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Rural Communities – Taking Charge

1Rei Beumer, BSc App (Conservation & Park Management), Grad Dip Ed, 2David Walker, B Rur Sc (Hons), Dip Ag Econ, 3David Mitchell, PhD, FAI Biol.

1DLWC PO Box 136, Forbes NSW 2871
Lachlan Community Monitoring Program PO Box 136, Forbes NSW 2871
Thurgoona Campus, PO Box 789 Albury NSW 2640


As natural resource managers, we need to change our fundamental approach to halting degradation and initiating the recovery of impaired ecosystems. Rural communities, who are largely the “on ground” managers of the land, must be empowered to effect natural resource management strategies in collaboration with governments and conservation groups. In order to do that effectively, an independent and recurrent source of substantial environmental funding is required, one that is not liable to the political whim of the moment, that is transparent in its operation and management, and that is easily accessible.

A Need for Change

There are 2 major areas where substantial change is required, not just in the way we do business, but also in our basic approach to the management of natural resources.

1. The way natural resource management strategies are implemented must be changed and must be focussed at the local level.

2. The funding for the implementation natural resource management/environmental works must be substantial, recurrent and from and independent source. That funding must have the following characteristics;

• an independent, apolitical fund management body,

• a simplified process for accessing funds,

• be aimed at “on ground” works (ie minimal bureaucracy, emphasis on large-scale strategic planning and implementation, rigorous monitoring of outputs), and

• transparency at all levels.

Current Situation

The serious challenges now facing landscape managers in Australia are derived from a complex mix of imbalances between the distribution of natural resources within the Australian environment and the demands for their use. These imbalances result from management processes developed in environments which are markedly different from those in Australia, and are exacerbated by unreasonable demands from human populations.

The main reason for the degraded state of the Australian environment is our past dependence on European-based land management practices that are not ecologically suitable for Australian ecosystems. Also, well-intentioned development practices have often been carried out to an excessive level, or in the wrong places. The following are examples.

  • The widespread replacement of native forests with pastures of mainly non-native grasses has created acid soil conditions over large areas on the east of the Great Dividing Range and brought saline waters to the surface, particularly in Western Australia.
  • The construction of dams to impound water in many rivers and the use of rivers as supply channels for irrigation and stock & domestic water has changed the pattern and extent of flows. This has had a serious impact on the reproductive cycles of many Australian aquatic fauna, and most Australian rivers and their floodplains are now considered to be ecologically unhealthy.
  • Poor grazing management and a reduction in fires have seen large areas of semi-arid grassland invaded by woody weeds.

Many of these practices, however, have proved to be very beneficial in the socio-economic development of the country and have contributed markedly to its current welfare. In other words, much of Australia’s current wealth has been attained at the expense of environmental stability and sustainability. These socio-economic pressures continue to be the driving force behind many land management practices causing degradation. Consequently, a means must be found that releases much of this pressure on the environment without undermining the socio-economic welfare of rural communities or the economic health of the nation as a whole. This paper proposes a solution for the former, while a solution for the latter requires a decrease in the dependence of the Australian trade balance on raw agricultural products and their replacement by value-added products and high value, low volume industrial products.

The imbalances between the distribution of natural resources within the Australian environment and the demands for their use can be illustrated by making three basic points.

1. Australia’s natural resources are generally in poor condition and many are being degraded at an exponential rate and/or utilised in a non-sustainable manner. This is a general statement and there are obvious and important exceptions, which clearly demonstrate that agricultural production need not result in such degradation. Such exceptions include changed grazing management resulting in pasture composition tending toward perennials, followed by the lowering of water tables and decreased soil acidity (Terrey Johnson, pers.comm.). Similarly, the adoption of best irrigation practice has been found to lower previously rising water tables.

2. The ultimate environmental managers in Australia are the landholders, and rural landholders manage most of the country. The burden of effecting change rests with them.

