Australian Actions to Combat Desertification and Land Degradation

National Report by Australia on Measures Taken to Support Implementation of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification
Commonwealth Intergovernmental Working Group for the UNCCD, April 2002

Domestic Initiatives to Combat Desertification

Environmental Issues and Challenges

Australia is one of the twelve most biologically diverse nations in the world, the only developed nation to have this 'megadiverse' status. Australia is also the world's driest continent, excluding Antarctica, and has a high degree of rainfall variability from one year to the next. (Map 2 shows the average annual rainfall over a 30 year time span).

Very few of Australia's soils are naturally suited to agriculture, with most being shallow, high in salt stores and low in nutrients. Only 6 per cent of the land is arable without irrigation and large areas are naturally affected by salt, sodicity, waterlogging or acidity.

Australia's natural environment reflects the effects of at least 50,000 years of human management. Since the arrival of the Aborigines, their hunter-gatherer activities and use of fire have changed the environment and its flora and fauna. European settlement over the last 200 years has led to further, often very rapid, changes.

Agriculture is Australia's most extensive form of land use, occupying 60 per cent of the total land area (461 million hectares). Cities and towns take up less than 1 per cent of the total land area (7.6 million hectares), but greater than 80 per cent of the Australian population live in these areas. Livestock grazing is by far the most extensive use of agricultural land, and areas of arid or semi-arid lands held under grazing licences make up 88 per cent of agricultural land use (406 million hectares) across the continent. Grazing intensity on these areas can be as low as one beast per 100 hectares. Other land uses, in order of area utilised, include conservation reserves, sown pastures, forestry, and other uses, such as urban.

Despite being one of the driest continents, Australia has the highest per capita consumption of water in the world. Some 70 per cent of this consumption is used to support agriculture. Average rainfall, at 469 mm/year, is not especially low, but only 12 per cent of this runs off to collect in rivers. River flow is also highly variable and these factors are exacerbated by a high degree of variability in climate.

Much of Australia's land remains publicly owned, with only 13 per cent privately owned. Most of Australia's agricultural activity takes place on long-term government (or Crown) leases that are managed by private individuals. In the rangelands, which encompass some 75 per cent (570 million hectares) of the continent, only a very small area is privately owned. The more fertile, coastal areas generally have a much higher proportion of privately owned land.

Case Study - Climate Risk Management

1. Problem

Australia's highly variable rainfall from year to year and the occurrence of droughts that may last for many seasons and cover large areas, have a huge impact on the environment, agricultural production and the income and well being of farming families and rural communities. Extended drought can result in devastating agro-ecological impacts including crop failures and huge stock losses. Soil loss and long-term changes in vegetation where weed species invade native perennials can result in long-term land and pasture degradation.

Drought was once regarded as a catastrophic and unpredictable event for which little could be done to mitigate its impact. It was possible for many affected farmers to receive financial relief when drought was declared. This, and the associated farming practices which these circumstances encouraged did little to ensure the long term sustainability of much of Australia's agricultural and grazing lands.

2. Location/landscapes/land uses

Cropping and grazing across areas of Australia with low and variable rainfall.

3. Social information

A new approach adopted by the Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments in the 1990's recognised drought as an accepted part of Australian farming. Financial relief is provided only in Exceptional Circumstances, i.e. where the event is rare (a one in 20 or 25 year event), severe, and lasting more than 12 months. Under this policy, primary producers and other sections of rural Australia are encouraged to adopt self-reliant approaches to managing climatic variability and to maintain and protect Australia's agricultural and environmental resource base during periods of extreme climatic stress. This approach has focused property managers on adopting risk management strategies to manage climate and decrease the impact of drought on agricultural production and the environment.

4. What was done

Farmers and graziers now have access to a range of crop, grassland and pasture simulation models, developed by various agricultural and natural resource agencies, to assist in monitoring agricultural conditions such as pasture cover, nutrient availability and meteorological conditions. In stressed conditions, action may be taken, e.g. by reducing stocking rates, to reduce the long-term impacts. Using an Australian-wide network of around 7000 rainfall stations to monitor rainfall deficiencies, conditions are reviewed nationally on a monthly basis to identify areas where serious or severe rainfall deficiencies exist.

