The following article is presented here with the kind permission of the author***.
It provides a powerful and well argued case that current and past NRM practices are still failing to halt the rate of degradation in the Australian landscape. We need to aggrade our land NOT continue to degrade. The article looks at the role of nativism in the current paradigm and offers real genuine options to our failing landscape.
Submission from Ben Gleeson* to SRCMA.
Firstly, I'd like to say well done SRCMA for this consultation and forum initiative, perhaps this kind of thing should be a regular or ongoing occurrence; a bit like 'the conversation' but at a more local level. You could invite locals to post something stimulating occasionally and see if useful discussion resulted. Such discussion can get heated at times but that's generally just an indication that your forum is reflecting the diversity of our community.
Secondly, I’m sorry it’s so long and so late but it took me a while to compose these thoughts and I didn’t feel comfortable contributing something half-finished and clichéd or predictable. I do feel strongly about NRM and I’m not paid for my involvement so I can say what I see, just like any other ordinary member of the Southern Rivers community.
I'm not really sure where to put some of these comments but I'm going to choose this thread as the most appropriate. I have some concerns regarding our approaches to NRM and "the environment" which may be seen as criticisms but I hope no one will take these personally, they are more about the limitations of bureaucracy and cultural dispositions, and I know everyone (CMA and other forum participants) are working with good intent and to the best of their ability. Having said this, I doubt anyone would say we seem to be achieving ideal outcomes and ticking all the boxes, we all recognise there's room for improvement or we wouldn't be here on this forum.
I'll start out by suggesting that there is an intrinsic problem in the vision statement ‘Healthy landscapes, local people leading’, which is that the characteristics of the ‘healthy landscape’ are actually predefined by our government and NRM bureaucracy.
Not to put too fine a point on things but the ‘healthy landscape’ is generally measured by a very narrow set of outcomes, usually to do with how much native vegetation is present and how many introduced species have been eradicated (in support of this statement I’d say have a look at some of the NRM ‘outcomes’ statements you see floating around). Whether everyone accepts this point isn't important, the main thing I'm getting at is that the acceptable outcomes of 'local people leading' are basically already predefined for us by the accepted characteristics of a ‘healthy landscape’; local people may lead but they can only be encouraged to lead to a destination of healthy landscapes and the definition of ‘healthy landscape’ seems pretty clearly to be handed down from elsewhere. As such, we may well ask, is it really 'local people leading' or are we actually being led? Perhaps it is only selected local people, with the 'right' definition of a healthy landscape, who are allowed to lead?
I’ll say right here that I see far less of the approach I’m alluding to from within the SRCMA than elsewhere. I know from experience that the efforts being made to ‘walk the talk’ of engaging with community NRM values in this CMA are well ahead of those in many other catchments and I’m very grateful. I also know that the SRCMA is placed within a governmental hierarchy and is itself constrained by expectations coming down from above, so again I hope no one will take what I’m saying too personally. I just think that questioning the implicit expectations of the outcomes of ‘leadership from local people’ might show something about the situation we’re actually in here; and perhaps could explain why many people seem to feel that things are a bit stale in NRM-Landcare at the community level at present (witness the results from the recent National Landcare Facilitator surveys).
So what is the right definition of a healthy landscape? What do the NRM gods have in mind for us? Well from what I'm observing, it seems there’s an expectation that a healthy landscape is a more 'natural' landscape and that modified landscapes are necessarily less healthy. Furthermore, in Australia, in most officially sanctioned discourse and publications, we equate native vegetation and animals with 'healthy nature’ and non-native animals and veg with 'unhealthy, unnatural, humans’. A big part of the logic behind this is that, of course, humans are not natural.
This fundamental dualistic opposition between humans and nature (one defining the other, i.e. ‘nature equals not-human’ and ‘human equals not-nature’) is at the heart of so much of how we see ourselves and how we behave in relation to our environments. I don't wish to offend but you can clearly see the historical beliefs of religious-creationism supporting this perspective. It is strange to observe them still operating within NRM policy in this day and age. You'd have thought that the environmental sciences, which presumably guide our NRM activities, would have accepted Darwinian theories of evolution by now; but our fundamental connection to the rest of the biosphere (literally as a direct relation – as if by blood) seems to have been overlooked in favour of a perspective of dominion when it comes to managing “our” natural resources. The idea is that humans do not belong to nature; we are not part of natural systems, we just “live-off them” somehow (the connection is generally pretty vague).
I think if you look closely you can see correlations with the doctrine of terra nullius in operation here; a natural world devoid of humans.
