Tony Gleeson, Synapse Research & Consulting
Alex Dalley, Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry, Dili, East Timor
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
The principal levers used by governments to protect and improve the condition of land include regulation, financial incentives, support for research and development, education and training; and each is briefly considered of the commentary after having discussed the multifunctionality of landscapes.
Whilst the focus here is primarily on reform of public sector institutional arrangements, the need and responsibility for institutional reform is as great in the private sector as it is in the public sector. Almost without exception, established agricultural organisations have been reluctant to develop strong and genuine partnerships with governments, catchment management agencies or community groups such as Landcare to improve environmental management; and it is questionable how well they might serve environmentally innovative landholders should they be members. Unless this situation improves, the effectiveness of efforts to protect and improve land condition will be severely constrained to the detriment of landholders and the community more broadly.
Our starting point in identifying the challenges facing land managers and governments is that there needs to be greater acceptance of the multifunctional nature of landscapes. This will require movement from the view that land should be transformed and managed solely for the production of food and fibre and the view that this is only one of the multiple functions of rural landscapes—landscapes are multifunctional. Acceptance of this broader view of the functions of landscapes is a precondition to the reform of institutional arrangements to prevent further deterioration in land condition.
The OECD (2001) defined multifunctionality as the attribute of an economic activity whereby it can have multiple outputs and, by virtue of this, the activity can contribute to several societal objectives at once. We take a broader view of multifunctionality, seeing it as an attribute of the landscape rather than of an economic activity. This broader view of multifunctionality enables recognition of the importance of the non-commodified (unpriced) aspects and outputs of landscapes.
Considerations of multifunctionality in the Australian policy context have been restricted almost exclusively to agriculture and have been and continue to be primarily influenced by two factors.
The first has to do with trade policy. There is concern that recognition of multifunctionality will lead to obstacles to global agricultural trade through competing countries increasing subsidisation of farmers under the guise of environmental and other objectives. There is also concern that mandating environmental practices or outcomes will constrain trade between countries.
The second factor has to do with culture and, in particular, agricultural culture. Landholders traditionally are judged, by themselves and by their peers, as being successful or otherwise on the basis of their agricultural activities and outputs. These attributes are used to distinguish ‘professional’ farmers. Furthermore a raft of agricultural investment, innovation and price support policies substantially disadvantage land mangers having lower agricultural outputs. Australian governments and society are very much focused on income-generating activities, leaving little space for recognition of the broader attributes of socially constructed rural landscapes (see Gleeson 2005).
Some authors argue on efficiency and equity grounds that multifunctional features should be dealt with separately by policies specifically directed to those ends (Freeman and Roberts 1999).
Other authors argue that consideration of multifunctional features needs to be embedded in agricultural policies. For instance Edwards and Fraser (2001) argue that using agri-environmental policies to account for jointly produced agricultural and other outputs is potentially consistent with ecoefficiency and ecological integrity. These authors point to the important role to be played by agri-environmental policy in correcting externalities, for instance off-site effects generated by modern agriculture. Similarly, Potter and Burnley (2002) suggest that the design of agri-environmental policies needs to accommodate the fundamental interplay between agriculture and production and landscape design objectives, the difficulty being that without broad community involvement it is hard to be sure that (beliefs and values leading to) public preferences are accurately reflected in current policies.
In our view, the apparent conflict here, at least as it relates to land condition, reflects a failure to establish, elevate and adhere to an ecologically coherent set of environmental policy goals. In short, we will not improve land condition in the ILZ while environmental policy goals are subservient to growth in agricultural production; and on economic, ecological or social grounds they don’t need to be. Having established such environmental goals, the choice and application of policy instruments must take account of the activities of land managers (farmers and others) and of their motivational, informational, financial and other needs.
Governments enact legislation to control activities that are deemed to be detrimental to the environment, for instance tree clearing and inappropriate chemical and water use. In most instances the legislation is issue specific—dealing with vegetation, water or chemical use etc.
The extent of legislative compliance is unknown; however, our experience across several states suggests that most land managers struggle to understand and apply regulatory requirements and that governments do not adequately support regulatory frameworks with education and training, information flows or monitoring.
