Including the Community: Community Consultation and Communication in the West Victoria RFA Private Forestry Project
Trish Kevin, Victorian Landcare Centre DNRE
Andrew Stewart, Otway Agroforestry Network, Victorian Farmers Federation
Increasingly communities are claiming increased input into government decisions that affect them, and governments are reciprocating by providing more opportunities. This is a project that was characterised from the very outset, by a process that sought to move beyond mere rhetoric of "community consultation and community participation", to one that sought at every stage to integrate notions of inclusion, participation, and transference of learning.
The West Victoria RFA Private Forestry Project (Victorian Sawlog Farming Project) is a $1.45 M Victorian government initiative to encourage hardwood sawlog production from cleared agricultural land across north central and southern Victoria (Figure 1). This three-year project is part of a package entitled ‘Growing Victoria’s Forests’ which was announced upon the signing of the West Victoria Regional Forest Agreement between the Commonwealth and State governments, in March 2000.
The RFA determined that the sustainable yield of hardwood sawlogs from the Midlands Forest Management Area (covering state forests around Ballarat) will be reduced from 58 000 m3/year to 40 000 m3/year and established a process for further review based on new data. At the same time the timber processing industry in central Victoria has indicated that their markets are expanding both overseas and domestically, and that their long term wood supply requirements will increase to between 100 000 m3/year to 150 000m3/year.
Recognising a future shortfall in hardwood sawlogs, this project aims to:
Develop a strategic framework that will enable farm forestry* to provide a complementary hardwood timber resource to that available from state forests, and
Integrate farm forestry in previously cleared systems in priority areas to deliver improved environmental outcomes such as salinity mitigation and biodiversity, in addition to regional development and commercial benefits.
The project comprises 6 modules, which are responsible for research and collation of relevant information required for project development and implementation. They are:
Module 1- Community consultation and communication
Module 2 - Land base and priority zone establishment which seeks to identify zones for priority plantation establishment according to environmental and productivity factors
Module 3 – Identification of silvicultural management prescriptions and target species for zones throughout the region
Module 4 – Cost sharing arrangements, taking into account public versus private good
Module 5 – Recruiting private investment
Module 6 - Options for the Riverine Plain, assessing suitable options for the northern irrigation district.
*Farm forestry refers to the incorporation, with or without other land uses, of commercial tree growing and management on cleared agricultural land. It may take many forms including timber belts, alleys and spread-out tree plantings. The aims may be diverse and include wood production for a variety of purposes, increasing agricultural productivity and sustainable natural resource management
The project is overseen by a stakeholder steering committee appointed by the Minister for Natural Resources and Environment, the Hon Cheryl Garbutt. Committee members come from a range of backgrounds including, the timber industry, environmental groups, farm forestry networks, the Victorian Farmers Federation, local government, catchment management authorities and state government.
There can be a tendency in multi-disciplinary projects to view stakeholder committees as a comprehensive means for attaining stakeholder and community input. They can however, inadvertently over or under represent certain stakeholder groups, and stakeholder committees have limitations when it comes to reflecting the diversity of opinion that occurs amongst the broader community. This recognition inevitably required us to engage in a more reflective practice about notions of representativeness and participation.
Community concern generated from blue gum wood chip plantation expansion in south western Victoria has highlighted the importance of sincere and thorough community consultation in broad scale land use change. From the outset this project has recognised that community awareness, acceptance and participation is critical to the project’s success, so the project has attempted to place emphasis on social, as well as biophysical and economic aspects, so that they can be incorporated into project development and implementation.
Myriad Consultants Pty Ltd were engaged to design a process for Module 1 – Community consultation and communication. The importance of attaining a clear picture of stakeholder and community attitudes to farm forestry, rather than relying on assumptions and hearsay was identified, so that the project had a firm base on which to develop communication strategies.
The broad methodology adopted by the Consultants was informed by Participative Design Principles. At every stage in the process, the consultants sought to ensure the involvement of a diverse range of stakeholders. As stated, prticipative processes of consultation increase the chance of acceptance and ownership of any resultant outcomes.
