New Publication: Harnessing regional insights for successful land management change

February 20th, 2024

New CSIRO research argues that elevating the voices of local communities can help identify strategies for land restoration that deliver meaningful co-benefits

Land sector carbon abatement projects are being employed nationally and internationally as a tool to help meet emissions reduction targets.

According to a new open access paper published in The Rangeland Journal, the most successful land restoration efforts occur when specific regional priorities are taken into account.

Using Queensland as a case study, researchers from CSIRO’s Valuing Sustainability Future Science Platform (VS FSP) have explored how land sector carbon abatement projects could support regional transitions. They call for more attention to be paid to regional voices, and have developed an effective approach for doing so.

Lead author, Dr Nikki Dumbrell, a natural resource economist, led an interdisciplinary team to explore how provenance and co-benefits of land restoration projects can be valued by regional communities and investors.

“The way things are structured at the moment with carbon markets is quite transactional,” says Dr Dumbrell. “The focus is on the cost-effectiveness of achieving a single environmental outcome. We think what’s missing in the process for establishing projects is the opportunity for local and regional communities to state what they want to be hosting in their communities, and what co-benefits they would like to see realised.” 

Case study: Southern Queensland

Significant investment in land restoration projects is already taking place in the rangelands of Southern Queensland.

Two key drivers of this investment are the Australian Carbon Credit Unit (ACCU) Scheme, which is run by the Australian Government, and the Land Restoration Fund (LRF), which is a $500 million initiative run by the Queensland Government. Rather than focusing solely on carbon abatement, the LRF aims to reward landholders who can provide environmental, socio-economic or First Nations co-benefits.

“The LRF is really interesting because it’s not just about the carbon mitigation potential of a vegetation project, or a soil carbon project, or a savannah burning project,” explains Dr Dumbrell. “They’re also interested in the way that project is done, the place it is conducted, and whether it can deliver other environmental or social benefits. If those other benefits can be demonstrated, that’s the kind of project the LRF will invest in.”

“There’s a real accumulation of carbon farming projects here,” Dr Dumbrell continues. “The Southern Queensland Landscapes region is where you find the most ACCU-registered land sector carbon abatement projects of any NRM region in the country. That concentration of activity also means there’s quite a diverse set of voices speaking about how they’d like to see the projects come together.”

The challenge of capturing regional scale perspectives

Much of the existing research on land management practices – and in particular carbon abatement – is either at a national or state policy scale, or at farm scale.

That leaves researchers, investors and policymakers facing the challenge of how to seek diverse perspectives at regional scale and develop a better understanding of the social environments in which landowners and land managers are situated.

“We know that successful investments tend to be those that deliver shared benefits – whether that’s in terms of economic, social, cultural or environmental outcomes,” says Dr Dumbrell. “But how do you find out what outcomes the community actually want? Surveys don’t always result in good data, and it’s very expensive and logistically challenging to do focus groups – especially in remote rangelands where people live hundreds of kilometres apart.”

To tackle this challenge, the research team adopted a mixed methods approach that included analysis of socio-economic data and a critical review of existing regional plans.

The socio-economic analysis provided a valuable overview of what’s happening in the region in terms of existing industries, skills, workforce and population. This allowed the research team to explore the potential impacts of prioritising co-benefits alongside the carbon outcomes of land sector carbon abatement projects.

The review of regional plans included: local government community or corporate plans, economic plans, annual reports and regional resilience strategies; the Southern Queensland Landscapes NRM plan and annual report; and plans and strategy documents produced by three First Nations Native Title Prescribed Body Corporates and cultural services.

Taken collectively, these documents – which had all been developed in consultation with stakeholders – provided valuable insights into the perspectives, values, ambitions and concerns of regional communities. By analysing their content, the research team were able to identify benefit aspirations and drivers of change in the region.

“All these plans we’ve used in the study have been written in a way that includes voices from regional communities,” says Dr Dumbrell. “They’re a really valuable resource if you’re seeking to understand where a community wants to be in five years, what challenges they might be facing, or what opportunities they have to transition to a new industry. These are all factors you would want to take into consideration if you were deciding whether to negotiate what a carbon farming project might look like in that region, and trying to understand what outcomes might be important beyond economic benefit.”

An approach that can be used elsewhere

The analysis reveals a number of key findings that are specific to Southern Queensland and will help inform decision making about land management changes in that region.

This included the observation that the most commonly sought-after-benefit was regional economic improvement associated with business and government investment in the region, creating and maintaining local and diverse employment opportunities, buying local, and resourcing public goods.

According to Dr Dumbrell, another important outcome from the research is the development of a method for highlighting community voices that can be transferred to other contexts. Both the principle – that regional perspectives are important – and the mixed methods approach can be usefully applied elsewhere to help understand the potential co-benefits or perverse outcomes of sustainability investments.

“The approach we’ve taken, in combining different sets of data and analysing existing plans is something that could definitely be applicable in other regions across Australia,” she says. “But it could also be used to look at other environmental programs such as land management change for erosion or water quality improvements.”

“The main point that we hope people take away from the paper is that when natural capital investments in regions are aligned with the aspirations of people in those communities, they are more likely to succeed. Our method makes such alignment possible, relatively efficient, and scalable to many contexts.”  

Author – Ruth Dawkins