Conservation v. Sustainability
The words "conservation" and "sustainability" are often used almost as if they were interchangable in meaning. There is a general impression in the community that a person who aims to farm land sustainably will need to also need to be a conservationist and, vice versa. The view is, that it is necessary to conserve native plants and animals everywhere in the places that they presently exist if we want to be sustainable.
Coupled with this perception is the assumption that farmers should pay all the costs associated with being sustainable since it is his future that he is sustaining and that naturally he needs to conserve native flora and fauna as a part of that process.
The two ideas of "conservation" and "sustainability" are closely related so it is natural that are sometimes confused in the minds of people who have no direct involvement in either of them. The aim of this article is to clarify the confusion.
The word sustainability is usually used to mean sustainable production of agricultural products, that is farming the land in such a way that it stays healthy and productive and will be in as good or better shape in a hundred years time as it is now. Landholders will use any mix of species (native or exotic) to achieve this ends. They generally have few ideals but many practicalities to shape their choice of species
Some examples of farming sustainably might be;
managing grazing so that a healthy pasture is maintained and the soil is protected from exposure and erosion,
cropping systems that protect against soil loss,
managing healthy root systems in the soil where salt may be problem so that minimal excess water drains into the water table thereby preventing dryland salinity.
In intensive situations examples might include;
Carting and spreading of manure from dairys and piggeries back onto the land to prevent water table pollution and to return nutrients to the soil,
Fertilizing with trace elements that have been gradually removed from the soil after years of intensive production,
Being very careful with herbicide and pesticide use and avoiding them altogether where possible.
All these things are the responsibility of individual farmers, and farmers expect to carry the cost of achieving them. Some sustainable practices such as repairing salt damage may be beyond individual farmers ability to repair completely on their own because the damage has been going on for so long before anyone realised the cause of it (and even now there is still some debate about the cause) In fact governments may be spending millions of dollars planting trees only to find out in the future that their assumptions were wrong. See Dr. Christine Jone's article on salinity.
Farmers will spend time and money on these issues because it is their job to produce food and fibre for the world and they want their farms to continue to be able to do so indefinitely at least as well as they are doing it now. After all, population growth is continuing dramatically and farmers do feel some aspect of responsibility to feed the world.
To quote from "Environmental Science" (a current university Environmental Science text book), "If populations continue to grow at present rates, the production of food must double or triple by the first decade of the next century for all people to be adequately fed."
The word conservation is generally used to means the conserving of the diversity of plants and animals that live in the world and sometimes includes the concept of conserving the various genetic strains with-in species as well as the actual species themselves.
This is of course a vitally important aim. Once a species is extinct it is gone forever and no change of mind can bring it back again so surely our society has to make every effort to maintain all species of plants and animals (even the ones we don't like very much!). As a society we have to not just provide for a species for this year or this decade. We have to have a plan that will work for centuries to come which is why on the home page of this site we refer to "sustainable conservation".
People assume when they hear the word conservation that it means to "lock up" a certain area of land and "leave it in it's natural state". Supposedly the plants and animals that live and interact there will continue on indefinitely. At present when land is set aside like this few checks are done to see if the land is continuing to maintain the ecosystem that we were worried about. As far as is possible we need to make regular checks to see if the method of conservation we have chosen is succeeding. We can not check every species in an ecosystem of course (this would include creatures such as insects and micro-organisms) but we can monitor plants fairly easily and we can monitor animals at the top of the food chain (who would show signs of distress if anything is wrong further down the food chain) and we can monitor any species we know of that are either naturally rare or threatened by some other unnatural process.
One example of where this "lock it up and leave it to nature" has failed is in so called "brittle" areas (where humidity is low and rainfall irregular ). Domestic stock have been removed from sections of land in these environments and the pastures and native wildlife were expected to thrive. For the first few years they did do a bit better, but then they gradually declined and the land declined and began to desertify. By this time monitoring of the areas had stopped and only local people (who governments and scientists do not often listen to) know that the system is failing. *The reason is that plants need to be grazed (but not overgrazed) to stimulate their health and the carbon and nutrients from the grasses is not reentering the soil and recycling but being blown or washed away (see Salinity articles and grazing)
We can't assume that we know everything about an environment - some small thing we over look can have a dramatic effect years later. Of course it would be very expensive and time consuming to be constantly monitoring and adjusting management over large areas of land set aside for conservation, but if conservation is important to us then it should be done properly.
Is this the only way to conserve though. Is it even the best?
Another option might be to farm certain animals for food or to sell for pets or to zoos etc. For example Koalas as pets, certain microorganisms as break down agents for pollution, Australian native plants as foods. The advantage of this option is that any product that finds a market will be well protected from extinction (who ever heard of sheep being a threatened species!) Those species that are used would be protected at no cost to the community (in fact they may even stimulate extra wealth in the community) .
Some disadvantges are that we could never protect all species this way (for many it would be difficult to find a use), and in agriculture only certain preferred strains are likely to be preserved (even well known plants like potatoes are at risk of having many varieties lost if a consious effort to continue growing them is not made.)
Which ever approach is used, for conservation to be sustainable, it must be monitored.
One approach the governments seems to be taking to achieve some conservation is to legislate so that anyone who owns land on which native plants or animals (or whole ecosystems) exist can have their property rights resticted or taken away. Landholders may lose their rights to
Putting in new fencelines
Having stock in concentrated herds
Even driving across a paddock
Landholders are saying that if they lose those property (managerial) rights, then they should be compensated for what they have lost. They paid for those rights when they bought the land and to have them legislated away is nothing short of theft.
