Accelerating Restorative Change in South Western Australia during COVID Lockdown

Keith Bradby
Alexandra Vlachos


Introduction

In recent decades, a range of surveys and taxonomic reviews have greatly expanded our knowledge of biodiversity richness in south-western Australia. In 2000, it was recognised as one of the world’s 25 most significant biodiversity hotspots, but this well-deserved recognition came with a sting in its tail: biodiversity hotspots were places ‘where exceptional concentrations of endemic species are undergoing exceptional loss of habitat’. Extensive clearing during the twentieth century had decimated its ecological values and had led to further loss of habitat through large-scale land degradation by salinity, wind erosion and soil acidification. In 2000 the need for transformative change to address salinity alone was acknowledged in the state government’s Salinity Strategy which stated that reduction ‘… will not be achieved by manipulating existing farming systems, but by developing new systems that include a considerable area of deep-rooted perennial species’. Little lasting action resulted, and it has now been estimated that salinity is now affecting some 2 million hectares of land, costing some $500 million per year in lost agricultural production, in addition to damaging infrastructure and biodiversity. For biodiversity, survey work as far back as the early 1980s had predicted widespread decline in species across the main ‘wheatbelt’ areas where as little as 7% of the original vegetation remains.

After the Second World War increased mechanisation, improved fertilisers and a commodities boom led to large scale clearing, with over half of the agricultural area in south-western Australia developed during that time. Here a wandoo (Eucalyptus wandoo) woodland is being bulldozed in the early 1980s. Photo courtesy Judy Mathwin.

With government backing, community-based land management programs, like Landcare, commenced during the 1980s and have mobilised much farmer and community effort to mitigate this damage. Almost forty years later, the scale of the problem remains far greater than the resources mobilised to date. Most of the reforestation efforts concentrated on commercial and semi-commercial values, generally utilising simplistic single species tree-based formulae. Despite significant public expenditure, these have largely failed to have a meaningful ecological impact, with the exception being short rotation woodchip-based plantations now well established in the wetter south-west corner. In recent years one extensive privately funded ‘oil mallee’ enterprise has expanded in the drier north-east wheatbelt, along with a number of plantings funded by commercialisation of carbon sequestration.

With ecological loss continuing, and south-western Australia experiencing a long term drop in average rainfall (attributed to both over-clearing and the global climate crisis), attention turned to those few areas where strategic actions at scale can not only stabilise ongoing degradation, but also restore key ecological functions.

Starting

The Gondwana Link program was established as a private sector approach in 2002, on the basis that transformational change of land use is needed to counter the escalating climate and biodiversity emergency. Its vision is for: ‘Reconnected country across south-western Australia, from the Karri forest of the SW corner to the woodlands and mallee bordering the Nullarbor plain, in which ecosystem function and biodiversity are restored and maintained’. This 1000 km vision is strategically placed across the one part of south-western Australia which already has 900 km of connected habitats with only modest gaps of farmed land. It also spans the climate gradient, from wet forest to semi-arid woodland, and is an area where much of the remaining biological richness is concentrated.

The Gondwana Link program extends over 1000kms and has three identified focus areas: the wet forests, the agricultural areas that form a 100km habitat gap, and the 16 million ha Great Western Woodlands.

Gondwana Link at least partially answers the recognised need for a novel form of conservation that addresses the increasing rate and degree of environmental change in the Anthropocene, and the need for large-scale conservation programs aiming at restoring, fostering, and re-connecting ecological function across inhabited, multi-tenured large-scale landscapes.

This opportunistic approach to large scale restoration recognises that the environmental and economic shocks attributed to accelerated climate change require fundamental change in which, as Saxon put it, ‘…management inputs must serve the goal of making the system less dependent on further investment’. This represents vastly different thinking from the more traditional conservation approaches, which have focused on minimalist protection of the most battered areas and on specialised programs focused on the rarest and most endangered species. Mills and others identify scale and speed as crucial factors for the success of community-based conservation initiatives around the globe and conclude that ‘for an initiative to be truly effective, it must also be applied at a meaningful scale’.

Gondwana Link itself has been described in other papers and will only be lightly touched upon here. Since inception its two main focus areas have been on the habitat gaps that span the farmland either side of Stirling Range National park, and on gaining recognition for the significant habitat area now known as the Great Western Woodlands.

Lucia Quearry with Peter and Suzy Luscombe in four year old direct seeded restoration on Peter and Suzy’s Caladenia Hill property, part of the locally led program to ecologically connect Stirling Range and Porongurup National Parks in central Gondwana Link. Photo: Keith Bradby.

