Why we are needed?
Friends of Eyre Peninsula
“Working together towards sustainability”
Those that love conspiracy theories will really enjoy this. Unfortunately, most of it is true.
By Merrick Savage October 2014
A Brief History of Resource Management on the Eyre Peninsula
Matthew Flinders explored and mapped the Eyre Peninsula in the early 1800’s. His log records included notes of areas suited to farming. Sailing up Spencer Gulf from what is now Port Lincoln to Cowell, he noted that the long range of hills forming the backbone of the peninsula was covered in grassy she-oak woodland and not suited to the growing of crops, but it did contain immense areas of grasslands suited to grazing. Later explorers pushed inland and identified grassed plains, eminently suited to both grazing and cropping. Wool and wheat were to become a new source of wealth for the British Empire.
Historically, the British government encouraged the settlement of arable regions of Australia to begin the process of nation building. Dryland farming was to eventually become the strength of the nation, over time producing vast wealth from the virgin soils.
Early settlers were encouraged by both the British government and the newly formed Federation of Australia and State of South Australia to clear and settle the region. Incentives to do this included free passage to Australia and the promise that once the land was cleared and developed for farming, the settlers would eventually become the owners of the land they were developing.
This led to the very first lie that the state of South Australia made to the people of the Eyre Peninsula. It became known as “The Resumption”. In return for clearing the bush for cropping and pastures, plus the construction of infrastructure such as homesteads, grain stores, shearing sheds, wool-sheds, grain and wool loading facilities such as jetties and ports, they would in turn, be able to purchase the land they had developed from the crown at a low price. What actually happened is that after 20 years of hard and back-breaking effort to achieve a working region of farming and potential prosperity, the land was “resumed” by the crown. The settlers were then confronted with land prices so high that only politicians, lawyers and judges in Adelaide could afford to purchase it. And so they did! The early pioneers of Eyre Peninsula could consider themselves as having been fairly thoroughly “Resumpted” by the state. This was the beginning of the flow of wealth from the farming and fishing regions of the Eyre Peninsula towards the capital of Adelaide.
Remember these guys?
Meanwhile, the local aboriginal people who had inhabited the region for many centuries and had developed sophisticated land management strategies to ensure their long term survival, found themselves rejected by government from any legal rights in their own land. Apart from a few sympathizers, the majority of historic records from the region suggest that the original inhabitants were considered as “sub human” and unless they were prepared to give up their savage practices and become workers or slaves to the new regime, they would become interned as prisoners in their own land or more conveniently, wiped out.
The European Farming Model
The process of land clearance for cropping and grazing, plus the development of settlements, towns and eventually cities, continued until the 1970’s when major flaws with the plan of wealth for the empire began to emerge. Over-clearance of native vegetation had exposed large areas of thin skeletal soils to wind and water erosion.
Immense dust storms were so large that clouds of top-soil from the Eyre Peninsula travelled in an easterly direction across the Southern Ocean, then the South Pacific, finally leaving a brown stain on the snowy slopes of the Southern Alps in New Zealand.
Formerly, productive cropping land that had previously held several sheep to the acre had now become vast areas of exposed sheet limestone only capable of holding one sheep to every several acres. Areas that had been originally cleared for cropping were now only suited to sparse grazing. Deep clay soils had also lost their topsoil. By the 1980’s many farmers had found themselves trying to grow crops on the clay base subsoil.
Worse was to come. By the mid 1980’s the clearance of native vegetation over increasingly large areas had contributed to the rapid expansion of a new and little known phenomenon called dry-land salinity.
The original indigenous vegetation had evolved to utilize the average rainfall and to efficiently use available ground-water. Symbiotic relationships had developed over millennium between species of plants, animals and even entire ecosystems to provide the most productive use of available soil, water and nutrients.
It took nearly a century of vegetation clearance, but by the end of the 1980’s the tipping point had been reached. The fragmented remnants of indigenous ecosystems had begun to collapse with catastrophic results. The level of groundwater beneath the soil started to rise and as it did it absorbed salt from the soil profile. In places where the ground-water rose above natural soil level, the soil surface became saturated with salt. The first thing many farmers noticed was a wet patch in a low spot in a paddock. Within a few years the wet patch had become an ever expanding, ephemeral salt lake. The Eyre Peninsula and other farming regions around the country were rapidly and suddenly losing millions of hectares per year to the scourge of dry-land salinity.
