Institute acknowledged for its rural vision

Published 06 May 2008

countryside.jpgThese include two highly competitive Commonwealth Environmental Research Facility (CERF) grants, only 10 of which were awarded out of 235 applications from around the nation, and funding for an international project addressing the threat of avian influenza.

One of the CERF projects, led by Dr Graham Marshall, examines the best ways to improve economic accountability when using decentralised, collaborative approaches to environmental decision making.

“Classic methods of economic evaluation of natural resource management actions assume that the decisions are made top-down by centralised government,” Dr Marshall said. “This limits relevance for evaluating decentralised programs where decisions are reached locally among stakeholders. The team aims to develop a new approach to economic evaluation that meets the needs of decentralised and collaborative natural resource management, and that can be implemented with the resources and skills available at regional and local levels.”

In the second CERF-funded project, Dr Elaine Barclay, Director of the Institute's Centre for Rural Crime, and Dr Robyn Bartel from UNE's Department of Geography and Planning are studying the positive contribution farmers make to sustaining the environment.  “All too often, farmers are blamed for environmental degradation and their positive actions are overlooked,” Dr Barclay said.  “The study will also identify the obstacles that farmers face caused by events outside their control or by the actions of others in managing natural resources.

“We expect that the findings of this survey will raise awareness, among the wider public and policy makers, about the contribution farmers make as well as the problems they face in maintaining the environment, and about farmers views on environmental stewardship.”

The Institute is involved in a variety of international research projects. A new $1.1 million project funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and led by Dr Ian Patrick will work with the Indonesian government, universities, and the poultry industry to develop and implement a community and industry-led response to the problem of avian influenza in Indonesia. Beginning next month, the four-year project will develop cost-effective biosecurity measures for semi-commercial poultry producers.

“This research will be the first in Indonesia to approach the bird flu problem from the angle of farmer incentives rather than just government regulation and policy,” Dr Patrick said. “It will also provide important lessons for the continued development of biosecurity strategies in Australia, and help minimise risks of a pandemic.”

The wide range of IRF research cuts across many traditional disciplines. The Institute is researching the nature of incentives in sustainable land management; environmental offsets; nesting of institutions for resource governance at multiple decision-making levels and geographic scales; past, present and future landscape change related to “sea-change” population growth and development on the north coast of NSW; social and economic factors in weed management; climate change adaptation at local government and regional scales across Australia.

The Institute has a long history of research on water management and policy. After the success of a recent project on social and community issues in water trading, the National Water Commission has again engaged the Institute and its collaborators to undertake an integrated assessment of the key social, economic and environmental impacts of water trading.

“It is only through understanding the processes and impacts of change that rural and regional communities, policy makers, government, and the private sector can plan for a sustainable future,” said the Director of the Institute, Professor David Brunckhorst. “For example, improving our ability to recover from the aftermath of drought, while maintaining ecosystem services for a variety of land use options in the future, contributes flexibility to adapt to future pressures of change.”

Professor Brunckhorst continues to build a program of research aimed at understanding how best to identify windows of opportunity for more rapid adaptation and transformation of resource governance towards sustainability. An IRF Geographic Information Systems modeller – Phil Morley – and his colleagues at the Desert Research Institute in the United States are studying the social and ecological drivers of changing landscapes in order to gain insights for the design of plausible and practical alternative futures.

The research, policy advice and publications of the IRF are highly regarded in Australia and overseas. A leading researcher with the US Department of Agriculture, Professor Mike Scott, said recently: “The Australia-based Institute for Rural Futures continues to break ground in the new field of sustainability sciences. Having searched far and wide, we know of no other visionary and insightful amalgamation of applied research into usable policy and practical application for issues we also face in integrating conservation, resource use and management issues. Professor Brunckhorst and his IRF team lead the world in this complex and challenging research.”