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Integrated resource use planning in the Australian sugar industry: a participatory planning approach

Duncan Chalmers, Vickie Webb , and Daniel Walker

CRC for Sustainable Sugar, Townsville; CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, Brisbane
CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystem, Townsville


The sugar industry in Australia is facing the challenge of addressing economic, environmental and social issues as a result of reduced incomes and the raised awareness within the community of environmental impacts relating to the production of sugar cane. The major economic imperatives are reduced yields from seasonal fluctuations, pests and disease combined with increasing costs and international market competition. Combined with this, regional communities now see themselves as stakeholders and demand more involvement in the decision-making processes affecting their regions and accountability for activities that impact on the environment (Smith & McDonough 2001). In many catchments in which the sugar industry is a major resource user, planning for natural resource use is an ad hoc process with poor interaction, communication and integration between the sugar industry and other stakeholders. Integrated land use planning is a vital component of enhancing the capacity of the sugar industry’s capacity to deal effectively and efficiently with the environmental and economic consequences of its changing infrastructure needs, including strategic planning for expected expansion, contractions and re-allocations of land.

Integrated land use planning is a form of environmental problem solving and management which enables all those with a stake in the region and the industry to come together and express their similarities or differences over land use issues. This form of collaborative planning enables industry, governments and community groups to build bridges and to ensure that natural resource management issues are shared, conflicts are worked through and the community develops plans to move forward together (Wondolleck & Yaffee 2000).

The decentralisation of natural resource management is a two edged sword. On the one hand it provides the regional communities with a greater voice when deciding on the use and allocation of local natural resources and allows communities to adapt their management plans to suit regional conditions. This provides the community with ownership of the plan and will improve the probability of achieving sustainable outcomes (Jennings & Moore, 2000). On the other hand the ability or inability of the local stakeholders to effectively participate in planning processes either through the lack of skills and resources may lead to inequitable and unsustainable allocations of natural resources.


A key issue for the sugar industry is the need to balance economic concerns with both social and environmental impacts. A joint project with CSIRO and the CRC for Sustainable Sugar, is using Research and Development to underpin and support integrated land use planning processes for the sugar industry to take account of economic, social and environmental concerns in two contrasting Queensland catchments, the Herbert River Valley in North Queensland and the Sunshine Coast region in South East Queensland.

The Herbert River region in north Queensland is an area of approximately 10,000 km2 with a population of approximately 18,000 people that lies adjacent to two World Heritage areas: the Wet Tropics and the Great Barrier Reef. Cane production dominates the lower catchment as it forms the key source of income, the dominant land use, and the main source of employment. On average 61,000 hectares of cane are harvested to produce approximately 5 million tonnes of cane which was crushed by the region’s two CSR mills, Victoria and Macknade.

Further south, the Maroochy catchment lies in the Sunshine Coast region which has a population of 355,000 people and is rapidly increasing at a rate of 3 percent annually. In the Maroochy region the area of cane production has been stable since 1994. The region has one sugar mill in Nambour, which crushes approximately 500,000 tonnes of cane that is supplied by approximately 9000 hectares of assigned cane-lands which are located in the Maroochy, Caloundra, Cooloola and Noosa shires.

In the Herbert and Sunshine Coast regions, as in most areas of coastal Queensland, tourism, agriculture, urban development/encroachment and recreational uses compete for the region’s limited natural resources (Johnson et al., 1997). Each stakeholder group pursues their personal objectives, based on their different sets of needs, values and aspirations. Those objectives may be complementary or conflicting. For example, urban expansion into agricultural land generates high land values due to sub-division and therefore financial gain to farmers who sell their land. On the other side, it means a loss of that land from production and, in the case of sugar cane, a direct reduction in the ‘catchment area’ of a sugar mill which requires a minimum tonnage of cane to justify the amounts of capital invested in the mill and associated infrastructure. Furthermore, conflicts may arise where residential development occurs adjacent to cane land and residents are affected by noise and other impacts associated with agricultural practices (Roberts,1995).

In both regions the sugar industry is grappling with the environmental and economic consequences of its changing infrastructure needs. These include strategic planning for expected expansions, contractions and re-allocations of land. In the Sunshine Coast the sugar industry has identified the major constraint as the amount of existing cane production in the region. In the Herbert River region the key issues are the reliance of the regional economy on the sugar industry and environmental concerns due to the region’s location adjacent to two World Heritage areas.

