About Landscape Change

Ethical landscapes?

Nationally and globally there is an incremental movement towards a lower carbon economy. It might splutter now and again, but in the past two decades there has been a noticeable progression towards factoring non-benign environmental influences into the economic and ecological balance sheet. 

A discussion around the myriad arguments about carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions will be addressed at another time.

It is sufficient to say that a balance has to be returned to our natural capital in South Australia, and the store of carbon should be returned. For decades, carbon has been released from its earthly chambers by mining and burning of coal. In addition, 10.2 million hectares of land clearance has released an enormous store of carbon, when much of the cleared material was burnt and the residue released to the atmosphere.

In both cases – coal mining and land clearance – huge quantities of carbon dioxide have been released and have become greenhouse gases. And all this has resulted from a relatively small population, much smaller than the 1.66 million that inhabit South Australia today. The impact per capita is extraordinary.

Consider the 10.2 million hectares of cleared land. That's 102,000 square kilometres. Imagine just 1 square kilometre, and then multiply that by 102,000 times. It is quite staggering, and that is just in South Australia. 

Australia-wide, land clearance is staggering in its extent, and it is still happening today, mostly in Queensland (where about 500,000 ha is cleared annually) and New South Wales.

Should land clearance become an ethical issue? If the planning and political systems in these states still allow land clearance on a very large scale, what does that ultimately mean for the rest of Australia? The depletion of the carbon store, and ultimately its release into the atmosphere, merely adds to atmospheric CO2 concentration, thereby adding to already troublesome climate change effects.

Land clearance needs to become an ethical issue.

Landscape revegetation

When living in an irrigated area of Victoria between 1987 – 97, I concluded that irrigated agricultural properties would need to give up at least 15% of their space for re-establishment of native vegetation just to remain viable and to limit the dire consequences of rising saline groundwater (this was the conclusion of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission many years later). 

In the South Australian context, dryland farms will conceivably need to convert up to 20% of their land to native revegetation. The same applies to irrigated farms. 

There are sound economic reasons why this should occur, aside from environmental and ecological reasons. This means that 2 million ha would need to be revegetated – it is a staggering figure.

If, as described in this report, we accept that 4,000 ha annually is being revegetated in the state (and I'm not sure if it is this much), then that is equivalent to 500 years of revegetation work. I don't think we can wait that long.

If just 10% of cleared land (i.e. 1 million ha) is revegetated, it would take 250 years at the present rate of 4,000 ha per year. I don't think we can wait that long.

To have a real impact on a changing climate at the state and regional level, what is needed is a new agricultural economy based on a 50 year time horizon of revegetation – i.e. 40,000 ha annually. Not only would this help protect farm incomes, but it conceivably would add to state income.

A new agri-economy

How can this be achieved? By direct seeding primarily. However, any on-farm revegetation would also include new crops (e.g. Guayule, a latex-producing plant with non-allergenic properties; oil mallee for biofuel and other eucalyptus oil products). 

This is an example of the new economy. 

In abandoned, semi-arid, cleared, agricultural land there is potential and opportunity to introduce new crops – there just needs to be the will.

I predict right now that the rural sector would resist allocating 20% of land to revegetation, but what is happening on the farm is generally not "best practice". I say "generally", knowing that there are some great examples of enlightened farming. But in some areas what has befallen the landscape has been "poor practice".

A better way of farming in the 21st century in South Australia involves the following, and they are all very simple; there's nothing complicated about them:

  • vegetation buffers along all paddock fences
  • fencing off paddock trees to at least twice the height to allow micro ecosystems to evolve and for tree survival
  • establishment of native vegetation corridors linking remnant scrub
  • exclude cultivation within a 20 metre zone of watercourses
  • exclude cultivation within 10 metres of the edge of woodlands for the establishment of understorey
  • revegetate land that has remained idle for years or abandoned
  • exclude grazing from existing woodlands to allow understorey to re-emerge
  • exclude grazing on hilltops, ridgelines, and fragile hilly zones

Land owners may be surprised at how much can be achieved from these actions, and the economic benefits that can be derived.

Some outcomes of landscape-scale revegetation are :

  • establishment of new businesses and support services in rural and regional economies in land restoration
  • substantial flow-on effects, with jobs and businesses created in site assessment and monitoring, native seed production, direct seeding, native crop products harvesting, establishment of new markets in sustainable products, higher education etc.
  • participation in the voluntary carbon market (it exists right now) in the interim whilst the carbon pricing mechanism/ETS issue is evolving at the political level
  • farm diversity in seed production and new crops
  • provision of a buffer to economic and climatic (drought) cycles
  • scope for local government to use its enormous vacant road reserve inventory for revegetation corridors and participation in the carbon market
  • participation in the provision of environmental services (refer to “Creating Markets for Environmental Goods and Services: A Mechanism Design Approach” by Gary Stoneham, Research project number DSE3 of the Social and Institutional Research Program, Land & Water Australia - Project completed June 2007)
  • bio-energy potential
  • improved crop output by reduction in soil moisture loss

These aspects have all been examined by others in the past, so there's nothing new here. But what is needed is an integrated approach and a commitment to a new rural economy embracing these ideas.

Neither the State Strategic Plan nor the Adaptation Framework, nor other government/agency plan to my knowledge, have examined the scope for massive revegetation of the cleared landscape as proposed above.

How is landscape-scale revegetation to be funded?

Funding of revegetation has always been a thorny issue, as it is seen by land owners not to produce tangible economic benefits. This is not true. An interesting report by CSIRO “Market-Based Instrument approaches to implementing priority revegetation in the South Australian Murray-Darling Basin” (December 2005) concludes the following …

“We have found that conservatively, revegetation of deep-rooted perennials for both biomass production and carbon trading are likely to be at least as profitable as existing agriculture, particularly sheep grazing in spatially optimised locations. At higher prices, both activities are likely to be substantially more profitable than existing agriculture over much of the SA MDB.”

Should such an exercise be extended to all agricultural areas of the state, then it is logical that there would be negligible decline, if any, of farm income in the future. It is the diversity that improves income yields.

UPDATED December 2011, February 2014

See On-Ground Action at the Blog for more ideas. 

Go here --> a detailed proposition about a new agri-economy 

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