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Upper Catchment Issues Vol 4 No 2 - Introduction

Author: Tasmanian Community Resource Auditors Incorporated


Tasmania is the southern island state of Australia and is situated 42 degrees south of the equator. Figure 1 shows the State and the location of the survey sites reported in this paper.

Over the past several decades residents of Northeast Tasmania have struggled to make sense of a complex set of issues relating to natural resource management. From the mid 1980's to the present time the local community has grappled with concerns over a number of long running environmental issues. Among the key issues were:

*Contamination of local river systems by the chemicals Pyrethrum and Atrazine;
*Conversion of prime agricultural land to timber plantations;
*Increased clearing of native vegetation for plantation establishment;
*Shortage of water for the farming community and uncertainty over adequacy of environmental flows for rivers.

These issues have all contributed to disquiet within the community. A perceived lack of opportunity for the community to have real input into the generation of ways forward has also contributed to a sense of frustration and unease.

A number of processes were initiated, both directly by the community and through local, state and federal government institutions, in an effort to better understand the concerns of residents, prioritize areas for further examination and to explore options and implement actions to facilitate change. Some of these processes include The First Scottsdale Symposium, (Adult Education1989), Developing Options for a Sustainable Future for Dorset, (Australian Democrats 1994), The Dorset Sustainable Development Strategy, (Dorset Council 1996), Dorset Integrated Catchment Management Committees, The Great Forester Catchment - Community Based Water Management Planning (DPIWE 2001), Dorset Natural Resource Management Strategy (Cronin 2002) and Dorset Council Strategic Plan (Dorset Council 2005).

Dorset Waterwatch (DWW), established in 1994 with a strong community mandate, backed by Dorset Council and funded through the Federal Government's Waterwatch initiative, remains an active advocate for the community on water related issues. In this role, DWW is seen by many as a first port of call for the reporting of waterway concerns and incidents.

During interactions with community members over the past 10 years DWW has become progressively aware of underlying problems that have prevented citizens from having meaningful input into resource management issues.

Current models of community consultation - are they adequate?

The stated objectives of those charged with the management of our natural resources seemed to advocate heavy emphasis on community consultation via input and feedback. Despite this, the community felt distanced from meaningful input into the actual decision-making process. This type of consultation may not be the same as active control in decision-making (Dakin 2003).

As the community is the "ultimate responsible person" it appears logical that its engagement must be both direct and at the centre of control. Therefore, these are matters of governance and as such are vitally important for the further development of our democracy.

The current models of community consultation employed by institutions involve seeking "feedback" and "input" as a means of involving community. This can be seen, however, as a process of information dissemination where community plays the role of "learner" and the institution carries the role of leader or guardian of the real or valid knowledge (Dempster 2003). The upshot is that community is seen as not capable of generating new knowledge. To do so would be to challenge the dominant position of our institutions.

An example of how the above model affects community empowerment was noted by DWW on numerous occasions when people came forward to outline a range of concerns over the potential impacts on water supplies surrounding land use issues, including chemical spray operations, land clearing, etc. During DWW intervention in these matters it became apparent that the community had little awareness or understanding of ways to create opportunities to deliver positive input into the situations they faced. Similarly, the community appeared to lack the ability to develop lines of inquiry on their own. Despite the plethora of tax payer funded consultative processes that had gone before, it remained clear that community felt unheard in decision-making processes. In fact, in some cases community felt that such processes were little more than an effort by the institutions to maintain "business as usual".

When faced with the challenge of generating an entry point into decision-making processes, community members tended to rapidly become resigned and cynical, doubting their efforts would result in any lasting change. They often simply expected DWW to "do something!". For their part, Federal, State, local and State government institutions often overlooked opportunities for innovative action, instead declaring that issues were covered under existing legislation and protocols or that they lay outside their jurisdiction. As a result community members appeared to be disempowered disillusioned and questioned their ability to promote positive change around their issues. This suggested a breakdown in the relationship between the community and the institutions who manage our natural resources.

Initiating a community inquiry

Against the backdrop of deepening community disquiet in the Northeast of the State, DWW in association with a second environment based community group, Friends of the Blue Tier , asked themselves how best to come to grips with the causes of the ongoing sense of powerlessness within the community. After further examining the complexity of the issues and numerous ways of exploring them, it was decided that surveying the local community in order to glean views and opinions would represent a useful starting point to further clarify issues that had emerged in previous consultative processes. A survey instrument was employed under the title "Looking After Our Environment in Northeast Tasmania - What Do You Think?". This was sent via mail-out to all residences in Dorset and Break O'Day municipalities. In Dorset the mail-out was supplemented with face to face interviews (termed "Street Corner Interviews"). DWW made this choice, as members were keen to 'drill' down into public opinion and perception and to further explore information that had come to light in the mail-out surveys returned by the public.