On the ground the program is largely achieved through cohesive arrangements across a growing mix of local, national, and sometimes international organisations, reflecting the wide acceptance already achieved of the need for transformational change. Significant ‘proof of concept’ work has been undertaken, including biodiversity focused restoration plantings across some 14,500 ha of farmland, much of it purchased for this conservation use.

The issues being addressed in the Gondwana Link area are but a subset of similar, but larger and more intractable issues being faced across south-western Australia. There is a growing awareness of the limitations of ‘wildlife corridor’ approaches. One of us (KB) summarised this in 1991:

If the role of corridors is to restore the integrity of the Australian landscape and to promote resilience in our landscapes, health in our ecosystems and the survival of rare species, then this involves much more than providing narrow laneways for fauna to scuttle along, under cover of darkness, from one oasis to another. If the aim is integration, then the tools must be integrated, not just with the official nature conservation effort, but with the social, political and economic life of the regions concerned.

Thirty years later, the limitations of narrow corridor approaches are gaining increasing scientific recognition, particularly for Australian ecosystems, which do contain some wildlife migrations, primarily of birds, but are more typified by ‘boom and bust’ opportunistic nomadism.

Gondwana Link’s leadership was well aware that these issues, and the unmet needs they entail, was compounded by the ecological and social risk posed by continuing destructive agricultural practices in and around the broader Link area. Embracing its holistic conservation approach, Gondwana Link has become more cognisant of the need to work as part of a much broader landscape. Already, conservation planning for the Great Western Woodlands had been done in conjunction with Traditional Owners and mining companies, and some properties purchased for ecological restoration have become centres for Traditional Owner healing and cross-cultural activities. Projects have been developed which build tourism income for local people from the ecological values of the area. Gondwana Link has become part of a collective effort underway on how restoration work can improve the health of individuals. A film on the central area of the program, produced in 2019, underlined achievements in both ecological and social restoration across farmlands that are becoming increasingly depopulated by ongoing farm amalgamations.

And then came the time of plague – in the form of the COVID19 pandemic.

Accelerating

In early 2020, as Australians started to hear the news coming out of Wuhan, Gondwana Link submitted an outline of its progress, capacity, plans, philosophical and ‘honest broker’ operational approach to the international conservation body, Global Evergreening Alliance (GEA). GEA was in the early stages of establishing a large privately funded program, called Restore Australia, that was focused largely on regenerative agriculture but with some ecological aspects. After discussions, Gondwana Link was invited to prepare and submit a bid to lead a south-western Australia program, which included the broad WA wheatbelt and other agricultural areas far beyond the areas where Gondwana Link was focused. After some thought the invitation was accepted, on the basis that from a global perspective ecological and agricultural programs had to find their mutually supportive synergies, if restored landscapes were going to survive and grow on a planet projected to have some 9.8 billion humans by 2050. Additionally, in the West Australian context, this seemed an excellent opportunity to break down the ‘Fortress Farming’ approach that had typified agriculture since European colonisation.

As the seriousness of the pandemic became more obvious, Gondwana Link closed its office in March, with staff working from their private homes. At the same time, discussions and negotiations intensified on the Restore Australia prospect with a wide range of key individuals and organisations, in WA and nationally. This put established use of phone and email, plus newer tools such as video conferencing, to a strong test.

Relationships that had been already forged in the spirit of cooperation and trust were drawn upon to establish a core working group with two community and landholder based organisations, the WA Landcare Network and RegenWA Steering Committee. These had good linkages into programs and communities in the wheatbelt and other areas. A broader grass roots alliance was then forged and developed through phone and Zoom, and a set of interim targets, with a strong focus on agricultural change, was established. Long-standing relationships and trust were critical in this exercise, as were the existing networks and a discerning eye on who could be trusted.

Constant discussion was also held with similarly trusted colleagues in the national non-government organisation, Greening Australia, that has been a key part of the Gondwana Link program since its inception. Greening were invited by GEA to lead a geographically larger program across southern Australia, focused on revegetation, and in south-western Australia the Gondwana Link and Greening components are likely to be integrated into a joint approach. Again, this has relied on long term relationships, trust and some cooperative footwork.

The flurry of developing and submitting a complex 5-year program covering tens of millions of dollars in expenditure and millions of hectares in application was developed involving over 20 key organisations. It was an intense exercise that again required trust from numerous organisations, some of whom had not worked with Gondwana Link before. Often intermediaries were used from our core team, people who were known and trusted by these other organisations. Additionally, we should not gloss over the fact that most people contacted were likely beneficiaries of the program, which makes achieving integration and cooperation much easier – it has been observed that mustering cats can be very difficult, unless you have lots of cat food.

