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South west victoria: farm or park? Paddocks or trees?

Keith Jackson

Natural Resources and Environment, Hamilton, Victoria.


South West Victoria has a strong history of vibrant rural communities over many years. Being settled early in Australia’s history agricultural development, particularly wool production, was the backbone of the rapidly establishing communities. The volcanic plains, scattered Red gums, green grass and many sheep are classic descriptions of the Western district. Over the year’s technology, advances in transport, mechanisation and low commodity prices for agricultural produce have caused many small rural communities to decline and in some cases disappear. The continued focus on economic efficiency is continuing this trend and as the region turns to other industries the question asked is “Are these industries assisting community development or are they accelerating the current trend?”

A changing landscape

Due to the federal government’s 2020 strategy seeking to treble the area of private native plantation in Australia, the landscape is changing in the Western District. Several years ago there were no blue gum plantations in the area. By the end of 2000 it is anticipated there will be in the order of 80,000ha of blue gum plantations in the Western District. As properties change hands, people leave, new industries are established, the landscape changes there is a genuine concern about the impacts these changes are having on small rural communities.

Positive impacts include: Increased employment, opportunity for older farmers to retire gracefully, new business opportunities, increased flow of money within the community, opportunity to meet environmental objectives, New people moving into communities

Some of the concerns being expressed include: People leaving the community, School numbers reducing, Traditional business closing down, Chemical usage increasing, threat of fire, development of mono cultures, effect on water table, viability of industry, native vegetation being removed, land tied to one use for long period on time.

Dealing with change

As with any change there will always be difficulties. The crucial element that needs to happen in these situations is genuine dialogue between all players to enable appropriate solutions to be discovered. As with individuals there are those communities that make things happen, those that watch things happen and those that wonder what happened? The key is to enable communities to be proactive. Macarthur is a community taking responsibility for what is happening around it and is developing a good understanding of these impacts and seeking to address them in a balanced way. They are communicating with the timber companies whilst at the same time looking at the opportunities in tourism, other industries and town development. There are appropriate forums being established to ensure the issues are adequately discussed and a common understanding is developed.

Currently a socio economic study is being undertaken to assess the long term viability of the industries associated with landuse and the communities attitudes and concerns regarding these landuse changes. Hamilton, a much larger community, has seen an increase in real estate movement, new businesses set up in town, and a vibrancy within the community that has been missing since the late 1980’s. The challenge is to see these positives as key links in achieving a shared vision for the community as a whole. Local government has a crucial role in managing the planning aspects associated with landuse change and industry development.

However it also highlights the significant role of government policy. Often the broader policy framework can encourage industry and activity that can have a negative impact on rural communities. It is crucial that policies are balanced and the framework is put in place that will enable local communities to actively take responsibility for their future in a way that isn’t just prolonging the inevitable decline but is genuinely creating a sustainable future for themselves.

Examples of a pro active community in the South West

People in Mortlake, a township of 1100 people, located in south west Victoria are working together to achieve a sustainable future for themselves. The Mortlake and Community Development Committee (MCDC) has been working to reinvigorate the township by playing an active role in the town and wider community. Based in the Mortlake District Watershed 2000 is a major rural community project designed and managed by the Central Hopkins Land Protection Association. This project links five rural community groups, enabling them to focus on enterprise development, environmental management, research, education and human resources. Members from both these groups had participated in the South West Community Leadership Program. These two groups together are committed to ensuring their community is sustainable and have been actively developing and implementing projects to this end. Some of the achievements around Mortlake have included: Establishment of the Visitor and Business Information Centre in Mortlake; Development of a jobs register to service the local community; Working with the Mortlake College to redesign the syllabus for biology, history and geography; Mayfly International, a project that enables students to exchange information on environmental health via the Internet with students in New Mexico, Minnesota, South Africa and Europe; Establishment of Adult Education Programs within Mortlake; Development of a Corridors of Green Project to revegetate waterways; Completion of research project related to rural health in conjunction with Deakin University and the Monash Rural Health Unit; Improving town wetlands and streetscape.

Many communities are developing events focussed on their towns. These include Port Fairy - Folk Festival, Mortlake - Buskers Festival, Harrow’s Sound and Light Show and Casterton’s Working Dog Auction.

Some keys to sustainable communities

What are the keys then to achieve sustainable communities? One of the most important is that we need to be passionate about our rural communities. If we are not passionate about something, vary rarely will the required energy be expended to achieve the desired outcome. We need to have a positive mindset, enthusiasm and a can do spirit to achieve our goals. The following saying indicates the importance of desire. “If you want to build a ship, don’t gather wood and dish out work. But teach them the desire for the wide endless ocean.” If people have a desire for the ocean they will get out there some how. It may not be the design that you wanted for the ship but people will be out there. So it is with community development. Projects, skills, designs are important but not as important as passion to achieve the end result. This approach then allows creativity to design the mechanisms, projects and develop the skills required.

