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Resentment grows as our heritage suffers
Monday 5 June 2000

Men must have somewhat altered the course of nature; for they were not born wolves, yet they have become wolves.

James the Anabaptist in Voltaire's Candide.

Mindful that journalists can be very good at identifying what is wrong with the world and what everybody else should be doing about it, I volunteered along with my daughter to take part in Greening Australia's big Olympic Landcare event at Ravenswood near Bendigo last September.

It rained that day as if it hadn't rained in months. All morning, heavy clouds piled up on a stiff wind. By lunchtime, dark sheets of rain were falling on a grateful, drought-stricken earth and 1000 shivering volunteers digging holes across Ravenswood's denuded Big Hill.

It might have been a big washout, but by the end of the day everyone was soaked and satisfied. We planted 25,000 mixed seedlings and buried 40,000 seeds. My daughter asks often if we can go see how the trees are faring. The finer points of salinity control and habitat restoration might have been lost on her, but she likes the idea she can point out a forest to her grandchildren and say "I helped plant that."

I like that idea, too. So, apparently, do hundreds of thousands of other Australians who are increasingly donating their time and goodwill to saving what little is left and trying to restore some of what has been lost. Australia's remarkable level and breadth of civic participation may just be the best chance our struggling environment has got.

The poor state of the Australian environment is depressing and all-too-familiar news. In terms of its wildlife and plants, Australia is one of the world's 12 megadiverse nations, and the only industrialised nation in the group.

Yet, we also enjoy the dubious distinction of the worst rate of modern extinctions, sparked by white settlement 200 years ago.

The 1996 Commonwealth State of the Environment report and subsequent studies indicate that if anything, the extinction rate is gathering pace. Hundreds of species are on the brink due to the continuing human-induced pressures of introduced competitors and habitat destruction for agriculture, urban development and commodity extraction.

Quite apart from the sad cultural impoverishment of losing unique plants, animals and birds that help define our collective identity and heritage as Australians, the loss of biodiversity directly affects the ability of the land to sustain and employ us. Land and water degradation is already costing farmers an estimated $2.1 billion in lost productivity a year, and rising.

Yet the mid-term review of the $1.5 billion Natural Heritage Trust - touted by the Federal Government as the biggest Australian environmental rescue effort ever mounted - found its key programs such as Bushcare were too small and scattered to improve the overall outlook. Community efforts were further undermined by a policy failure to address the fundamentals of ecologically unsustainable development and land use.

But the review also found trust programs had been hugely successful in raising community awareness. Ordinary Australians, it is clear, are under no illusions about the gravity of the situation, and are more than willing to act.

More than 200,000 Australians are estimated to be taking part in trust programs such as Landcare, Bushcare and Coastcare; 75 per cent of Landcare volunteers are farmers. Almost half of Victoria's country households have at least one active Landcare member.

Participation is very much characterised by the think global, act local mantra.

In the past five years, the Australian Trust for Conservation Volunteers has recorded an eight-fold increase in participation rates. Thousands of school children monitor their local environment's health through programs such as WaterWatch. Urban groups like Friends of Merri Creek are popping up all over the place, enjoying strong resident support and even corporate backing.

In the formal arena of political influence, support for lobby groups is soaring; the Australian Conservation Foundation's membership, for example, is at an all-time high.

Previously disparate groups are being brought together by common interests: earlier this month, the National Farmers Federation teamed up with the ACF to demand governments get serious about paying their share of the estimated $60 billion bill for essential environmental repair and restoration works.

The really mystifying thing about this almost spontaneous groundswell of community concern and activism is the political response. The mainstream political parties appear to think there are no votes to be had in the environment, although they are quite happy to take the credit for the success of Landcare and other programs funded by government grants.

What the parties seem to be missing is the emergence of a widely representative new constituency. The signs are already there, with the NHT mid-term review and 1998 Victorian Landcare survey both revealing a festering resentment about the perceived lack of real political commitment.

People who have spent their weekends planting trees or stabilising erosion along the local creekbed are not taking kindly to the idea their good work is likely to be undone in the long term because governments have failed to get serious about landclearing and climate change.

The politicians might not accept it yet, but the environment, it seems, is back on the agenda.
Claire Miller is The Age's environment reporter.


I decided to post this article as an example of a small story about OZ. It's interesting because it contrasts the political from the ordinary where the groundswell and feelings about issues such as this one run deeply. Politicians would do themselves a favour by listening to this murmur; it'll effect their re-election chances soon.

Regards from OZ

-- Pieter (, June 05, 2000

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