The pastoral industry in Australia's rangelands is in deep trouble. Hit by falling prices for cattle, sheep and wool, many people say it is in terminal decline.
As if the cruel effects of commodity price plunges weren't enough, there are other problems. Environmentalists, for example, point to diminishing biodiversity and increasing land degradation and say land management practices must change.
According to Nick Abel, a scientist with CSIRO Wildlife and Ecology based in Canberra, people outside the pastoral industry -- including Aboriginal people, conservationists and the mining and tourism industries -- are keenly interested in what is happening in the rangelands. They see it as a time of opportunity.
`There is great potential for satisfying the aims of these groups and benefiting pastoralists at the same time -- with better laws and polices,' he says. `For example, pastoralists could be paid more per hectare to manage part of their land for nature conservation than they now earn from wool. That is cheaper than setting up public reserves, so society and pastoralists both benefit.'
Pastoralists are used to hard times; they're not about to roll over like a flock of drought-stricken sheep. According to Leon Zanker, who runs a property about 300 km north of Wilcannia in the Western Division of New South Wales, a new breed is being forged in the face of economic extinction.
`Everybody's still talking about pastoralism in that turn-of-the-century form: running sheep and cattle,' he says. `We're saying hang on, forget this, we're new-age pastoralists. We now want to take on board other forms of earning an income off this country in a sustainable and well-managed way.' He talks of flexible grazing systems that might include goats, kangaroos, emus and pigs, as well as `non-pastoral' activities such as farm-stay tourism.
To help manage this process of change, three years ago Abel and Bill Tatnell of the NSW Department of Land and Water Conservation established a project dubbed `21C' (Sustainable use of rangelands in the 21st century). With funding from the Land and Water Resources Research and Development Corporation, it aims to promote the establishment of policies and institutions needed to support sustainable land-use in the rangelands of western NSW.
The approach was simple in concept and complex in practice. In a series of workshops, five stakeholder groups -- pastoralists/ innovators, Aboriginal groups, the conservation lobby, tourism operators and miners -- worked separately to develop a list of potential land-uses for the Western Division.
The project team classified the Western Division into land types; the stakeholders then wrote guidelines for allocating each of their proposed land-uses to these land types. For example: `allocate land adjacent to permanent water to tourism' or `allocate land within 10 km of a tar road to camping'. A land-use can have as many guidelines as stakeholders think are needed to get it allocated to suitable land.
A CSIRO software package called LUPIS, designed by John Ive and others, was used to generate land-use maps. The next step in the process -- now under way -- is negotiation, in which stakeholder groups come together to compare maps. Are they irreconcilable, or can compromises be found that might enable the values of different stakeholders to be accommodated?
So far, this question is unresolved; the project is at a critical stage and the players are cautious. …