and barnacles were alive. This meant dealing with constant movement that is tricky with microscopic filming.
We left the Basten up on the Cape York Peninsula and hitched a ride back to Cooktown via a marlin boat. This proved to be quite an adventure as bad weather turned a 10-hour trip into an 18-hour journey. On arrival, we encountered two weeks of solid rain in late April for filming of the land story. This made filming awkward but after months of dry weather, at least the rivers filled up and there was plenty of run-off coming off the farms for us to record - all essential to the story. Finally I understood why Tully is the wettest town in Australia!
Tulley River eroded banksAn additional week of filming took place in late August to pick up the sugar cane harvest and follow through some storylines such as Dick Camilleri putting in a silt trap. During harvest time, north Queensland is busy. Harvesters go from dawn until nightfall and sugar trains rattle through the cane fields. It is very picturesque and was an important addition to the look of the film. Despite a record bumper harvest, the main talk around town was how was it possible to save the sugar industry? World prices had plummeted due to a glut on the market and farmers were lamenting that they were getting less for their crop than the cost of production. The government has offered a rescue package to encourage farmers to diversify or leave the industry altogether. There is also increasing pressure on farmers to be seen to be changing their land management practices to incorporate environmental codes of practice. As the industry ages it is likely that many will sell their farms. It will be interesting to see what the future of the Australian sugar industry holds over the next decade.
Additional Notes
GBR land use
Click here for a larger map
Sugar Cane Farming
Queensland produces 95 per cent of Australia's raw sugar and it's one of the country's largest export crops.
There are over 6000 cane farmers and many north Queensland towns have been built around the sugar dollar. Most farmers have been running family farms for three or more generations.
Sugar cane cultivation typically needs sun and rain. With the high rainfall of the wet tropics, farmers have drained the natural wetlands in order to get the water off their crops quickly. The wetlands traditionally filtered the rain and sediment and slowed down the flood flows. Now with more than 60 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef's coastal wetlands cleared, heavy loads of sediment, nutrient and pesticides are being washed down the river and out onto the near shore reefs, covering the coral with a layer of thick sticky mud.
The sugar cane industry has developed environmental codes of practice, but encouraging farmers to implement them takes time and resources. Many farmers want to see the scientific evidence and can get confused when opinions differ.
Muddy Waters has helped contribute to the debate and in November 2002 a meeting was held between the Tully Sugar Mill and scientists from the AIMS. The result was more understanding and farmer Dick Camilleri offered an open invitation to Dr Katharina Fabricius (senior scientist at AIMS) to come and visit his farm to witness his land management practice first-hand.

Sugar Cane Farmers
Ross Digman
Ross DigmanRoss's great-grandfather grew sugar cane along the Tully River and is credited with being one of the founding fathers of the Tully sugar industry. Ross bought his parents' farm and up until the late 1980s farmed in much the same manner as his parents had. A keen fisherman, Ross noticed how the fish stocks were running low and realised that the years of draining the natural wetland habitat had affected the fish breeding grounds. He decided to build an artificial lagoon on his property. Ross now has three such lagoons and to the locals is known as a 'greenie'. After years of derogatory comments, local farmers are finally taking notice of Ross's environmental techniques and he's now in demand up and down the coast as a speaker.
Ross was an enthusiastic subject. He has made amateur videos and was keen to offer suggestions as to where best to film. Often he would ring at 6am reporting on where run-off was occurring on his farm, keen as mustard for us to come and film it.
Dick Camilleri
Dick CamilleriDick is a charismatic jovial farmer with a quick tongue and a memorable turn of phrase. He is deputy chairman of the Tully sugar mill and one of its most successful cane growers. Dick has been a farmer all his life. His father emigrated from Malta in 1927, moved to the north Queensland cane fields where he stayed and had a family. By 14 years of age Dick was clearing land by hand and by 18 he was running the farm. In those days when farmers cleared the wetlands, or 'swamps' as they were known, they were applauded for turning what was seen as unproductive land into one of Australia's biggest export crops. Dick is a proud farmer and finds it hard to understand why farmers are being blamed for creating environmental ills. His view is that everything they have done they have been told to do by governments or industry bodies - from clearing the land to the amounts of chemicals they put on their crop. He questions the scientific community because he feels he hears so many different stories he does not know who to believe.
Dick was willing to be filmed for Muddy Waters as he felt it important to get the 'right message' across to the people in the cities.
The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) Study: "Effects of Runoff on Coastal Reefs"
In mid 2000, the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Reef Co-operative Research Centre started a two-year study comparing two geographically similar coastal reef systems.
Dunk IslandThe sites were just south of Cairns, around Dunk Island, the Frankland Islands and Fitzroy Island. These are popular tourist destinations and in the past have had spectacular coral reefs. With the steady increase in cropping around the flood plains along the coastal rivers, there has been an increase in the use of fertilisers and pesticides. Further up the river system there has been extensive cattle grazing which has led to erosion and soil loss.
Tully flood plumeDuring the wet season, the rivers flood and excessive sediment, nutrients and chemicals are flushed down the waterways into the sea. This sediment is thought to smother the coral polyps and tiny marine organisms. The study is examining how the coral can survive these regular doses of sediment and nutrients, and monitoring how the nutrients may be leading to a change in which species dominate the in-shore reefs.
This area is compared with a series of coral reefs in Princess Charlotte Bay on the Cape York Peninsula. In this part of Australia there has been little agriculture or human development, yet the shallow sea floor makes the water around the coastal reefs silty. But without the addition of farm chemicals - the corals are in pristine condition.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) Study: "Effects of Runoff on Coastal Reefs"
Team Leader: Dr Katharina Fabricius

Dr Katharina FabriciusThe team leader is Dr Katharina Fabricius, who has made six field trips in the past two years (2000-2002) to these locations. German-born Katharina is in her late 30s and has worked on coral reefs for over 15 years. She has dived in almost every coral reef in the world but has chosen Australia's Great Barrier Reef as her research base.
Katharina is a senior scientist at the Australian Institute for Marine Science. In the 15 years she has been diving on the Great Barrier Reef, she has seen a marked difference in the health of various reefs and is keen to identify what has led to the demise of some of the reefs. One of her theories is that when sediment lands on the coral polyps they can manage to slough it off, but when sediment is mixed with nutrient and chemicals, only few baby corals settle and survive on the reefs, so reefs don't recover from disturbances like bleaching or cyclones. As a result, a large number of coral species are missing and coral cover is poor.
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