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Do you see what I see? Rural reactions to changing land use

Land-use planners and policy-makers often face claims and counter claims regarding the impacts of land-use change. For example, some residents claim wind turbines have crippling health impacts, while others…

Many rural residents say plantation forestry is ruining communities; many say otherwise. Who is right? teejaybee/flickr

Land-use planners and policy-makers often face claims and counter claims regarding the impacts of land-use change. For example, some residents claim wind turbines have crippling health impacts, while others see only a community asset and environmental gain. Some people suggest plantations decimate rural communities, while others see them as harmless and “just another crop”. How do we go about identifying the true impacts in these situations?

Our recently published study sought to untangle social change and impact in the context of complex land use shifts occurring in southwest Victoria and southeast South Australia. We focused on increases in cropping, dairying, grazing and plantations that occurred between 1991 and 2006, and examined the impact of these changes on rural population and employment. Where many changes occur at once in a region, sorting out the impacts of any one land-use change is not a simple matter.

We used independent data from a range of sources to understand what kinds of social changes were associated with increases in these land uses. We explored whether changes resulted in fewer people living in an area, or an ageing population, or changes in the percentage of the adult population in full-time employment.

We used interviews and surveys to understand how people living in the region viewed and experienced these changes. For example, we asked whether they believed increased plantations or cropping had a negative impact on population, and what any changes meant for them and their neighbours.

A comparison of independently observed social changes with impacts reported by residents revealed some surprising patterns. Increased cropping was the largest and most widespread change in land use across this region, yet very few residents were aware of this change.

Where cropping had increased, analysis of independent data showed it was almost always linked to negative social changes including an ageing population and fewer jobs available. Despite this, the majority of residents did not report experiencing negative impacts of increased cropping.

This contrasted sharply with patterns related to increased plantations. Plantation forestry in rural areas has received a great deal of media attention over the past two decades and the majority of residents were well aware of increases in this land use.

Social changes associated with increased plantations depend somewhat on the previous land use. Where the land was previously used for dairying, analysis of independent data suggested that a shift to plantations was linked to decreased population and employment. However, the more common shift from grazing to plantation was not always linked to population loss or decreased employment.

In some districts outcomes were relatively positive, in some negative, and in others there was little change at all. Despite this, the most common perception was that plantations have negative social impacts, decreasing the number of residents and the jobs available in these communities.

The conflict between actual and perceived changes makes more sense when viewed in the light of another finding. Independent data revealed that increased plantations were consistently linked with higher levels of population turnover. In other words, where plantations increased, it was more likely that former residents would move out of district and new residents move in. This pattern of change fits with a common practice in which whole farms were sold and redeveloped by plantation companies, with farm houses leased or sold to new owners.

When people described the impact of population-loss attributed to plantations, this undoubtedly reflected very real loss of longstanding friends, family and neighbours. Where new residents moved into the area, they could not simply replace the vital social networks within this community.

The impacts of these population changes are real and important. Land-use planners and policy-makers have a responsibility to consider how land-use change can be planned to minimise negative effects for rural communities.

This work reveals some of the complexities of both understanding and addressing impacts of rural land-use change. It suggests that people are not always aware of land-use changes. It also shows that perceived social change and impact are not always consistent with independently available evidence regarding that change.

Where a land use is less visible, we may be unaware of quite significant social changes. On the other hand, we may sometimes incorrectly attribute impacts to more visible land-use changes.

The research suggests that what we might think of as the “real” impacts of land-use change – the points at which independent evidence and experience agree – are not necessarily those we most commonly hear in public forums or media reports.

If land-use planners are to adequately address public concern about land-use change, they must understand both the change and the experienced impact of that change, and dig below the surface to understand the nature of that experience.

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22 Comments sorted by

  1. Tony Simons
    Tony Simons is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Dodgy Director

    Land use changes such as plantations should not be driven by tax breaks. This can lead to gross distortion and disasters, witness Great Southern, Timbercorp and others which went belly up. Tourism which includes nature tourism should be promoted. Tourism and conferences and events employ many more people. Also build up tertiary education including TAFE in regional areas instead of winding back TAFE.

