Report on National Landcare Conference Melbourne 2016

Jenny Goldie of Michelago Landcare and Upper Murrumbidgee Landcare attended the National Landcare Conference that was held in Melbourne last month. Here is her report on the conference activities.

Report to UMLC on National Landcare Conference

Melbourne, 22 & 23 September, 2016

by Jenny Goldie

Thank you for allowing me to be the UMLC representative at this very worthwhile conference, attended by around 600 people from around Australia at Melbourne’s Exhibition and Conference Centre. Various field trips were on offer the day before but I was unable to get to Melbourne early enough.


This is the 30th year of Landcare, former Victorian Premier (and now the late) Joan Kirner having launched the first Landcare group – Winjallock on “Stricta Hill” – on 25 November 1986.  It has grown enormously since then though NSW and Victorian state governments recognised it was flagging in recent years and have been appointing landcare coordinators/facilitators to revitalise it.


The conference was divided between plenary sessions, ably chaired by Costa Georgiadis of ABC-TV’s Gardening Australia, and workshops, of which there were four streams: climate change, community engagement, landscape challenges and responses, and collaboration and innovation. Because of my particular interest in climate change, I went to those workshops apart from one on community engagement.


In the first plenary, the keynote address was delivered by former Governor-General and now National Soil Advocate, Major-General the Hon Michael Jeffery AC, whose message was “save the soil – save the planet”. He argued that we must reward farmers, not only for their product, but also for the sustainable management of the continent. The process of ensuring healthy soils is an integrated one that involves soil nutrients, water and vegetation. He emphasised that hunger has led to many wars and thus the status of soils underpins social stability. He cited the problems of water management where upstream dams are depriving downstream countries of adequate water, notably Turkey taking water from the Tigris and Euphrates (affecting Syria and Iraq), and Chinese dams depriving Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, affecting 60 million people. In Australia, he said, 50 per cent of rainfall is lost to evaporation because it can’t penetrate the soil, however, increasing the carbon content of soils (by regenerative land management) will help rain infiltrate. Indeed, one gram of carbon will help retain up to eight grams of water. Increasing soil carbon, of course, will help mitigate climate change. While soil carbon content should be 3-5 per cent, Australian soils are generally 1.5 per cent or less, and soil erosion exceeds soil formation. The organisation Soils for Life is trying to get a garden in every school with an integrated syllabus that includes soil and water information.


Dr Ron Edwards, with perhaps undue emphasis on the economic benefits ($1billion) of Landcare activities and too little on the environmental benefits, reported on what the National Landcare Advisory Committee was doing. It is undertaking a National Landcare Programme stakeholder review <>; and addressing innovation and engagement, particularly strengthening indigenous involvement.  He stressed the need to invest in adaptive capacity; to help farmers deal with the environmental, market and social drivers as well as shocks like floods or major disease outbreaks.


In the first climate change workshop, Professor Will Steffen pulled no punches about the extent and damage of climate change if we do not rapidly shift away from burning fossil fuels. He maintained that increasing soil carbon was worthwhile for a range of reasons but, as a mitigation tool, faded into insignificance alongside the urgent need to get off coal, oil and gas. Australia, he said, could expect more intense heatwaves, a trend to higher forest fire danger index (FFDI), an increase in summer rainfall generally but decrease in winter rain, warmer oceans, more intense rainfall (when it comes), sea-level rise,  and increased dry spells and droughts. Until the 1950s, land use change was largely responsible for an increase in greenhouse gas emissions (GGE), but since then there has been an explosion in GGE from the burning of fossil fuels. Over the past 2000 years, for which we have reasonably reliable records, temperature has varied with a slight cooling trend until an abrupt upswing in the past few decades that may go to 6oC above pre-industrial levels by 2100 unless we take strong action. The rate of ocean acidification is unparalleled for the past 3000 years. Carbon dioxide is increasing at 100 times the rate at the end of the last ice age, and temperature increase is 170 times the background rate.  Steffen concluded by welcoming the formation of a new group, Australian Farmers for Climate Action


Dr Siwan Lovett, of the Australian River Restoration Centre, followed with a call for rivers to be “messed up and slowed down” for the sake of biodiversity, connectivity, productivity, and socio-cultural and individual reasons. (She referred us to the book and website “Blue Mind” that shows how being near, in, on, or under water can make you happier).  Slowing rivers also helps to mitigate climate change since modified (that is, fast-flowing with little riparian vegetation) rivers store less than 2 per cent of the carbon that they used to do.