I’m sure many folks don’t see terra nullius operating within NRM policy; but look at our (and most other westernised societies’) systems of national parks; a big area set aside for 'nature' which means ‘not human’ and therefore 'no people'. Well how does that actually work? How did we get to a situation where we think that the natural ecological communities of our continent should not be inhabited or affected by people? For the last 60,000 years people were a part of these ecological communities, I'd go as far as to say that we (I mean "we" Homo sapiens) have been a keystone species; managing and interacting with all parts of it to some degree. To withdraw humanity from a National Park and then claim that you've restored a ‘natural’ Australian system in some way is plainly unrealistic. It makes no sense at all unless, as I say, you are operating from a perspective that actually believes humans are not part of nature but were simply plonked down from somewhere else once upon a time.
The 'natural' systems that much of our NRM policy seems to be aimed at protecting or reinstating never existed without the presence of humanity; they were comprehensively adapted to and 'modified' by humans and I'd point out that they are now relatively unstable systems in the absence of these humans.
Having said this, it should be clear that these systems weren’t adapted just to ‘humanity’ per se; they were actually adapted to a particular human culture. Also, it must be clear that the natural system and the existing human culture (or rather multiple cultures across the whole continent) were co-evolved in direct relation to each other; culture was adapted to nature and nature to culture; this just had to be the case. The two were held in what is termed ‘a dynamic equilibrium’; not a static form of ‘climax’ stability but an ongoing, living, and vibrant process of continual mutual adjustment and constant change.
It is important that I acknowledge here that Aboriginal culture has undoubtedly survived Invasion. Aboriginal culture (or cultures) and Aboriginal connection to land continue and should be a source of pride for all who identify with these aspects of Australia’s long history of human occupation. I also want to make the point that Aboriginal culture today is a living and dynamic culture, not a ‘museum culture’.
Similarly, I’d suggest, it should be apparent that Australia’s ecological communities are a living and dynamic nature, not a ‘museum nature’. You won’t see living-nature in a museum; living-nature has already moved on; continually adapting and changing. This is true at many scales, from the cell, to the organism, to the population, to the community, up to the ecosystem and the biosphere as a whole.
Today, we have a culture in Australia that the pre-existing natural systems (pre-1788) were never adapted to. Yet because we maintain our peculiar belief that humans are not part of nature and that nature is extinguished by human culture and modification, we are in a very odd, almost psychotic, socio-ecological situation. One of the main reflections of this (the one most pertinent to this forum) is that although we have NRM policies which are guided by a drive to maintain a ‘healthy landscape’, it is a healthy landscape defined almost exclusively as the one which evolved in response to a previous culture; a culture which continues but which has also adapted and changed. Living-nature and living-culture have moved on but many of our efforts in NRM seem to be guided mainly by what we see in the terra nullius museum of nature.
I think this is a large part of why NRM agencies (and the Landcare movement) are failing to connect with so many commercial farmer-land-managers; they have at their core a vision of a healthy landscape which is inappropriate to the cultural realities of today. There is no point to (and really no hope of) reinstating a ‘natural’ ecological community which is closely adapted to a certain human culture after removing that culture and installing a different one. The system that you (we) are trying to install will require constant human management and interaction (because that's how it co-evolved) but the culturally defined incentives for appropriate management practices are gone; Australia has a different culture now.
If there is one clear and palpable example of the fact that we are connected as a natural part of this biosphere it is the food we eat to maintain our metabolic process. If humans were not a part of the natural world we could not live by digesting the material and converted solar energy made available to us by the other species that we consume; our metabolism just would not work. Once upon a time, Australians were nourished and sustained by their immediate natural environment; they moved through a healthy landscape literally as a part of it. Their connectivity to it was obvious and undeniable; their hunting, gathering and burning of the landscape shaped it and in return it shaped and nourished them.
As a contrast, consider our modern forms of ‘connection to nature’ as demonstrated by our actions in the NRM field. For example, today you can travel to any of our metropolitan centres (where the bulk of our population lives) and find various ‘care’ groups under the Landcare banner. The majority of these groups are almost exclusively focussed upon planting native species and eradicating non-natives as their contribution to supporting an idealised ‘natural’ world. Their efforts strangely ignore the fact that the ‘nature’ they are cultivating cannot provide them with their sustenance and so they must rely upon distant industrial monocultures and road transport for their nourishment. Where once there was a culture based on direct metabolic interaction with the rest of the natural system, now there is a culture sustained by the fridge and an ecological degradation taking place ‘out of sight and out of mind’, on distant farms which we frown about because we perceive that ‘they’ are somehow harming the ‘natural’ world.
