Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

The neighbourhood catchment approach to achieving regional change

Glen Millar1, Sarah Lewis2 and Chris Carroll3

1 Natural Resources and Mines, PO Box 19, Emerald, Qld, 4720.
Natural Resources and Mines, LMB 1 Biloela, Qld 4715.
Natural Resources and Mines, PO Box 736, Rockhampton, Qld, 4700.


Increasingly complex natural resource management issues and limited extension resources have combined to make effective natural resource management extension difficult to achieve. Without the adoption of new technologies it is difficult to achieve change towards sustainability at even a farm scale, let alone at a catchment scale. The Neighbourhood Catchment approach has been developed to deliver integrated information to all landholders within defined catchments. With the appropriate use of individual extension, complex issues regarding natural resource management have been successfully explained to promote change. While group activities will remain an important part of extension, we propose that initially it is more strategic, efficient and effective to use individual extension. The opportunity now exists to expand this methodology to a scale as large as the Fitzroy Catchment.

Natural resource management is becoming increasingly complex, and therefore difficult to understand. Landholders must come to terms with numerous land management issues if they are to achieve sustainability both on and off their farm. Issues include soil erosion, inefficient use of rainfall, weeds, pests, and salinity risks.

In response, a plethora of groups have formed to address the increasing number of issues worthy of landholders’ attention (Marsh, et al., 2000). Many of these group-focussed extension strategies have concentrated on ‘early adopters’ in the hope that changing these people would eventually filter through to others in the farming community. It is uncertain however, whether this approach has worked, and whether those who most need to change are being reached by it.

To achieve change in natural resource management issues at a catchment scale, all landholders, including both ‘early’ and ‘cautious’ adopters, need to change. In order to achieve this outcome, we acknowledge that both individual and group extension has an important role. However, we have found that proactive, individual contact can be pivotal in fostering initial ownership of natural resource issues at a catchment scale.

This paper presents a case study on extension in a complex environment, where outcomes affect both the livelihoods of landholders and the long-term sustainability of our natural resources. The Neighbourhood Catchment methodology is outlined, and its essential components defined.

The need for change
The Fitzroy River catchment is the second largest coastal catchment in Australia (142,000 km2). Grazing is the dominant land use (82%), followed by cropping (7%), irrigation (0.6%) and mining (0.4%), (Calvert et al., 2000).

Currently, it is estimated that 4 million tonnes of sediment is discharged annually from the Fitzroy River into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon off Keppel Bay (Horne, e. al. 1998). Pesticide and nutrient levels, toxic algal blooms, the widespread occurrence of exotic weeds and threatened habitats have been identified as major stream health issues in the catchment (Jones, 2000; Fabbro et al., 1996; Telfor, 1995; Henderson, 2000). Furthermore, the possibility of future salinity problems has been identified within the region (Gordon, 2001, pers. comm.). These issues focus public and scientific scrutiny directly on the landholders’ resource management decisions within the catchment.

Working within the reality of limited resources and complex issues; it is difficult to achieve natural resource ownership and management change in an area as large as the Fitzroy Catchment. Efforts to overcome unsustainable practices are currently administered by many groups, and there is a growing perception that landholders are becoming overwhelmed by the demands that this approach has on their time.

It is also uncertain whether group-based approaches have been successful in reaching the people who most need to change. Shrapnel (e. al., 1998) suggested than many landholders in central Queensland are not ‘group’ people and do not engage in catchment and Landcare groups. They were also reluctant to be told what to do, especially by people who may not understand their situation. Hence, an approach was needed that would engage all landholders in improving natural resource management. The approach should also deliver complex scientific results to landholders in a meaningful way, and be able to be scaled up to an area as large as the Fitzroy Catchment.

The Neighbourhood Catchment solution

The Neighbourhood Catchment approach proposes that local sub-catchments are an appropriate size to engage individual landholders and integrate their resource management issues. Through proactively working with all landholders in a catchment, change at a number of properties equates to change at a sub-catchment scale. These catchments, or Neighbourhood Catchments, can subsequently be used as building blocks to achieve sustainability even in an area as large as the Fitzroy.

A Neighbourhood Catchment consists of a group of landholders located in a common catchment (typically about 300 km2). The term ‘Neighbourhood’ refers to the relationship between people, while the sub-catchment scale is sufficiently small to promote localised ownership in the catchment’s land and water issues to all landholders. The priority is to highlight the benefits of on-farm improvement both within and beyond the farm gate. The result is better resource management on-farm, at a sub-catchment scale and larger.

