Academic journal article Rural Society

Diversification for Sustainable Development in Rural and Regional Australia: How Local Community Leaders Conceptualise the Impacts and Opportunities from Agriculture, Tourism and Mining

Academic journal article Rural Society

Diversification for Sustainable Development in Rural and Regional Australia: How Local Community Leaders Conceptualise the Impacts and Opportunities from Agriculture, Tourism and Mining

Article excerpt

Traditionally, rural and regional communities have played a significant role in the economic development of Australia. Up until the late 1950's, more than 80% of the value of Australia's exports was attributable to agricultural products (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2004). These days, although the agricultural industry still utilises more than half of Australia's land area and employs 318,000 people (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2010), multiple local, national and global challenges are threatening the viability of both the industry and the surrounding rural and regional communities that depend on it. Locally, severe weather events, including long-term droughts, floods, cyclones, and bushfires, are challenging the existence of family farms across Australia, with media reports explaining that many farmers unsure if they can 'pick up the pieces' once again (Hughes & Hughes, 2011). Nationally, the agriculture industry continues to fight for its place in a diversifying economy, competing against the mining, manufacturing and service industries (ABS, 2004). Internationally, the reality of a global marketplace, harsh economic downturn and declining commodity prices continues to challenge the economic viability of Australian agricultural industry (Garnaut, 2008). Although many of these challenges are not necessarily new or unique to Australia, the isolation of inland regions intensifies their vulnerability and the combination of such stresses is a recent force (Cocklin & Dibden, 2005; Herbert-Cheshire, 2000).

With rural and regional Australia traditionally heavily reliant on the agricultural industry, which is in decline, the environmental, economic and social sustainability of these communities is at risk. The future of rural and regional Australia will depend on the capacity of communities to respond to these challenges, and their success will rely heavily on innovative thinking, collaborations and strong local leadership. Thus, this research explores how local rural and regional leaders conceptualise the opportunities and challenges facing the growth and development of their communities, identifying their unique insight and perspectives about ensuring a sustainable future for rural and regional Australia.

LITERATURE REVIEW

Sustainable rural development can be simply defined as, 'a process of multidimensional change affecting rural systems' (Pugliese, 2001, p. 113), although it is important to note that there is no one agreed definition and a great deal of confusion as to what 'sustainable development' actually means. The most widely accepted and well-known definition is from the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), which defined sustainable development as meeting 'the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs' (WCED, 1987, p. 43). Achieving this vision of sustainable development, however, requires careful consideration of the key triple bottom line domains of sustainability: economic growth, social issues and environmental conservation (Elkington, 2004). To date, although a growing body of literature has explored issues of sustainable development in the context of rural and regional communities, the focus has predominately been on agriculture (Bell, 2005; Ogaji, 2005; Pugliese, 2001; Scott, Park, & Cocklin, 2000). This is despite increasing concerns that overreliance on the agriculture industry contributes to the economic disadvantage of rural Australia, creating volatile single-purpose resource-centred communities (McManus & Pritchard, 2000). Contemporary rural communities must adapt their growth strategy to mitigate the effects of a diminished agricultural sector and develop alternative economic functions that diversify from their traditional agricultural services; put simply, they must diversify in order to survive (Barlow & Cocklin, 2003).

Diverse economies, as Gibson-Graham (2005, pp. 12-13) argues, involve, 'the production, appropriation and distribution of surplus within different kinds of enterprise, where value is liberally distributed, not attached to certain activities and denied to others'. …

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