Research Impact


Sugar vs The Reef?

Socially-engaged art fostering a more nuanced public dialogue about agriculture and the environment

An innovative partnership between researchers, farmers and arts organisations aims to deepen public understanding of the complex factors which constrain behavioural transformation in the sugar cane industry.

Taking Mackay as a focal point within a 2000km stretch of sugar cane farmland in Central-North Queensland, Sugar vs The Reef? brings together diverse stakeholders to develop a series of high profile public events at three sites: Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens, Artspace Mackay (a major regional contemporary art gallery) and a commercial sugarcane farm in Mackay’s Pioneer Valley.

The partners, brought together by Dr Lucas Ihlein and Kim Williams from the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts, also include the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Mackay and Districts Australian South Sea Islander Association, and Central Queensland Soil Health Systems.

They are developing a large-scale work of Land Art involving a dual crop of sugar cane and sunflowers at the Botanic Gardens which will draw public attention to the agricultural processes of soil preparation, planting, growing and harvesting.

The project also connects the botanical growth of the plants with the contested cultural and labour histories of the Australian South Sea Islander Community, whose indentured labour was key to the establishment of the sugar cane industry 150 years ago.

The goal is to expand the public’s understanding of the forces that affect farming communities by drawing attention to their efforts and struggles to control environmental impact, thereby fostering a more nuanced dialogue around agriculture.

Fundamental to Sugar vs The Reef? is a program of extensive community engagement, including three months of consultation in Mackay; the participatory design of the Botanic Gardens Land Art Project, with an accompanying program of on-site public events from 2017 to 2019; an exhibition at Artspace Mackay in 2018; and a further exhibition at Monash University Museum of Art in 2019.

The partners are also working towards the establishment of a Regenerative Agriculture Demonstration Farm at an agricultural property in Mackay, which will operate as an ongoing site for farmer-led innovation in the sugar cane industry.

This ambitious long-term plan requires the co-operation of government representatives, industry, environment management organisations and academics from other universities.

Partner organisations

Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens
Artspace Mackay
Commercial sugar cane farmers
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
Mackay and Districts Australian South Sea Islander Association
Central Queensland Soil Health Systems

UOW participants

Dr Lucas Ihlein, Ms Kim Williams