Essay

Building relationships to care for country

MAURICE BINSTEAD WOULD start to whistle every time we came into the Arcadia Valley in central Queensland. Roddy Smith is filled with peace at Lake Victoria, near Mildura. Lyndon Schneiders is awestruck and protective of the unique landscapes of Cape York.

Together with many other men and women, they are the human face of the debate about how to manage Australia's natural resources more sustainably. That's the debate we have to have, because we cannot keep running down our resource base the way we are doing now.

Maurice is a gnarled old cattleman, filled with good sense and knowledge about the beef industry and cattle country. He always reduced his cattle numbers early in a drought and appreciated the interconnections between people, industry and the land. His spirits lift noticeably when he comes into his country and he cares deeply for it.

Roddy is an elder of the Barkindji Aboriginal nation and Lake Victoria is an important spiritual place for him. It contains many hundreds of Aboriginal graves and there was an infamous massacre nearby on the Rufus River. The country talks to him and he is part of it. His face glows with contentment and certainty when he is at the lake.

Lyndon is a campaigner for The Wilderness Society and has spent a big part of his life as an environmental activist on Cape York. He understands the politics of the environment debate but also has a deep sense of the natural values that need protection.

 

I KNOW THE three of them. They all come from different backgrounds and perspectives, but they all want to care better for the country. They represent the interests that are critical to better outcomes for natural-resource management.

Maurice is part of the farm sector. About 60 per cent of Australia is covered by agricultural enterprises, mostly pastoral properties.

Another 20 per cent is controlled by Aboriginal people like Roddy. Their identity comes from the land and waters and they have rights to protect their culture. They want to have their values recognised in decisions about how country is used and managed.

Lyndon and the environment movement have standing because of their public support and political weight – their preferences can influence the outcome of seats in federal and state elections.

All three interests need to be accommodated as we consider future directions for natural-resource management. Significant changes are needed but comprehensive outcomes cannot be achieved only on public land such as national parks and state forests.

The active co-operation of the farm sector and Aboriginal people is essential because they control 80 per cent of the land mass. Equally, the involvement of the environment movement is necessary because government recognises the public legitimacy of its agenda.

I have worked with all three groups over the past 30 years. My observation is that a basic building block exists – common care for country – but it has not been harnessed properly yet. There is a natural strategic alliance so far unrealised because relationships are not sufficiently mature in most areas.

I have also come to understand that changes in the landscape only occur where everyone owns local outcomes. In the last analysis, those who control land have to be prepared to undertake changes in the management of their own places and that is very difficult to enforce.

There's still some way to go to build the relationships necessary to achieve broad localised change on the ground.

 

FROM THE FARM sector's perspective, there is considerable suspicion and frustration. Members of the farming community note that 85 per cent of Australia's population now lives within 50 kilometres of the coast and doesn't know much about life west of the ranges. They therefore worry about an uninformed debate and political irrelevancy.

They are also frustrated that the rules keep changing and there is not enough integration between government programs and too much red tape.

Not so long ago, lease conditions required land clearing. There were tax incentives for clearing country, but not for replanting. Farmers were encouraged to take up additional water allocations to boost irrigation and exports. Those signals from government reflected knowledge which, at the time, was incomplete.

The contribution that land clearing makes to salinity, declining water quality and greenhouse gases is now better understood and caps are being imposed. However, many farmers are concerned about the process by which government is making decisions.

Most recognise the need for changes to overall natural-resource management and they have formed thousands of Landcare groups throughout Australia. Government also recognises the need for change but has not been able to respond as a whole. There are catchment blueprints, water plans, salinity plans, legislative provisions for land clearing and protecting threatened species and they never seem to come together properly. Funding for community networks has also been interrupted and short-term.

Farmers argue that they have no certainty about future management, which affects their ability to plan and borrow. They argue that where there is a public interest in land management the landholder should not have to meet all the costs – if there is a public benefit, there should be a public investment. They also believe insufficient resources have been allocated for management of public lands, particularly national parks.

 

ABORIGINAL PEOPLE HAVE not been engaged effectively in natural-resource management. There are both practical and institutional reasons. Many communities have to concentrate on day-to-day survival and to prioritise their efforts. It is hard to promote medium– and long-term resource-management projects unless they contain employment or other benefits, eg improved water quality or dust suppression.

Under Aboriginal law, no one can talk for someone else's country so the concept of peak bodies and regional, state and national representatives is alien. Those who come to meetings can only act as funnels to take information back to traditional-owner groups and advise their responses. There is usually no funding for this purpose.

Support to help Aboriginal communities engage in resource management is also insufficient. There were 13 indigenous land-management facilitators from more than 700 full-time positions in various community support networks under the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT). Catchment-management authorities are now seeking to employ Aboriginal officers under NHT2 and the situation, hopefully, will improve.

A chicken-and-egg situation exists. In most cases, catchment-management authorities have not been able to develop structures for engaging traditional owners, so Aboriginal people have little input into funding decisions for programs. The skills base in communities is low and it is hard for that to improve without program funding.