It quickly became apparent that the thin soils of Australia, prone to drought and flood, were completely unsuited to the style of farming that had been developed over centuries in Europe and other countries where topsoil may be several metres deep and rainfall more reliable. New techniques of farming needed to be developed urgently or it could be “game over”.
The Land Care Model
Soils boards, agricultural bureaus and animal and plant boards were established to help deal with local issues such as erosion, pest plants and animals. Several offices were established around the Eyre Peninsula, usually staffed by a single officer with a salary paid by local government and assistance from the state. Board meetings were fairly mundane affairs and attended by local farmers, council staff and the occasional expert as a guest speaker. By the time dry-land salinity was reaching catastrophic proportions in the early 1990’s, the meetings were starting to fill halls. Council meeting rooms were crammed with people seeking solutions to help save their properties. The town of Dowerin in Western Australia could not hold such meetings as the town hall was disappearing into a lake of salt. Few solutions, if any were provided. Farmers around the country realized that the sooner they started working together and forming working groups to deal with these issues, the better. The uniquely Australian Land Care movement had been born.
The learning curve that evolved from the banding together of groups of farmers and locals, followed by regional forums, then state and national forums can best be described as vertical. Over-clearance of native vegetation was soon identified as the main cause and everyone set about learning how to re-plant just enough area to stop salinity and erosion, but leave enough clear land for farming to remain viable. Drainage lines and creeks were fenced and replanted. Shelterbelts of trees across paddocks were planted to reduce erosion. Contractors were learning techniques of direct seeding in order to plant millions of trees back into the landscape at low cost. Drainage schemes were devised to move unwanted water around the landscape and the idea of catchment management had emerged.
The cost of this work was beyond the wallets of most landowners and community groups. Funding assistance was sought from government at all levels. Councils provided office space and employed local Land Care officers to work on catchment plans and to help access funding from state and federal governments. State and federal agencies also provided scientific data and funding.
The combined effort of millions of hours of volunteer work, contractor work and government assistance was massive. The Eyre Peninsula alone had over fifty active land care groups with thousands of others spread across the nation. Sharing of knowledge, particularly local and regional knowledge became the norm. Further changes were coming. By the mid 2000’s, the dual scourges of erosion and dry-land salinity could finally be almost considered as nothing but a memory. Dry-land farming throughout Australia was beginning to move towards a new model.
Deep ripping, clay spreading, delving and stubble retention were evolving into new methods of farming Australian soils. Farming in Australia had evolved into something approaching the new catchphrase known as “sustainability”.
Western Australia – The CALM Model
Having served their purpose, many land-care groups went into recess but retained their incorporated status in case future situations occurred. Others evolved into focus groups and new environmental groups were forming to address local issues. Governments had recognized the need to co-ordinate environmental management to avoid similar situations and were formulating a new process of environmental management called “Natural Resource Management”. Western Australia had led the way with a dedicated Act and a new department called CALM or Conservation And Land Management.
As organizations evolve and grow the need for administrative staff begins to grow also. In private enterprise it becomes a balance between the needs of the organization and its administration for the organization to survive. Too much “admin” and the organization will become top heavy and collapse as people clamor to climb the career ladder.
In government, the availability of unlimited funds and resources can lead to the administrative arm of the organization becoming so large that it begins to control the organization. Think education, health and welfare across Australia. Is the dog wagging the tail or is the tail wagging the dog? Combine that with the mining boom in WA (and subsequent royalties) and you will find that CALM had become extremely top heavy. Someone cutting a branch for firewood at a campsite in a National Park would receive the full force of the law and be either incarcerated or fined. In contrast an industry or mining company that destroyed large areas of threatened ecotypes found themselves labeled as “world’s best practice in environmental management”. Royalties were paid, plus payments to universities to provide pseudo scientific evidence.
Local people who possessed a deep understanding that the science had been falsified were ostracized and ignored, even when they could provide significant hard evidence to the contrary.
The politics of local land-care and communities had now become state controlled and a double standard was beginning to emerge. Some would say that corruption had become the norm. This had now become the new model for” Natural Resource Management” throughout the nation.
