STEVE DOVERS. Australia as world leader in conservation?

With the environment a low political priority and few significant environmental initiatives in recent years, maybe Australia just isn’t up to being the world leader in conservation it once was. But an analysis of our past achievements shows that we could indeed show the way internationally, and a recent report identifies the many initiatives we can implement. 

 Discussions around Australia’s environment typically focus on the condition of particular places or resources – rivers, forests, the Great Barrier Reef, endangered species – or on what should be done about them. On the first the news is mixed: fewer reports of improvement than of continued environmental decline are observed in both Australia’s Environment Explorer and the State of the Environment Report 2016.

Opinions differ on what should be done, and major policy options have been distilled in a new report Maintaining Australia’s Natural Wealth published by the Australian Committee for the IUCN.

There is another matter less often discussed – what is Australia’s capacity to lead the world in conservation and natural resource management? If we wished to improve our environment, to be real leaders, what is our track record in assembling the information and collaboration required, and formulating the policies and creating the institutions needed?

A review of the last few decades shows that Australia indeed has well-proven capacity to lead the world in conservation and natural resource management (NRM). Consider things we have created and done in Australia, that were, at least at the time, world leading or at least internationally remarked upon, and which attracted wide stakeholder if not bipartisan political support.

Australia’s response to the unprecedented World Conservation Strategy was timely, world-leading and developed through consensus: the 1983 National Conservation Strategy for Australia. The 1980s also saw the creation of our remarkable Landcare program, which itself had roots in collaborative land conservation programs in the states, in the world’s best mapping of land degradation issues developed in the 1975-77 Collaborative Commonwealth-State Soil Conservation Study, and through sensible agreement between farming and conservation groups. Over those years, the seeds of Australia’s impressive but still fragile ‘working on country’ programs in the Indigenous domain were trialled, culminating in the internationally remarkable Indigenous Protected Area estate. Australian models of Indigenous co-management of reserves instructed the world and the social, environmental and economic benefits of Indigenous ranger programs became well-evidenced.

Those years also saw a more integrated approach to land, water and biodiversity management emerge through various mechanisms for ‘integrated’ or ‘total’ catchment management. Three decades on there is the legacy of a well-established but unguaranteed system of regional NRM organisations that assemble information, drive collaboration, empower local and regional people, prioritise and implement actions through regional planning. Importantly, they have enabled program delivery for successive state and national governments. Australia led with the development and introduction of conservation tillage techniques to preserve soils and water and lift productivity.

In our most important catchment, efforts over thirty years saw initial moves to integrated management of the Murray-Darling Basin develop to where now our institutional arrangements and use of water markets and water information are closely watched the world over. Imperfect but still internationally remarkable. The 2004-14 National Water Initiative amazed other countries, and the depth and rigour of the (now defunct) National Water Commission’s biennial assessment drew gasps of admiration from overseas colleagues.

Along the way, the Resource Assessment Commission (RAC) was short-lived but seen as a global model for taking a national, evidence-based, long-term approach. The Commission for the Future was similarly proactive and remarkable. Some policy achievements were as aspirational as pragmatic: Australia once pledged to plant One Billion Trees.

Including public good research and development agencies for energy, land and water alongside standard commodity agencies under the Primary Industries and Energy Research and Development Act 1989 was well ahead of its time. Australian experiences in applying innovative approaches to complex policy formulation have often been ahead of the curve, such as non-market valuation by the RAC and integrated social, economic and environmental assessments in the Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) process. Consultative mechanisms have been trialled and implemented in a number of world-leading processes: regional forest forums, the RAC’s public consultations, engagement of stakeholders that informed Australia’s early and comprehensive response to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, and the matching National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development.

Australia has been strong in nature conservation, matching its strength in ecology and conservation biology and the underpinning of information through scientifically-based mapping systems such as the Interim Biogeographical Regions. The now-weakened National Reserve System is admired by other federal systems and the 2012 National Wildlife Corridors Plan a world first. The creation of a state-Commonwealth management arrangement for the Great Barrier Reef was a world first and remains a more comprehensive marine reserve management regime than most others elsewhere. Internationally, we led work efforts keep Antarctica a realm of peace, science and conservation.

A persistent challenges globally has been generating information to support policies that integrate environmental, economic and social dimensions of sustainability issues. Australia has been a leader with our Measuring Australia’s Progress indicators, and a leader internationally in the development of the now formalized UN System of Environmental-Economic Accounts that will complement the all-powerful System of National Accounts.

This is a selective and incomplete list, but an encouraging one. The sting is that so much that was then – and in many cases would still be now – world-class has gone or been diminished. The RAC, Land & Water Australia, the Energy Research and Development Corporation and the National Water Commission (NWC) are gone. Landcare’s future is up in the air, as is the capacity of regional NRM organisations and the social and informational capital they command. Comprehensive and supposedly long-term initiatives like the National Land and Water Resources Audit and the National Environmental Information System have come with fanfare and then gone. The National Wildlife Corridors Plan disappeared. Now, 20 Million Trees is apparently enough.

Australia should be good at developing world-class national environmental policy, as a wealthy, well-educated society with strong technical and scientific capacities and institutions, a landscape with astounding biodiversity and natural resource, and relatively light population pressures.

Why do we have such a mixed record? Changes of government, lack of coordination between governments, undermining by special interest groups, and sheer forgetfulness all play a part. We have shown that we can do it: persistence is the problem. Australia has shown world leadership in environmental policy and has the capacity and obligation to do so again.


Steve Dovers is Emeritus Professor with the Australian National University, a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, and Chair of the Steering Committee of Future Earth Australia. This is an edited version of the Foreword to the ACIUCN’s recent Key Directions Statement .


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