Two ’focus’ Neighbourhood Catchments have been established in the Fitzroy Catchment at Gordonstone Creek near Emerald (25 properties, ~50% cropping) and Spottswood Creek near Bauhinia Downs (18 properties, ~90% grazing) (refer to Figure 1).

Figure 1. Neighbourhood Catchment locations within the Fitzroy Catchment

Within these ‘focus catchments’ the effects of land management practices on water quality are scientifically measured and demonstrated at the paddock, property and catchment scale. The research conducted at these sites is seen by landholders to be necessary to answer critical questions about the sustainability and environmental impacts of various farming systems.

The Neighbourhood Catchment extension methodology

An initial group meeting with landholders was publicised and held to outline the Neighbourhood Catchment’s project objectives. Despite being held in the catchment on a landholder’s property, attendance was poor. It was apparent that the project’s extension delivery needed to change if it was to be successful in engaging all people within the catchment.

To address the problem, a range of past research was collated into a visual presentation. While much of this material existed in journal and book form, even sometimes on landholders’ bookshelves, some of it had never been clearly understood by the people expected to apply it. The resulting presentation covered areas such as long-term soil fertility declines, soil erosion, water use inefficiency, compaction and stubble effects. It integrated information from grazing, dryland cropping, irrigated cropping and mining, and concluded with an introduction to the scientific component of the Neighbourhood Catchments project.

Visual aids allowed the effective delivery of sustainable farming information, focusing not on ‘how’, but ‘why’ the application of Better Management Practices (BMP) being recommended was more sustainable. Individual presentations were given at locations ranging from the landholders’ kitchen table to the farm workshop. The extension officer initiated these visits, with properties selected on the basis of whoever would allow us to visit first. Often the whole family or farm workforce was involved. Questions were sought and participant feedback recorded. Active feedback meant the presentation was improved after each visit.

In the familiar environment of their homes, landholders were comfortable sharing their knowledge of their property, their reach of the stream and their catchment. The visit was also an opportunity to reflect upon the issues that affect them, and allowed for discussion about the research information presented.

Since visiting the landholders in the Gordonstone Neighbourhood Catchment, there has been increased awareness and adoption of reduced and zero tillage, Controlled Traffic Farming (CTF), record keeping of management practices, riparian assessment and two landholders are pursuing Environmental Management Systems (EMS) accreditation of their farming enterprise (Figure 2). This change was recorded on subsequent visits, and varied from a commitment on behalf of the landholder to act, to direct evidence (one landholder immediately purchased new equipment to reduce tillage). Some landholders commented that they would not have known where to go for this type of information without the project’s proactive approach.

Figure 2. Outline of previously and newly adopted natural resource management practices in the Gordonstone Neighbourhood Catchment.

The release of a new parthenium rust was conducted as a group activity after the program of individual visits. In contrast to the initial group meeting, where attendance was poor, this activity was attended by the majority of the catchment.

Discussions with each landholder also enabled a baseline record of adoption and awareness of BMP to be produced before the Neighbourhood Catchments project commenced. By understanding the knowledge levels of landholders, the Neighbourhood Catchments project could tailor its approach to meet their needs. From this extension work, a number of key elements were identified that assisted in achieving change.

What we have learnt

The major elements of the Neighbourhood Catchment extension approach are integration, delivery, feedback and measurement of change.

1. Integration

Innovations such as stubble retention, and effective contour banks and waterways can each reduce erosion in cropping, while a healthy riparian zone can reduce off-farm impacts. The collective adoption of these practices however, provides a much greater combined benefit (refer Figure 3).

Figure 3. Example of integrated issues for cropping within a Neighbourhood Catchment.

The Neighbourhood Catchment approach seeks to identify all issues that threaten economic, social and environmental sustainability and provide a single interface to allow the most effective solutions to be found. Where answers are not readily available, information can be either externally sourced or earmarked for inclusion in new research initiatives.

Neighbourhood Catchment extension officers have become ‘information brokers’, providing landholders with a direct link to professional advice and information. This service removes the landholder’s challenge of finding the right person to contact and overcomes the plethora of sources that landholders have to consider.

2. Delivery

The delivery aim was not to tell growers “how to farm”, but “what is known about farming”. By taking this information to every person in the catchment, the whole catchment was being involved in the learning experience. Although this non-discriminatory delivery was sometimes to individuals who did not need to apply certain principals (eg. graziers regarding cropping practices), it allowed all landholders to become more knowledgeable in all facets of sustainable land management.

