National conference addresses change in rural communities

Published 28 April 2010

cottonA three-day national conference in Narrabri last week highlighted the unprecedented changes that are facing rural communities in the upper Murray-Darling Basin.

More than 400 delegates from NSW, Queensland and Victoria attended the “Sustaining Rural Communities” conference, which addressed issues relevant to rural communities throughout Australia.

The University of New England’s Professor Paul Martin told the conference that the level of change necessary in the upper Murray-Darling Basin called for a “total community systems” approach to intervention rather than a piecemeal approach.

As an example of such an integrated approach to change, Professor Martin – who is the Director of the Australian Centre for Agriculture and Law at UNE – talked about UNE’s Rural Resurgence Initiative. This initiative aims to provide rural communities with better access to information and, through that, to address a range of challenges including healthcare, schooling, and resource management. Emerging from this initiative, Professor Martin said, were new approaches to innovation adoption and the engagement of researchers with the community that had the potential to assist constructive change.

“UNE has research under way in relation to many of the issues involved that could be of real benefit,” he said. “The real challenge is finding effective ways to help communities engage with the University in order to use this knowledge.”

Professor Martin said that the major factors contributing to the necessity for change in the upper Murray-Darling Basin were the impact of the cotton and mining industries on communities, the reduced availability of water, and the loss of many farmers from the region as they reached retirement age.

“The response by delegates at the conference suggested that they were keen to find ways of dealing systematically with a period of change more rapid and far-reaching than anything they had experienced before,” he reported.

The conference was convened and sponsored by the Cotton Catchment Communities Cooperative Research Centre (Cotton CRC) and the Cotton Research and Development Corporation, with additional sponsorship from (among others) UNE, AgriFood Skills Australia, and the Namoi Catchment Management Authority.

Speakers included Peter Shergold (Macquarie Group Foundation Professor at the Centre for Social Impact, University of NSW), Dr Linda Botterill (Director of the National Institute for Rural and Regional Australia at the Australian National University), Dr John Buchanan (Director of the Workplace Research Centre, University of Sydney), Joanne Grainger (Chair of Cotton Australia and Vice-President of the Queensland Farmers Federation), Danny Lester (CEO of Aboriginal Employment Strategy), Sylvia Admans (CEO of the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal), and Su McCluskey (CEO of the Council of the Rural Research and Development Corporation).

Kate Schwager, Community Officer for the Cotton CRC, said the “Sustaining Rural Communities” conference had been so successful that another one was planned for next year.

Ms Schwager said that reports (including audio recordings) of the proceedings of the conference were already becoming available on the Cotton CRC Web site: http://www.cottoncrc.org.au. People who would like to be involved in the active “Sustaining Rural Communities Network” that was established at the conference can contact her on (02) 6799 2477.

Clicking on the cotton-industry image displayed here reveals a photograph of Professor Paul Martin.