Our ideal community has a number of things. A shared vision, participation, inclusiveness, consensus in decision making, win win solutions to the problems and collaboration. No doubt you can think of communities where these characteristics exist in some form. Once a number of people begin linking and talking together you gain that critical mass of social capacity and things begin to drive themselves. As a matter of fact you won’t be able to hold it back. Leadership in these communities is crucial. We need to make sure we are skilling the appropriate people and those skills are being used to assist the community rather than these people then going away and working on supposedly more important issues elsewhere in the state. Effective leaders are those, who rather than promoting themselves have the effect that at the completion of the project the people involved will say “we did this ourselves”.

The South West Leadership and Community Development program has assisted in this area over the past two years providing skills and networking opportunities to enhance rural communities.

Another example of building community in the South West is the establishment of the Western Rural Services Consortium. This has linked together a number of community organisations with the mission of providing an integrated and effective range of community driven services to rural people in Western Victoria. Particularly focussed on rural counselling and Tele centres the synergy gained by working together has been excellent.

Examples of Capacity building activities in Nebraska

There are many activities that can assist communities to develop a sustainable future for themselves. Some great ideas that are being implemented in Nebraska to build networks and develop community capacity include:

Entrepreneur camps. This was a program that took 15 to 16 year olds in late high school on a week long camp. The young people received practical training in developing business plans for potential enterprises assisting in developing a culture of business initiation and management among youth. For example one student created a business plan around building web services and consequently has developed a very successful business in rural Nebraska.

Farmer Appreciation Days. This was a program to assist in building links between town and country. For example, Sturgis, a town of 5000 in South Dakota organise a civic reception each year to honour the primary producers in their community. The purpose is to recognise the significant and important contribution that is made by this group to the community and builds a strong understanding between the towns folks and those on the land.

School Alumni. Schools are often the centre of a small community, here in Victoria just as in rural Nebraska. Many of the schools were maintaining school alumni lists and regularly keeping in touch with those educated in the community but now living all over the USA. This enabled access to an interested audience, keeping them up to date with the progress of their original home community and giving the school alumni regular opportunities to contribute resources and skills to help build these small communities. An example of this working is Potter, a small town of 380 people in rural Nebraska. The milk bar closed down in the town. The business was advertised to the school alumni and one of them, now a businessman in a major city bought it. Not so much as a sound economic investment as much as his contribution back to the town where he grew up. Consequently the business is still operating and employing a manager within the town.

Celebration of Community. Community achievements were regularly published across many small communities. This enabled good ideas to be shared and implemented in other parts of the state. We currently do this. However with a clearer focus it could be improved and done more effectively.

Local taxes. In some small communities the businesses were voluntarily taxing themselves 1%. This was creating a fund that could be used to creatively further the well being of the town. Collectively the community identified the things that wanted to do and rather than having to go to government or someone else for funds they used their own resources.

Principles of economic renewal

So as one looks regionally, nationally and internationally there are many excellent examples of communities that are taking responsibility to develop themselves in effective ways. Community development includes the social, environmental and economic aspects. Often the economic aspect is the main one people initially focus on. So in considering this aspect as a window into the other two here are four principles that we would do well to implement as we look to developing our communities.

The first is plug the leaks. Often we want to have a big industry come in and save the town but rather we should first endeavour to retain the dollars that are in the community already. If the community believes a supermarket in the town is important then the community needs to support it! Not drive an hour to the larger town nearby for groceries. So firstly plug the leaks through import substitution, resource efficiency and buying local programs. Secondly support existing businesses. In general a lot of the long term growth within a town comes from existing businesses. However so often we try to bring in new businesses from outside first and put existing businesses offside or end up closing them down. We need to encourage and support the existing businesses, help them to be more efficient and provide appropriate offsets to help them. We seem to be able to find huge subsidies to help someone come in from outside! The existing businesses are the basis of the local economy, so look after them. Thirdly encourage new local enterprise. Often there are many innovative people within the community already. Encourage and support their initiatives and grow some new businesses from within. Only after these first three steps are implemented go out and recruit compatible new businesses, ones that will fit in with the existing community and support and enhance the economic growth of the community (Kinsley, 1997).

There are many positive community development activities occurring in South West Victoria. There continues to be considerable challenge in maintaining a balance between the economic, environmental and social aspects. However with appropriate policy framework provided by government and a genuine commitment to working together at the local level we will collectively create and implement a vision for South West Victoria, and indeed a rural Australia that we will be proud of.


Kinsley M.J. Economic Renewal Guide, Rocky Mountain Institute 1997

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