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From pastoralists to futuralists: linking disciplines, communities and policies to facilitate NRM and community development in the Australian rangelands

Kaz Price

Agriculture Western Australia, Northern Rangelands, PO Box 278, Derby, WA, 6728

The Australian Rangelands

Almost three quarters of Australia is described as rangeland (ANZECC and ARMCANZ, 1999). Typically these regions comprise variable climate arid and semi-arid areas, and north of the Tropic of Capricorn, areas that experience high rainfall and seasonal drought. The Australian rangelands support varied cultures and social structures and a diverse range of business and economic interests. The region is ecologically important (Battini and Claymore, 2000) through high species diversity, geomorphological variety and integrity, and as the habitat of rare, threatened and endangered species.

Modern rangeland management practices are based on the need to balance sustainability in terms of ecological, cultural, social and economic needs. Land degradation, the incursion of exotic weeds and feral animal pests, changes in native plant communities and decreased biodiversity serve as an indictment on past (and some present) land management practices (Fisher, 2000). Issues within the fields of ecologically sustainable development (ESD) and natural resource management (NRM) are exciting, complex and challenging. Options for future rangeland use will be dependant upon current and future ESD policy and the ongoing development and adoption of responsible and sustainable NRM practices and principles, combined with the support and development of healthy communities.


Pastoral enterprises occupy 58% of the Australian rangeland land area (ANZECC and ARMCANZ, 1999). These enterprises have principally been concerned with the grazing of cattle and sheep for meat and fibre.

Low commodity prices, global economic fluctuations and climatic uncertainties have resulted in considerable pressure being placed upon traditional management structures, and a range of new enterprise mixes are changing the face of pastoralism. These new enterprises have included tourism, harvesting of bush foods, a change from fibre to meat producing animals, the harvesting of timber, and the commercialisation of native and feral animal products.

However diversification comes with its own set of problems, and development has been hampered by a plethora of financial and institutional impediments including:

  • limitations arising from land tenure and title;
  • access to flexible and responsive financing;
  • adequate recourse for the re-prioritisation of regional infrastructure;
  • identification, quantification and development of markets (domestic and export);
  • access to information, skills and services;
  • Native Title (Price and Verios, 1999).

Policy makers must consider these critical needs if policy is to be relevant to the Australian rangelands. There is a necessity for sound policy that encourages principles of prevention before expensive restoration is needed and it must encompass the breadth of sustainability issues across production, conservation, social and cultural frames. A challenge for the future will be flexibility in policy development that is enabling and multidisciplinary.

The withdrawal or downgrading of non-government and government services has resulted in an increasingly negative impact on the quality of life in regional areas, exacerbating downward trends in both population, and the economic base of regional communities. Although it has been slow in coming, government has now recognised and is seeking to redress these troubling statistics through a range of over-arching regional strategies to implement long-term plans to restore economic viability into regional Australia (Anderson and McDonald, 2000). These plans recognise that for reasons as diverse as stewardship, regionalistion and national security; robust and diverse communities are essential in the rangelands (ANZECC and ARMCANZ, 1999). Cooperation between the various State government agencies is seen as a crucial element in achieving successful outcomes. However it has been suggested that this will prove difficult (Dale, 1989) as there are obvious tensions between the relevant government agencies.

The long and the short of it

A significant challenge to the achievement of successful outcomes across the full spectrum of regional development initiatives is the seeming rigidity of the principal bureaucratic organisations coordinating and delivering the programs. Dale (1989) has predicted a freeing-up of national and State policy to allow the development of an enabling approach within organisations, however the achievement of any capacity building will firstly have to overcome the impediments of short-term funding. A challenge that exists for everyone; researcher, extensionist or policy maker, is the seeming futility of attempting to create long term change with short term timeframes. Ball (1990) proposes that as a consequence of short-term funding, State policy makers have adopted a reactive approach: that they are in effect preoccupied with short-term outputs rather than the long term outcomes – such as the addressing of ESD issues.