Monitoring of current conditions is complemented by a Seasonal Outlook Service ( ), issued monthly by the Bureau of Meteorology. This forecast service maps probabilities of above, below or near average rainfall and temperatures over the coming three month period. It also gives the probabilities of selected regions receiving certain thresholds of rainfall and provides information on the status of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which has a major influence on much of Australia's climate. The outlooks, together with estimates of their reliability, enable property managers to employ risk management techniques in planning cropping schedules and stocking rates for the coming season. These management practices can reduce the environmental stress imposed by climate extremes such as prolonged drought.

5. Who was involved

Farmers, graziers, and scientists from various agricultural and natural resource agencies and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

6. Value of outcomes for ecologically sustainable natural resource management

This risk management process involves using monitoring and prediction information on which decisions can be based. Through identifying areas with serious or severe rainfall deficiencies, monitoring agricultural conditions such as pasture cover and nutrient availability, and using probabilistic forecasts of seasonal rainfall and temperature the environmental stress imposed by climate extremes can be reduced.

The semi-arid and arid rangelands include native grasslands, shrublands, woodlands and the tropical savanna woodlands. Map 3 represents the rainfall benchmark areas as defined by the Convention. Pastoral industries occupy 58 per cent of the rangeland area. However, the mining and tourism industries are now economically more significant than pastoralism and drive most of the infrastructure development. Aboriginal stewardship of lands is increasing, especially in central and northern Australia, with a move towards more traditional cultural use of their land. The Australian Defence Force also utilises extensive Crown pastoral leases for training purposes.

Much of Australia's agricultural land is under pressure from either soil erosion, loss of natural vegetation cover, over-use of irrigation water and the impacts of introduced invasive species. Problems such as soil salinity, acidification and rising groundwater all appear to be on the increase. The environmental impacts of agricultural activity are the result of a complex chain of biophysical and other factors, which are linked to the natural characteristics of the land. Soil fertility is declining in 33 per cent of all cropped land, more than offsetting the improvement in the fertility of 10 per cent of the land through application of fertilisers. Map 4 highlights those areas of most concern with regard to salinity and water quality issues.

The main causes of land degradation in the rangelands include over-grazing by introduced and native herbivores (total grazing pressure), mechanical removal of vegetation cover, woody weed invasion and land management without regard to climate variability. The effects of these processes include increased soil erosion, soil degradation, altered stream flow regimes, increased soil salinity and loss of biodiversity.

Since the early 1970s, there has been an increasing awareness of and concern for environmental issues in Australia. These concerns have found expression in a broad range of community led activities. They have also led to legislation, regulation and expenditure by governments, at national, state and local level, to protect the environment.

Despite a dedicated effort from governments and the community and the range of policy initiatives to promote sustainable natural resource use, Australia still has some significant challenges ahead to achieve ecologically sustainable land management. The key challenge influencing progress is the recognised need to increase the involvement of regional communities and landholders in policy and planning initiatives to ensure ownership in and adoption of the outcomes.

There are no singular solutions for addressing land degradation and achieving ecological sustainability in Australia. The problems are numerous, varied and often site-specific and interrelated. Hence, Australia's response has been to develop an integrated package of mutually reinforcing measures that recognise this complexity.

This package incorporates:

  • Comprehensive and integrated regulatory frameworks;
  • Processes to manage the use of surface and ground waters, including specific allocation for the environment;
  • Measures to improve water quality;
  • A range of incentives for improved vegetation management, retention and protection;
  • Diversifying the commercial use of agricultural land;
  • Measures to encourage conservation and remediation;
  • Reform and strengthening institutional delivery;
  • Programs to build decision making capacity at all levels through improved access to information; and
  • A range of community based, voluntary programs targeted at reducing land degradation.

Case Study - Regional Forest Agreements

1. Problem


Prior to the development of the Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) there was a long history of conflict over the use of public forests. The main protagonists in the conflict were the forest industry, who wanted secure access to forest areas for timber production, and the conservation stakeholder groups, who wanted more forests placed into secure reserve and better off-reserve harvesting practices.