3. Ninety-five per cent of the Australian population lives in towns and cities and most urban dwellers are in receipt of higher weekly incomes than most rural landholders, though strict comparisons are difficult. In a study done by the Murray Darling Basin Commission (MDBC),2001, farm income was used to determine the economic sustainability of the farm unit. The study found that:

• less than 30% of farm families were achieving a family income level of $50,000 pa or better: “clearly sustainable”

• around 40% had an income of between $20,000 and $50,000: “sustainability questionable”

• some 30% were achieving income levels of less than $20,000: “clearly unsustainable”

The first of these points is the most debatable - the other two are confirmed by the latest demographic and census data. The current state of Australia’s environment can be exemplified by citing eight serious instances. The evidence is contained in a plethora of publications and reports and is generally accepted as reliable.

  • About half of Australia’s agricultural land is seriously degraded.
  • Water resources are generally polluted and over committed.
  • Complex forest and woodland communities of Australian vegetation have been cleared to less than half their original area (and clearing continues apace).
  • Only 1% of low-lying temperate grassland, which once covered extensive areas in southeastern Australia, remains intact (Ian Lunt, pers.comm.).
  • Biodiversity has declined alarmingly in the last 2 centuries during European stewardship of the continent – 3% of the flora has become extinct and a further 17% is considered to be rare and endangered (a total of 1 in 5 plant species), while more mammals have become extinct than in any other continent in the world over this period.
  • The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated in 1996 that mismanagement of land and water in Australia costs $40 million each day in ameliorative management.
  • Salinity of Australian landscapes is increasing at an alarming rate and is now estimated to be costing $1 billion a year in agricultural production.
  • Salinity also causes $9 million damage to roads and highways every year. It now affects urban areas, impacting adversely on buildings, roads and other infrastructure, water and soils. At the same time, increased mobilisation of salt from saline deposits, as a result of current land use practices, is causing increased salinity levels in the rivers and consequent deterioration in water quality.

Most, if not all, of these processes are proceeding at exponential rates of change and this compounds the urgency to undertake the necessary remedial measures that will halt degradation and initiate the recovery of impaired ecosystems so that they become self sustaining and self-optimising once more.

The situation is complex and the understandable tendency to assess different components of the environment separately, as above, conceals the essentially interrelated nature of ecosystems and the absolute necessity to manage landscapes from an integrated, holistic perspective.

Currently the burden of repairing the environment is largely borne by rural communities, and the means of effecting the repair is directly affecting the ability of rural producers to earn a living. In NSW alone, the imposition within a 6 year period, of the MDBC Cap, SEPP 46, the Water Reforms, the Native Vegetation Conservation Act 1997 and the Water Management Act 2000 have had, and continue to have, a major effect on rural NSW, yet little, if any, effect on urban areas. In light of the evidence indicated in the previously mentioned MDBC study, approximately 70% of farm families have incomes of less than $50,000 so their ability to undertake the necessary environmental rehabilitation without substantial financial assistance is doubtful, to say the least.

Rural people don’t deny the urgent necessity to address environmental degradation, however they do object to the inequitable share of the responsibility that they are being asked to bear. Although they eat the same quantity of food and wear similar fibre products as their rural counterparts, many urban dwellers do not recognise their continuing dependence on rural production for their welfare, and many have little direct contact and understanding of ecological relationships in the natural world on which they ultimately depend for their existence. Very few are aware of the “ecological footprints” on the landscape, for which their resource demands and waste products are responsible. In Australia this is estimated to be 9 hectares per head of population.

The adjustment problem in agriculture (the combination of declining incomes, small property sizes, an aging population and unprofitable enterprises) is having a major effect on agriculture’s ability to repair its land base. And it is not going to get any easier. The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) statistics for the period 1977/78 to 1998/99 show that Terms-of-Trade moved against farmers at an average of 2.9% per annum. This means that farmers have needed to increase their productivity by this amount just to maintain the status quo, or, to put it another way, with the cumulative effect of the 2.9%, farm productivity must double every 26 years just to maintain the status quo. Innovation (e.g. gene technology and new equipment) and capital (e.g. larger machinery) must obviously play a part, but there is little doubt that some of the increased output has come from pushing the resource too hard. Again there is no reason to think that the trend of declining prices forcing producers to increase productivity is going to change.