One of the difficulties facing legislators is the question of timeliness: often the political will for legislation post-dates the environmental damage it is designed to prevent. For instance, legislation in southern Australia to control tree clearing was enacted after extensive tree clearing had occurred. Additionally, and particularly given the fragmented nature of natural resource legislation, the potential for perverse effects should not be underestimated. For example the clearing of trees in anticipation of legislative controls on clearing and the repeated clearing of regrowth to maintain exemption from controls are significant aspects of the regulatory framework. These issues are canvassed fully in the Productivity Commission report on the Impacts of Native Vegetation and Biodiversity Regulations (2004) that, in brief, found vegetation regulations to be neither effective nor equitable.
There is a prima facie case for a fundamental re-conceptualisation of the role and nature of environmental legislation concerning land condition. Issues such as how well the legislation deals with ecological and behavioural complexity, diversity and uncertainty, overlapping jurisdictions, the need for adaptive management, monitoring and the interplay between regulation and other policy instruments are important determinants of future land condition.
The state of the regulatory environment
Over the past few decades there has been an explosion of natural resource regulation in Australia. In 2000 there were over 250 distinct State and National legislative instruments that regulate aspects of natural resource management. Counting other local government regulations, statutory or non-statutory plans, policies, rulings and advisory instruments it is true to say that there are literally hundreds of laws and policies which are intended to advance sustainable resource use and conservation of environments. Catchment Management Plans are a recent addition to this armoury and in one NSW estuary alone there are more than 30 of these.
In terms of sheer quantity, it would be hard to say that there is any lack of regulations or regulatory bureaucracy in our collective pursuit of sustainability. A more important question would be whether we are securing the required effectiveness and sufficient outcomes from all of this effort. If not, then the case for major reform of the regulatory approach is readily made.
Another concern is the cost and complexity imposed on those who are trying to ‘do the right thing’. The costs of our regulatory approach fall on government as it seeks to administer, police and coordinate its legal obligations. Local government particularly reports that it is increasingly burdened with implementing laws that are not its own, and it is at the level of the officer in the field that the uncertainty and confusion associated with a complex system fall heavily. The effort invested into a regulatory morass is effort that is diverted from other important initiatives.
The costs and frustration also fall heavily on landholders who try to understand their obligations. It is reported that primary producers who are trying to implement voluntary Environment Management Systems incur substantial costs as they struggle to work out their compliance obligations, and are often left still uncertain as to their ongoing obligations. Those who are not concerned about their responsibilities, of course, are not saddled with this expense, effort and concern.
All levels of government provide financial and other support to individuals and groups of landholders to achieve environmental targets. Increasingly the support provided by the Australian Government in partnership with state and territory governments through programmes such as NHT and NAP is provided through catchment management organisations established throughout Australia.
NHT, NAP and related initiatives present as a significant package for institutional change. It would be premature to judge these programmes in terms of their likely impacts on land condition, would that even be possible considering the time-scales of degradation and repair. Equally it would be premature to be complacent about their effectiveness and efficiency. Certainly the achievements of these programmes, as outlined in the 2003–04 Regional Programmes Report are, at best, modest.
It is beyond the purpose of this commentary to critique the design and application of these specific programmes, but they do provide a focus for a generic discussion of design features likely to be critical to the success of programme-based responses to the pressures on the land resource.
As discussed earlier in this commentary, the pathways for institutional change are not without obstacles. Perseverance and adaptability will be required to enable catchment level organisations to contribute significantly to reducing pressures on land condition and to improve the responses to those pressures.
There is a self-evident ecological rationale for the adoption of a catchment-based approach to natural resource management, as has been advocated in Australia at least since the middle of the nineteenth century (see Mitchell 1946). Irrespective of where the landscape is viewed from, there is a need for linkages across space, in the case of the catchment perspective down to subcatchment and property perspectives and up to regional, national and global perspectives.
The effectiveness of a particular policy instrument, such as NHT, is dependent upon there being adequate integration across policies, policy instruments and organisations that have complementary roles within and beyond the catchment.
At least in some instances, the establishment of catchment-based organisations has resulted in (further) separation of regulatory responsibilities from support and advisory functions. Whilst this is usually attractive for organisations without regulatory responsibilities, such separation may result in fragmentation, inefficiency, heightened conflict at the operational level and a less receptive environment for legitimate regulatory programmes.