One of the big events of the annual Landcare conference is the awards ceremony at the dinner for various categories (individual, Indigenous etc). I missed the dinner but went to a couple of workshops where the finalists spoke about what they were doing. One of the most heart-warming recent trends has been the recognition and appreciation of what Indigenous landcarers are doing, and the desire by Landcare to incorporate many cultural practices such as low temperature grassland burns.


In another workshop, Brent Jacobs from the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS warned that the impact of extreme weather events can lead to a permanent loss of natural capital, with flow-on impacts to social cohesion and accelerated rural decline.  Emergency services concern themselves with built assets (Prevent/Prepare/Respond/Recover or PPRR) but PPRR should also apply to natural resources, and Landcare needs to bring in emergency services to protect natural resource-dependent livelihoods. The concern is, however, that since natural assets have to survive and recover on their own, there may not be time in the recovery phase to get back their full function before the next extreme event. The severity of the event determines the depth and duration of impairment, thus, warnings that climate change will make extreme events worse means, more frequently, recovery phases will not be long enough.


Jen Quealy, social geographer and author, referred to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction that was agreed upon last year which is all about empowering local authorities and communities. She argued that Landcare needs to be involved in all stages of extreme events such as risk reduction and preparedness, and not just the recovery phase. Landcare is a potential ally of government as they are often the first responders on the ground in the event of natural emergencies such as bushfires. This would minimise such unintended impacts as bulldozing of creeks after fires.


Eyal Halamish described how, in November 2015, following a significant drought, the Victorian government gave $27m in drought relief, of which $10 million went to community consultation, including the online forum OurSay. The relevant Minister posted a message asking for ideas, and over six weeks, 3,305 people affected by the recent drought participated, posting 84 ideas and receiving 320,030 votes and 463 comments about how drought relief should be spent. Such was the level of interest that in the postcode of Donald, for instance, one quarter of people were engaged with the forum. What people said they wanted was: regional development, water security, financial assets, farmer education and community well-being. In April 2016, a further $3 million was offered in support along these lines.


In December 2015, the Scotsburn community near Ballarat experienced a wildfire that burnt out 4750 hectares with considerable damage to assets and to natural resources. One resident said: “We’ve always lived with it but now it’s faster and more ferocious and shows no mercy.” Andrea Mason described how the Corangamite CMA and Leigh Catchment Group have partnered to help the community. She argued that Landcare has a part to play in fire recovery and after any natural disaster event because built assets get the attention but natural resources, currently ignored, need help as well.


Victorian Parliamentary Secretary for Energy, Environment and Climate Change, Anthony Carbines, spoke about the need to have Landcare represented on various sub-committees of Emergency Management Victoria, including those on natural environment and economic environment. This is to get them to focus on Landcare issues including: community, vegetation, soil, water quality, fencing, fauna, weeds, pastures and pest animals.  There is no provision for government funding on private land, nevertheless, the state government gave $624,000 for rehabilitation of vegetation in Corangamite after the fires (see above).


The second keynote address for the day (a plenary session) was delivered by Don Burke OAM of Burke’s Backyard, and amongst many other things, founding member of Greening Australia. Photos of his restoration back to seemingly original bush on his property on the outskirts of Sydney were quite remarkable but he did say it took 30 years. Interestingly, he said we should feed native birds in our gardens because the seeds are not out there for them anymore. His main thesis, however, was that many Australian soils don’t stay wet, even after prolonged heavy rain, because of a symbiotic relationship with fungi that sees soil particles covered in a waxy coating. This is a control mechanism to keep the number of plants stable and hence survive drought. It does have implications, however, for Landcare methods and projects.


The final session for the first day was a panel of Indigenous people including Reg Abrahams of the Wathaurong Aboriginal Collective. He manages the Wurdi Youang between Melbourne and Geelong where they have restored 20 hectares of native grassland. They are trying to restore Aboriginal “Agri-Culture” and management practices including the use of weeyn (fire) with a view to recovering, restoring and translocating threatened flora and fauna.


The second day began with a video message from Josh Frydenberg, federal minister for Environment and Energy in which he said: “Landcare is at the heart of a win-win situation for agriculture and the environment.”


