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Imagining a future: regional, self-determining, diverse, enduring

Much scientific research is being invested in understanding how species, habitats and agricultural industries are adapting to a changing climate.

But this begs the question of whether it is possible to transform our existing agricultural landscapes to overcome degradation and limits it imposes on production and conservation. It’s a question that University of Adelaide Professor Wayne Meyer and others are hoping to answer, by pooling the knowledge from their different disciplines in a workshop funded by TERN’s Australian Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. And if it is possible, what biophysical, social, institutional, business, economic and political components are needed to make it happen?

The group has used the four representative concentration pathways (RCPs) developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to explore scenarios in five regions with different agricultural systems.

They believe that ecosystem science and land management will do the most good if decision-making is multi-disciplinary and managed regionally. By being party to identifying the social and economic drivers that shape their region, locals would help choose the sustainability indicators that are useful in their region, and in a better informed, and more participatory, way than currently occurs. Some other things need to change, too. For a start, Wayne said, we need to rethink the traditional way of separating agriculture and the protection of biodiversity into discrete environments.

‘There has been little work in Australia on the challenge of leading a change in mindset on how we use agricultural land well, so that we remain productive and increase endemic biodiversity in a new, mosaic pattern of land use that we can nurture and renew,’ Wayne says.

‘For this to succeed, people need to contribute their expertise in ecology, agricultural systems, business, sociology, community development, policy – all these things and more, to reflect the complexity of our communities. Having said this, it is important we also recognise that there is a notion emerging in mainstream Australia that we are long-term custodians of the land, rather than its “owners”, and that to make decisions that are sensitive to the environment, which includes human societies, we need a better understanding of the biophysical limits of those environments.’

The project group will write a paper to feed into public debate and policy setting about land management in the face of rapidly changing climate and economies. The basis for the paper is the group’s examination of the possible impact of the four RCPs on five agricultural regions with different climates: southern Mediterranean, central arid, northern tropical, north-eastern subtropical, and south-eastern temperate. In each region, they considered 10 indicators of sustainability: biodiversity, water, soil, social capital, built capital, food and fibre, carbon, energy, minerals and culture.

‘There are clear differences in the biophysical and social landscapes in all five regions. These are historical and they’re likely to persist – and this is one reason we recommend decentralised discussion and decision making,’ Wayne says.

‘Whichever RCP we consider, the future looks different in each region and, as you might expect, each has different strengths and weaknesses, its own challenges and opportunities. There are many positives in each region, and we think the model we are formulating in this project can be used to help them develop sustainably – environmentally, socially, economically – according to their strengths.’

The group argues that this be funded from revenue from non-renewable resources.

‘What we are exploring and the way we are doing it is uncertain, subjective and qualitative,’ Wayne says. ‘However, this is a useful tool for bringing together a broad range of stakeholders in regions. They know their area and people, and they can form the basis of discussion and debate, decision-making, policy design and direction setting in their communities.

The project group, from left to right: Andrew Campbell, Sam Wells, Lauren Rickards, Kelvin
Montagu, Wayne Meyer, Richard Thackway, Josie McLean, Brett Bryan, Mike Young, David
Summers, Paul Martin, Greg Lyle and Graham Harris (Ted Lefroy absent)

Published in TERN e-Newsletter August 2012 

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