It is our bizarre terra nullius museum version of ‘natural’ Australia that guides this urban goal to create a habitat of only concrete and native species; neither of which can sustain us. Because of our fallacious belief in the separation of nature and humanity we can live in a concrete jungle and deliberately cultivate a ‘natural world’ to which we have no metabolic connection. Like the ‘ghost in the machine’, we perceive ourselves as intellects without a physical grounding or direct connection to the biosphere; we seem to be above and beyond the material world somehow. Again this may be an indication of a cultural history of creationist perspectives. These are older perspectives, without grounding in evolution, ecology or science, yet the contradictions they engender within NRM activities and policies seem to pass unnoticed and unquestioned.
Because of our misplaced environmental intentions and our insistence that humans and nature are separate, we try to create what are inherently unstable ecological systems supported only by repeated inputs of fossil fuels (herbicides, chainsaws and bull-dozers), 1080, trapping and shooting, volunteer labour and taxpayer funding. These entirely unnatural systems are cultivated and maintained in complete disconnection to ‘living-nature’ and are open to continuing weed and pest invasions (naturally enough!) which are a reflection of the ecological vacuum we are attempting to install and maintain. The biological destruction implied by our ‘war on weeds’ is staggering, I’ve seen ‘CRC Weed Management Systems’ literature which states that 17% of all species in Australia are weeds. Is this an indication of how many of the Earth’s presently existing life forms we are ‘at war’ with? How much death and destruction are we prepared to inflict in defence of “our natural resources”? Who made us the natural world’s judge, jury and executioner?
I accept that many people feel that being surrounded by what they perceive to be ‘natural’ systems of native vegetation can be emotionally uplifting. However, we must question the validity of this emotional uplift in light of the fact that it relies on our terra nullius version of nature; a westernised cultural construction of an illusory separation between nature and humanity.
Recreational visits to national parks where we bring our own food and drink and shelter are not actually a way to connect with nature; they are like a package tour version of the natural world. Without a recognition and cultivation of our direct metabolic connection to nature we enter a national park like an astronaut in a space suit enters space; simple observers, floating by and then returning home. We are fools if we believe this is a true connection with ‘nature’. An ecological connection implies a shared metabolism not simply a one-way emotional connection to an abstracted and idealised mental construct; a perfectly imagined nature, perfectly separated from us.
As modern Australians we must admit that our real and direct connection to the rest of the biosphere can only come from our agricultural pursuits. In agricultural cultivation and food-gardening we should recognise our undeniable participation in the natural metabolic and ecological exchanges of the planetary biosphere. It is only within the process of consuming and being consumed that we have evolved as a co-adapted participant with the rest of the natural world.
However, the terra nullius museum often operates in our agricultural systems as well, although here it is oddly reversed. Instead of an absence of humanity, within modern conventional agriculture we tend to imagine a complete absence of nature. Again, because we see humans and nature as opposites and separate, we believe that human management within agricultural systems means that nature is somehow absented. Of course this is also complete nonsense; putting up a seven strand barb-wire fence doesn’t mean you’re now farming in a different universe; the natural world, with its inescapable ecological laws and processes, still applies. We seem to have come to a situation in agriculture where we think that we can go outside and create a ‘perfect’ farm just like the one on the blackboard; an imaginary land with no messy and inconvenient natural cycles or phenomena. During farm planning exercises we can mentally abstract or ignore everything that doesn’t belong in our idealised farm and this often leads us to go out into reality and try to subtract or ignore those aspects which do not conform to our planning. We expect to see fences and a crop species and we treat everything else as a weed to be removed. In this way we have actively simplified our landscapes; we employ a methodology of mental abstraction and the outcome is ecological simplification.
This is a reflection of a farming culture that is hostile towards living nature. It is just as opposed to an adaptive self-organising nature as is our NRM version of nature from the terra nullius museum. Both share hostility towards natural ecological responses, which are seen as ‘weeds’ to be combated. One approach sees these natural responses as impositions upon an imaginary ‘perfect farm’, the other sees them as sullying an imaginary ‘perfect nature’. In reality neither of these approaches is appropriate and both will inevitably achieve limited and unsustainable success in terms of landscape health. They both occur because of a simple (but ridiculous) imaginary separation and opposition between what is human and what is nature.
Farming as if in the absence of nature isn’t undesirable because it is hostile to a ‘perfect nature’ which needs protection from humanity, rather it is undesirable because it undermines landscape health and fertility; and hence farm productivity. Although it has been demonstrated that farming ‘in spite of’ nature (in artificially simplified systems, using pesticides and massive energy inputs) can raise the productivity of a narrow range of domesticated species, it has also been demonstrated that farm systems such as these are undermining the healthy functioning of the land. Simplified and abstracted systems of agricultural interaction with the natural world diminish the vitality of soils and regional water cycles. They undermine their own production in ways that increase vulnerability to a wide range of external shocks. Aside from this, they rely on the depletion of distant non-renewable resources as nutrient inputs to maintain their outputs, instead of building and maintaining the stored fertility of the local landscape.
