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GRASSROOTS INPUT TO ENVIRONMENTAL DEBATES

AUGUST 2000: BIODIVERSITY...

"There is no direct benefit to a farm business in preserving a threatened animal or bird species, or retaining natural biodiversity."
This statement, made by Mr Cobb, President of the NSW Farmers' Federation, lead to a telephone interview by Finley Smith with Chris Henggeler,12.08.2000

Questions for interview with Chris Henggeler

As I said when I rang you today I am a third year Journalism student at Charles Sturt University, Bathurst. As part of my coursework I have to write for our online magazine 'Major Linus'. I am going to do an article for the next issue on sustainable development and biodiversity in response to an article by the NSW Farmer's Federation President, John Cobb.

He wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald on 7 August 2000 "There is no direct benefit to a farm business in preserving a threatened animal or bird species, or retaining natural biodiversity."

He wrote the article in response to continual public criticism regarding landclearing. He also spoke of disconnection between city people and those who live on and work the land highlighting the culpability of city people in landclearing through their demand for cheap, high quality produce.

Although I think some of what he said is valid, the statement about retaining biodiversity is troubling. He is, I guess, speaking from a purely economic point of view, in terms of income generated through retaining biodiversity but it is still a very narrow, short term outlook.

I have read the article Landline about Kachana and thought that you would be a good person to interview about the direct benefits to farmers of retaining biodiversity.

My questions will be:

  1. How do you respond to John Cobb’s statement?
  2. What are the direct benefits to farmers of retaining biodiversity and preserving native bird and animal species? Why are you passionate about it?
  3. Is there a direct economic benefit to farmers (short and long term)?
  4. Is sustainable farming economically viable? What kind of support (government and public) is needed to encourage farmers to work more sustainably and focus more on biodiversity?
  5. What do you believe are the disadvantages of not retaining biodiversity?
  6. Do you think that the attitudes of farmers in Australia have changed significantly over the last ten years or so in relation to the importance of sustainability and biodiversity?

These questions are based on very limited background research (we have very short deadlines). I will do more reading before the interview so may have more questions but only peripheral ones. The ones above cover the main gist of what I am looking at.

Finley Smith


Kachana Pastoral Company represented by Chris: I thank Finley for the opportunity to comment, but more so for her courage to contribute to the furthering of a debate which ultimately affects everybody, in particular future Australians. I also thank her for giving me some time to prepare my responses to her questions.

Herewith my response and preamble on which her report is based.

Biodiversity is a word thrown around a lot these days. I have yet to come across a sensible definition in the departmental literature. In an effort to create common ground we need firstly to recognise, then to admit that the bulk of Australia's biodiversity was lost many thousands of years ago. I do not believe that any of us can even conceive what the biodiversity potential of Australia really is.

Meanwhile all we know is that biodiversity could be called the engine of ecological activity on this planet and that this model runs on sunshine.

BIODIVERSITY:
includes a DIVERSITY of species;
it includes a DIVERSITY of genetics and age within each group of the species;
it also includes the way in which the populations of each species are spread around and the mass or numbers involved.

I believe that any detailed definition of biodiversity can only be meaningful if it is in the context of a particular environment and what we humans expect of that particular environment. In that same context the definition of biodiversity must be related to the long term health of that particular environment.

  1. My response to Mr Cobb's statement:

    The controversial statement reads: "There is no direct benefit to a farm business in preserving a threatened animal or bird species, or retaining natural biodiversity." I am not familiar with the context of Mr Cobb's statement, but in my opinion this statement, standing on its own highlights a conflict that appears to be world-wide: Farmers (as nutrient providers) attempting to justify their actions VS human communities (that have divorced themselves from ecological and biological realities) who expect land managers to retrieve environmental health.

    In other words: the value individual farmers place on the survival of their business VS values placed by society on the perceived ecological status-quo.

    Farmers have a very human trait that I have come across in many walks of life: When they perceive a "problem", they home in on it: "save the enterprise we have put so much into", "keep the marriage together", "keep the business going" or "support the industry" ...

    Often the costs of such actions are hidden and only appear later.

    I believe that we need statements like that of Mr Cobb for us all to step back and reflect on how we, society as a whole, could make it viable for resource managers in general to tackle the challenge of managing for environmental health.

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  3. “What are the direct benefits to farmers of retaining biodiversity and preserving native bird and animal species? Why are you passionate about it?”

    For a farmer, biodiversity is his biological capital. If our society reduces farming to industry related enterprises a farmer may well have to liquidate some of his biological assets to stay in the game. Maintaining or enhancing biodiversity or our biological assets, increases our margin and chances of survival. It certainly leaves open more options for the next generation.

    Why am I passionate? Would you like to watch your own, or a friend's children get on board an aircraft where fuel is leaking and the engine is rattling to bits? That is what our collective human management is currently achieving. If we look at our national parks, aboriginal management, corporate farming, city backyards, the whole damned lot (as we must); the net result is more and more fuel being wasted in an engine that is getting more unreliable by the minute.

  4. “Is there a direct economic benefit to farmers (short and long term)?”

    If you are one of the fortunate few who (for whatever reason) is managing land where biodiversity is on the increase there are benefits in the short term. However if you belong to the majority of Australian land managers who have eroding biodiversity to contend with, I am not aware of any direct economic benefit to farmers in the short term, in the current economic climate. Generally speaking, that is over at least a three year period. In the medium to long term, however somebody who has their wits about them and who has the financial capacity to make the distance over the short-term hurdle should be capable of reaping significant economic benefits down the track.

