Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts home page

About us | Contact us | Publications

header imagesheader imagesheader images

Publications archive - International Activities and Commitments


Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

Australia's report to the UNCSD - 1995

Implementation of Agenda 21
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, 1995
ISBN 0 6444 3152 0

Land resources

Chapter 10 of Agenda 21


Australia is the lowest, flattest and, apart from Antarctica, the driest of the continents. It has a range of climatic zones, from the tropical regions of the north, the arid expanses of the interior, to the temperate regions of the south. A large part of the continent (about 70%) is arid or semi-arid. The Australian landforms of today are a result of long-continued processes in a unique setting, giving rise to typical Australian landscapes which, in turn, provide the physical basis for the distribution and nature of biological and human activity.

Human activity has been changing the Australian landscape for many thousands of years, but the pace and extent of change has increased since European settlement about 200 years ago. Australia's coastal areas have been extensively altered, reflecting major population concentrations, but other parts of the country have also been modified. The actual change or modification is the combination of a variety of factors - the land type, its own particular set of interacting processes, as well as the management that has been imposed upon it.

Land degradation is strongly linked to the characteristics of the country's soils, which are generally shallow and of low fertility. Australian soils are virtually non-renewable because of the very low rate of formation and the very old landscapes on which they occur. Land degradation processes often occur naturally. However, human activity can accelerate such processes as well as introduce new risks.

Land degradation in Australia may take a number of forms including water and wind erosion, dryland and irrigation salinity, soil structure and fertility decline, accelerated soil acidity, decline and loss of native vegetation, and woody shrub and noxious weed infestation.

Approximately 60% of Australia's land area is agricultural land, 90% of which is used for extensive grazing. Most agricultural land is privately owned or managed under leasehold arrangements. Key decisions on land management are therefore the responsibility of private landholders. Governments establish the broad framework for those decisions through economic, social and environmental policies, standards and laws and through tenure systems.

The challenge is to ensure that Australia's natural resources (the soil, water and biological diversity and processes which link them) are managed in such a way which continues to provide for production and other activities which make a significant contribution to the economic and social well being of all Australians. However, this must occur in a manner which ensures that the environment is protected and management practices maintain, or preferably enhance, the natural resource base.

Organisations which have a role in the planning and management of land resources

Under the Australian Federal system, responsibility for natural resource planning and management rests primarily with the six States and two Territory Governments. A number of agencies perform a variety of activities relating to agricultural production and extension services, land use decision making and regulation, and nature conservation and environment protection. Within this framework local governments play a key role, as they have responsibility for many of the planning and management decisions at the local level. At the Federal level, the Department of Primary Industries and Energy (DPIE) and the Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories (DEST) are the main agencies responsible for environment and natural resource management.

Coordination of environment and natural resource policies and decision making within Australia is achieved in a number of ways. Ministerial Councils, which comprise Ministers from the relevant portfolios of each State/Territory and the Federal Government, play an important role. These Councils include the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), comprised of First Ministers from Federal and State/Territory Governments, the Agriculture and Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand (ARMCANZ), the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC), the Ministerial Council of Forestry, Fisheries and Aquaculture (MCFFA) and the Australian and New Zealand Minerals and Energy Council (ANZMEC).

Another way in which coordination is achieved is through intergovernmental committees of officials, such as the Australia New Zealand Land Information Council (ANZLIC). ANZLIC is making geographic data more accessible to the community through the coordination of policy, the development of data standards and the implementation of a national data directory system.

Strategies (policies, plans and programs) to achieve ecologically sustainable resource use

The National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development provides a basis for addressing sustainability issues for Australia's land resources. Within this framework there are a number of strategies and plans which provide a focus for particular resource issues. These include the draft National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity, the Decade of Landcare Plan (the main strategic plan for the National Landcare Program), the National Water Quality Management Strategy, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Water Reform Agenda and the draft National Weeds Strategy. Weeds are a significant problem in relation to both production lands and environmentally important areas in Australia. Australia is also developing a national strategy for the management of rangeland areas which will integrate and complement existing strategies and plans. State and Territory Governments are to introduce measures to give effect to the national plans and strategies. These national measures provide the vision and set the broad framework for combatting degradation of our resource base, and moving to ecologically sustainable resource management.