Whilst ‘farming as if in the absence of nature’ is detrimental to landscape health, attempts to install an idealised ‘nature’ that exists in the absence of humanity and human culture are equally detrimental. We cannot solve our psychological disconnection from the natural world by promoting a disconnected version of nature from out of the terra nullius museum. Basically, ‘more gum trees’ just isn’t going to cut it, this is pretty obvious to most of us by now. No amount of enforcement or monetary incentives will ever succeed in creating a farming culture that is based on the cultivation of an assemblage of native Australian species.
We need a more wholistic approach to the complex crises we are facing. Using a model of ‘a socio-ecological system’ as a basis for our CAP planning process might be a start but it is pointless to incorporate this term into policy documents and then carry on just as before. Recognising the existence of a socio-ecological system implies an understanding of the continuum and the co-adaptation of culture and nature (‘socio’ and ‘eco’). This should instigate a profound shift in our personal experience of both culture and nature and in our NRM approaches to both. We cannot continue to maintain a culture which operates in hostility to the complexities of the natural world but neither can we continue to promote a nature which supposedly exists as separate to our interactions and influence. A form of cultivation (culture) which only works on paper and not in reality, and a form of nature which requires our absence, are equally flawed; neither can be relied upon as a scientific basis for sound NRM policy.
It is pretty clear that there is a tension in this country between the currently advertised goals of our NRM agencies and the bulk of large commercial farmers. It is also interesting to note the tension between many desirable NRM outcomes and a pointless and demonstrably ineffective insistence upon native species and a lack of non-natives as primary contributions to landscape health. Open-minded individuals ought to publicly acknowledge this more often. Clean water, revegetation, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, resilient landscapes, soil protection, soil creation, remediation of pollutants and production of clean air; none of these outcomes are the sole preserve of Australian natives. In fact, in many situations, most, if not all of them can be promoted more effectively and efficiently by non-natives. So why aren’t we using these species for productive and regenerative purposes?
Speaking personally, I’m a bit tired of reading that one advantage of planting native species is that they are better adapted to growing under Australian conditions than non-native species. If this were the case there would be no ‘weed problem’ (as some see it) to worry about; the natives would easily outcompete the non-natives and would inevitably flourish because the conditions would favour their survival. In reality, the fact is that what native species were primarily adapted to was the presence of a particular Aboriginal culture and continuing Aboriginal land-management practices.
NRM agencies and Landcare have done many great things but they have failed so far to win the hearts and minds of conventional farmers who are biggest land owners and managers in Australia today. I’d suggest that many of these farmers may well be convinced if only the NRM science behind the goal of healthy landscapes was not so obscured and diverted by an ideological obsession with the imposition of an invented imaginary ‘natural’ world based entirely on native species. Our culture and this version of the ‘natural’ world are not compatible because this vision of nature does not include us and does not promote our connection to the rest of the biosphere; in fact, it undermines this connection.
There has been a great deal of scientific research into the characteristics of traditional and modern agricultural ecologies. The field of “agroecology”, as it is known, has documented the benefits of designing and installing more complex agricultural systems which are based on observation of the function of managed and un-managed ecological communities. It is has been demonstrated that diverse agricultural systems can provide numerous benefits to farming enterprises in terms of productivity and also to the wider community in terms of landscape health. This kind of agroecological approach has been popularly documented within Permaculture literature (for example) and elsewhere but its application has been part of commonsense farming practice for millennia, all over the world. Practices such as: using legumes to support the growth of other crops; maintaining diverse forest systems for multiple products; production of useful plants, shellfish, eels, fish, and ducks within rice paddies and ponds; and using grazing animals to manage groundcovers in horticultural operations; none of these are new. Deliberately cultivated heterogeneous landscapes which include diverse patches of different agriculturally productive systems must be acknowledged as a potential way forward in sustainable farming and land management. A more diverse and healthy farming landscape could be comprised of an integrated mosaic of multi-species forestry, cropping, horticulture, and grazing but this isn’t the advice our farmers and Landcarers seem to be receiving from present systems of NRM support.