  5. “Is sustainable farming economically viable? What kind of support (government and public) is needed to encourage farmers to work more sustainably and focus more on biodiversity?”

    Sorry Finley, but I need to break this question up.

    In the Australian context of agriculture in general I do not believe the word "sustainable" to be a long term option. In Australian agriculture with a local population of some eighteen million and nutrient export industries accommodating some seventy million humans (if I am correctly informed), "sustaining" a vastly degraded resource base is not an option. We desperately need to encourage and employ biogenerative practices. This is where I fall out of favour with our local departments and bureaucracies. We can talk about sustaining or conserving perceived "Australiana", but that has little to do with Agriculture, let alone keeping the family farm solvent in today's commercial climate.

    Now the last part of the question: "How do we encourage land-managers to place a greater focus on what society appears to value as our biological heritage? What support would be required from government and public?" Well.... I doubt there is a single recipe, but I do think there is a one word answer to this one: INCENTIVE

    Just like any manager, land managers need some incentive if they are to overcome the resistance to change.

    I am a great believer in the "Law of the Harvest". You reap what you sow. We land-managers do a lot of whining about government, and I am no exception. But really government is some sort of a combination of what Mr or Mrs Average thinks and puts up with. So unfortunately we seem to be getting what we deserve. I think a good place to begin would be for us all, as citizens, to become environmentally literate so we can then perhaps come up with some more realistic expectations and incentives that focus beyond current differences and conflict. I would like to think that such a line of thinking would then penetrate our bureaucracies and political arenas.

    Landcare which includes nurturing our biological assets is far too important an issue to be institutionalised or dictated by governments. Landcare is a peoples issue. The preservation of the remnants of Australia's unique biological heritage need not be such a controversy. If the costs of biogenerative landcare were spread evenly throughout the community, I believe a lot could be achieved.

    We farmers are not the only ones who wish to enjoy the advantages of healthy productive landscapes such as clean air, abundant clean water, healthy nutrition, healthy human, plant and animal communities, well managed national parks and recreation areas, sustainable export opportunities, etc.

    I guess what I am trying to say is: There is a lot more to land management in this day and age than simply producing nutrients. Individuals who are not involved at the hands-on level, should be given the opportunity to put their money where their mouth is. (That directly implies taking off departmental and political hats.)

  6. “What do you believe are the disadvantages of not retaining biodiversity?”
    (This question was omitted at the interview for time reasons.)

    There are more disadvantages than I care to name.

    I believe that there is a very direct relationship between healthy productive landscapes and healthy vibrant human communities. A landscape that lacks biodiversity cannot be healthy. The same applies to individual environments. There may be instances where we consider it to be desirable, acceptable or even necessary to have an ecologically unhealthy environment like a mine, shopping centre or some monoculture situations in our cropping, but if we have landscapes that are losing biodiversity, there is always a price to pay. I believe that a lot of what we see on TV or read in the papers that does not fit into our vision of an ideal world are some of the many symptoms resulting from the loss of biodiversity.

  7. “Do you think that the attitudes of farmers in Australia have changed significantly over the last ten years or so in relation to the importance of sustainability and biodiversity?”

    Yes definitely, but mostly for the wrong reasons. Largely we have been reactive. Reacting to legislation, public and industry pressures…

    We need to be better informed, motivated and proactive. Believe me it is not easy or simple to marry financial realities, community perceptions, family commitments, retirement and contingency planning, environmental health and fundamentally flawed legislation emanating from some of our departments and political bureaucracies.

    I see a lack of environmental literacy at EPA and CSIRO levels not only at our local departmental and political levels. That concerns me more than comments made by industry spokespersons, who attempt to represent the people who elected them.

    What I say is intended to provoke thought and sensible debate. It is not about bashing bureaucrats and public servants. I believe that they are as much a victim of a fundamentally flawed system as the rest of us.

    Really it is all about "context" and "change". When the context changes, so must the solutions. Or as Einstein said: “The significant problems we face, cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

    We are faced with accelerating global climate change, volatile stock markets, deserts spreading at the rate of over 16'000 ha a day, escalating human health care costs and a whole lot more; all as a result of our collective human management. Regardless how many scientists, PHDs and dollars we involve; tackling these problems with a linear, production orientated, medieval mindset will not help us achieve the necessary change.

    Communication and collaboration alone (although they are vital) will not help either. As Allan Savory says, we will collaboratively watch the continuous decline of our resources, if we do not involve a mental process that helps us deal with the complexity at hand.

    During the actual telephone interview I also made reference to two very important definitions: “Sunlight harvesters” and “Resource enhancers”. These definitions are to be found on page 288 of Allan Savory and Jody Butterfield's book: HOLISTIC MANAGEMENT - A NEW FRAMEWORK FOR DECISION MAKING

    The contents of this book (in my opinion) cannot be ignored by any land manager in Australia who intends to still have his job in five years time. It should also in my opinion be compulsory reading for any policy makers or departmental people who are in any way involved in the management of the resources of this nation. It is based on some 40 year old information that has consistently been proven out in the field, however mainstream science continues to ignore it. At a national level I do not think that we can afford that sort of environmental ignorance for very much longer.

Chris Henggeler, Kachana, 12.09.2000