Rural communities in northern Victoria are being affected by a diversity of factors and trends including:
Economic: declining terms of trade for agricultural products, expected increases in input costs (e.g. water, fertiliser and fuel), as well as emerging opportunities for ‘eco’ products and markets for ecosystem services;
Social: changing demographics of rural communities, ageing farming population, coupled with the growth of ‘lifestyle’ farmers;
Political: willingness of state and federal governments to invest in land and water reform as well as a community expectation of agriculture being sustainable;
Environmental: 13 years of drought and predictions of a drier future under climate change coupled with pre-existing over-allocation of water have brought the region’s rivers to the brink of ecological collapse. At the same time, Victoria is facing a biodiversity crisis with the state rating very poorly in terms of extent and connectivity of native vegetation, number of threatened species, salinity risk and condition of riparian zone.
Water reform: All irrigation districts in the GMID are steadily losing water entitlements by trade to other areas. (26) This movement of water, coupled with future uncertainty over reduced water allocations and climate change, is driving a re-think of traditional irrigated production in some areas.
The combined impact of these trends is to reduce the resilience of communities and their capacity to adapt to change. They also mask an underlying threat: ‘Survival has required increasing precision and productivity. Under the weight of such demands, it has been easy to overlook a threat to agriculture that is more silent and insidious – the eroding natural resource base of the farm and accumulating impacts at the catchment scale.’ (27) This decline in natural capital is the challenge that faces northern Victoria that ‘business as usual’ will not resolve.
Land and Water Australia recognized the problem and developed an integrated conceptual framework for planned landscape change which “identifies the underlying landscape-scale processes that drive natural resource condition and the fundamental principles of strategic institutional responses.” An example of an approach to resolving a ‘wicked’ problem, the framework is an integration of community and social values, physical and social landscape processes, and landscape planning and management tools. (28)
Putting this kind of thinking into practice is a major challenge and requires significant effort and investment. Some responses to the challenge are outlined here.
(26) Water Trade in Northern Victoria 2007/08 and 2008/09. Victorian Water Register
(27) Williams, J and Mckenzie, F (2008) Australian Agriculture; Redesigning for Resilience in ‘10 commitments to a lucky country’, CSIRO Publishing
(28) Hajkowicz, S., Hatton, T., McColl, J., Meyer, W. and M. Young (2003) Exploring Future Landscapes: a conceptual framework for planned change, CSIRO Land and Water Australia, Glen Osmond SA, p. 5