In response to these challenges the CSIRO and the CRC for Sustainable Sugar and are working to support the sugar industry in the Herbert and Sunshine Coast regions to work in partnership with State and Local Government agencies and local community groups (particularly ICM) to develop and implement a planning systems approach to rural land use planning in the sugar industry.


A series of ‘Resource Use Futures’ fora (Figure 1) have been conducted to provide stakeholders in the two catchments with the opportunity to identify key development issues, objectives and strategies for the region’s economic development and implications for the use and distribution of natural resources. The fora provide an opportunity for stakeholders to listen to each other, identify common strategies and objectives, and expose conflicts. From there, a way forward can be developed which explores alternatives and shows how to choose effective, equitable and sustainable courses of action.

After each forum the research team has conducted research and modelling focusing on the preferred options and strategies developed at the forum. The research and modelling will evaluate the economic, social and environmental benefits/costs of strategies and quantify any impacts on the region’s resources that may result if one or the other option was implemented. Spatial analysis of land-use change and transport network development has been used to analyse the availability of suitable land for cane assignment.

A combination of spatial and economic analysis techniques have been used to evaluate the environmental and economic impact of land-use change while related infrastructure development within the sugar industry could be used to assess, for example, sugar cane expansion strategies.

The objective of the Resource Use Futures meetings is to enhance the capacity of the sugar industry to strategically and constructively address important issues related to natural resource management. The provision of data and planning tools will assist in analysing the implications of planned changes and assist in choosing viable strategies and options.

The Resource Use Futures Fora is only one component of the integrated land use planning process. The other component involves a series of planning workshops called “plan to plan” workshops. These plan to plan workshops are designed to explore new issues with individual groups which can then be taken to the next forum to be explored and discussed by all stakeholder groups.

Figure 1. Agreed framework for the resource use futures process in the Herbert and Moreton Mill districts

The process of plan to plan workshops and resource use fora are designed around the concept of participation explored by Pimbert and Pretty (1994). They outlined a series of approaches to participation ranging from passive participation, where people participate by being told what is going to happen, to self mobilisation/active participation, where people participate by taking initiatives. This project aims at the interactive participation level (one level below self mobilisation) where people participate in joint analysis, leading to the development of action plans.

The participatory nature of this research project means that the assessment framework developed needs to be flexible and adaptable so that it can be applied in response to the particular needs and characteristics of a district. As a consequence, this research has developed a toolkit of participatory research methods and analytical tools that are being developed, applied and evaluated in two contrasting contexts (the Herbert River & Moreton Mill districts).

The overall framework developed comprises a series of steps (which may not be applied strictly sequentially and may involve several iterations) as follows.

Step 1. Negotiation of resource use aspirations within the industry

Step 2. Assessment of the resource base in relation to aspirations

Step 3. Dialogue with other key stakeholder groups

Step 4. Integrated consideration of economic, social & environmental impacts

Step 5. Negotiation of design principles for new initiative and exploration of implications

Step 6. Negotiation on, and support for, implementation

The Integrated Resource Use Planning approach involves collaborative decision-making, establishing trust by building relationships with participants and communication between industry, government and community arenas. Wondolleck and Yaffee (1994) state that these are the key elements to successful public involvement.

Negotiation of resource use aspirations within the industry

Sustainable rural land use planning in sugar catchments will achieve little unless the overall system of planning and management is improved. This means working to improve the planning capacity of all sugar industry and other stakeholder groups with natural resource management responsibilities and the interactions among them (Buchy & Race, 2001).

This research activity aims to overcome many of these deficiencies by assisting the sugar industry and other relevant stakeholders to plan for its future development in the context of its natural resource requirements. A series of Resource Use Futures fora have been conducted to provide stakeholders in the two catchments the opportunity to identify their key development issues, their objectives and strategies for the region’s economy and natural resources. The fora provide an opportunity for stakeholders to identify common strategies and objectives, to explore alternatives, and a way to choose effective, equitable and sustainable courses of action. In conjunction with these Resource Use Futures Fora, a series of planning workshops have also been run to determine the structure of future fora and to assist in the capacity building of the stakeholder groups. Discussions in the workshops range from alternative harvesting options to ways to improve the interaction between mill and growers.