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  2. Deb Foskey

    logged in via Facebook

    And now there are the land use changes resulting from the plantation owners going bust.... I suppose the study didn't enter that territory due to timing but its presented a new set of problems for neighbours such as cessation of whatever weed and fire control, fence maintenance etc was being carried out. Also wonder whether your study considered the kinds of demographic changes resulting from plantations; you note that established residents left and presumably more transient people became the tenants…

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  3. Max Bourke AM
    Max Bourke AM is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Thinker

    This is a good piece of work congratulations. One of the drivers of change, not given sufficient emphasis though I feel, and often missed by those in rural areas is the extraordinary improvements in agricultural efficiency of production. There has been a quite extraordinary indeed inexorable improvement in agricultural production efficiency, up with the best of any industries in Australia, since WW II. I often illustrate it by pointing out the changes in cropping since my father's time, from 3 metre tractor drawn harvesters, dumping into wheat bags sown by men and lumped on to 5 tonne trucks to sidings that were open 9-5 or something similar, to modern kit of say 8 metre cutter bars, in bulk bins delivering to storages 24/7 at high speed on good roads, no wonder we have less people in rural areas. Most farmers would hardly want to go back I think. This has produced changes equal to changing enterprise but more slowly.

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  4. Stephen Ralph

    carer

    When you say "increases in cropping, dairying, grazing and plantations that occurred between 1991 and 2006",
    I'm a tad confused. I can understand plantations, but given that (a) the amount of land has remained a constant, (b) an increase in plantations would have reduced the available land for cropping etc and (c) the growth of regional towns has meant less available land for any agricultural use. Partic when you look at the expansion of Ballarat, Bendigo, Shepparton, Warrnambool etc.

    I find it hard to believe that there could be an increase in dairying when colloquial evidence would suggest otherwise.

    And now of course the major plantations companies have gone broke as of about 2 or 3 years ago.

    If any land usage changes, isnt it at the decision of the land-owner to either sell or adopt new practices.
    In some respect it's a case of eating your cake and having it.

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    1. David Elson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Does that logically follow?

      Australia is quite a large nation. While the amount of land may be fixed (I hardly foresee land reclamation activities in Australia just yet!), however historically a lot of land lay dormant and was not developed either for cropping, residency or plantation.

      The table at the following link does not demonstrate a massive reduction in dairy farming:

      Year Aus Total
      1989/90 1,654
      2004/05 2,010
      2010/11 1,600

      http://www.dairyaustralia.com.au/Statistics-and-markets/Farm-facts/Cows-and-Farms.aspx

      Are these plantations privately owned and operated or are they an extension of state government? Ie; the land is likely to be locked up as a state owned plantation when if it was privately farmed the land might be more profitably used for dairy or other private use.

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  5. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    This is a question as to whether rural areas should be used to make money, or used to provide a habitat for native wildlife, and used to live in because they are a better for people than living in the cities.

    The cities are not in any way constructive for the natural environment, but simply chew up natural resources. Cities give nothing back to the natural environment, and while growing in size, the cities are also economically non-viable, and exist because they chew up money originally earnt…

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    1. David Elson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Unfortunately I'm not sure it's possible to "preserve" an area without a negative impact on jobs and standard of living.

      I'm from the country and there's not much work there (aside from minimum wageo).

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to David Elson

      There are no pine plantations in a city, or dairies, or grain fields etc.

      It is all supplied by rural ares.

      If there are few jobs in rural areas, it means most of the jobs in the cities are totally artificial and unnecessary.

      Or, someone makes money from someone else who makes money from someone else etc.

      It''s called "service industries".

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    3. David Elson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Since the advent of agriculture and large scale farming towns and cities have sprung up full of people who no longer have to work to produce their own food....

      Doctors.. scientists.. engineers.. teachers...

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  6. Mike Coleman

    Land Use Planner

    Great to hear from landuse researchers who think rural people are important!

    In our S African context the influence of professional planners, who have these concerns in mind, are overwhelmed by landuse decisions made by politicians and officials at national and provincial levels with little grasp of rural people' priorities.

    Landuse planners are not often landuse decision-makers .

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    1. Mike Jubow

      forestry nurseryman

      In reply to Mike Coleman

      "In our S African context the influence of professional planners, who have these concerns in mind, are overwhelmed by landuse decisions made by politicians and officials at national and provincial levels with little grasp of rural people' priorities".