The challenge we now face is to restore a better balance to the management of Australian landscapes in an equitable way, in which natural resources are used wisely in the interests of the human community without undermining their survival and ecological vigour.

Empowering Rural Communities

Before rural communities can be asked to fulfil their role in overseeing the repair of their local environment, they need to be convinced that their input into the process is valued and that their central role in effecting change is acknowledged. Unless they are empowered to effectively implement change, on their own behalf, then the changes that are so necessary will engender much resistance and controversy in this community.

The current system of land and water management planning is in disarray in some regions, with landholder and local representatives at loggerheads with

  • conservation representatives, many of whom do not belong to rural communities and are perceived to be interfering with the welfare of others at little cost to themselves, and
  • some government agencies, the staff of which probably don’t live in the district, and may be perceived to be operating to a predetermined agenda.

As hard as it may be for outsiders to accept, community ownership of changed management towards environmental rehabilitation must come from the community. However, outsiders can make an enormous contribution by ensuring that the communities have

  • the best information upon which to base their decision-making (ensuring that this information is available is a crucial role for government agencies),
  • the materials necessary to effect the changes, and
  • rewards for success.

Clearly, the people who have to be involved in implementing and administering such a program, are landholders and local government. One of the failures of the current planning process is that local government is not centrally involved. Local government is the determining authority of first call in land utilisation, yet many councils don’t have an environmental planner, with many of them requiring these duties from the Health and Building Inspector. This is mainly because Local Government, like everyone else, is constantly asked to do more with less, but it is also a reflection of the fact that local government is NOT central to local land use planning.

Australia is one of the least densely populated nations of the world. The demographics of this sparse overall population is extremely concentrated - 83% of the population lives within 50 km of the coast, and half the continent has 0.3% of the population. Excluding the uninhabited areas, 95% of the “used” land is managed by the 5% who live on farms. Given that, for almost all of them, their highest priority is running a business to provide for their families, the nation is asking for an enormous commitment from them to rehabilitate the environment around them in their spare time. Indeed, this duty is far too important for us not to encourage them to make it a core part of their business. In order to do this we have to develop a means of making their stewardship of the environment an integral part of their income.

While it is clear that “managing sustainably” is in every land manager’s self interest, the never-ending cost pressures alluded to above, and just plain lack of money, must reduce their ability to achieve it. Works aimed at ameliorating environmental problems, such as

  • the establishment of riparian buffer zones,
  • the exclusion of riparian zones by fencing,
  • the provision of off-stream watering facilities,
  • the establishment of wildlife corridors,
  • alley farming, etc,

cost substantial amounts of money. It is in the national interest that works of this nature are done as a matter of urgency, rather than when the landholder can afford it.

Current proposals for compensating landholders for returning part of their land to “natural condition” begs the question: How are they going to respond to economic pressures to earn a living from the remainder? If part of their land is locked up, won’t they subsequently need to push the rest of their property harder?

Rewarding land managers for managing sustainably must be applied to all the land they manage and this will require strategic holistic planning. Ideally such planning should be carried out on a sub catchment wide basis, involving a number of neighbouring properties.

There is also a need to develop and improve on the use of a number of environmental indicators, many of which landholders already can and do use to benchmark their sustainability and to monitor trends. These include

  • soil structure,
  • soil pH,
  • soil acidity,
  • quality of run-off water in terms of salinity, turbidity and nutrients,
  • % groundcover in pasture,
  • % perennial grasses in pasture,
  • soil microfauna,
  • the extent of natural habitat, particularly in complex native vegetation communities,
  • the level of biodiversity,
  • the protection of rare and endangered species,
  • numbers of wildlife species returning after an absence,
  • dung beetles, and
  • earthworms.

