Roadblocks to landscape change 


Part 4

What is really wrong?

South Australia’s agricultural history is unique in the world. But its emergence in the 19th century brought unforeseen consequences and massive environmental damage. The risk in future decades is further decline of the natural environment. 

Agriculture is likely to retreat, and it will also be under pressure to sustain production. 

Of equal concern are the highly fragmented native vegetation remnants that will be at greatest risk of further retreat, if not collapse.

One of the most worrying reports in recent years is the recently released State of the Environment 2013. I have compared the past three SOE reports, and it is clearly apparent that the state of the general environment is continuing to decline. The 2013 report says so.

This can not continue unless there is a collective awakening to the problems from the community.

In an attempt to understand why there has been scant repair and restoration of our landscapes, the following problems have been identified.  


   POLICY VACUUM          

In 2014, there are no policies supported with committed and funded action for a new agri-economy and regional re-development in this state. Obviously it is not thought to be necessary, or even a priority - and we have seen why in that 4.4% in the previous article
A new
re-development paradigm is needed. Why?

Firstly, because of time - the risk is that delays in making decisions to transition the agricultural landscapes to more resilient systems will just cause further deterioration and stress. 

Secondly, because numerous scientific and government-sponsored reports have been consistently warning of the impacts on agriculture from predicted rainfall decline. The report, Climate change impacts on the South Australian grain belt (published in 2012), concludes that a warming and drying trend that South Australia is very likely to experience in the coming decades will "shift the edge of the grain belt towards the coast". The flat plains will experience these impacts the most. 

There are many other reports on the same theme with similar conclusions. So, to not take action across the whole landscape, is to ignore all the warning signs that have been described in scientific research.


   DENIAL

To continue to accept the agricultural system and framework as it is now, and as it appears to the eye, and as it was shaped by our forebears in the 19th century, is to deny opportunities for future generations in the 21st century. It denies the basic need to repair the damaged house that must withstand the coming storms. This is a community-wide problem. It seems to be a widespread problem in government circles, and that's a mystery. It is a reasonable assertion to say that people accept the landscape condition for how it is now, thinking that it will remain as it always has. In truth, this is a false paradigm.

   NEGLECTING REPORT FINDINGS AND LEGISLATION

The legacy of land clearance is described in detail in numerous government departments’ reports that have been presented over many years. This legacy is manifested in the poor condition and fragmentation of biodiversity and ecosystems in cleared land. It is clearly apparent in the cost of inputs to achieve agricultural output (i.e. declining terms of trade).

Given the cost and the effort that has gone into the preparation of these reports, strategies, and plans, should there not be a funded commitment to execute their conclusions? This is a very big concern. 

What is the point of conducting research and producing papers and reports if there is no, or little, commitment by decision-makers and policy-makers to accept the findings?

I have referred to many documents to support my appeal for a new direction for the rural sector. 

Here are a few.

Report on the Condition of Agricultural Land in South Australia (Report No. 1 December 2004)

Land Condition Monitoring Program Review 2007

A Guide to Climate Change and Adaptation in Agriculture in South Australia (2007)

Climate Change Adaptation Framework 2012 (mis-titled Prospering in a Changing Climate) and the related Government Action Plan 2012-2017 

No Species Loss - Overview: A Nature Conservation Strategy for South Australia 2007-2017. 

State of the Environment South Australia 2013 

State Natural Resources Management Plan 2013

Natural Resources Management Act

Environment Protection Act 1993

  

   COGNITIVE DISSONANCE

It is a valid assertion that what is described or recommended or scoped in these documents all lead to a similar conclusion - that ultimately the costs of land clearance for agriculture will continue to escalate unless, and until, a new direction is forged. The reports describe the problem, but few, if any, connect with the need for landscape-scale change. 


Ecologically sustainable development is enshrined in legislation, but that’s all it is - just words. If the "Objects" of the two Acts cited above were enforced, then it is argued that landscape-scale change and biodiversity enhancement should, and must, be given high priority. The problem therefore, is a lack of commitment to execute what precisely is prescribed in law; and this includes federal law.


   WORDS MEAN NOTHING

The Government Action Plan mentioned in the list above, would be expected to provide a foundation for change, but not so. Consider the following examples.

  • Although one of Department of Environment Water and Natural Resources (DEWNR) key roles in the GAP is ...

Developing policies and strategies that achieve
conservation and sustainable use and management
outcomes on a landscape scale

         ... there is no commensurate “landscape-scale” strategy that DEWNR is
         responsible for.