The process began with an all day workshop conducted by the Consultants with the Module Reference group. The process sought to clarify the group's vision and expected outcomes of the project. It was important from the very outset that the process build on, and by informed and guided by the wealth and experience of the Reference Group toe ensure a genuine sense of ownership and commitment to the outcomes.
A literature review was also undertaken to ensure that the process was one of continuous improvement, building on important previous research, rather than unnecessarily duplicating. As an outcome of the literature review, it became apparent that the process would be one that was pioneering and innovative in its approach. Rarely had such diverse range of stakeholders had the opportunity to meet across their sector interests and share and exchange information in a co-ordinated way that would contribute to challenging the traditionally segmented approach to private forestry.
The methodology adopted for the stakeholder and community consultations is known as triangulation. This recognises that social research is dependent on people’s perceptions of an issue and is thus subject to bias. A triangular approach attempts to test that bias and hopefully, correct it when it comes to drawing conclusions.
In this project the three points of the triangle were:
Stakeholders – farm foresters, existing (but not sawlog) plantation companies, timber millers and processors, sawlog carters, environment and landcare groups, Catchment Management Authorities, local councils, the Department of Natural Resources an Environment and a local Chamber of Commerce;
Telepoll – 400 people, randomly selected against certain demographic criteria (age, education, income level, sex, location, employment status, and interest group membership) who were interviewed by telephone using a structured, 15 minute questionnaire; and
Community Forum – 15 people, randomly selected from the telepoll group, chosen against the same demographic criteria, who had been asked in the telepoll if they would be willing to participate.
The Community Forum was an innovation in the context of community consultation on the subject of forestry. It was based on the idea of Citizens’ Juries which have been used in NSW and are common in the USA when seeking public opinion which has been informed (at least to some extent) about the subject in contention. It overcomes some of the disadvantages of focus groups which are made up of people who have a particular interest in a subject and may already have fixed views. Participants in a Community Forum, in contrast, come to a particular subject without fixed views (activists are screened out) but are generally interested in the issue and willing to learn more. They are provided with written information in advance which is a balanced presentation of the issues, have access to more information at the two and a half day forum, listen to and can question “expert” speakers who are invited to make presentations to the Forum, have to deliberate on certain key questions, debate with their peers and finally produce a consensus report with recommendations to the State Government. In this case, the report was presented to Mr Geoff Howard, Parliamentary Secretary Department Natural Resources and Environment, to be passed onto the Minister.
Almost all stakeholders and the community expressed enthusiastic support for farm forestry conducted on individually or family owned farms and other landholdings. They recognised the multiple benefits which landholders aimed to achieve. These often went beyond commercial outcomes and addressed landcare issues and benefits for stock and crop production, as well as producing aesthetic benefits and added to the value of the land.
There was also majority support for corporate plantation development for the production of sawlogs. The telepoll found 58.5% of those surveyed were in favour of industrial sawlog plantations. This support was, however, tempered by a variety of concerns which stakeholders and the community wanted addressed and even officially regulated by governments. Where this regulation has already fallen on local government, there was widespread concern that local governments do not have the resources or, often, the expertise to handle these responsibilities.
The picture in the public mind of the nature of corporate plantation development has been determined by both pine plantations and especially by the more recent blue gum plantation establishment. These have some positive but also a considerable number of negative connotations. On one hand, they provide employment especially in down-stream processing in the softwood industries. The blue gum plantations will provide an export product but wood chip production was criticised by stakeholders as offering low returns to the Victorian community. These plantations have been subject to other criticisms as revealed by the telepoll and stakeholder consultations, such as that they are a fire hazard and that they use chemicals which are not good for the land, water or people. There was also a belief that they were contributing to the demise of rural communities at the same time as offering farmers a dignified exit from the land or a steady income in retirement (through leasing). The distinctions which can be made between blue gum plantations for the pulp industry and future sawlog plantations is not apparent in the community mind.