Another aspect related to the introduction of an additional organisational layer or new programme is the potential incremental transfer of responsibilities between organisations and programmes, with or without commensurate funding, as might occur for instance between catchment organisations and state government departments. Certain functions can move from a secure funding base to one that is short-term and uncertain and, especially for activities like long-term monitoring of land condition, this trend can have dire consequences.
The introduction of a new source of funding such as is provided by NHT and NAP will inevitably affect the security of previously existing funding. Certainly the appointment of many state government employees to positions in catchment based organisations and the concurrent reductions in employment levels in state government departments would point to there being a dynamic between funding programmes that may result in there being no net increase in the size or efficacy of support.
Programmes to support the improvement of land condition need to be sustained for periods commensurate to the nature of the pressure and response. In contrast, the regional components of NHT and NAP provide support for catchment-based organisations in the form of short-term programme and project-based funding. This funding arrangement seems to be at odds with the necessity for sustained effort by the catchment organisations, collaborating landholders and other organisations.
Support programmes such as NHT and NAP are designed to reduce the gap between desirable outcomes and what market and regulatory forces could be expected to deliver. Hence they are heavily reliant on individuals and businesses acting in the public good in sustained and creative ways; and for this individuals need to be intrinsically motivated. However, many of these programmes adopt command and control processes which reduce the motivation and creativity necessary for their effectiveness (see Gleeson et al. 1999).
Against this background, top-down hierarchical command and control approaches to establish goals, objectives, indicators and targets must be and can be avoided. They must be avoided because, without full compensation, landholders are reluctant or unable to embrace externally established goals. Even when there is no conflict between these externally established goals and the goals of the individual businesses, landholders have difficulty in incorporating them into their broader business imperatives. At best, the links with individual property goals and investment strategies can be tenuous, notwithstanding that the capital invested by the private sector on activities affecting land management and utilisation far exceeds the public sector investment through these and other programmes.
There now is a range of planning processes that enable landholders, individually or in groups, to develop property based natural resource management plans or environmental management plans taking into account broader landscape imperatives. Building up from these plans and activities to subcatchment plans and activities and on though to catchment plans will in all probability result in far greater commitment from landholders than will otherwise eventuate. The establishment of a voluntary national whole-of-property environmental management certification system or systems would reinforce such commitments as it would provide a mechanism for greater recognition of improving environmental performance. Importantly a broadly informed bottom-up approach would help ensure that proposed targets, indicators and monitoring procedures are subject to reality checks from early in the programme.
The third principal form of government intervention to improve environmental management is through the provision of funds for research and development and for education and training. In contrast, existing organisational structures, cultures and processes for innovation in the farm sector lack diversity and are risk averse.
The execution of agricultural research and development is principally confined to the public sector and has a technological emphasis, an arrangement begun in the mid-1850s, with the establishment of experimental farms that were staffed almost exclusively by agricultural and veterinary scientists. This arrangement has persisted for more than 150 years despite (or because of) frequent reviews and restructurings of state departments of agriculture.
The rural research and development corporations account for at least two-thirds of the influence on the direction of agricultural research and development (Gleeson et al. 1999). The corporations are focussed primarily on optimising the profitability and environmental sustainability of existing industries through, for instance, breeding more productive varieties and developing improved livestock grazing systems. As discussed previously, the product-by-product focus of most of these corporations limits their willingness and capacity to progress whole-of-farm and catchment-related environmental management initiatives.
The innovation supporting processes are almost universally restricted to partial project funding and projects are of short duration. Furthermore, agricultural researchers, whilst recognising the need for prioritisation of research goals and for accountability, believe the priority setting processes and accountability arrangements adopted by the corporations place heavy constraints on creativity (Gleeson et al. 1999).
Research is most often evaluated on the basis of relatively short-term changes in productivity and there is little attention to the interdependency between the nature of the innovation systems and the nature of the resultant innovation products.
If the innovation system is highly planned and controlled, especially if by people with interests in existing systems, as is most often the case, then generally the resultant innovation products make incremental changes to existing systems. Such changes are necessary, but alone they are unlikely to represent the range of innovation products needed to enable expression of the multifunctional capabilities of landscapes. For instance, research organisations supported and managed by existing industries generally have not supported the development of alternative or even of complementary industries such as agroforestry.