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


Australia has well-established domestic initiatives to address the global challenge of combating desertification in addition to providing support and assistance to other affected countries. Domestically, the diversity of Australian landscapes, and the continent's erosion prone soils and climatic extremes has necessitated a coordinated and strategic approach to sustainable natural resource management. This approach centres on collaborative approaches between all levels of government, industry and the community. While agricultural and pastoral activity are critical components of our national economy, Australian landscapes are generally not well suited to many of the land use and management practices imported from other continents over the last 200 years. This has catalysed governments, research institutions, industry and communities to find ecologically sustainable approaches to land management. As a result, Australia has amassed considerable experience and expertise in managing and, where possible, reversing the decline in our natural resource base.

Australia has in place a substantial body of legislation, programs and strategies for sustainable natural resource management and has developed a range of domestic policy initiatives to encourage and build capacity in communities to address land degradation. The highly successful Australian Landcare model of community-based action is being internationalised through the International Secretariat for Landcare (based in Hamilton, Victoria). It has been adapted to establish 'Landcare South Africa' and there is a growing interest in the movement from many other countries.

Australia has also been proactive in assisting other countries affected by desertification with a range of financial, technology transfer and capacity building support measures. Australian expertise in the management of arid and semi-arid landscapes has gained an international reputation for excellence. In southern Africa, Australian research on the El Nino/Southern Oscillation complex has been cooperatively applied by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology to develop drought-forecasting systems. Through the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and other research institutions.

Case Study - Grassy Ecosystem Management Kit: a guide to developing conservation management plans

Principal authors: Sarah Sharp (Environment ACT), Josh Dorrough (Arthur Rylah Institute) and Reiner Rehwinkle (NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service).
(Funded by: WWF/NHT Grassy Ecosystems Grants)

1. Problem

Grassy ecosystems are subject to current and continuing threats likely to lead to their extinction. They are among the most modified and reduced ecosystems in Australia, due to the intense pressures on the areas that support them for settlement and agricultural practices. Less than 5% of the endangered natural temperate grassland remains in south-eastern Australia and less than 10% of box woodlands remain. While some of these sites are in reserves, and others could be added to the reserve system, management actions in many other sites may be adequate to retain these sites, both for conservation and other land uses.

Many grassy sites do not have management plans specifically prepared for them and existing management guidelines for grassy ecosystems do not provide adequate information for the majority of landholders to develop an integrated management plan. They provide recommendations, but usually contain little guidance in how they can be implemented.

Grassy ecosystem

2. Location/landscapes/landuses

Treeless grasslands and grassy woodlands once covered vast areas of southeastern Australia. Since early European settlement, these grassy ecosystems have been recognised for their values for agricultural production, and as ideal sites for cities and towns and their associated roads and railways despite the seasonal lack of water. Periods of drought and overgrazing, infestations of rabbits and weeds, and the cultivation and pasture improvement boom since the Second World War have all resulted in dramatic changes and, at times, complete losses of the original grassy ecosystems. Even the least disturbed sites have been invaded by introduced plant species. Regionally, many native plant and animal species have declined or become extinct.

Many animals occur in grassy ecosystems, some in particular communities, others are found more broadly, and use grassy communities for only part of their needs, such as for migration, feeding or breeding. Some species that are unique to particular communities, especially those that have severely declined or have been greatly modified, are also threatened with extinction. Many have been declared threatened under Commonwealth, State and Territory legislation. Retaining existing bushland that includes grassy ecosystems will also retain habitat for many of these species.

3. Social information

Support from the community and government agencies is required to ensure that landholders are not financially and socially impacted by decisions to change current practices. The Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments, as well as several Non-Government Organisations, provide opportunities for landholders to apply for funding to assist in making changes that have outcomes for conservation and/or sustainability.

Increasingly, there is more information on the economic and social advantages in retaining grassy ecosystems. This includes the part grasslands play in sustainable agriculture and their roles in retaining water quality and the prevention of salinity. There is a demand to use native grasses for landscaping and for low-input farming. The scenic values of these ecosystems too, have often only recently been recognised. Some lowland grassland sites rival the alpine herb-fields in their wildflower displays, and areas dominated by native grasses have a subtle beauty, especially as they change from season to season.

4. What was done

The project is to develop a kit for implementing adaptive management in a range of sites that are privately owned or managed by public authorities. The kit will facilitate the implementation of best practice management in the most significant sites, to be developed with the assistance of grassland liaison officers.

The project addresses and meets the following aims:

  • An improvement in understanding and application of best practice management across a range of sites and tenures;
  • Increased community involvement in the management of grassy ecosystems across their range; and
  • Knowledge generation about the distribution and conservation status of grassy ecosystem remnants, particularly those on private land.

The Management Plan development process is a series of decision steps, identifying what is there, issues, actions required, responsible bodies, and a timetable of when actions are to be implemented. The form of recording of these enables the process to be used to review the actions. It can be applied at a site level or landscape level. Collation sheets and a database on a CD or disks will be supplied to enable landholders to easily develop species lists, list issues and actions and collate and review data graphically.

The methods used to monitor species and the ecological communities depend on our objectives and required outcomes, our level of expertise, and the availability of resources. Monitoring methods range from checking that a species (or ecological community) is still present, determining whether intended actions have been undertaken (which may not necessarily assess what the actions have achieved), or retaining photographic records over time. More complicated monitoring methods involve detailed repeated surveys and analysis of the abundance of species over time.

5. Who was involved

The project draws on the expertise of a wide range of grassy practitioners (ecologists, agronomists and landholders) within the Southern Tablelands and elsewhere, to refine the process of decision-making.

Landholders have been involved in the design and testing of this kit to ensure that it remains relevant. Involvement was sought also from a range of scientists and practitioners. The kit was presented via workshops with individual Landcare groups, rural extension officers and conservation service rangers and comment sought on the content. The kit was trialed in a range of sites subject to different land uses. Training will be provided to extension officers to assist them to work with individual landholders and community groups such as Landcare.

For the kit to work, the landholders need to take responsibility for identifying issues and taking action within their resources, thereby taking ownership of the process. Most of the remaining grassy communities occur outside reserves so the actions of landholders has enormous influence as to whether these communities are maintained, improve in quality, or become further threatened.

6. Value of outcomes for ecologically sustainable natural resource management

The kit is still under preparation. It is envisaged that the kit will assist a wide range of landholders to apply conservation management in grassy ecosystems. In some cases assistance will be provided by extension officers, although the kit is being developed for landholders to develop and implement conservation site action plans independently. As landholders implement the site action plans developed using the kit they will increase their understanding of ecologically sustainable natural resource management.

Australia has had a long-term advisory role in desertification-related work in several Middle East countries, including Jordan, Iran and Libya. Australian expertise is also being engaged in cooperative research partnerships to address severe land degradation problems in a number of Asian countries.

Australia has, for many years, been working with developing countries affected by land degradation and desertification. Recognising that prevention of environmental degradation is essential to alleviating poverty and fostering sustainable development, the Government's Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) is currently supporting a range of programs to combat desertification in developing countries worth approximately $58.5 million. Additionally, the Australian Government provides contributions to a range of multilateral organisations, which either directly or indirectly combat desertification.

The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) also participates in desertification and land degradation mitigation through funding agricultural research projects executed collaboratively by research institutions in Australia and developing countries. ACIAR has funded a range of projects related to desertification. These projects are concentrated in southern Africa, China, India and South-East Asia and involve a total funding commitment of $11 million.