The Kondinin Model
Pre-existing land-care and farmer groups were promised “executive support” from CALM, but soon realized that the agency was acting more like a front office for mining and big industry and working against the interests of local communities. Many groups folded or went into recession. It was just too hard to fight state legislation. One farmer group from the Kondinin area invited other local groups to join them to form a strong consortium of groups with the ability to fight for the needs and rights of local people. Support from local businesses and local government soon saw groups from all over the state joining forces to eventually become an Australia wide movement with the ability to tackle agencies such as CALM at their own level and to also influence state legislation. The Kondinin group has since developed in to a strong farming advocacy body. Check out their website.
Eyre Peninsula – The NRM Model
The Eyre Peninsula followed the Western Australian CALM model with the formation of the interim “Eyre Peninsula Natural Resources Management Board”. The Natural Resources Management Act and regional boards were initially touted by the state as a conduit between the community and the government.
Four local NRM groups were established across the Eyre Peninsula to facilitate communications between the local community and the state.
The four groups plus any remaining land care groups and local environmentalists soon found themselves as a one way source of information to help establish “The Board”. The groups began to question the validity of the board’s style of management or “miss-management” as some were beginning to suspect. The relationship between “The Board”, local government and the general community had become frayed to say the least. The NRM groups were “dismissed” and any connections between the board and the general community were irreparably severed.
The local community had become irrelevant to the EPNRMB
The EPNRMB had also become irrelevant to the local community
Current members of the board are hand picked by the executive staff for the approval of the state environment minister. If they stand up for the remainder of the community they run the risk of being ejected. Staff members who question the morals of the regime are also “out the door”.
The Super Agency Model
The situation was not just restricted to the Eyre Peninsula. Local communities across the nation faced similar issues. The all powerful NRM boards could now pave the way for mining and industry regardless of the needs of local people. The Adelaide based state government can reap royalties and levies. Who cares about a few farmers and yokels in the sticks when there are big bucks to be made?
As the boards gained momentum with support from the state, the Pest Management Act and the Water Act were added to the NRM portfolio. By 2013 the state regional boards were merged with DEWNR to create an all powerful “super agency”. By 2014 the agency on EP had 70 plus staff and a working budget of $10 million and just to add more confusion for locals, were re-badged “Natural Resources Eyre Peninsula”.
The vast majority of funds are currently spent on generous staff packages, offices and administration. The people of Eyre Peninsula would be lucky to see a tiny fraction of those funds spent on-ground. Local councils are forced to collect an NRM levy and repeatedly question “where does this money go”? It would also be safe to say that regional NRM boards have become universally despised across the state. Many millions of levy and tax payers dollars are currently vanishing into the ever expanding black hole called “Natural Resource Management”.
Even worse, the rise of the regime has led to significant “dumbing down” of environmental management. Without the input of local knowledge and historical context, NRM staff are obliged to provide advice and implement strategies based on generic databases that may have no connection to on-ground realities or issues. Boxes are being ticked to satisfy the administration and the state. Large sums of public monies are being been spent, but the environment and the people of the Eyre Peninsula have become significant losers.
The LASA Model
The Land Care Association of South Australia was formed in the early 1990’s as a body to administrate and assist the then rapidly expanding land-care movement. As the NRM boards began to take control, local community groups and local knowledge were becoming a hindrance to the empire builders. Bit by bit, funding and assistance were withdrawn, effectively eradicating local knowledge and the local community from natural resource management. By 2014 LASA was nothing but an organization in name only despite many brave attempts to revive community input.
In 2014 both the federal and state governments slashed all funding and assistance to any remaining community groups. This led to an outcry nation wide from land-care and community leaders. The federal environment minister backed down and dictated that all NRM bodies across the nation must give twenty percent of all federal funds they receive directly to community groups to enhance the efficiency of on-ground activities. Is there some hope for organizations such as LASA or will the all powerful NRM bodies devise further tricky techniques to retain those funds “in house”?