Then came another panel session on the future directions of Landcare in which we were referred to the stakeholder forum, that is, the National Landcare Programme review The NLP “will invest $1 billion over the next four years to help drive sustainable agriculture as well as supporting the protection, conservation and rehabilitation of Australia’s natural environment.” One issue the panel addressed was youth engagement in agriculture. Hannah Moloney said there were three challenges: access to land (unaffordable unless you inherit); access to appropriate training (university training too theoretical and not practical); and the over-regulated food system which cripples many small farmers. With respect to access, there was some hope with under-utilised urban space and with agriculture-based land trusts. As for training, school gardens should be extended to high schools (up to year 12) in which students can learn the art of market gardens. Regarding food systems, there should be strategic policies for soil, water and plants.


Other speakers on the panel noted the tension, though not necessarily competition, between economic development and the preservation of natural resources. Somehow we have to get people to reconnect with nature, as our first Threatened Species Commissioner, Greg Andrews, has said. This is a challenge; however, the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) reminds us that the whole futures of human and environmental well-being are integrally linked.


The next workshop session included Benjamin Docker of the Dept of Environment and Energy who spelt out details of the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF). This is basically a voluntary scheme to sequester carbon in the landscape with landholders first identifying a method of abatement (mainly human induced revegetation, or deforestation averted) then registering with the clean energy regulator. It was funded to the tune of $2.55 b initially. Three reverse auctions have seen 143 m tonnes of carbon abated over 348 contracts. The fourth auction will be held in November. Other methods of abatement include dietary supplements to ruminant animals; using fertiliser more efficiently to reduce nitrous oxide emissions; increasing soil carbon in gazing systems; and herd management (a minimum of 10,000 head is required). Another was reducing the incidence of late dry season savannah fires which burn too hot and adversely affect the ecology and biodiversity.


Kate Brunt of the Goulburn-Broken Catchment Management Authority was given the task of developing a climate adaptation policy for the catchment within a resilience framework. The region has a variable landscape as it runs from the highlands northeast of Melbourne around Mansfield to the flood plains around Shepparton and Benalla. There are “multiple futures” of which climate change is only one. Others include commodity prices, and incidence of fire and flood etc. There were many questions. How to manage the transition to a changed climate? Does all the money go to the most vulnerable? Who are the most vulnerable? In order to develop an adaptation plan for one sub-region, they started with the Shepparton Irrigation Region, holding workshops to develop a shared common vision, identify community leadership and technical expertise, draw up a “subway map” (showing multiple linkages and looking like a map of the London underground), and to institutionalise decision-making. Next, they will do the same thing with the upland region.


In a workshop on building engaged communities, Megan Rowlett and Jenna Kelly spoke about establishing Intrepid Landcare for younger people in the Illawarra region. (The term “youth” was apparently rejected because it was too akin to evangelical Christian youth groups.) Initially, Megan went around helping all the existing ‘care’ groups like Bushcare, Landcare and Coastcare, mainly populated by retirees who, despite being too old for their social set, had considerable skills from which the young could learn.


Sonia Williams then talked about the NSW local Landcare coordinator initiative, the main aim of which is to build “engaged communities”, to “build with” rather than “deliver to”. The role of the coordinators, who the NSW government funds through Local Land Services, is to increase local capability in activities that 1) restore and manage the natural environment, 2) improve the sustainability of agricultural production, and, in the process, improve the resilience of local communities.


Elizabeth Shannon from the University of Tasmania (UTAS), through a program called UTAS CARES, students, is connecting staff and care groups in southern Tasmania. These care groups include Coastcare, Landcare, Wildcare, NRM South etc. It’s a two way street with money provided by the care groups to get the student workers via ferries and buses to sites such as Bruny Island who do the work, that is, planting trees. A major objective is “to have fun!” They are contemplating research collaboration, especially in the monitoring phase of the projects.


Liddy Neville, of Bellarine Landcare Group, addressed how to get Landcare much more inclusive through the use of the web and social media. Are we reaching, for instance, the disabled or people for whom English is a second language? Are we putting out information that people want to hear? We need to think more about what to provide and how to provide it, and that is not necessarily through Facebook. We need to use, for instance, RSS feeds that transfers information from Facebook to emails. And we need to make the content talk!