Any particular stakeholder was likely to give emphasis to one of the project aims over the other, either providing a hardwood timber resource or obtaining improved environmental outcomes. Those concerned with providing a hardwood timber resource tended to favor larger scale plantings of 100 hectares or more which is more likely to attract corporate investors.
On the other hand, although tree growing on farms has been taken up enthusiastically by farmers, their motives are often not commercial but environmental. In some areas however, farmers and small landholders, such as hobby farmers, have taken up commercial tree production and formed agroforestry networks. It is in the interest of farmers and landholders to address environmental issues in order to increase productivity and add value to their holdings. It is a challenge to this project to persuade them that they can also add a commercial element to their growing of trees and thus, in the long term, diversify their income.
The communications strategy for this project will need to recognise that the aims of individual landholders are more diverse than those of the larger scale, single species plantation managers and thus it is unlikely that a one-size-fits-all strategy will be successful.
The consultations found that there were other characteristics which distinguished those landholders who took up farm forestry compared with those farmers who were not interested: they tended to be better educated and frequently had off-farm income. Many, but by no means all, were hobby farmers, resident in the cities of Melbourne and Geelong, or retirees. Some farm foresters were involved in joint ventures with industrial plantation companies.
Support for farm forestry was expressed not only by farmers and other landholders, but also by conservationists, trade unions and Indigenous groups. The telepoll and the Community Forum revealed that farm forestry had a very high level of support. The predominant reasons given were environmental and in support of biodiversity. Other reasons included aesthetics, employment creation, shelter for stock and crops, and to reduce logging in public native forests. Industrial plantation companies were largely indifferent or doubted that small scale planting could ever meet the government’s targets or the demand for hardwood timber.
A number of stakeholders believed that Landcare and farm forestry could marry quite well, although concern was expressed that a lot of people in Landcare were running out of energy, especially as increased responsibilities were being placed on their office bearers. Some thought that adding a commercial element to the planting of trees would bring in new members and add an incentive. In any case, the Landcare model was considered appropriate for promoting farm forestry. The Consultants would add that a community development model in which farm forestry played a dominant part might be more appropriate because it would involve non landholders, such as local store keepers and the tourist/travel industry and outside educational programs. It would seek to build on existing agroforestry networks and extend the benefits to a wider community.
The stakeholder and community consultations identified a range of barriers to the uptake of farm forestry. The barriers to farm forestry have been categorised as economic, environmental, social and regulatory. Economic barriers include the uncertainty of future markets and the current competition from logs from state forests whose price was believed not to reflect the true cost of production; financial risks and the long wait for any return on investment; limited knowledge of the costs and the productivity benefit for stock and land; and the viability of traditional products which demanded more attention from farmers. Environment risks included fire, vermin and weeds, the effects on water tables, and the impacts of harvesting and on infrastructure. Social factors included the age of farmers and low morale; past negative experiences with past commercial promotions, including pines; a culture negative to change and lack of awareness of trees as a crop. Government and regulatory issues included uncertainty about future government regulation; right of harvest issues and the complexity of the process of applying for government funding.
A range of suggestions were offered by stakeholders and the community for overcoming these barriers. Among the economic initiatives suggested were promoting relationships between farm foresters and industrial plantations and other members of the timber industry, such as furniture makers and possibly saw millers; the fostering of cooperatives, though not all were confident that this would be successful; Forest Stewardship Certification; financial incentives though once again this is not universally approved; overcoming the long wait for returns, including by demonstrating other non-timber benefits to the farm land; value adding on farm and the upgrading of sawmills to make them more efficient and able to add value.
Carbon credits and biomass fuel generation were believed to offer incentives in the future. Education programs including the Master Tree Growers Course were considered to contribute very positively to the professionalisation of farm forestry and Whole Farm Planning assisted prospective farm foresters to maximise the benefits of tree growing for commercial and other benefits. Extension work and informal education programs, such as farm walks and field days and other forms of demonstration of benefits and the support that came from networks of like-minded people were all endorsed. The importance of identifying the appropriate targets for information is discussed in the report.