It is necessary to refine ways of monitoring changes using a suite of indicators, which are selected on the basis of their relevance to the landholding in question. This will provide an independent and accountable means of assessing success of the landholders’ efforts and their entitlement to an environmental income supplement. Pitching the rewards for good stewardship and environmental responsibility at a realistic level will ensure that the land managers support the implementation of the strategies embodied in the long term strategic planning necessary to reverse the trend towards degradation. In this way, the wider community and governments will be involved in a cooperative effort to ensure the productive and ecological sustainability of Australia’s landscapes.

This proposal would also provide an important mechanism for preventing unsustainable management practices causing degradation. If a landholder, in receipt of stewardship payments, does not maintain sustainable management practices, perhaps because of cost pressures reducing farm income, then the eligibility for stewardship payments would cease. This sudden reduction in income would precipitate a complete reassessment of management and whether or not the business was viable. The landholder would then need to change management practices and/or business enterprise mix or get out immediately, rather than persevering with a non viable business which is putting both family well-being and environmental integrity at risk, as so often happens under the current system.

Case Study - The Lachlan Community Monitoring Program

This program is aimed at monitoring the effects of the new Environmental Flow regime in the Lachlan River. It developed partly as a result of community consternation at the likely effect that the reduced allocations would have on the financial viability of farming businesses, and scepticism as to the likelihood of the Flow Rules benefiting the environment. At the same time many people commented on the lack of coordinated monitoring of environmental indicators, the lack of communication between ecology scientists and the wider community, and the fact that many local residents with considerable naturalist expertise were not being utilised, and had no way of contributing to natural resource management.

The program is designed to involve the whole community, landholders and town dwellers alike, in monitoring the following:

  • riverbanks: stability, erosion, deposition, slumping, and vegetation; by setting up grids to measure changes to bank profile;
  • wetland response: river flows required to fill them, frog species present, waterbird species frequenting them;
  • weir drown-out: flows required to drown-out the 20 or so weirs in the river, to enable native fish to migrate;
  • angler’s catch survey: to record what is being caught, and the proportion of native to alien species;
  • water quality: turbidity and salinity, along with an assessment of odour, arising from the problems in the lower Lachlan associated with Lake Brewster and eutrophication; and
  • colonial waterbird breeding events: collating population surveys on the larger lower river and effluent wetlands.

While this program is aimed at assessing the benefits, and to allow adaptive management of, environmental flows, the parameters being measured will be indicative of changes to other components of the environment that are affected by the environmental flows.

The wider application of the monitoring of such changes to environmental indicators is to use them in conjunction with production indicators (such as crop gross margins, weaning weights etc) and financial indicators (like profit and loss accounts and return to business equity, etc) to provide an integrated assessment of performance. The combination of these should provide clear indications of the continuing economic viability and ecological sustainability of the whole enterprise.

It is the on-farm application of the “triple bottom line”. Further refinement of this process will allow effective self-assessment and peer review of agricultural and environmental success. Local groups will benchmark their progress and support and critically analyse each other’s efforts.

The Community Monitoring Program should promote the empowerment of local people to progressively take over the sustainable management of their landscapes as a consequence of the interrelationships depicted in the following:

A Means To An End

There is now widespread acceptance of the need to repair the damage that past practices in landscape management have wrought on many Australian ecosystems, but the challenge is a daunting one that is seemingly almost beyond the capacity of this nation. Nevertheless, we have no choice but to rise to the challenge - to do otherwise is tantamount to active participation in the processes of degradation of the Australian environment. Indeed, there is general agreement among those who have seriously examined the challenge that it can be met and that the process of doing so will yield a significant number of nationally beneficial social side effects. The costs, however, will be huge.