      To a member of a rural community, it appears the same to me here. It would have been a more comprehensive coverage of the subject of land use if coal mining in Qld and NSW had been taken into account.

      There are any number of ghost towns created…

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  7. Stephen Ralph

    carer

    Great comment Mike........

    Do we need to sell our soul for coal.

    After all it contributes to the degradation of the environment, and anyway who wants to be one of the wealthiest nations in a dying world.

    Why cant we just get over the mining of coal and move on to creating renewable energy sources. Here's where we need inspired and strong leadership, not the mediocre lot we have, serving up the usual does of tripe day after day after day.

    Let's create a better world not a dirtier world.

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    1. David Elson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Luckily we (or rather the companies investing in exploration and mining) are exchanging coal for $$ rather than something so insubstantially incorporeal as "souls".

      The royalties earned from which by our state governments (whilst the mining tax is presently earning $0) going toward funding education and health services.

      Renewables are certainly fascinating, and as soon I can afford I'd like to purchase solar panels for my home, and a hybrid for my garage, however currently both technologies are not able to match existing products.

      Ie; coal/nuclear beat renewables in providing base-load power supplies, and there are a number of conventional internal combustion driven cars that are more efficient than hybrids.

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    2. Mike Jubow

      forestry nurseryman

      In reply to David Elson

      David,
      I doubt that when all things are considered that Australia gets very much out of foreign companies mining coal here. It may sound like an outlandish statement but when you consider that proportionately, there is very little of the money gained in selling coal overseas that actually stays here in the form of taxes. Royalties on tonnages is a certain way of keeping some money here but taxes on profits become rather neblous. On top of all of this, there is a finite time that a mine can operate…

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    3. David Elson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mike Jubow

      Looks pretty substantial to me - http://www.osr.qld.gov.au/royalties/statistics.shtml

      Of course once the mine is expended there is no longer (pending technology improvements) further revenue for the government, although if the mine was never developed the minerals themselves would have provided no value to the people of Australia or its Government.

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    4. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to David Elson

      I think the argument is that upon balance, the return on mining the resource may be far oustripped by the opportunity costs associated with the activity of mining over the longer term.

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    5. Mike Jubow

      forestry nurseryman

      In reply to David Elson

      "Of course once the mine is expended there is no longer (pending technology improvements) further revenue for the government, although if the mine was never developed the minerals themselves would have provided no value to the people of Australia or its Government".

      Of Course, you are right in saying, “once the mine is expended there is no longer (pending technology improvements) further revenue for the government”. It all stops there. No more royalties, no more company taxes, no more jobs and…

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    6. David Elson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mike Jubow

      Allegedly Australia has 100 yrs or so of coal left to benefit from before it's expended, so there is a significant benefit there for our nation and of course potentially the world (aka China)...

      Based on my readings it's not a zero sum game with farming vs mining, rather the two can (to a point) co-exist..

      See the link below for details:

      http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/mining-energy/miners-and-farmers-learn-to-co-exist-at-rio-mine/story-e6frg9df-1226431249515

      That's before we get into the success stories of using land reclamation to return previously mined sites to productive use:
      http://www.mii.org/reclcoal.html

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    7. Mike Jubow

      forestry nurseryman

      In reply to David Elson

      Dear David, Oh dear, you are sounding more and more like a coal industry spoksman with each succeding post. If you want the real nitty-gritty, about co-existence between coal miners, try asking farmers in the Hunter Valley who have lost their farms to mining and the farmers that have a mine adjacent and suffer the wildest health effects from the particulate matter blown in on the wind. Try and find out how many dairies have been forced out of this once productive area. Moreover, try and find an anti-mining…

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    8. David Elson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mike Jubow

      If Australian manufacturing is ever to succeed (and Australia is to continue on as a nation that makes stuff) then we are going to need increasing and ongoing sources of cheap electricity.

      Currently there are no cheaper or better alternatives to providing (perhaps nuclear?) base line power than coal power plants, and in terms of transportation; oil for powering the engines of mopeds, buses, cars & aeroplanes.

      If there are proven health problems from particulate matter than I agree that this is a serious issue that needs to be investigated, with zoning preventing these types of issues from impacting on urban areas.

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