Frontiers of the future: sustainability

05 November 2012



The latest edition of Frontier News looks at the challenge of sustainability in remote Australia and how Frontier Services assists those most affected by changes in the environment.

This story from the November edition of Frontier News tells us why a sustainable future lies at the heart of remote Australia.

 If you’re going to be a cow, you might like to be one of Peter Schmidt’s herd. You’ll be part of smaller gang, grazing on carefully monitored perennial grasses, and nothing you eat will ever have been treated with insecticides or fertilisers. There’s nothing unnatural in your diet - you’re a totally organic beast. And what’s more, you’re going to end up on a table somewhere in New York, Hong Kong or Singapore.

Peter is one of a growing number of organic farmers who recognise the benefits of sustainable farming, not just for environmental reasons, but also because of the health and economic bottom lines. He began to run organic cattle 14 years ago and hasn’t looked back. His business is growing worldwide, it’s profitable and importantly, it’s adapting to a changing environment.

Peter’s property is halfway between Cunnamulla and Charleville on the Warrego River.

“I’m a pilot and from the air, you realise we all live in this tiny little cocoon around the earth,” he explains. “When you think about the fact that we put a million new cars on the roads in Australia just last year and China builds a new coal fired power station something like every 17 days – how can you expect that not to affect the environment? Something’s got to give somewhere.”

In Peter’s view, it’s simply impossible to imagine that we can continue to pump huge amounts of pollutants into the air and not expect there to be a major impact on the environment in which we live.

Peter’s lived through droughts – at least three major episodes he can recall – but over the last five years, the rainfall has been unusually high and the seasons have been bountiful.

“I suppose you’d have to say those wild fluctuations could be due to climate change,” he says. “For most people, the evidence doesn’t link these seasonal variations strongly enough to ‘climate change’ to make them take action. But I do think that if you look around at what we’re doing to the environment, it makes more sense to think sustainably for the future.”

It’s a view that is certainly shared by policy makers. ‘Australia’s Farming Future’ is the Australian Government’s climate change initiative for primary producers.

It acknowledges the almost universal scientific evidence that changes are already being experienced in terms of rainfall, temperature and extreme events.

These changes present likely challenges in terms of social impacts (changes to community demographics, health and wellbeing) and economic impacts (changes to productivity levels and markets.)

Another report by the Centre for Housing, Urban and Regional Planning into the impact of climate change on Country Towns highlights similar challenges. Pressures on infrastructure as well as support services like mental health and emergency services are all likely to increase as the impact of climate change is felt in remote areas.

But part of the challenge of adapting to change is accepting that it’s happening in the first place. Since July 2010, Western Australia’s Farm Business Resilience program has, in part, been seeking to educate farmers about climate change. John Cook from the University of Queensland published the results of a survey by researcher Chris Evans into farmer’s knowledge and perceptions of climate change before and after the education courses.

“[Before the course] only 33% reported that they agreed climate change was occurring and just 19% believed that climate change was human induced,” Cook says. “Surveys at the end of the course assessed perceptions, knowledge and attitudes again, now showing that 80% of farmers understood the impact of climate change and variability change on their businesses.”

It’s research that is borne out by the experiences of Frontier Services Patrol Ministers supporting people in remote and rural areas.

“There are families who’ve been on the land forever and what they see are just natural changes – nothing to be alarmed about,” says Patrol Minister Jorge Rebolledo, who supports families in NSW around Broken Hill. “Sure, they see that stuff is happening at the wrong time – a late frost, roses starting to bloom in the middle of winter – but they don’t put it down to climate change. They just adapt – make small changes, shear earlier or whatever needs to be done. I think the attitude is sometimes – ‘We have so much else going on, this has to be someone else’s problem for now’. It’s not deliberate ignorance so much as it is being overwhelmed by the daily issues.”

While there may be some reluctance to embrace theories of climate change, people in remote and rural areas are also renowned for being highly adaptive under pressure. As John Cook points out, “Farmers are some of the most innovative Australians – since 1970 they have lost 7.5% of arable land but they’ve found ways to increase production by 220%.”

Amongst Indigenous people, too, the changes are also seen largely as being part of the ‘natural cycle of creation’, of which people are an intrinsic part.

“Indigenous people would be making very keen observations about what’s going on,” says Lindsay Parkhill, Frontier Services Patrol Minister in Jabiru. “But they don’t equate it with climate change, nor are they anxious about it. Climate change is only real on the television screen. This is not something that people are becoming activists about. Our role is to educate people about what some of the possible implications are and what can be done in response.”

Part of the challenge of helping people adapt to the challenge of climate change is finding appropriate ways both to communicate the issue and to respond to it.

Take the example of new partnerships emerging in the Northern Territory. After the carbon price legislation took effect on July 1, innovative enterprises have begun to look at ways for Indigenous communities to be involved in Carbon Farming Initiatives and meet the challenge of reducing emissions by managing fire – an area of expertise.

The Warddekan Land Management Western Arnhem Land Fire Abatement Project, for example, set out to reduce its carbon emissions by burning early in the dry season when there is less fuel on the ground. The fires, which help the country regenerate, also prevent larger fires later in the year. Savannah fires contribute approximately 40% of the total NT emission profile. Global giant ConocoPhillips is buying the credits generated by the projects on a voluntary basis to offset emissions from construction of its natural gas plant in Darwin.

In this way, the issue is located within the expertise of the people concerned, and it’s also profitable. Which brings us right back to Peter and his cattle.

“People are becoming more and more aware of the issue of sustainability,” Peter says. “There’s more education around carbon management, grazing and looking after plants, putting less stock on the same area. This increases the potential for profitability. This is a good thing, because people will only be interested in the issue if they can respond in a concrete way and if they can become more profitable as a result of changes. Otherwise they can’t afford to stay on the land.”

And that, it seems, is the bottom line.

Whatever support is provided to people in remote and rural areas in response to the challenges of climate change must build on existing expertise and increase resilience, both economic and social. Why does it matter? Because remote and rural areas are the food bowl  of our nation, and they also provide us with many of the mining exports that keeps our economy ticking. If remote and rural areas don’t rise to the challenges of climate change, we’ll all pay the price.

Written by Cath Taylor