A parallel layer of discussion occurred nationally – initially through weekly video meetings led by GEA, with the five other consortiums being established in Australia, and ‘thematic leads’ (largely University based research teams tasked with specific aspects of the national program, such as monitoring and evaluation). This is now an ongoing group of colleagues who are prepared to share key internal information, such as through the collective refinement of proposed contracts, and work across sectors, such as agriculture and restoration ecology, to achieve transformative goals at scale.

Poor farming practices continue to damage habitat linkages across Gondwana Link. Recurrent wind erosion, such as happened in September 2020, buries road verge and other remnants of the original vegetation. Photo: Keith Bradby.

Conclusion

While it is still too early to begin evaluating the success of this collective endeavour, and indeed the larger funding foreshadowed has not yet arrived, its progression demonstrates critical elements that need to be in place if further transformative programs are to be developed and implemented. This has additional timeliness, with the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration starting in 2021. To meet its objectives, which focus on substantial large scale restoration being achieved together with globally sustained food production, Fischer and others have rightly pointed out that ‘the recasting of ecosystem restoration as a social ecological endeavour offers exciting new opportunities for both research and practice’. We could not agree more.


About the Authors

Keith Braby is a long-time advocate for the ecological values of south-western Australia and for the power of local communities. He helped establish some of Australia’s earliest landcare groups, has run building, beekeeping and native seed businesses, consulted to the mining sector, worked in local enterprise development and at policy level in government. He co-wrote and narrated the award winning documentary ‘A Million Acres a Year’, authored ‘Peel-Harvey: decline and rescue of an ecosystem’. Keith is currently CEO of Gondwana Link and Deputy Chair of both the West Australian and National Landcare Networks.

Contact: [email protected]

Alexandra Vlachos is an environmental historian with a particular interest in land management practices and human-nature relations in the Indigenous and Commonwealth settler societies of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. She is keen on learning how to foster resilience and health of socio-natures through the history of Indigenous, local and scientific knowledge. She is a visiting research fellow at the Australian National University (ANU) and has spent 2018-2019 in both WA and the ACT to study the Great Western Woodlands (WA). She has published on European, Canadian, and Australian environmental history and currently teaches at the University of Bern (Switzerland).

Contact:

[email protected]
[email protected]


Further Reading

Keith Bradby, Amanda Keesing and Grant Wardell-Johnson. ‘Gondwana Link: connecting people, landscapes, and livelihoods across southwestern Australia’. Restoration Ecology 24, no. 6 (2016): 827-835.

Keith Bradby, ‘Biodiversity Restoration and sustainable tourism in south-western Australia’, in Life cycle approaches to sustainable regional development (eds.) Fritz Balkau, Stefania Massari & Guido Sonnemann. (New York: Routledge, 2016).

Keith Bradby,‘Data is Never Enough – The Local Approach to Landcare’ In Nature Conservation 2, The Role of Corridors. Dennis Saunders and Richard Hobbs. (Eds) (Chipping Norton, NSW: Surrey Beatty, 1991) pp. 377-385.

Joern Fischer, Maraja Riechers, Jacqueline Loos, Berta Martin-Lopez, and Vicky M. Temperton, 2002. ‘Making the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration a Social-Ecological Endeavour’. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree 2020.08.018 

Global Evergreening Alliance, https://www.evergreening.org/restoreaustralia/

Gonwanda Link, http://www.gonwandalink.org

Government of Western Australia. 2000. Natural Resource Management in Western Australia – The State Salinity Strategy, https://www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/images/conservation-management/salinity/salinity-strategy.pdf

Morena Mills, Morena, Michael Bode, Michael B. Mascia, Rebecca Weeks, Stefan Gelcich, Nigel Dudley, Hugh Govan, Carla L. Archibald, Cristina Romero-de-Diego, Matthew Holden, Duan Biggs, Louise Glew, Robin Naidoo and Hugh P. Possingham. ‘How conservation initiatives go to scale’. Nature Sustainability 2 (2019): 935–940.

Earl Saxon, ‘Future land Use Trends and possibilities in Parks and Reserves’. What future for Australia’s arid lands? Proceedings of the National Arid Lands Conference, Broken Hill, New South Wales, May 21-25, 1982 / edited by John Messer and Geoff Mosley

Alexandra Vlachos, Fortress Farming in Western Australia? The problematic history of separating native wildlife from agricultural land through the State Barrier Fence. Global Environment 13/2 (2020): 368-403. The White Horse Press. doi: 10.3197/ge.2020.130206

Alexandra Vlachos and Andrea Gaynor,(in press). ‘The oldest new woodland on earth: Recognizing, mapping, naming and narrating the Great Western Woodlands’, International Review of Environmental History, 2020.