The Friends of EP Model
The Parnkalla Trail
In Port Lincoln, a group called the Friends of the Parnkalla Walking Trail had battled for many years to fend off a pro-development lobby who saw the unique stretch of pristine remnant vegetation along the Kirton Point foreshore as “prime waterfront real estate”. The FPWT could see the long term value of retaining this area as intact to remain as a place of high amenity, historic and tourism value but they were starting to run out of fight. Appeals to state environmental authorities fell on deaf ears. The state stood to gain revenue from development and agencies such as DEH, EPNRM and EPA were not likely to oppose ecological and historic destruction when there is potential revenue involved. Some locals formed a second group called Parks & Reserves Port Lincoln in 2007 and among other things supported and lobbied for the FPWT cause. They invited other groups to join up and ended up with eleven community groups and businesses holding forums along various sections of the foreshore. The development lobby eventually backed down and the council now views the trail as a “valuable asset to the city” rather than “a future source of rate revenue.” This battle is far from over, but it does provide an example of what can be achieved if like minded people work and stand together.
In the 1980’s members of the Spencer Gulf prawn fishery realized that if they continued endlessly trawling the sea floor, they would eventually destroy the prawn breeding grounds that supplied their livelihoods. A series of meetings were held and the industry voluntarily developed seasonal closures and a quota system based on sampling surveys. The fishermen were not bound to comply with the new guidelines and the more ambitious among them could have ignored them for short term financial gain. Common sense prevailed and The Spencer Gulf Prawn Fishery led the world in long term fishery management at a time when many other fisheries around the planet were collapsing.
The Polda Saga
Most people who reside on the Eyre Peninsula would be well aware of the saga of the Polda basin. Having water conveniently stored in underground aquifers makes for cheap supplies. The state can sell that water at the same price as users in other regions where expensive storage dams are required. The people of the Eyre Peninsula are effectively subsidizing the rest of the state. Groundwater across the Eyre Peninsula in general has historically been heavily extracted. Many would say over extracted and miss-managed to the point of the collapse of water dependant eco-systems and the loss of livelihood for farmers who had traditionally accessed ground-water for stock.
As early as 1991, locals were warning the state that the supply of ground water was in imminent danger of collapse. By the mid 2000’s two sources of water for the Eyre Peninsula, the Polda and Robinson Basins did just that. This was followed some years later by the Lincoln Basin.
People began to seriously question the wisdom of SA Water and the Eyre Peninsula Natural Resource Management Board who were supposed to be in charge of managing the regional supply and protecting water dependent ecosystems. Weren’t they supposed to abide by their own acts of legislation that should have prevented this catastrophe?
Both agencies were being heavily scrutinized by local people who historically knew a lot about underground water. Statistics for bore readings, rainfall and water extraction rates were inconsistent and conflicting with local knowledge. The Eyre Peninsula Natural Resources Management Board went into lock down. Secret meetings were held and no member of the Eyre Peninsula community other than a select few, had access to the proceeds of those meetings for over a year.
The people called for and got a parliamentary inquiry. The state environment minister then ignored most of the proceeds of the inquiry.
Currently, the only thing stopping the state selling the entire remnants of the Eyre Peninsula water supply to a mining company or industry is a small band of locals called the Eyre Peninsula Water Action Group.
Will the State of South Australia come to the rescue of the people of the Eyre Peninsula and supply a solution to the regions water woes? Of course not. That would mean returning some of the revenue that the State has harvested from the people of the Eyre Peninsula. The solution or solutions will need to come from, and, be funded by the local people. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we can set about resolving the situation.
Where to next?
In all of the above examples, changes for the better management of resources have been driven by the local community, sometimes at great cost to the individuals involved.
Environmentalists, farmers, fishers and industry may well have a different perspective on how they view the way that things should develop, but there is always a balance between making a livelihood and destroying the environment that supplies our long term survival. This balance can only be achieved if people work together, watch for the warning signs and most importantly, listen to each other.
Can the people of Eyre Peninsula learn from the lessons of history and create a new model and form a powerful consortium of groups supported by local government and industry? Can we also learn anything from the people who occupied this region for thousands of years to help develop a solid and sound future for local inhabitants? Some of us think so. It will take strong resolve to create natural resources reform on Eyre Peninsula but it can be done if we work together.
Natural resource management organizations should not exist without support from the communities they represent. The inherent corruption of the current NRM model should no longer be tolerated.