Existing Arrangements

Funds currently made available for environmental purposes have the following characteristics;

  • they come from the same bucket of money as health, education etc (except for “one off” sources such as the sale of Telstra) and thus are the first to be decreased or discontinued,
  • they are severely limited in relation to requirements,
  • they are totally dependant on political whim,
  • there is no guarantee of future levels or even availability which severely restricts planning processes and long-term projects,
  • the application process is complex, costly and inefficient in its use of human resources and funds are difficult to access,
  • they are oriented towards management rather than “on ground works”, and
  • there is a long lead-time from tendering an application to the receipt of funds.

As well as the above, Local Governments and Government agencies are required to do more (environmentally) but are not provided with the necessary resources due to the lack of funds. The result of all the above is that many initiatives taken to deal with environmental degradation are “band-aid” measures only. There are many excellent environmental plans lying on shelves collecting dust because of the lack of resources for their effective implementation.

Case Study - Jemalong Land And Water Management Plan

An example of how a lack of funding and political processes can affect effective implementation is the Jemalong Land and Water Management Plan.

The planning process was started in 1992 due to community concerns about the high water tables resulting from the 1990 floods and the perceived threat of dryland and irrigation salinity. Water tables in the district had risen by up to 8 metres in the past 50 years and after the floods approximately 50% of the district had water tables within 2 metres of the surface. The groundwater under a large part of the district was highly saline (up to 70,000 micro siemens).

Except for some groundwater data dating back only as far as 1967, river flow and weather data, there was very little information available. The planning process initially covered an area of some 170,000 hectares. This area was almost an enclosed system with very little external surface and groundwater influences. Because of this, provided the appropriate measures were taken, it should be possible to reverse the trend of rising water tables within the area and actually lower the groundwater tables to manageable levels. Extensive investigations were carried out by various consultants to establish the information database required to develop the strategies for the Plan. When the Irrigation District was corporatised in early 1995, a condition of the Licence was the establishment of the Jemalong Land and Water Management Plan. The planning process was funded through the MDBC and State Government by the provision of some 3.5 million dollars over 8 years.

Towards the end of the planning process it was decided to limit the Plan area to incorporate the irrigation area of operations only, effectively half its previous size. This decision was ostensibly made for 2 reasons.

  • The refusal by Government to establish a Catchment Management Trust as the implementation entity for the Plan. This effectively left Jemalong Irrigation Limited as that entity.
  • The perceived excessive cost of implementation for the whole of the original plan area.

This effectively illustrates how a lack of long-term recurrent funds and political inflexibility have imposed a band aid solution on what could have been a long-term effective and sustainable solution.

The Way Forward

There is no doubt that that the potential cost of reversing the current trend of environmental degradation is huge. Several attempts have been made to estimate these costs. As expected, the estimates are high and are coupled with a requirement for a long-term, progressive approach to the problem. Thus, last year, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the National Farmers Federation combined to call for a 5-point repair plan involving “a ten year, national, bipartisan commitment to repair and protect the country’s land and water, native animals and plants, and infrastructure.” They foreshadowed that this would require a new scale of strategic investment from Government and private sources amounting to $6 billion a year over 10 years, together with an ongoing maintenance program of half a billion dollars per year.

Other estimates have extended both the cost and the time that would be needed for this repair program. This has led to proposals from a number of eminent and reputable sources for a long-term national levy to provide the funds and involve the whole community in the program.

The Report of the Inquiry into Catchment Management of the Standing Committee on Environment and Heritage of the Federal House of Representatives in December 2000 included a recommendation that:

The Government examine the feasibility of introducing an environmental levy to pay for the public contribution to implementing the policy of the ecologically sustainable use of Australia’s catchment systems.

The Committee further recommends that such a levy:

  • Remain in place for no less than 25 years; and
  • Be clearly marked on each taxpayer’s taxation assessment notice.”

