Barely noticed behind pre-election debate over the climate policies of the major parties sits a proposal by the Liberal-National Coalition to make important changes to Australia’s natural resource management (NRM) programs.
There are two sides to this plan. First, the Coalition proposes to rationalise natural resource management programs. They will maintain existing levels of funding but amalgamate the existing Landcare (community groups caring for natural resources) and Caring for Our Country programs. This single national Landcare Program will place more emphasis on local community action and decision-making, and allow for longer-term project funding.
Second, the Coalition aims to create a 15,000 strong Green Army to undertake environmental works, help community groups and provide recognised training.
According to Opposition environment spokesperson, Greg Hunt, Landcare needs to return to the “grassroots” focus with which it began. The current system, he claims, has become a “more centralised bureaucracy, focused on form filling and setting grand national objectives, remote from the urgent and valuable local environmental challenges”.
The Australian Landcare Network has backed these changes, which promise to direct more funds to community Landcare groups, simplify application procedures and devolve more decision-making to regional natural resource management organisations such as catchment management authorities.
The Greens seem to be the only other political party willing to comment directly on Coalition proposals. They support Landcare, but criticise recent announcements. They say they are recycling old policies, failing to address clearly the role and future of regional natural resource management groups and the progress they have made on integrated regional planning and landscape-level environmental improvement.
It’s hard to argue against encouraging local community-based environmental action. Where it works, it’s cost-effective and has numerous social co-benefits for participants. Reviews show that community Landcare groups have done an enormous amount of environmental work, as did the old Green Corp program. It’s no surprise that the Landcare Program has always enjoyed bipartisan political support.
The difficult questions have always been: how do we scale up local activities to ensure regional and national outcomes? And how do we monitor those outcomes, given the long lag times and vast distances involved in natural resource management?
Since the first National Landcare Program was launched in 1989 there have been a series of institutional developments intended in one way or another to target funds more strategically, expend more on on-ground works, and evaluate outcomes more effectively.
The more recent iterations through Caring for Our Country have arguably tilted the balance of Commonwealth funding towards activities with measurable short-term outcomes. Some regional groups have also demonstrated a preference for targeting their funds towards individual landholders rather than Landcare group activities.
It would be a stretch to say these are the sole reasons but there is, nevertheless, evidence that community participation in Landcare has declined in some areas. And there is a more widespread feeling among members that Landcare needs to evolve to remain relevant.
Will simplification of natural resource management programs and the injection of Green Army volunteers give Landcare the stimulus to evolve and grow? Quite possibly. Longer-term funding, particularly to support those professionals who work directly with and for Landcare groups, will be a major boon.
At the same time, these proposals appear to ignore the ever-present questions of scale and effectiveness. The rhetoric of “local people knowing best” may play well in the electorate, but committed Landcarers will know that localisation itself is not a complete answer. They need ways to network and collaborate, and to integrate their activities, all of which takes time and money.
A greater voice for community Landcare in regional natural resource management groups may go some way to dealing with this but the devil will be in the detail – detail that is not, currently, spelled out for us.