Within this broader context, governments have a range of measures to address sustainability issues. These include: support for research and enhanced access to information by landholders and community groups; regulatory approaches, such as restrictions on land clearing; market based (or price) mechanisms, such as subsidies to encourage sustainable land management practices; and measures which affect property rights. The complex nature of the causes of sustainability problems and the range of participants suggest a mix of instruments. Balancing this mix to achieve desired outcomes is inevitably an evolving process.

Effective and targeted 'on the ground' programs are also important to achieving ecologically sustainable resource management. The Federal Government coordinates a range of national programs aimed at achieving this goal. Some of these programs are:

The importance of integrated approaches

Adopting integrated approaches to managing our soil, water and vegetation resources is fundamental to achieving ecologically sustainable resource management. This has implications for policy development as well as program delivery. In recent times, Australia has set in train a number of initiatives to achieve this goal. These include:

International development assistance

Australia's development cooperation program contains several activities which specifically focus on support to integrated land resource planning and management. Examples include the Land Titling project in Thailand, the Remote Sensing and Natural Resources Management and Development projects in the Philippines, and the Land Mobilisation project and support to the National Forestry and Conservation Action Program in Papua New Guinea. Together these projects involve expenditure of over A$77 million.

Regional planning and management: some case studies

Australian Governments are increasingly encouraging natural resource planning and management systems that are based on a regional scale using natural, rather than statutory, boundaries. Managing biodiversity on a regional basis to facilitate the integration of conservation and production-oriented management is a major thrust of the draft National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity. A region may be based around a major catchment, irrigation scheme or vegetation type where sustainable natural resource management requires an integrated, region wide approach. Regional approaches seek to address conservation and production-oriented objectives, and need to take account of regional environmental characteristics, as well as the economic and social needs of the regional community.

A high priority for the Federal Government is the development of a strong regional basis for sustainable national growth. Specific policy initiatives to encourage globally competitive regional economic development are being implemented. These include financial support for developing regional economic plans, encouraging the adoption of best practice in management for economic development, and improving regional infrastructure.

At a regional level, sustainable natural resource use and economic development and adjustment is being encouraged by integrating programs such as the National Landcare Program (NLP) , the Rural Adjustment Scheme (RAS), the Rural Communities Access Program, and the Agrifood Strategy and Agribusiness programs. Further details on these programs are provided in the Chapter on Agriculture .

The Murray-Darling Basin Initiative is a further example of an integrated approach to natural resource management issues. The Murray-Darling River System flows through four Australian States providing water for irrigation and urban, environmental and recreation uses. Major threats to the ecology of the Basin have arisen in recent years particularly in the form of salinity and other impacts associated with rising water tables. The challenge is to develop and implement coordinated action by users to promote the most effective long term sustainable use of the natural resources of the Basin while addressing the degradation of the natural resources which has already occurred.

Case Studies

Improving our understanding of land resources and how to manage them

Scientific research into understanding Australia's natural resources and how to manage them is undertaken by a number of research institutions. These include universities and a variety of Federal and State bodies, such as the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) , the Bureau of Resource Sciences and a number of joint industry-government funded R & D Corporations (see Chapters on Agriculture and Science and Sustainability). In addition, the Land and Water Resources Research and Development Corporation funds and manages research programs to help develop better and more sustainable use of Australia's natural resources and thus help to maintain the industries and people reliant on those resources.

There are many components to ecological and production systems and research continues in a variety of areas. There is an ongoing need for better understanding of different Australian land types, their distribution and biophysical resources and processes within them, for informed decision making about what activities or uses are best suited to, or compatible with, particular areas.

Research into various aspects of production systems, including prediction or modelling of long term environmental effects associated with certain management practices, is important. Pest and diseases control, water management and use, soil degradation and salinity, are also key aspects.

Work on conservation and sustainable production strategies, including measures to integrate or balance biodiversity conservation and production-oriented activities, is also needed.

Increasingly, attention is being given to evaluation and monitoring and the development of sustainability indicators, both in relation to production systems as well ecological systems (eg river health). Information on indicators for sustainable agriculture is included in the chapter of this report on Integrated Decision Making.

Lastly, research to achieve ecologically sustainable management of our land resources cannot be confined to scientific or technical aspects. Any changes needed to move towards this goal must encompass economic and social aspects as well. The causes of land degradation, including practices which may be unsustainable, are often found in factors which influence the management decisions of landowners and managers.