Published papers, reports, and web-based interfaces are less effective than a clearly explained, visual presentation. Graphical programs such as PowerPoint ™ and Astound ™ may prove to be the most powerful extension tool ever developed as they provide a mechanism that translates complex data to a form that speaks for itself (refer Figure 4). Significant change was achieved through the effectiveness of these programs in delivering complex information.

Figure 4: An example of an effective slide, in this case describing the benefit of increased ground cover with respect to water quality.

3. Feedback

Active feedback encourages landholders to air their opinions and concerns, as extension officers seek their participation throughout presentations. Active feedback also allows ongoing evaluation of the project extension. Errors and deficiencies in extension material can be identified and remedied for use in future presentations, while landholder knowledge gaps are able to be identified and addressed. As a result, the needs and aspirations of landholder’s can be better considered, as these are the people who must eventually evaluate the innovations, and either and either adopt or reject them.

4. Measuring change

A major advantage of individual extension is the ability to measure change. While change can be recorded in water quality leaving catchments, individual farmer’s awareness and implementation of new technology can also be tracked. A simple matrix was devised for landholders in both Neighbourhood Catchments. Within the matrix all aspects of farming considered critical to long term sustainability were listed. Farmer’s progress in these areas is tracked via a grid scheme (refer Figure 5).

Figure 5. Example of a matrix used to record the effectiveness of extension via on-ground changes to land management practices.

The extension matrix visually represents the effectiveness of extension and helps to identify the position of individual landholders in terms of sustainable land management practices. It is a valuable tool in the identification of future ‘focus topics’ and also highlights areas in which extension approaches could be improved or expanded.

Expanding within the Fitzroy

The Neighbourhood Catchment approach will be applied to five catchments adjacent to the Gordonstone Creek Neighbourhood Catchment. Current land uses and management practices, as well as changes to better land management practices will be recorded at a property scale using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and the extension matrix. Integrated information will be extended in the new catchments. In this way Neighbourhood Catchments become building blocks for improved water quality at a Fitzroy catchment scale.

In addition, the Fitzroy Basin Association, which represents the key stakeholders in the region, has endorsed and adopted the Neighbourhood Catchment approach to devolve funding grants and deliver on-ground works in the Fitzroy catchment.


The current practice of group extension is ineffective in generating initial interest and ownership of important catchment-scale issues.

The Neighbourhood Catchment approach has achieved measurable change through the integrated delivery of natural resource management information. This has incorporated the use of graphical software to explain complex science. The opportunity now exists to increase this change at a larger scale within the Fitzroy.

While group activities will remain an important part of extension, we propose that initially it is more strategic, efficient and effective to use individual extension. It is only through this approach that stakeholders will be empowered with the knowledge to be effective within a group context.


  1. Calvert, M., Simpson, J., and Adsett, K. (2000). “Land use mapping of the Fitzroy catchment -Theme 5”. National Land and Water resources Audit. Queensland Department of Natural Resources, Brisbane.
  2. Fabbro, L. D., Sheil, R.J., and Duivenvoorden, L.J. (1996). “Plankton (Phytoplankton and Zooplankton).” In: Noble, R.M., Duivenvoorden, L.J., Rummenie, S.K., Long, P.E., and Fabbro, L.D. Downstream Effects of land Use in the Fitzroy Catchment. Queensland Department of Natural Resources, Brisbane.
  3. Gordon, I. (2001), Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines, Brisbane.
  4. Henderson, C. (2000). “State of the Rivers. Comet, Nogoa, and Mackenzie Rivers. An ecological and physical assessment of the condition of streams in the Comet, Nogoa and Mackenzie river catchments.” Queensland Department of Natural Resources, Brisbane. ISBN 07344516819
  5. Horne, A.M., Joo, M. and Poplawski, W., (1998). “Queensland riverine sediment transport rates, a progress report”. Queensland Department of Natural Resources, Brisbane.
  6. Jones, M. (2000). “Fitzroy Implementation Project Queensland. Technical Report 3, Theme 7- Catchment Health.” National Land and Water Resources Audit. Queensland Department of Natural Resources, Brisbane.
  7. Marsh, S.P. and Pannell, D.J. (2000). Agricultural extension policy in Australia: The good, the bad and the misguided. University of WA, Nedlands.
  8. Shrapnel, M., Frank, B., Davie, J. and Freed, A. (1998). “Land management problems affecting rural individuals: Their perceptions and solutions”. University of Queensland, Brisbane.
  9. Telfer, D. (1995). “State of the Rivers. Dawson River and Major Tributaries. An ecological and physical assessment of the condition of streams in the Dawson river catchment.” Queensland Department of Natural Resources, Brisbane. ISBN 0724263748.

Previous PageTop Of PageNext Page