Dr Victor Squires

Unsung rangelands champion

2019 UNE Alumni Achievement Award

A passion for the vast rangelands covering 40% of the Earth's surface has taken Professor Victor Squires to some of the most inhospitable corners of the globe - from the vast Thar Desert of India to the Alborz mountains of northern Iran. But wherever he roams, it's not the landscapes, but the resilient people who inhabit them that hold him in thrall.

"Millions of people are dependent on the world's rangelands as a source of livelihood and as a place where their culture and religion, arts and crafts can continue to exist," says Victor, an international authority on rangelands management and dryland agriculture. "They are subject to the winds of climate change; they have lived for generations in deep snow or desert environments with howling winds and sandstorms. There is a simplicity about them, yet they have developed the most ingenious coping mechanisms and are among the world's most generous people."

As a well-travelled rangelands consultant since "retiring" from academia, Victor has many a riveting tale to tell about training young scientists in the field and engaging with some of the world's poorest people. He's partnered with institutions and government agencies (like AusAid, the Asian Development Bank, International Fund for Agricultural Development and other United Nations agencies) to address land degradation and protect rangelands ecology, and been a regular contributor to the work of the United Nations Convention  for  Combating Desertification  (UNCCD) and  the United  Nations Environment  Program (UNEP).

"Rangelands can be seen as unproductive and inhospitable, but there are probably no more efficient ways to use land than for grazing livestock," Victor says. "Despite all the documents and speeches saying they are very fragile environments, rangelands are actually very resilient. In Kuwait, even after the invasion of 1990, plants were pushing their way up through thin layers of bitumen, and in fields that had been allowed to regenerate - because they were littered with landmines - we discovered six or seven plant species that were thought to be extinct.

"We all talk about sustainability, but what do we want to sustain - the plants, the biodiversity, the culture of the people, their livelihoods? Often the question 'what does sustainable production mean?' is not even asked."

Victor's scientific career began with postings as a technical officer  and then principal research scientist with the CSIRO in Australia's own dry interior, in western NSW and around Alice Springs. After 22 years with CSIRO he was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Natural Resources at the Roseworthy Agricultural College and later  became director of the National Key Centre for Dryland Agriculture and Land Use Systems at the University of Adelaide.

He's written or edited 20 books and published more than 200 papers on rangelands biodiversity, degradation and restoration, but Victor singles out two key achievements from his 60 years of applied research. The first is a paper he published in 1995, which highlighted the link between desertification and climate change, and vice-versa.

"This idea hadn't occurred to anyone before, but even if our rangelands only produced 10 kilograms of net primary productivity per hectare per year, that's a helluva lot of biomass over such a large area," Victor says. "Drylands are up there sequestering 1.6 gigatonnes of carbon a year, which is more than all our forests, which are being cut down or burnt at an alarming rate. My conclusions led to a number of people getting really excited about this sort of stuff."

Secondly,  Victor is extremely proud of the mentoring he's done in 35 countries - in Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia and "many strange and wonderful places". "When you transfer ideas and change mindsets, people are more willing to consider alternatives, and ideas can spread quickly," he says. "I've always tried to work for the arid lands, but with regard for the people, too."

Since 1986, Victor has undertaken more than 10 projects in the north-western provinces of China, especially in Xinjiang and Gansu. China's State Council recognised his contributions with gold medals for International Science and Technology Cooperation and Friendship, and last year he became the first ever recipient of an Honorary Doctorate from the Gansu Agricultural University in Lanzhou.

Not bad for a boy from the bush, who left school at 15, completed his leaving certificate by distance education while working as a dairy labourer, then earned  a scholarship to attend Hawkesbury Agricultural College. He spent the best part of a decade completing three degrees externally at UNE (studying botany, geography and ecology) while raising a young family and working full-time.

While colleagues highlight how Victor has enhanced our understanding of the world's rangelands and "what arid land science could offer small farmers, agro-pastoralists and the economies of developing countries", his proud brother Don delivers more personal praise.

He says Victor's "undisputed academic and career distinction is not merely a result of his obvious intellect and academic success, but very much a product of his personal strength, determination and drive and the capacity to come from behind ... to rise to a position of international prominence" from very humble beginnings.

For Victor, engaging with people from all walks of life has meant that "every trip, every year is a new challenge and an opportunity to learn". "By taking the path less travelled, I have accumulated a great deal of experience," he says.

Congratulations Victor Squires, a recipient of the 2019 Alumni Achievement Award.