Acknowledgement of the function of extension in the attainment of ESD outcomes will ensure the ability to plan more intermediate to long term projects ensuring higher commitment at both agency and community levels. Barnes (1999) makes the point that extension, education and communication can be made to be core functions of agencies. However it may prove likely that the value would need to be measured in strictly economic terms: justification of the extension budget is difficult without a positive Benefit/Cost Analysis. Ball (1990) criticizes the States for being preoccupied with short-term crisis management, although long-term outcomes are difficult to work into the short-term objectives of current funding agencies. As Yeatman (1991) so neatly puts it: the role of the modern public service manager is “to do more with less”. Other factors in the changing face of extension delivery have included the principle of “user pays” and the increasing numbers of consultants competing with agencies for both client’s and funding dollars.

The change within

There is a need within the structures of older, hierarchical government bureaucracies to facilitate change that will bring about frameworks for cooperation. For example, currently there is tremendous potential for duplication of effort in the regional development spheres both within and between agencies. The whole-of-government approach is a first step in developing systems to overcome these issues between agencies.

Even within agencies there remains a number of issues that hinder or prevent improved collaborative effort. Under the current funding arrangements, the competitive process leads to close guarding of current and intended work, as projects, even within the same program, compete for funds. Funding is generally about job renewal and project extension, and project managers tend to jealously preserve their project proposals and funding applications. Acquittals are based on defined, demonstrable outcomes and a cynical observation of evaluation and monitoring programs may be that they are developed to enable an organisation to gain the next round of funding.

Funders such as the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) and Rural Industry Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC), receive funding applications from Agricultural Departmental research and extension arms, Conservation Commissions, education organisations, Landcare and conservation groups and others. All applications must conform to rigid specifications and many are duplicated both within and across regions. Few applications received are collaborative funding applications that cross the boundaries of two or more agencies, or include community bodies. Collaboration is desirable but there is little room for cooperative effort as organisations compete for the same funds. Recent rumblings indicate competitiveness has reached all-time ludicrous heights with the proposed copyrighting of funding proposals – as it is suspected that successful proposals are used as blueprints for new applications.

It has been suggested that a critical component in the focus on regional strategies will be the need for facilitators (Dovers, 1998), funded by government but employed by local and regional communities who will assist communities developing regional planning processes through action learning models. The facilitators will assist in the preparation of funding applications (including applications for their own on-going funding) and the development of leadership within the community. This role could be crucial in pastoral regions where distance and poor infrastructure result in limited access to resources and information. Another issue that may need addressing within pastoral and regional areas is the need for the delivery of training in areas such as policy and legislation, lobbying and communication and analytical skills – not areas that have been “in vogue” for extension training (Dovers, 1998). This type of training will be important for those industry members dealing with increasingly non-technical agency staff.

The extension community

Guideline 4 of the National Principles and Guidelines for Rangeland Management states that “managers need the information, skills and commitment to ensure that rangeland enterprises are economically and ecologically sustainable” (ANZECC and ARMCANZ, 1999, p.16). The role of extension officers is to ensure that clients are not only appraised of new scientific findings, but are also savvy with respect to globalisation, legislative and policy constraints and the value of networking.

Extension strategies have evolved in response to technological and production advancements, and also in response to changing fiscal policy. The challenge for trainers approaching rural development is to not simply develop a training package and delivery methodology for the clients, but to garner agricultural agency support from professionals long involved in more reductionist science oriented studies and traditional extension paradigms. The creativity and innovation required to achieve meaningful outcomes for regional Australia and in particularly the pastoral rangelands will only be achieved in a climate of collaboration, between and within agencies. Collaboration and innovation are essentially outputs of teamwork that should rely not on the authoritative position of manager and organisation, but rather on the process of partnership.

There is a clear imperative for communities “taking collective responsibility” for a shared purpose and collaborating to achieve the desired end (Newman, 1994). Dovers (1998), refers to this collaborative approach as “inter-disciplinarity”, and predicts the difficulties organisations and individuals face in adjusting to a collaborative paradigm. Dale (1989) identifies an important hurdle to collaboration is economic considerations. Historically all agencies have had to barter with Treasury but there are also difficulties between other agencies at a “who’ll pay” level.

The use of external funding for short-lived projects has led many agencies to the use of external consultants. Outsourcing much of the extension and training component of the agricultural department has led to large staff redundancies and the diminishment of esprit de corps and commitment within agencies.

