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
This is a commentary on trends in the condition of the land resource, the pressures on the land resource and the effectiveness of responses to those pressures since the publication of Australian State of the Environment 2001 (SoE2001). The commentary is based almost exclusively on the data provided for this purpose and it is severely constrained by the lack of comparable trend datasets.
There are few data to show an improvement in the condition of the land resource, those showing a reduction in the presence of chemical residues in foodstuffs and an increase in the extent of regrowth of woody vegetation in the intensive landuse zone being exceptions.
On the other hand, there are indications that the condition of the land resource continues to be threatened or is deteriorating, including:
- continued high proportion of threatened ecosystems
- continued decline in the extent of woody vegetation and inferred increasing age of remnant eucalyptus, especially in Southern Australia
- continued unsustainable rates of soil erosion
- no significant increase in vegetated stream length
- expected doubling over the next ten years of land affected by soil acidification
- significant levels of ammonia pollution from intensive animal production.
Pressures on land primarily arise from human settlements (see Newton 2006) and from agriculture.
There are no data to conclusively show an increase or a decrease in the pressures on land from agriculture since SoE2001, but the long-term trend of continuing substantial increases in the volume of agricultural production and more recently in irrigation are likely to be placing increased pressure on land.
There are no data to indicate significant changes in the effectiveness of the responses to the pressures on the condition of land. Consequently, given that the condition of the land resource continues to be threatened or is deteriorating we conclude that either the pressures on the land resource need to be reduced or that new or additional response efforts will be required to ameliorate the impacts of those pressures.
The pressures on the land resource and the responses to those pressures come primarily from land managers and the public sector respectively. The responses from land managers are crucial simply because of the size of their investment in land management and because they are the people who make the land management decisions.
Agricultural mindsets dominate institutional arrangements for rural Australia and, in turn, the beliefs and values that underpin agricultural activities are reinforced by the institutional arrangements they spawn. This reinforcing loop leads to institutional paralysis and a consequential maintenance of agriculturally generated pressures on the land resource.
The need for institutional change in relation to land management is as great in private sector organisations representing farmers as it is in the public sector. Almost without exception these organisations have been reluctant to develop strong and genuine land management partnerships with governments, catchment agencies and community groups such as Landcare. Unless this changes, the effectiveness of efforts to protect and improve land condition will be severely constrained, to the detriment of landholders and the community more broadly.
As a first step towards improving institutional arrangements all parties need to recognise and accept the multifunctionality of landscapes. Other requirements include:
- a fundamental re-conceptualisation of the role and nature of environmental legislation concerning land condition
- more sustained and holistically based forms of support for improving land management, forms of support that build on landholder motivations and capabilities, that are less transient, have lower transaction costs and which are well supported by environmental monitoring and evaluation
- arrangements for supporting innovation, which recognise the conditions necessary to enable creativity, the essential multifunctionality of landscapes, the multi-industry nature of most Australian farms and the need to support systemic and revolutionary innovations as well as incremental innovations directed towards the needs of existing operators in existing businesses.
Effective national state of the environment reporting on land condition is now not possible because of the paucity of relevant time-series datasets.
There needs to be a more realistic assessment of what data can be collected by individuals and organisations responsible for environmental management at all spatial scales, from the individual land management scale through to subcatchment, catchment, regional and national scales. There is also a need for greater coordination between state of the environment reporting processes and national data collation projects.
Given the paucity of trend datasets for key biophysical parameters, it might be counterproductive to propose collection of additional datasets. Nevertheless monitoring arrangements that focus only on the condition of the land will not inform us of the beliefs and values that should govern the design and operation of institutional arrangements that impact both on the pressures on the land resource and on the responses to those pressures. Additionally there is a need for independent evidence-based assessments of changes in the effectiveness of institutional arrangements in relation to land condition. For instance, it would be possible through case studies to quantitatively assess the impact of regulation related to native vegetation.