OPINION

Australia's rural environment: our wasteful failure to support the 'good guys'

FAILURE: There's not enough funding to make environmental stewardship work feasible, even when citizens are motivated.
FAILURE: There's not enough funding to make environmental stewardship work feasible, even when citizens are motivated.

Australia needs a feasible investment system for frontline rural stewardship, to achieve our desire for sustainable primary production and protection of biodiversity to help guide the future pathways for Australia.

Landcare NSW, The Nature Conservancy, The Great Eastern Ranges Initiative, WWF Australia, and the Australian Land Conservation Alliance have worked with the Australian Centre for Agriculture & Law at the University of New England, to explore how Australia should pay for frontline protection or restoration of rural environments.

Citizen rural stewardship is the "low hanging fruit" for protecting the rural environment.

Rural stewardship refers to the responsible planning and management of resources, a concept that can be applied to the environment and nature, among many other things.

Voluntary stewardship provides efficiencies and resources not otherwise available, and agricultural and community benefits.

It also assists governments through co-investment; equipment and consumables at negligible cost; reducing transaction costs; and provides a workforce with few costs, overheads or industrial issues.

Many problems highlighted in the State of Environment and other reports are rural-based, such as habitat and species loss, riverine degradation, feral animals and weeds.

Natural resource management in Australia is hampered by vast areas, sparse human resources, and the problems facing farmers and rural communities.

Our challenges, including invasive species, farming and mining intensification and expansion, fiscal constraints on government programs, climate change, consumption pressures (including population and urbanisation) are growing at an alarming rate.

Australia's environmental governance is not coping well with these challenges. Independent analyses highlight flaws including inadequate laws regarding environmental protection, insufficient data, non-compliance, weak incentives and insufficient resources, the limited power of government, entrenched attitudes, political compromises, and inadequate strategies.

Political and legal battles over environmental protection, and the growing demands on public funds, limit what governments can do.

Rhetoric praising good farmers, or instruments that talk about shared responsibility, partnership or duties of care cannot maximise voluntary stewardship, if the practical incentives are weak and the barriers to action strong!

Our recent study on rural stewardship, Funding Rural Stewardship: The case for meaningful reform, explores how funding and incentives are required for land stewards and community-based volunteers to carry out effective rural environmental conservation and restoration.

The study includes a survey of 48 Landcare members and 16 Landcare groups in NSW on personal and institutional aspects of stewardship.

Challenges that were raised included problems of ageing and health, volatile incomes, and drought and fire.

This was coupled with fears over volunteer succession, and the maintenance of completed works, with volunteers often reporting they and their work are undervalued, and feel unfairly treated.

Private citizens and private organisations are Australia's main environmental stewards.

Though controlling damage to the environment through laws or markets is important, citizen action is essential when effective government action is not feasible for political, social, economic or legal reasons.

A stewardship ethic causes citizens to minimise the harm they cause (e.g. through low impact farming, or responsible purchasing), or to manage problems "at source".

Individual stewardship can be supported by information and training, and by industry or environmental organisations.

Citizens join informal teams with neighbours, or friends and family, or volunteer organisations.

Environmental work happens on the steward's lands, across tenures with neighbours, and at other places.

Citizens provide much of the resources, but government or private grants, capacity building or other supports help.

Relationships within communities or peer respect, economic opportunities, subsidies or incentives, or tax benefits can all reinforce stewardship motivation.

However, many variables affect voluntary action, and there are significant barriers that must be overcome.

One central gap is insufficient money to make stewardship work feasible, even when citizens are motivated.

The evidence we examined shows that the gap is massive. Environmental and economic pressures on farmers and on government make it likely that this gap will grow, unless a better resourcing model is implemented.

A feasible stewardship resourcing strategy is essential to meet Australia's increasing challenges.

A better "business model" for stewardship would deliver benefits to many stakeholders, and stop wasting the "low-hanging fruit" of voluntarism, and benefit those who will inherit our environment.

Our report proposes some ways to improve the feasibility of good stewardship, through better policies and collaborative initiatives.

It is time to support the "good guys" trying to do the right thing.

Professor Paul Martin is director of the Australian Centre for Agriculture and Law at the University of New England.

This story Australia's rural environment: our wasteful failure to support the 'good guys' first appeared on The Canberra Times.