In this situation the government is sometimes saying the cost is too great for the community to bear. Landholders say it is even more unfair to impose that cost onto individual landholders. Australians in the city are blindly continuing on voting for green groups and pressuring governments to conserve species while ignoring the devastation and injustice they are imposing on their fellow citizens in the country.
This problem would be bad enough if all landholders were equally effected and each had to give up an equal share of their land but in fact the burden is distributed very unevenly. It falls the heaviest on the properties that still have the most native species.
These properties, where least development has occurred are having their property rights taken away from them more than most. The properties where every square inch has already been developed with non-native species have nothing to preserve and therefore suffer no restrictions.
In communist countries the land was confiscated in the name of the welfare of the people. In Australia the land is being confiscated in the name of the environment. The reason may be different but the result will be the same.
Not only do landholders have to fight for their rights, but they also see the methods of conservation not achieving the purpose of conserving native plants and wildlife properly.
In many cases (in the more brittle areas) they know that if they obey the restrictions placed on them, then the land will decline, grass cover will become sparser, erosion will increase and the land will become more prone to floods and drought.
If they walk off the land it will become overburdened with feral weeds and animals and native wildlife will suffer. What a terrible position to put someone in who loves the land.
Because these changes will happen very slowly (over years or decades) and because no one is monitoring the changes then there will be no one to give warning of them.
This leads to a situation where landholders are being given every motivation to destroy native plants and animals wherever they find them. In the US they call it the three SSS`s - Shoot, Shovel & Shut up.
When landholders are required by law to manage their land in certain ways it encourages them to look for loop holes where they can obey the law and still make the intention of the law fail. For example, the law may require them to graze no more than a certain number of cattle on a certain paddock in order to preserve a particular species of perennial grass. This may or may not protect the grass but the landholder may decide to exclude all cattle for ten years until that particular perennial grass has died out through over rest. He can then say there is no more conservation use for that land and try to regain the managerial rights.
Because landholders know their own land better than governments and scientists who decide the guidelines that cover vast areas, the landholder is likely to always be in a position to destroy what the community wants preserved even if it may destroy his livelihood in the process. If legislation has already destroyed his livelihood what does he have to lose? Likewise, if his livelihood is already destroyed why should he actively protect his land from feral animals and exotic weeds? After all, if his land becomes completely covered with a plant like rubber vine or parthenium, conservationists may lose interest in it and he may one day get it back. These examples may sound extreme, but injustice brings about extreme reactions even in the nicest people, and especially over land.
Conservation versus sustainable production
You may still believe that sustainability and conservation must go together. They often can, as in the example of farming native animals. Also many insects, soil life, native birds, insects and even mammals thrive in the crops and pastures grown to produce food for people. They can also help in the production process as well. Crops could not grow at all with-out healthy soil life and many of the native birds keep down the numbers of insects that could attack crops.
But there are times however when practical sustainable production requires a limiting (and perhaps sometimes even an eradication) of many species that conservation would be aiming to encourage. Here are some examples.
Native Species it is best to limit in a sustainable production enterprise
Native Birds that destroy crops, or spread invasive weeds- by their continued existance they can cause problems for a sustainable food producing system
Native Crocodiles can kill stock being managed to sustain the grazing land.
Native Wedge tailed eagles can kill lambs and even calves (see Dennis Fahey`s interview) in a sustainable grazing enterprise
Native species it is best to eradicate in a sustainable production system
Heartleaf - This native plant can be very toxic to animals at certain times of the year and graziers dig it out whereever possible. In time this plant is likely to become endangered. There is no present use for heartleaf in a sustainable system. Even conserving a few plants is likely to kill many stock.
Dingoes - This native animal is destuctive to a graziers enterprise for two reasons
(1) Destoying or mauling stock
(2) Scattering stock and wrecking good grazing management which is aimed at stimulating grasses and improving soil health.
Conserving even a few dingoes leads to their numbers breeding up and causing many problems to grazing enterprises viability.
(* Dingoes also reduce many native animal numbers as well)
However the main conflict with conservation and sustainability is in the productivity area of a sustainable farming enterprise.
For example, If conservation was every landholders primary objective, then by conserving every native plant and animal, and not allowing non-native plant species to thrive would reduce productivity and viability enormously in many areas of Australia.
Dairying and grain growing cannot exist in a competitive market place without exotic pasture and crop species.
Highly productive Grazing is reliant on different grass species across Australia but in general is based on both native and exotic grasses.
Not all Australian tree species are suitable for profitable timber production.
Meat, milk & fibre production from native animals is not very efficient either.
Sustainable conservation and sustainable production are two different things and though they mostly support one another at other times they are in conflict.
When they are in conflict and the wider community considers that conservation is the primary use of certain land, then the community must pay the landholder for all the costs associated with this conservation, or buy the land.
Of course some landholders voluntarily bear the cost of conserving something special on their own land. More community appreciation should be given to those that do.
Where costs are incurred in using the land sustainably for production then it is expected that the cost would be borne by the landholder.
The community may be willing to help landholders if it is beyond their capacity to pay and if the landholders did not consciously create the problem in the first place.
Whatever the methods of conservation or sustainable production, monitoring for sustainability of production and conservation is always vital.
This whole issue in all it's complexity needs to be discussed and debated nationally.
Just and successful solutions need to be found and agreed upon by us all as a nation.