Mintzberg et al (1996) state that Government agencies are sometimes forced into performance measures geared to outside perceptions in the securing of inputs, rather than to the establishment and pursuit of appropriate outcomes. At middle management levels competition, rather than collegiality, is encouraged through incentive and reward packages (Yeatman, 1991). The notion of professional community is anathema to professionals caught in such organisational dilemmas.

Rangelands and pastoralism in the future

Rapid changes in the world trading environment have resulted in the need for new skills for pastoralism. Producers need to be more cognisant of markets and the use of financial decision tools. However the greatest challenge in the external training arena is to change the entrenched pastoral paradigm of a “station life-style” to “competitive food and fibre producer” orientation. This for many pastoral primary producers, is to attempt to change the most fundamental of all their beliefs. An understanding of the future of the Australian rangelands production sector within the global context will be a crucial requirement in facilitating such paradigm changes. Australia has over the past ten years been a signatory to an increasing number of treaties and declarations which cover NRM, biodiversity and trading issues. Pastoralists (and all other land managers) will need to understand the production and land management issues inherent for them in ensuring that Australia can meet its obligations under these treaties.

Globalisation will continue to have a tremendous impact on the way in which producers perceive and respond to the marketplace. There is an erroneous concept that globalisation will lead to a wider and more freely accessed international market. This of course has proved to be the reverse. Treaties and trade negotiations at a regional level (European and North American trade agreements) are shrinking the size of the “free trade” arena and Australian producers need to get smarter in the future directions of both their production and marketing systems. Blake (1998) clearly sounds a warning for those countries and producers left out of the “world’s great trading blocs”. Branding, quality assurance systems, supply chain partnerships and an understanding of the political, social and sectoral parameters in which they operate will be crucial to the sustainability of their businesses.

Education and community participation as policy instruments

There is a great opportunity for the cross-disciplinary linkages between science, government and practitioners to be used to great benefit in policy development. These linkages should be strengthened. Scientists and farmers have traditionally approached issues from polarised perspectives. Extensionists, trained with ‘a foot in each camp’, can make the linkages between stakeholders and science. Rather than extension specialists being left with the unenviable task of delivering unworkable policy, they must move to a ‘collaborator’ role and convey stakeholder perspectives in areas such as cost, sectoral influence and social impacts. Dale (1989) points to the need for the implementation of policies at the point of service delivery through consultation and participative approaches in the planning, design and delivery of services.

Policy is generally developed to meet a variety of ends, and many of those ends are not compatible (Gonzci, 1997). Many policies fail because those affected do not understand or agree with the objective of the policy. Where adequate and representative consultative processes are observed and subsequent policy formulation is supported by extension strategies there is a far greater likelihood that policies will be accepted. In this light the relationship between scientists (including social), extensionists, community and evolving policy can be viewed as a continuum. Strong interdisciplinary participatory models lead to sound policy which will in turn be more quickly and easily adhered to (Dovers, 1998).

For positive outcomes in ESD and NRM there is an overwhelming need for the forging of strong collaborative links between agencies and the community in conducting needs analysis, development of extension strategies, delivery and evaluation and monitoring systems.

Strong community links among extension officers and others working in related fields (financial counselors, agricultural faculties) would enable the development of meaningful and topical education packages. In addition to the “dirty hands” modules, there should also be an emphasis placed upon policy formulation and analysis, and civics-style modules which lead to a clear understanding of the political, legal, constitutional and administrative systems within which ESD and NRM occur. A sound understanding of these areas would enable strong collaboration and in turn policy development in an atmosphere of inclusiveness, trust and mutual respect.


In the future regional development will become a progressively bigger focus for Commonwealth and State governments as the issues of NRM, biodiversity and urbanisation escalate (Anderson and McDonald, 2000). There will be an increasing need for legislative and policy congruence on matters affecting natural resource management and sustainability across the Australian rangelands. Models that offer successful whole-of-government approaches to solving problems will be demanded. Leadership for these models should be based on collaborative frameworks for unified approaches by the range of agencies.

Extension strategies should be developed in consultation with community and should include training components that empower communities and engender their own leadership models and solutions. Lee (1993) makes the rather leveling reminder that our professional efforts are quite momentary in relation to the lives of the systems we seek to manage, and to date no-one; scientist, farmer, community or government has managed to get it right. In the end balancing the needs of ESD, NRM and community development will depend on collaboration, broad over-arching participatory R&D and concomitant policy development.


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