Landcare and the free market

Issue 

Landcare: Communities shaping the land and the future
By Andrew Campbell
Allen & Unwin. 344 pp.
Reviewed by Chris Spindler

Landcare the book provides a valuable insight into the success, restrictions and problems of Landcare the movement. The book describes the strength and desire of groups of individuals attempting to solve part of the environmental crisis which most affects them.

While Landcare does not hide the economic and social restrictions facing the movement, in the end it fails to recommend stepping outside the current economic "wisdom". But it does put forward some possible alternatives and compelling evidence as to why an alternative system is needed.

Campbell starts his analysis with the potential of Landcare.

There are now some 2200 groups across the country, involving up to one in four people in rural areas, an amazing achievement for an organisation that started in 1989.

This reflects a growing concern about land degradation by those who are most closely associated with it. This close association has helped to develop an environmental consciousness and movement many other green groups would be envious of.

However, there is a growing conflict of interest between the Landcare movement as a self-help group for those interested in sustainable farming, and the real aims of food production for the market, where farmers are trapped in a web of finance and debt.

The need

Landcare points out that projected increases in the world's population mean the demand for food and fibre will continue to grow. At the same time, however, the world's arable lands are diminishing: "A continuation of present trends will see a net loss of 18% of the world's arable land by the year 2000 and the same again by the year 2025."

As well, unsustainable farming practices are leading to the loss of species, the erosion of genetic diversity, massive deforestation, increasing use of nitrogen fertilisers and an increase of carbon dioxide levels.

Landcare groups generally attempt to work at the individual farm level to improve practices. But the movement is very conscious of the need to deal with the issue across whole areas and regions.

However, much of the framework within which Landcare groups operate is not within the groups' control, but within the dominion of governments.

Redressing the mistakes of the last century or more will require governments to change, just as they are asking farmers to change.

Government policies over many decades have encouraged land degradation. For, example throughout the 1960s the Western Australian government had an aim of clearing a million acres a year. Tax concessions for clearing vegetation were in place up to 1980s. And regulations insisted on 90% clearing of land holdings in South Australia and meeting minimum stocking rates in the Northern Territory.

Federal government policy throughout the 1980s did very little to turn around the very obvious problem of land degradation. In 1988 Senator Graham Richardson, at the time the minister for the environment said of land degradation, "It's just not a sexy issue". This pretty well summed up the government's attitude to the problem.

Restrictions

Campbell points out that it isn't only government policy but the current economic system that restricts what is possible through Landcare.

"As agriculture has become progressively industrialised there has been a continual decline in the market prices of food and fibre, and a continued reliance on off-farm inputs to support ever higher production levels. Consequently farmers' terms of trade have been on a long , slippery, downwards slide, farms have increased in size, and each generation has seen fewer and fewer farmers. All around the world, farmers are struggling to maintain their livelihoods.

"This crisis is a formidable constraint to Landcare, in that it limits the financial capacity of groups and their individual members to fund practical land conservation works.

"More sustainable systems of land use and management are unlikely to be developed or implemented by people preoccupied with short term survival. As one farmer put it, 'it's hard to be green in the red'."

Later Campbell makes the point: "... there are many aspects of mainstream political/economic theory and practice which stimulate, reinforce and justify patently unsustainable uses of natural resources".

So what are the alternatives to the currently dominant paradigm?

Campbell suggests we include "the central values of green economics which are participatory democracy, ecological responsibility, social justice, decentralisation and the dispersal of economic and political power".

It is not, however, a central aim of Landcare groups to address these issues of power or to build organisations capable of bringing about this type of social change.

Landcare groups generally restrict themselves to field trips, meetings with guest speakers, developing catchment plans, individual property plans, local inventories of natural resources and the development or purchase of equipment for hire to members and other land users.

Debate

There is a debate about the usefulness and purpose of the movement. Bob Brown recently stated, "... it seems that Landcare's ethic is to enhance productivity. It is never made clear that it is there to sustain the environment and to repair ecosystems."

It also could be argued that subsidies, grants and tax breaks are not focused on the areas most in need. Those farmers who are doing worst financially are less likely to have the resources to devote to sustainable agricultural production.

Further, it seems that of the $105 million allocated to Landcare only 13% or $14 million actually goes to Landcare groups.

The fundamental constraint on Landcare groups' effectiveness is the lack of will by the government to develop practical sustainable farming technologies and land management systems.

Campbell points out, "Change is directed more by the market than by a critical re-examination of farming systems according to the ecological, economic and social principles of sustainability". And there's the rub.

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