Similarly, in July last year, two leading environmentalists, Rick Farley and Phillip Toyne, who played a major role in the successful development of the Landcare movement in Australia, launched a ten point plan to turn the tide of environmental destruction and suggested it be funded by a 10 year 1% tax on incomes.

It seems abundantly clear that, if we are genuinely serious about addressing Australia’s environmental problems, the only means of raising the substantial but necessary funds to underpin the implementation of strategic planning for Australia’s environmental future is through a nation wide environmental levy. As well as being equitable in spreading the burden over the whole of the Australian population, this offers the best means of providing the funds required for remedial environmental measures in the country areas where it is needed.

There it would be used to provide resources for landholders to establish ecologically sensible management of the landscape and to exercise responsible environmental stewardship. However, such a levy should not be allowed to unfairly disadvantage Australians on low incomes and such people should be protected by arrangements similar to the Medicare levy. Such a levy must be;

  • enshrined in legislation,
  • the funds derived there from must be managed by an apolitical body not subject to the political whim of the moment,
  • access to the funds must be a simple process with the appropriate checks and balances in place, and
  • all processes must transparent.

The size and complexity of the task and the urgency for it to go ahead puts it outside the normal cut and thrust of the party political system. The population as a whole must grasp the challenge, which should then be mediated through local groups, such as Landcare, administered with minimum bureaucracy, in a very open and accountable way. Locally based groups are highly motivated to succeed in their local region because they stand to gain the most from their successes and suffer the most from their errors. This also empowers and educates local communities leading to communal ownership of the enterprise, together with an active and informed participation in the process and a share in its benefits. Incidentally, this would move large sums of money from urban into rural areas – not as compensation, but to reward rural landholders and those they employ for their objectively assessed stewardship of the nation’s natural resources


In this paper we have presented a way forward of realising the goals to reverse degradation and restore environmental balance to the Australian landscape. This will be a costly and long-term project, which requires dedication from all sectors of the Australian community. The only way in which these goals may be achieved is to change the way in which we are currently doing business. This will be achieved by

  • empowering and enabling the managers of the land,
  • communities and governments working cooperatively,
  • an equitable sharing of the considerable costs through the establishment of a substantial, independent and recurrent source of funding.

To summarise, this will

  • provide the resources to reverse degradation,
  • remove the penalties currently suffered by landholders with land locked out of production,
  • provide appropriate rewards for sustainable production systems,
  • provide appropriate recompense for landholders for time and resources used for environmental works,
  • provide for the establishment of effective monitoring systems,
  • develop the criteria for assessing the quality of landholder stewardship of natural resources,
  • reverse the current drain of financial resources and employment opportunities from rural areas, and
  • stabilise rural communities to the benefit of the whole nation.


1. Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics 2001, spreadsheet emailed by Phil Nofke 17th October 2001.

2. Bureau of Rural Sciences 1999, Country matters: Social atlas of rural and regional Australia, C of A.

3. House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Heritage, Co-ordinating Catchment Management, Canberra, 2000.

4. House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Heritage, Public Good Conservation, Canberra, 2001.

5. Jemalong Land & Water Management Plan 2000, Jemalong Irrigation Ltd., Forbes NSW.

6. Lachlan Community Monitoring Program Annual Report in press. 2001, Forbes, NSW.

7. Madden, B., Hayes, G, & Duggan, K. 2000, National Investment in Rural Landscapes, An Investment Scenario for NFF and ACF.

8. Murray-Darling Basin Commission 2001, Adjusting for catchment management: Structural adjustment and its implications for catchment management in the Murray-Darling Basin, MDBC.

9. National Farmers’ Federation and Australian Conservation Foundation 2000, “Farmers and environmentalists call for national commitment to save natural environment”, NFF and ACF Press Release, 15 May.

10. Toyne, P, & Farley, R. 2000, “The Decade of Landcare: Looking Backward – Looking Forward , The Australia Institute Discussion Paper No. 30.

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