The Organising Committee, 2019 Biennial Australian Rangeland Society Conference
The Australian Rangeland Society 2019 conference in Canberra provided a great opportunity to reflect on the current state of our treasured ecosystems, drawing on lessons from the past and looking to the future. The broad range of participants highlighted the crucial role Australia’s rangelands play in the environmental, industrial and societal framework – they support diverse communities, industries and substantial productivity, with ~3% of the Australian population managing more than 70% of the Australian landscape. The central tenet of the conference focussed on integrating environment and livelihoods, and the presentations made it clear that the rangeland community overwhelmingly work towards a common goal: resilient and sustainable rangelands that provide cultural, societal, environmental and economic outcomes simultaneously.
The rangelands represent a unique landscape where we can achieve environmental and social sustainability if we work together; however, this requires reciprocal trust among key stakeholders, partners, and members of the society. The discussion at the conference highlighted that a stronger focus on ‘social license to operate’, recognising that all actions have broader impacts on the whole community and environment, and building frameworks to avoid individual stakeholders being left in the dark, may help to this end. Creating such frameworks will require effort on all parts, should be guided by evidence and focus on building trust among stakeholders. This will not be easy as evidence alone is rarely enough to shift tightly held perceptions and values, and building trust among stakeholders take time and effort. Poor behaviour by a few individuals can therefore erode trust built among stakeholders over long time scale. Ideally, governance should focus on developing robust frameworks that encourage collaboration.
The rangelands are constantly changing and this requires adaptive management strategies with a focus on securing the long-term sustainability of productive rangelands that support industries as well as people. The increased vulnerability caused by climate change sparks the need to co-develop adaptive approaches so that there is ongoing system modification to underpin resilience. It is often observed that during and after extreme events such as droughts and floods, efforts focus on short-term responses for communities and businesses, while underlying problems arising from ecosystem degradation or institutional failings are often forgotten. It is essential that stakeholders are given tools and assistance to cope during these events, particularly building capacity to take advantage when the conditions improve; but at the same time it is critical that we improve the health of our rangelands and their institutions to reduce the impacts of future extreme events.
This is especially important given the predicted increase in climate variability, meaning that business as usual won’t be sufficient for long term economic viability and ecosystem resilience. We need new approaches for providing climate information and tools to help in preparing for and managing extreme events. This information and these tools need to be ‘user ready’. It was noted that the ever-increasing variety of possible ‘out of the box’ developments may provide new approaches, like non-monetary exchange systems that facilitate social capital in uncertain times, novel arrangements for stock management extending and enabling mobility and resilience. By contrast, a failure to adapt is often the number one issue for the industries, in addition to legal and policy constraints. A key challenge is translating research into practice, and the need for a transformational change to diversify production systems.
Guiding rangelands into an uncertain future requires adaptation, innovation and the will to ‘choose to transform’. There is no clear recipe or roadmap to help communities’ transition to future states, but building community resilience is the current favoured approach. Governance and policy developments should therefore focus on enabling resilience and transformation of rangeland communities and enabling people by supporting their ability to adapt to changing times. Adoption of novel technologies requires a focus on tailoring these to meet the stakeholders’ needs: innovation is not just a technical process but a social process.
The geographical disconnect between policy developers and local issues can compromise long-term outcomes. The development of new policies should focus on building partnerships among stakeholders on country, recognizing that people are at the centre of policy development and implementation, and that practices need to be based on an understanding of the local conditions, both in terms of knowledge and of the physical landscape.
Positive narratives are usually essential to change thinking and make changes. In particular, public and political support benefit from a positive narrative, but also require local engagement. One unique problem for Australian rangeland management is that generic policies are developed for urban areas that are not applicable for the particular characteristics of the Outback. Indeed, policies can help promote the adoption of novel technologies, environmental sustainability and social equity, but policies need to be developed in partnership with those that they will impact to ensure long term positive outcomes.
It may sound like a cliché, but the rangelands truly are the ‘land of opportunity’. A broad range of opportunities exist to diversify rangeland use and livelihoods, ranging from sustainable beef production to carbon farming to incorporating traditional knowledge into management and governance. Likewise, there is great value in developing modern rangeland management practices that centre on a careful blending of indigenous knowledge with modern science and technology. This approach would also benefit from an increased focus on building a sense of identity and culture to create connection with the land and a sense of belonging to a community. This will include increased sharing of knowledge and education to promote awareness of the rangelands locally and beyond.
A particular focus should be placed on recognizing and promoting Indigenous sustainable livelihoods. Several examples presented at the conference illustrated how traditional knowledge can have strong societal and environmental positive outcomes, providing a framework to look after country. Hence, it is of great importance that we enable, promote and support indigenous on-country work through indigenous-led conservation.
Another opportunity lies in the recognition that rangelands around the world are experiencing the same global change pressures, with great value in placing the Australian rangelands in a global context, to learn from developments elsewhere and communicate lessons from our rangelands that may inform others. Specifically, there is value in identifying potential hotspots for adaptive needs in the face of climate change, and then building relevant international collaborations to exchange understanding with overseas landscape rehabilitation practitioners.
We hope those of you who attended enjoyed the conference as much as us. It was a great mix of people, presentations and interactive sessions, which covered a wide range of ‘burning questions’ from social license to operate, monitoring and managing rangeland vegetation and wildlife, to the effectiveness of policies to support local communities, cultures and ensure environmental outcomes.