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Privatisation: can it help conserve Australia's biodiversity?

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Thursday 9 December 1999


Speakers' notes


Privatisation - can it help conserve Australia's biodiversity?

  • Dr Denis Saunders, CSIRO Wildlife & Ecology
  • Mr Carl Binning, CSIRO Wildlife & Ecology
  • Dr Jane Gilmour, Earthwatch Austra lia  

Dr Denis Saunders, CSIRO Wildlife and Ecology

Biological diversity is the variety of all life forms; the different plants, animals and micro-organisms, their genes and the ecosystems of which they form part

Importance of biological diversity

  • Provision of critical ecosystem services;  

    - atmosphere and clean air,  

    - freshwater,  

    - soil formation,  

    - disposal of wastes etc
  • Aesthetic and cultural reasons (ie our sense of identity and sense of place)
  • Economic reasons ( provision of food, fibre and medicines)
  • Ethical reasons ( no generation has the right to sequester Earth's biological resources so that future generations do not enjoy the same access) 


    Misunderstanding of biodiversity  

    When people think of biodiversity their minds often turn to large mammals or dominant vegetation (the "koala factor"), but in fact biodiversity is much broader than this, as demonstrated by the astonishing biological activity which goes on in the soil. A hectare of soil may contain more than 20,000kg of earthworms, smaller invertebrates and micro-organisms. 


    Major pressures on biodiversity
  • Increasing human populations and rising demands on natural resources are the primary drivers of threats to biodiversity.
  • Agriculture is a greater past and present threat to biodiversity than mining or forestry.
  • Large areas of the country have been extensively cleared, and now sustain intensive production. These areas now have the highest number of weed species by area and are least represented in our nature conservation reserves.
  • There is very wide variation in the proportion of Australia's Biogeographic regions which are protected by nature reserves - ranging from 0 to almost 50%. Those least protected are those which are of economic or agricultural value.

Most biodiversity is outside designated reserve systems.  

With 6% of the continent in conservation reserves, the majority of biodiversity occurs on the 94% of Australia which is freehold, leasehold or vacant Crown land. Conservation thus requires engagement of the owners and managers of these vast areas of the country. What are the options for engaging them in conservation of biodiversity?  


Integrated landscape management  

The 1996 Commonwealth State of the Environment Report found that Australia would benefit from an integrated approach to landscape management based on a comprehensive system of bioregional planning; that is integrating conservation and production at the landscape scale.

The challenge  

Although we have already lost large amounts of our biota, we have the opportunity to minimise this loss, by intervening now to develop a vision of the landscapes of the future and working towards the development of sustainable land use and landscape rehabilitation.


Mr Carl Binning, CSIRO Wildlife & Ecology

Privatising Nature Conservation  

Traditionally Australia has depended on the creation of national parks to conserve areas of natural and scenic beauty. This has resulted in a network of public conservation reserves that are the envy of the World. An achievement of which we Australians can be justifiably proud. 


But many of our most vulnerable ecosystems (groups of native plants and animals) are found on private land within our agricultural heartlands and nearby our cities. Examples include the temperate woodlands and grasslands of Murray Darling Basin, coastal heathlands, and parts of the arid rangelands.  

Because of the high degree of private ownership and management, traditional approaches to public conservation through national parks will not work in these regions. New and innovative approaches are required. 

In the final presentation of this National Science Briefing Carl Binning, CSIRO Wildlife and Ecology identifies three different strategies for effectively engaging the private sector in achieving conservation outcomes:

  • Government, Business and Community Partnerships - recognition that nature conservation is not just about national parks but must be achieved at a landscape scale with the active cooperation of private landholders
  • Working with Landholders - Strategies for developing effective partnerships with private landholders be developed.
  • Engaging the Urban Population - Exploring opportunities for increased private sector involvement and investment in nature conservation.

Government, Business and Community Partnerships  

The first challenge relates to how conservation actions are planned for and delivered by governments. 


Conservation outcomes will only be sustained if conservation is effectively integrated with other land uses at a regional scale. 


Currently land is managed by tenure. An implicit assumption is that all land tenures, other than formal conservation reserves such as national parks, are of no value for conservation. 


An alternative approach is proposed through the concept of a Conservation Management Network . In this model conservation is planned across all land uses. Rather than focussing on the allocation of land between alternative tenures, the focus is shifted to how different land tenures can most effectively contribute to meeting regional conservation objectives.


Figure 1: A Conservation Management Network 


The concept of a Community Management Network is important because it focuses attention on how effective partnerships can be developed between different landowners and managers. 


No longer is government seen as the sole provider of conservation services. Rather it is the capacity of government to facilitate active partnerships for on-ground action between governments, landholders, local communities (as volunteers), philanthropists (as facilitators) and businesses that will determine the success of conservation policy in the future. 


Effective Strategies for Working with Landholders  

Ultimately it is the actions of private land managers that will determine how effectively many of Australia's most threatened ecosystems and species are conserved. 


