Reengaging with the ethic of environmental stewardship to guide conservation funding for private land

The Government recently tabled its State of the Environment Report 2016 Overview in Parliament. The Overview reinforces the continued need for private land to deliver biodiversity conservation outcomes. While our national parks and other public lands are generally considered the focal point for conservation efforts, it is formally acknowledged that public land in isolation is not enough to achieve a comprehensive and representative National Reserve System. In this post, Drs Benjamin Cooke and Katie Moon explore opportunities to improve policy outcomes through re-engagement with the ethic of environmental stewardship.

Environmental stewardship

Policies aimed at encouraging private landholders to contribute to conservation goals have embraced the ethic of environmental stewardship. The core assumption of stewardship is that landholding involves a responsibility to current and future generations to care for the environment.

Landcare has long been the most prominent and recognisable Australian environmental stewardship program focused on private land. Landcare represents a model of community collaboration that seeks to encourage cooperation between landholders on land management problems of local relevance.

Examples of problems include weed management, revegetation and erosion control. Yet, a policy shift towards market mechanisms, otherwise known as neoliberal environmental governance arrangements, has resulted in funding moving away from collective action initiatives, like Landcare, towards individualised conservation contracts for individual properties.

While increasingly normalised neoliberal programs (e.g. reverse auction tenders) appear to be delivering on a) private needs, such as providing funds to fence off a conservation area; and b) property level conservation benefits, such as erosion control, the extent to which they deliver public good conservation outcomes remains unknown.

The public good dimension of stewardship is important to account for because it essentially encapsulates the well-established ethical notion of being an ecologically and socially responsible custodian of the land for the good of both people and ecosystems into the future. If conservation policy is to deploy the language and ethic of stewardship, then it must do more to balance the current focus on individual landholders and properties with attention to collective actions and species’ interaction at wider scales and over longer time frames.

Some ways forward for private land conservation policy

What is missing from neoliberal ‘environmental stewardship’ programs is clear consideration of the public good dimension, appropriate spatial and temporal scales, and transparency. We provide a handful of suggestions to direct policies and programs back towards a more accurate conception of stewardship to increase the longevity of conservation outcomes and reduce the likelihood of social and ecological fragmentation.

We offer a definition of environmental stewardship that unpacks the public good for private land conservation:

the responsible provision of private good benefits to landholders for the delivery of long term public good ecological benefits to society that are sensitive to the landscape scale of ecosystem function, while encouraging collaborative conservation action across private property boundaries(Cooke and Moon 2015 p155).

We see a direct role for this definition in challenging private land conservation programs that are not attentive to socio-ecological complexity and collective action.

We suggest that programs be designed with sensitivity to the scale of ecological function, rather than offer contracts with individual property owners as their focal point, so that instead they seek to enrol multiple properties into a collective conservation effort defined by the scale of a given ecology.

Moreover, specific conservation actions that revolve around cross-boundary conservation efforts and social learning should be highly valued and rewarded by any criteria used to assess bids for conservation funding (e.g. the Desert Uplands Landscape Linkages Program).

Finally, programs that have a clearer framing of the public good should also seek to make outcomes more transparent.

When government monies are being invested in private land conservation, taxpayers typically expect some kind of demonstrable outcome. Outcomes could include social and ecological measures, and could extend to providing participants with more opportunities to share their conservation work with a wider public.

The rise of technologies for supporting citizen science that enable image and video sharing demonstrate a clear avenue for making conservation benefits more visible to the community.  Thinking about how long-term and large-scale benefits can be delivered also means acknowledging that there are times when MBIs should be avoided - not all public good activities can or should be stimulated through incentives.

These suggestions reflect the pragmatic need to make effective use of scant public investment in conservation, whilst recognising that our conception of stewardship will require policy that challenges neoliberal assumptions.

Dr Benjamin Cooke is a Lecturer in Sustainability & Urban Planning in the School of Global, Urban & Social Studies at RMIT.  Dr Katie Moon is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales, Canberra.

Posted by @jrostant

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