120 – The Landcare boom

In the 1990s, the centrepiece of policy for natural resource management in Australia was the National Landcare Program. Responses from readers of my last Pannell Discussion have identified various segments within the group of Landcare policy stakeholders, and pointed out that they had different motivations for supporting the policy. These motivations were not always related to the achievement of natural resource outcomes.

Neil Barr, a social scientist from Victoria, provided a detailed response to my comments about Landcare in the last Pannell Discussion (PD#119). This PD is sprinkled with quotes from his email (reproduced with permission).

His comments reinforce my observation that there was a Landcare boom, a wave of unrealistic enthusiasm, which came and went. There is still a National Landcare Program, with its regular conferences and awards for great work, and many regional Landcare coordinators working with farmers. But Landcare is no longer the main plank in the government’s environmental policy, and overall there is much less enthusiasm and more realism than there was.

Neil was one of the earliest public critics of Landcare, including in a conference paper from 1994 (Barr, 1994).

“The paper made some criticisms of Landcare back when it was extremely unfashionable to do so. In fact, it could be bad for one’s career, as a colleague of mine discovered. The paper argued that a number of implicit beliefs about Landcare were myths, including:

Myth 1: Landcare is a universal extension mechanism.

Myth 3: We need to develop a Landcare ethic in the farming community.

Myth 4: Landcare is a mechanism to achieve Integrated Catchment Management

Myth 6: Landcare needs plans but not priorities.”

In PD#119 I pointed out that there had been reservations about the more recent regional model for NRM, but that in general people just got on with trying to make it work. Neil observes that something similar happened with Landcare too:

“I wasn’t the only one thinking these thoughts in the midst of the Landcare boom. I took a private poll of opinions of facilitators and extension staff amongst others as part of this paper. Most were too apprehensive to say anything in public.”

How is it that a program can continue to garner active support even when many stakeholders have reservations about it? Neil astutely breaks down the pool of policy stakeholders into several distinct segments, and points out that they had different reasons for supporting the program:

“1. The passionate enthusiasts who built the rhetoric and the myths with the best of intentions.

2. Policy naïves who generally had no experience of service delivery, but who grabbed Landcare and ran with it, without really questioning the assumptions. I think they fell into a common trap: seeking a cheap solution as a substitute for expensive investment in outcomes. Any inexpensive solution to a complex policy problem is an illusion. Convenient illusions are the most seductive.

3. The quiet doubters who did not believe the myths, based on their own experience on the ground. Often they realised their careers were dependent on the latest policy enthusiasm and felt it best to shut up and get on with it, or to quietly resist.

4. Policy cynics who didn’t believe the claims, but who saw an appearance of belief as necessary to maintain funding.

5. Farm representatives who saw Landcare as a vehicle to defuse urban community concern for the environment. It was a relatively low-cost and unthreatening option compared with regulation.”

My colleague Sally Marsh pointed out that the policy naïves tended to be strong believers in Myth 3 – they had no idea about the weak link between awareness (or even attitudes) and action. Sally also commented that the quiet doubters and policy cynics were crucial in supporting Landcare. They formed a sort of Landcare industry, and they came to rely on the program for resources and employment.

Support for the program by each of these groups tended to reinforce each other, with the result that they swamped the few members of a sixth segment, consisting of the cautious and the skeptics still interested in debating the assumptions behind Landcare.

Relating this to my proposal that there developed a zeitgeist in favour of Landcare, it indicates that any zeitgeist that existed was very complex. It included elements of genuine passion and belief, naïvity, self censorship, security of employment, some empire building, and self defense. Such a mixture of mutually reinforcing interests is hard to counter because there is such a diversity of views and motivations involved. Pointing out weaknesses in the program would not even be relevant to several of the groups – they already knew.

Neil Barr suggests, and I’m inclined to agree, that this sort of thing is not unique to Landcare, but is relevant to other government programs; people and institutions generally will try to fit in with policy directions in order to capture funds:

“We can look back now and see the same sorts of behaviours in the Natural Heritage Trust, the National Action Plan or Salinity and Water Quality and the early water debates.”

In each case, there is a variety of interests with different reasons to support a new program or policy direction, and there is an unwillingness to consider dissenting voices until we reach an appropriate point in the policy cycle (and they are still not particularly welcomed then, of course). To me it highlights how careful policy makers should be when they embark on policy experiments, because the very existence of a program brings about vested interests in its continuation.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Barr, N. (1994). Landcare from inside-out and outside-in. The Australian Farm Manager 5, 2–10.

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