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Working with uncertainties: The future of integrating agriculture and biodiversity in the Muttama Creek Catchment Area, Australia.

The landscape of the Muttama Creek Catchment area (photo credit: Tamara Schaal)

As land-use change and agricultural intensification are key drivers of today’s biodiversity crisis, farmers are increasingly asked to display how they protect the natural environment on their farms, for example by consumers or financiers. There is also an ongoing discussion in academic circles about the best solution to protecting biodiversity in agriculture. The future of agricultural landscapes cannot be predicted with certainty, as farming systems are complex and multiple factors can have sudden or long-term influences. The Muttama Creek Catchment area (MCCA) is in many respects a typical agricultural landscape in south-eastern Australia: a mosaic of wheat and canola fields, eucalypts, paddocks, and flocks of sheep or cattle. However, agricultural developments in the past not only led to increases in productivity and output but also to growing pressures on the landscape such as soil loss, salinity or acidity, or loss of tree cover. In combination, these factors create highly uncertain prospects.

The research project “The future of biodiversity conservation in farming landscapes in south-eastern Australia” investigated different perspectives on harmonizing farming with biodiversity and explored the agency of people in the MCCA to shape their preferred future. The project helped to understand different farming land-use priorities and identified options for integrating profitable farming with successful biodiversity conservation in the MCCA. In 2022, the research team published a booklet summarizing the project findings. The author team includes Tamara Schaal and Jan Hanspach, both from Leuphana University Lueneburg, who worked in collaboration with Ben Scheele from the Australian National University in Canberra and Annie Jacobs, a member of the Muttama Creek Landcare Group.

Workshop participants discussing desirable futures and how to get there during one of the community workshops (photo credit: Michael Mitchell)

To analyze what should be considered when integrating biodiversity and farming, the research team conducted 94 interviews with a broad range of people involved in farming and/or biodiversity conservation in the area, among them predominantly land managers and holders. Based on their insights, the research team identified four viewpoints on integrating farming and biodiversity. In subsequent workshops, six pathways were created by participants that illustrate unique storylines of possible changes in the MCCA.

The authors point out four key insights: The research process reveals that there is not a shared understanding of biodiversity on farms among people in the MCCA. Defining biodiversity together in a bottom-up process might facilitate a more effective way for both individuals and communities to protect biodiversity. Secondly, the authors stress the potential to engage with indigenous knowledge, namely Wiradjuri heritage, to (re-)discover old land management ways by the traditional custodians of the MCCA. Similarly, (re-)building connections between the rural and urban space, as well as farmers and consumers can alleviate the sense of disconnect that some people expressed during the interviews and workshops. Lastly, the compiled results of shared visions, values and goals can serve as design criteria for prospective community projects or strategic plans for future outcomes of agricultural landscapes.

Illustrations of the four different viewpoints on integrating farming and biodiversity identified through the research. (Illustrator: Sebastian Kempke)

The booklet highlights not only how people understand and relate to biodiversity in farming but also the understanding of the farmer’s role, what they and their communities can do to protect the landscape, and how they can overcome current issues to create preferred futures. This creates opportunities for implementing change on an individual, community and policy level: While individual farmers can network, engage with indigenous knowledge, and build customer relationships or a social media presence, community organizations have the opportunity of facilitating knowledge building and exchange, starting projects and creating incentives. Lastly, place-based policy instruments that use synergies between biodiversity and carbon instruments can ensure effective implementation of volitional change. With this booklet, the authors hope to inspire everyone to see the potential of individual and community agency to influence changes in the landscapes they work and live in, ultimately navigating toward a future they desire.

To read the paper illustrating the four different viewpoints please click here.
To gain more insights into the overall project findings and recommendations please click here.

Four artworks reflecting the emotions and spirit of the discussions around key issues, transitions and desirable futures. (Artist: Julia Roche; Photos: Jack of Hearts/Jackie Cooper)

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