What about simply adding a windbreak of chestnuts or other productive trees beside your paddocks? What about a windbreak of apples, hazelnuts, feijoas and honey locust, or other perennial legume, as part of your grazing enterprise? What if someone wanted to plant 1000 Ha of rolling hills to a diverse forest of productive non-native species? This might sound like a healthy farming landscape to some of us, but what are the chances of receiving support from present NRM funding sources for any of the above improvements? Where is the pamphlet or other source of advice that promotes this kind of beneficial agroecology to farmers and land managers? You won’t get NRM funding or support to add productive diversity like this to your unhealthy farm landscape. However, if you wanted to plant some eucalypts somewhere or buy yourself some herbicide you’re in with a reasonable chance.
The great leap forward in Landcare began through an act of cooperation between the National Farmers Federation and the Conservation Council of Australia. This amalgam of farmland management and environmentalism would not have been so very dynamic if it had not been widely recognised as a vital step. Too many farms were suffering from generations of inappropriate management and too many catchments were manifesting landscape-scale symptoms of degradation (loss of soil and biodiversity, salinity, nutrient pollution, etc...). Combining our farmers’ hard work and drive to maintain the productivity of our landscapes with the ecological insights of the environmental sciences improved outcomes for Australian landscape health and for farm productivity.
However, as I see it, the problem in community NRM today (as evidenced by 79% of respondents to a recent national Landcare survey stating “Landcare is in need of reinvigoration”) is that the Landcare movement is only officially supported when it wants to plant natives, fence out stock, or kill ‘weeds’. I reckon that community-level NRM is completely overshadowed by the environmental science side of the original Landcare combination. Trained environmental scientists, whose expertise is in (so called) ‘natural’ ecology, are very typically constrained in their outlook by a self-perpetuating nativist ideology. The perspectives imparted throughout environmental training and within bureaucratised environmental literature are heavily weighted towards the terra nullius view of nature and have very little relevance to agricultural production, except when it will accommodate and promote native species. The only real overlap between this perspective and most conventional agricultural systems seems to be the desire to “combat” weeds; today and forevermore.
I know there is more going on at the grass-roots Landcare level, and I know many Landcare facilitators are supportive of sustainability-related initiatives like community gardens, farmers markets, composting, organic production, compost teas and all sorts of other complementary practices; but have a look at what is officially sanctioned at the higher levels of our NRM bureaucracies, none of these more inclusive socio-ecological approaches are present as yet.
Many Landcarers and would be Landcarers are interested in seeing broader approaches to NRM from our governments and our government agencies. The explosion of interest in the perspectives and practices associated with Peter Andrews and Natural Sequence Farming has been a clear indication of the latent desire, among many, to hear of new approaches to the health and productivity of their land. Most of these people are completely ordinary farmers and land holders who have not been entirely convinced by the standard recipes supplied by NRM agencies to date. What approaches like NSF and Permaculture have offered is an ecological perspective on agricultural management which is free from nativist shackles.
The desire to maintain non-native species like willows as part of our healthy agricultural landscapes is due to the fact that they actually work to stabilise and reverse unhealthy processes of degradation; and they do so in harmony with existing agricultural practices. NSF points out that if you’re farming in an unhealthy landscape the last thing you want to do is going around killing the only things that are managing to grow; we need to look at ways to work in cooperation with natural processes. This is true even if those natural processes manifest themselves as the growth of ‘weed’ species which aren’t in our terra nullius museum catalogue of the ‘natural’ world.
Now, I’m not saying our CAP should be aimed at eradicating native vegetation. What I’m saying is that landscape health can be promoted more effectively (beyond current ceilings) by abandoning a focus upon native vegetation as the only indicator of progress in landscape health. I’m also saying that farmers would do better if they adopted intelligent ways of increasing ecological complexity in their farming landscapes and they should not be compelled to use only native species to achieve this complexity. We don’t have to promote native species to incorporate and support the natural function, health and productivity of agricultural landscapes. In fact the opposite is true; we often undermine natural functions when we remove naturally occurring ‘weeds’ to maintain our ecologically unstable systems. Detrimental landscape outcomes will result whether we do this because we believe monocultural systems are more productive or because we are guided by a perverse ideological desire to impose a doctrine of ‘natural’ terra nullius.
In closing it seems all too obvious that NRM agencies should be enabled to strenuously promote agroecological approaches as a component of their mandate to improve landscape health at the catchment scale. So long as education and funding support are predominantly available only for the eradication of ‘weeds’ and the planting of native species, our NRM agencies will underperform and will inevitably fail us and all of our descendents on this continent.
***Ben Glesson is a Honours student at ANU, a father of two young children and a passionate Landcare member.
Southern Rivers Catchment management Authority: http://yoursaysouthernriverscma.com.au/
Thanks Ben!! And thanks Ron Bastion for sending the original link above.