IT IS OFTEN difficult for the environment movement to build relationships with farmers and Aboriginal people. Farmers are suspicious because the environment organisations don't always reflect the views of their members in regional areas, who better understand the complexities of some issues. They see a lot of the environment agenda as city-driven and more political than practical.

Aboriginal people want to develop a more independent economic base. They want to use land for some commercial purposes so they have doubts about an agenda that concentrates on creating more national parks.

At the end of the day, the key groups that need to come together to change the landscape are not properly engaged with each other or with government. They have a community of interest but it has not been developed sufficiently for a common agenda to emerge.

Many people are trying to improve the situation. The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists believes science can be the common denominator for better understanding and relationships. The Carr Government in NSW is changing its agency structures to bring the parties together and integrate programs. The Burdekin Dry Tropics Board is developing a protocol for input by traditional owners.

From experiences all over the country, some common themes appear to be emerging. They are the basis for a way forward down the road to more sustainable use of natural resources.

There should be a commitment to long-term action by all political parties.  New management systems and rehabilitation will take decades and governments will change. There must be confidence that partnerships, once begun, will be continued, so the support of all political parties is necessary.

There needs to be an integrated and accessible database that includes proper assessment and mapping of the resource stock and natural values. Audits should be informed by science and undertaken regularly.

There should be clear national and state priorities. The community needs to understand the objectives and the agenda. The Wentworth Group suggests four environmental standards against which to test priorities – water quality, salinity, biodiversity and soil conservation.

Regional catchment plans should be developed to apply national and state priorities and have the force of law. They must be developed, owned and implemented by regional stakeholders through a regional catchment authority that operates independently under its own legislation. Catchment plans should also provide access to necessary public funding.

Individual property plans should give effect to the regional catchment plans and identify the public and private investment components. They should be certified by the catchment authority and provide management security for a specified period of time, similar to the security given to the timber industry under Regional Forestry Agreements. They would travel with the property if it were sold.

Landholders could bid for public funds to provide environmental services, based on the identified public investment component of their property plans. The bids could be assessed in a Dutch auction where the lowest cost/highest impact proposals are funded.

Long-term public funding must be available. The public investment in property-management plans will amount to billions of dollars over decades. Partnerships are necessary with land-holders and funding for adjustment will also be required.

It is very likely that taxes will have to increase to fund necessary public investment. A transparent environmental tax deserves close consideration and would need to be accompanied by regular public reports and audits.

Engaging traditional owners will need special care and effort. One mechanism would be to require a cultural-heritage management plan as part of each regional catchment plan. Indigenous people's cultural identity depends on the natural values of their country and their cultural heritage being protected by commonwealth, state and territory legislation. Their values should be included in management of the natural resource base. Traditional owners could be contracted to develop and implement cultural-heritage management plans, thereby providing employment and skills development.

 

IT IS ENCOURAGING to see those broad themes emerge around the nation but there is still an enormous amount of work to be done to flesh out the detail and get it working properly on the ground. The better the understanding and relationships between key groups, the faster it will happen. The farm sector, indigenous people and the environment movement need to engage effectively so options are identified and there are agreed positions that can be put to government.

The cornerstone of that engagement must be respect – a willingness to consider other points of view. There are always at least a couple of sides to any debate and unless they are all treated as legitimate, there will be no enduring resolution.

The value of strategic partnerships should also be understood. The wider the base of public support, the easier it is for government to act. Just because groups can't agree on everything does not mean they should not co-operate where they can agree. Together, they will be able to achieve wider outcomes than by acting alone.

That's essentially what happened when the National Farmers' Federation and the Australian Conservation Foundation came together to advocate the Decade of Landcare. That's also what happened when pastoralists, Aboriginal people and environmentalists signed the Cape York Land Use Heads of Agreement. It can be done but it requires sophistication by all the parties.

It also requires sophistication by government. If government wants community ownership of outcomes and resolution of conflicts, it has to be prepared to devolve administrative responsibility to regional level. One size does not fit all. What works in the Hunter Valley won't work at Walgett or Lightning Ridge.

Communities need to be able to tailor programs to their individual circumstances or the programs will be devalued. This creates considerable challenges for our public administration – balancing regional flexibility with state and federal accountability is undeniably difficult.

Government often advocates community empowerment but is not always eager to hand over the purse strings. New skills are also required to facilitate outcomes within local communities – skills that do not always exist at regional level within agencies or the community.

Maurice Binstead, Roddy Smith and Lyndon Schneiders all have a love of country. They respect it and they want to look after it. That doesn't mean they want to lock it all up but rather to use it in a sustainable way, within its capacity to renew and provide sustenance.

These three people are not unique. There are many more men and women like them and they hold the key to how we manage our resource base into the future. Their relationships with each other and with government will shape how we care for our country because they are the ones who will do it in practice – on the ground, where it counts.   

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