Assessment of the resource base in relation to aspirations

Sunshine Coast region had very little data available for them to use to assess the amount of suitable land in the region. To over come this a detailed spatial analysis of areas for potential expansion in the region has been carried out. The analytical tools developed and used for the spatial analysis include, a Sunshine Coast land suitability analysis which was developed in consultation with all major stakeholders, Sunshine Coast rainfall analysis to ascertain average monthly rainfall for the areas identified and finally a Sunshine Coast transport analysis was developed, as distance from the mill is also a limiting factor. A total of 89,000 ha of land were found as suitable within a distance of 70 kilometres from the Moreton Mill. In the Mary River catchment 20000 ha of suitable land was identified.

Figure 2. Areas of sugarcane land suitability in the Sunshine Coast region

Dialogue with other key stakeholder groups

To date research in the Sunshine Coast region has focussed on the key issue of the limits to expansion of the industry. The millers and growers in the Sunshine Coast region will use the data provided by the spatial analysis as reference for their assignment process when expanding the cane estate. They have formed 3 new joint working groups to look at 1) cane transport and harvesting, 2) attracting new growers and 3) farming systems.

The spatial analysis has identified suitable land for cane production but there are other issues that need to be addressed to move the process forward. The framework being developed is structured on the basis that an increasing number of stakeholder groups have an interest in the use of natural, social and economic capital by the sugar industry. This makes dialogue and negotiation with a range of stakeholder groups critical for successful strategic planning and implementation of resource use options. For Example in the Sunshine Coast the stakeholder groups represented include the Maroochy-Mooloolah, Mary River and Noosa catchment coordinating committee, Maroochy, Cooloola & Noosa councils, Bureau of Sugar Experimental Stations, Bundaberg Sugar, Moreton Mill and Moreton CANEGROWERS. There are plans to involve state government agencies in the next phase of the project.

In addition to these processes of negotiation, the research team has explored web-based approaches to providing information to a broader range of stakeholders. For example, the on-line Herbert River Catchment Atlas provides detailed information about the natural resources of the Herbert River catchment. It aims to improve the stakeholders’ awareness of natural resource management issues in the region, and to enhance their knowledge of the natural resources and the impact of human activity on these resources. This atlas has been made available on the Web at Similarly, the database of key stakeholders and organizations contains contact details of the key stakeholders and organisations that have an interest in natural resource management and planning. The aim of the databases is to improve the communication flow between key stakeholders and organisations within the two regions. It can be accessed on the Web at and In addition to this the research team has also assisted in the implementation and development of as a result of a need identified by stakeholders.

Integrated consideration of economic, social and environmental impacts

In the Herbert region the CRC and CSIRO have been working with sugar industry stakeholders to explore issues relating to long-term viability of the industry. One key activity of this project has been to model projected changes to the industry to analyse the regional impact of such changes environmentally, socially, and economically. This Regional Dynamics Model is based on key drivers of sustainability for the industry including sugar price and CCS, equity, yield and access to land. The implications of the different combinations of these drivers is considered through a farm scale production and financial analysis (area of production, equity and farm income) over a five-year period. The information from the farm scale financial sub-model is then aggregated (total number of farms and assigned land) to provide regional information on financial (regional sugar income and expenditure) and sugar production. Subsequently the implications of the various scenarios can modelled to demonstrate potential impacts on primary employment (growers, millers, harvesters), secondary employment – service providers and an environmental / natural resource impact assessment.


This project, while still underway, has demonstrated that R&D can be an integral component of participatory processes. The additional research in this project is designed as a direct result of the needs of the stakeholders. In the two catchments the needs varied, so while the process remains the same, the outputs are different. The process of using formal and informal planning processes in the form of planning workshops, meetings and fora is providing the sugar industry in the Sunshine Coast and the Herbert River catchment with the capacity to assist them in their decision making with regard to resource management. It is also giving them the opportunity to form partnerships with other stakeholders in their region, and to work together towards a common goal.

The Integrated Resource Use Planning process is a staged approach to ensure implementation and adoption. Each step is completed before starting the next. For example the first step was to establish a joint vision for the industry in the Sunshine Coast area, the next step was to establish if there was suitable land for expansion of the industry, and the third step was to prioritise areas for expansion taking into consideration social and environmental as well as economic implications. By working through the planning process with participants this process will lead to direct outcomes, build local capacity and provide a basis for developing improved participatory and integrated approaches to resource management across the sugar industry within a regional framework.


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