  • Given the high risks of climate change impacts on agriculture, one would have thought that Primary Industries and Regions SA would have some definite actions about landscape-scale change. Sadly, not a mention. Bad luck for Regions!

  • The GAP Objective 3 (“Resilient, well functioning natural systems and sustainable, productive landscapes”) is deficient because there is no reference to agricultural landscape-scale change.

  • The Climate Change Adaptation Framework skirts around the need for immediate change. Section 4.5 Agriculture mentions briefly about possible opportunities.

          Leading internationally on the development of sustainable food and farming
          systems, including biofuels, soil carbon capture technologies, biochar-type
          soil conditioners, drought tolerant crops and resilient grazing systems 


These are not “possible opportunities”, they are real, and they should be grasped now. But - and it's almost with regret that I say this - it appears that wonderful, uplifting, statements make for a good read but result in no action.

These few examples merely reinforce the inability to confront what is known about our landscapes and ecosystems. It is curious and alarming that on-going policies and programs to support large-scale revegetation in South Australia have not been framed, not acknowledged, let alone been implemented. In the past, there has only been tinkering at the edges in terms of landscape and environmental change. 

This is all to our peril.


   INABILITY TO CHANGE

Let’s add a brief comment about two government departments. Information has been sourced from the Internet. 

PIRSA - Department of Primary Industries and Regions SA

Note the Regions responsibility - this means the rural areas. The page on “Natural resource 
management” contains statements about “supporting sustainable agriculture”. So, does this mean support for the system that exists now? 

Regrettably, there's no mention about landscape-scale change. 

In addition, the Growing the Regions page has next to nothing on rural and regional sustainable enterprises. No strategy, no policy direction, no plan for change.
Given future climate scenarios and the possible impacts, surely plans for the future of
agricultural landscaps in South Australia should be on display. 
The PIRSA site is mostly devoted to supporting the existing agricultural economic
framework. That's fine, if only the confidence in the condition of natural resources in the
state will improve.
What has been concluded by the EPA in the State of the Environment 2013 report is a hit
to that confidence. The condition of natural resources is not improving, and nor is
biodiversity.
So, there lies another problem.

DEWNR - Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources 

This is the overarching organisation now responsible for Natural Resources Management
Board functions and NRM in the state.
NRM Boards are a shell of what they were originally established for about 10 years ago.
The page on Sustainable soil and land management refers to state and regional strategy
plans - South Australia's Strategic Plan, SA's Greenhouse Strategy, the NRM Act, State
NRM Plan, Regional NRM Plans. 
Only the Greenhouse Strategy 2007-2020 provides a hint about a landscape-scale approach as shown at Part 6. But what has happened?

DEWNR's page on Sustainable soil and land management has a sub-page on
Perennial production systems. This is interesting, and is heading in the right direction with
its participation in Future Farm Industries Co-operative Research Centre (FFI CRC).
The work of FFI is for another time, specially its research role in oil mallee.

However, apart from one of the outcome statements ...

  • introduction of new farming systems and regional industries that are adapted to climate change and deliver biodiversity, soil protection and salinity benefits

         … there is no progress, yet, of landscape-scale change that this statement implies. The focus seems to be on "perennial plant options" to deliver sustainable grazing systems.

Now to the Sustainable Dryland Agriculture Initiative, which is part of DEWNR's responsibilities.

Again, there is no reference to landscape-scale change, or broadscale revegetation and reforestation. The focus of this "initiative" is to support improvements in agricultural productivity. In my view, it misses the whole point of attenuating the risks of climate change.

The problems described above seem to be an inherent deficiency throughout government, government departments, NRM organisations, and within the farming community. The problem is about not acting on what is known, or if there is action it is insignificant.


  IMPORTANT INFORMATION NOT KNOWN

There is a case for a portion of the carbon that was released during the land clearance era, in othwer words legacy greenhouse gas emissions, to be returned to the land. This principle applies to a greater extent to land that has been retired from agricultural production, land that is laying idle and under-utilised, and public land assets that have largely been forgotten. No effort has been made to undertake an inventory of land that could be rehabilitated. I'll come to these in the next part of the series.


The problem is that there does not appear to have been a study of these lands to return them to a re-vegetated condition.  
The benefits that would accrue from revegetation would go a long way to achieving the goals in the No Species Loss report.


These are seven key problem areas, so now let's go to Part 5, where The Solutions can be revealed. 

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