Previously, the Commonwealth regulated the international export of woodchips under the Export Control Act, accrediting only those forest coupes from which timber could be removed for woodchip production. This accreditation, or refusal, would follow a full assessment of the National Estate values in that coupe. The situation was not ideal, and the solution was to develop a program in which enough forest was reserved to protect current and future conservation values, and enough left as a secure resource for the forest industry.

In 1992, the Commonwealth and the States agreed on a National Forest Policy Statement, which established a framework for the conservation and sustainable use of forests in Australia. It was agreed that future forest use would be determined on the basis of a detailed assessment process of conservation, forest management, social and economic issues. The results of this process would be incorporated in a number of RFAs.

2. Location/landscape/land uses

The RFA regions covered all forest and vegetation types from tall high production forests to open woodlands, heath lands and cleared land. The landscape ranged landscape ranged from coastal dunes, moist nutrient rich coastal valleys, steep escarpment country and dry inland tablelands.A wide range of land uses occurred in each region, including timber production, recreation and conservation reserves, mining, agriculture, tourism, and cottage industries such as honey production. Most of the land was either State owned land (managed by the State Government or leased to private individuals), or privately owned land. The Commonwealth owned small tracts of land in the some regions.

3. Social Information

The RFA regions all contained small timber towns whose primary means of employment was linked to the forest industry. Eco-tourism was also a primary employer in the regions. A full social assessment was undertaken for each of these towns, and the economic and social impacts were taken into account when developing the RFA. The communities were encouraged to participate in the process of developing and deciding the outcomes of the RFAs.

A Monetary Industry Structural Adjustment Help Package was available to individuals and industries affected by the RFAs, to help with upgrade of business facilities, to aid in value-added wood production, for retraining individuals or other associated costs.

4. What was done

All available information on environment, heritage, social and economic values of the regions was gathered. Gaps identified, and projects (jointly funded by the Commonwealth and the State Governments) created to carry out the necessary research and surveys. While this information was being collected over a period of several years, interim agreements were put in place to control which areas were available for forest harvesting.

A reserve design criteria were developed to set targets for wilderness, forest ecosystems, and old growth forest values including reserve design guidelines. A negotiation and public consultation process was then undertaken, leading to the signing of the RFAs for eleven regions, covering parts of Western Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and New South Wales. The regions averaged 3.6 million hectares in size and are valid for 20 years.

The RFAs were designed to:

  • create new formal reserves, and accredit off-reserve harvesting practices, so that where possible reserve targets were met, sufficient endangered species habitat was protected, and National Estate values were protected to an acceptable level;
  • provide or accredit a program for the further protection of values on private land;
  • provide security of access to timber resource for 20 years, which in turn would encourage the development of timber markets;
  • determine what the sustainable level of timber harvesting was for the remaining unreserved forest, and
  • set in place a monitoring and evaluation program.

5. Who was involved

The RFAs were signed by the Commonwealth and State governments. The process involved consultation with industry, conservation and community stakeholders. The formal consultation process was supplemented by ad hoc consultation by governments, stakeholder groups and the public through meetings and correspondence.

Public consultation, an important part of the RFAs, was undertaken throughout the process. Information and feedback sessions were organised around the regions, and continuing public consultation was provided by membership on technical groups and steering committees of key stakeholders groups.

Calls for written submissions were advertised in the newspapers, at strategic times, such as after the release of interim forest agreements, discussion papers and options reports. Tens of thousands of submissions were received for each region and used to inform the State and Commonwealth Governments during negotiations.

6. Value of outcomes for ecologically sustainable natural resource management

The RFA process contributed to our knowledge of forests values, the requirements necessary to protect these values, and how to effectively involve the community in the process. It was the first process to quantify targets for the protection of environmental values, which traditionally have been difficult to value in multi-use resource management. The public consultation process was one of the most comprehensive, multi-faceted undertaken on environmental issues.

In particular the RFA was a prototype for the full comprehensive assessment of regional forest values, collating and initiating surveys, models and assessments ordinarily undertaken by separate State/Territory and Commonwealth agencies. A forest yield assessment was also undertaken for each region, on which ecologically sustainable forest management and harvesting could be based on.

Lessons learnt from the RFA process have contributed to the design and effective running of regional natural resource management programs, such as the Commonwealth-State/Territory National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality.