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Community attitudes towards land use change in south west Victoria

Kathryn Williams and Ruth Nettle

Institute of Land and Food Resources, University of Melbourne, 500 Yarra Boulevard, Richmond, VIC 3121

The landscape of south west Victoria is undergoing rapid change, with the area of land utilised for traditional grazing enterprises significantly reduced, and dairy farming, crop growing and blue gum plantations increasing significantly. Land use change will have a range of socio-economic impacts for rural communities, and rapid change may be associated with uncertainty and, potentially, social fragmentation.

A community attitudes study was undertaken to identify the perceived impacts of land use change in south west Victoria. The methods and results of the study are summarised, highlighting key implications for change agents.

Six group interviews were conducted with 49 people living in south west townships where land use change is currently occurring. Participants described positive and negative impacts of land use changes occurring during the past 10 years. In addition, a telephone survey (551 participants) examined key beliefs about land use change across the region. The results highlight two key aspects of community response to land use change.

First, land use changes are evaluated differently. It is not land use change itself – the movement away from traditional commodities and enterprises – that is seen to have negative impacts for the region. Rather, some land uses are seen to have positive impacts for the community while others are viewed less favourably. At this point in time in south west Victoria, increased dairy farming is widely considered to have an overall positive impact on communities, increased crop growing to have little or no impact, while blue gum plantations are viewed less favourably. Central to these evaluations was respondents’ beliefs about land use change and employment creation. Blue gum plantations were seen to decrease employment opportunities while dairy farms were considered to create new jobs. Attitudes toward specific land uses are likely to change over time as commodity prices and value adding opportunities change, and as environmental impacts are better understood.

Second, for all land use changes, an overall positive impact was more likely to be reported by residents of large towns and regional centres such as Hamilton, Ararat and Portland. It is likely that residents of larger towns, drawing on a broader social and economic base, are in a better position to harness the benefits of land use change. One might anticipate flow on benefits for surrounding areas, but these are not apparent in the responses of rural residents within this study. Plantation development has tended to be intensive within localised "hot spots". In such areas, many farmers have elected to sell whole properties for development, resulting in sudden, localised population loss or change. Impacts on surrounding districts may be significant; successful adjustment may depend on facilitated community redevelopment processes.

The study of community beliefs about land use change provides critical data for those involved with assisting regions and communities in managing this change. This research addresses not so much what it means to create a climate for change, but explores what it means for people living with significant change. The research identifies key concerns, examines distribution of impacts, and explores priorities and preferences for actions to harness the benefits and ameliorate costs of land use change in south west Victoria.

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