Rural communities in Australia have traditionally been well aware of the need to look after the land. Farming families have often seen this in terms of stewardship: the importance of passing on their land on to new generations in a better condition that in which they received it.
Today we use the term ‘sustainability’ to describe this way of thinking. Originally the term came from Our Common Future, a UN-sponsored report, more than twenty years ago. There sustainability is described this way:
“Sustainable development seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future.”
We want our farmers and farming communities to be prosperous and developing. Along with that, we want them to grow in ways which are respectful of the environmental in all levels.
This is not just a matter of voluntary action, like planting trees, although that is very important, in itself and in building community support for sustainability initiatives. It’s more a way of thinking about how we live on the land, in a place, together, and look after the things that are important and support us all.
The writer and farmer Wendell Berry puts this idea in terms of health–environmental health, health of the farm, health of the community:
“The farmer has put plants and animals into a relationship of mutual dependence, and must be concerned for balance or symmetry, a reciprocating connection in the pattern of the farm that is biological, not industrial, and that involves solutions to problems of fertility, soil husbandry, economics, sanitation–the whole complex of problems whose proper solutions add up to health: the health of the soil, of plants and animals, of farm and farmer, of farm family and farm community, all involved in the same inter-nested, interlocking pattern–or pattern of patterns.”
Environmental health, from this perspective, is a way of living together with care and respect. It is a whole structure, whose parts and relationships are working to their full capability. The state of health is the whole which more than the sum of the parts , which are themselves healthy. Environmental health thus spans land, soil, communities, knowledge, species and natural systems, in place. Wendell Berry remarks, “nothing less will do”: everything has to be included and taken care of.
Our approach is therefore to help generate and support community initiatives for developing environmental health in all its dimensions.
For example, local food is a key focus. There is growing evidence that local food, as a system, is more environmentally sustainable, as well as being more health, than mass-produced global produce from other widely-distributed places. We have been working with local food communities here and in other countries, as this approach is being developed and shared.
Another example is revegetation and vegetation enhancement on farms. We have been working with farmers on identifying ways to support them in planting native vegetation at scale, for example by direct seeding in shelter belts. We have been looking at ways of bringing local knowledge, skills and capabilities back to government agencies to help develop better policies and programs.
A third example is work we have been carrying out with indigenous groups. We are committed to supporting the dissemination of indigenous knowledge of the environment on all levels, particularly through school programs. We believe indigenous knowledge is very valuable, particularly when linked to local farmer knowledge to deliver really important and practical knowledge of the way in which the local environment can best be cared for. We are particularly interested in GIS and collaborative mapping approaches to codifying Aboriginal knowledge of country so that this knowledge can significantly influence natural resource management policy and practice.