There is much debate on how effective partnerships may be engendered with private landholders. One approach, as exemplified by the Landcare movement, emphasises the importance of education and participation to raise the awareness and skills of landholders. An alternative approach seeks to establish minimum standards through regulation of the clearing and management of native vegetation. 


Too often such policy tools are seen as competing mechanisms which should be offset against one another. Our research finds that a mix of these policy instruments is the most likely to effectively achieve conservation objectives. 

The core components of successful policy development can be characterised in the following way:

  • People - the tools that can be used to motivate and retain landholders support for biodiversity programs;
  • Security - the regulatory mechanisms that can be used to provide secure adaptive management of natural areas; and
  • Finance - the incentives that can be provided to share the costs of undertaking conservation works.  


    Figure 2 Elements of Successful Policy Mix  

    Increasingly governments and regional structures, such as catchments committees, are moving to introduce this suite of policy instruments that encourages landholders to become active conservation managers. 

    Examples of some successful programs are included in boxes in the diagram.  


    Engaging the Urban Australia  

    A final and much neglected strategy for achieving conservation objectives is to facilitate greater involvement of the urban population. 


    The involvement of businesses and individuals in conservation programs can be facilitated through establishment of private conservation organisations and trusts committed to establishing on-ground conservation programs. 


    These organisations may use a wide range of strategies for achieving conservation outcomes. Examples include, negotiating voluntary agreements with landholders, facilitating community projects, raising finance for on-ground works, and land acquisition. 


    In the United States organisations of this kind are as significant as the public sector in establishing and funding conservation programs. There are over 1500 Land Trusts that raise funds through corporate and individual donations. The Nature Conservancy, just one such organisation, has an annual turn-over of in excess of $US450 million. 


    Such organisations are beginning to emerge in Australia. The Trust for Nature (Victoria) and the Australian Bush Heritage Fund are leading examples. 


    For their part governments have an obligation to remove impediments to the operation of private conservation organisations of this kind and to encourage private investment through tax incentives - a major driver of private conservation in the United States. 


    In a recent briefing paper: Philanthropy - sustaining the land we identify the following actions to facilitate greater private sector involvement in nature conservation.  


    Conservation Trusts - Put in place legislation that allows for the establishment of private conservation trusts that have broad fund raising powers and that are able to enter legally binding conservation agreements (covenants) with landholders.  


    Tax incentives for donations - To facilitate greater private contributions allow all donations of property to conservation trusts to be tax deductible over five years and exempt from capital gains tax, as allowed for under the Cultural Bequests Program. 


    Private Conservation Reserves - To facilitate the creation of private conservation reserves, allow properties covered by a binding conservation agreement to deduct management costs from taxable income and to be exempt from land taxes and rates.


Dr Jane Gilmour, Earthwatch Australia


Engaging private individuals and the corporate sector in the conservation of Australia's natural and cultural heritage.

The Earthwatch Institute is an international non-profit organisation which promotes the sustainable conservation of natural resources and cultural heritage by supporting scientific field research and education.

In 1999, Earthwatch will have provided in excess of $1m in funds and volunteer labour for Australian environmental research, monitoring and conservation.

Some of the research projects Earthwatch is supporting this year:

  • A research project to determine population distribution of platypus in the Upper Wimmera, where agricultural practices have severely affected natural habitats and waterflows and where the local Landcare group is anxious to use the platypus as an indicator of the success of their rehabilitation programs.
  • Research assessing the impact of commercial fishing and shipping activity in Moreton Bay on the foraging and other behaviour of in-shore dolphins.
  • Monitoring the success of marsupial reintroductions onto Heirisson Prong in WA. 

  • Research to assess the extent to which a fungus disease may be implicated in the decline of various endangered frog species in National Parks and State forests in north-eastern NSW. 

  • Monitoring populations of Leadbeater's Possum and other arboreal marsupials in the Central Highlands of Victoria.  


    Earthwatch supports these and other similar research programs around the world throu gh a unique program of volunteer participation.  


    The volunteers are recruited through our global membership. They go into the field for two weeks, pay a share of costs, which covers all their food and accommodation as well as the other costs of fielding a research team (e.g. vehicles, equipment, research assistants, insurance, program management, etc.). And they pay to get themselves to the field site. They work hard. The research schedule may require them to work through the night, to be up to their armpits in swamp, or to undertake meticulous observations. In return, they learn a great deal, become enthusiasts for nature conservation and know that their data has been useful in putting together the bigger picture.  


    Worldwide close to 4,000 people contribute in this way to 140 research projects.  


    Corporate partnerships  

    Earthwatch also works with a number of corporations that sponsor their employees to participate on projects. For the corporations it is a way of
  • building environmental awareness and sensitivity
  • providing professional development opportunities to their employees
  • assisting sound scientific research
  • developing a constructive relationship with an NGO 



    The benefits of this model are many:
  • A lot of scientifically robust data is collected.
  • Good science to inform conservation decisions.
  • Support for long-term research and monitoring.
  • A network of people who are informed and committed to conservation.
  • The development of a partnership model between corporations and an NGO which has been highly effective in promoting the values of science-based conservation through the direct engagement of corporate employees.
  • Wider public communication of the issues and results.