Finding in these consultations are consistent with results from other investigations into attitudes to private forestry in Victoria (see references). They provide invaluable information for confident development of practical communication strategies.
Based on the findings from consultations, future work will include development of a communication action strategy, which will focus efforts at both the broad and local community scales, as well as targeting specific stakeholders. Consistent with the philosophy on which the consultations were based, future work will seek to be inclusive, building on existing community, catchment and industry plans and strengths.
On a local scale it is important that private forestry, whether large or small scale, is well integrated into and accepted by local communities. To achieve this, a range of community stakeholders must see direct benefits to themselves. Thus, we recommend that several community development projects should be undertaken in which private forestry plays a significant part.
For example, eco-tourism and education could play a significant role in this development and businesses such as bus lines, accommodation providers and caterers, would benefit, as well as the local farm foresters themselves. Large industrial plantations would be part of the development and may see it as in the interest of good community relations, to be active partners in such development.
Activities of the Otway Agroforestry Network can be seen as going some way towards developing partnerships within their community that will increase acceptance and development of farm forestry. They have identified the need to engage with local government recognising that they both share similar visions with aspirations for increased employment and improved local economy, boosted ecotourism and an improved environment. Engagement is likely to lead to improved information flow and partnership development that will benefit both groups. Future work would assist in broadening local partnerships so that a range of community stakeholders understand and have the opportunity to benefit from the benefits of farm forestry. Greater community acceptance will also serve to increase confidence amongst potential farm forestry participants.
On a broad scale, information and feed back processes will target a range of stakeholders. To engage the community in farm forestry it is important that high quality information is available to have an informed debate and discussion of issues. A clear understanding of both positive and negative effects of trees on farms, catchments and communities is important. Communication to the broader community will include provision of information through a range of mediums that will raise awareness and provide opportunity for participation if desired.
Due to the long term nature of trees it is important to take time to consider all possibilities before committing and implementing. Existing promotional, information and extension materials will be analysed to ensure that they address queries and concerns of new entrants to farm forestry.
The recommendations recognise that the promotion of farm forestry goes hand-in-hand with Whole Farm Planning. Thus, educational and other institutions and officials involved in Whole Farm Planning should be encouraged to include farm forestry as an option and forestry training/promotion/extension should be encouraged to promote the benefits of Whole Farm planning.
Future activities will include engaging with the plantation industry and assisting industrial plantations to work with neighbours and communities.
The project will seek to facilitate the coming together of farm foresters with the processing industry to share information about markets as well as characteristics and quality of product. It will also work to address the concerns of local government, attempting to reconcile their visions with that of the project.
Consultations with stakeholders and the community found considerable support for farm forestry. Support for industrial plantation development was not so overwhelming but more than 50 per cent of the people consulted favoured its development for sawlog production. Interestingly, there was a significant consistency in the results from each of the methodological perspectives used in this project thus adding to our confidence in our conclusions.
This project, and its outcomes, undoubtedly represents an exciting and innovative approach to the issue of private forests. Through its highly consultative and participatory processes, the project has successfully brought together a diverse range of people from a range of different sectors and agencies to discuss a common goal. By adopting an inclusive project design, a greater degree of ownership and responsibility for the outcomes can be expected.
The project sought to incorporate a process that aimed to build on the strengths of the various stakeholder networks that had already begun to be established. Increasing the capacity of these networks, and developing engagement processes that move the objectives of the triple bottom line towards new possibilities in farm forestry becomes the ongoing challenge for us in the next stage.
Figure 1. map showing location of the West RFA region
1. Towards a Communication Strategy for the Private Forestry. A market research report to the Private Forestry Council Victoria. Nexus 2000
2. Socio-economic impact of changing land use in South West Victoria. Summary report and recommendations, September 2000. Institute of Land and Food Resources, University of Melbourne.