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Partnerships between local governments and knowledge-based organisations

Mike Berwick

Douglas Shire Council

Local government is the logical agency to co-ordinate the move to sustainable land use but generally lacks the professional expertise required to advise councils on decisions that relate to sustainability.

If the concept of sustainability is to be become the foundation of planning and decision making, this kind of expertise is fundamental to sound policy, management and decisions.

Looking after the environment without professional environment staff is like building roads and bridges without an engineer.

The larger metropolitan and regional centres often do have this kind of expertise but rural and remote councils do not have the rate base to maintain extensive road networks let alone take on land use management.

In the absence of substantial extra cash the only way to access the necessary expertise is by partnerships with other organisations.

The expertise does exist. I believe it would be fair to say the obstacle to implementing sustainable land use practices and development control is not scientific but rather institutional.

Investment in and commitment to institutional reform is a key, in my view, to achieving sustainable land use. We have enough science to get on with the job.

The other is adequate resources.

This is not to diminish the need for ongoing research because there are always gaps in knowledge, rather it is acknowledgement our application of good science has failed.

There is fantastic knowledge in research organisations like CSIRO, in universities and in state and Commonwealth agencies but it is seldom used.

When it is used it is often dysfunctional because these organisations often function within their own silos and are not integrated across agencies.

For example where I come from the collective view of science is that land based runoff — nutrients, soil and pesticides — is the principle threat to the Great Barrier Reef.

But water quality monitoring

  • is fragmented across a number of agencies,
  • accumulates information on a variety of data bases,
  • uses different techniques preventing comparison over time and space
  • has inadequate influence over resource management, agriculture and development
  • has not delivered a change in attitude with most land managers,
  • has not delivered changed land use practice.

So for example GBRMPA has spent maybe $100 m on water quality monitoring which at best has translated into vague management advice.

Compare this to the Brisbane Valley/Moreton Bay region EHMS where an integrated approach with local government playing a central role, has led to:

  • collective knowledge sharing,
  • communication and extension,
  • acceptance of the need for land-use change
  • consistent delivery of management advice
  • uptake of sustainable practice
  • wide community participation.

Australia is moving toward a regional approach to environmental management. Local government understanding and commitment and local community support are essential ingredients for a sustainable land use system.

Local Government:

  • is elected by the local community
  • has a broad responsibility for good governance
  • has highly developed finance and accountability tools
  • is the principle, local delivery agent of State (and Commonwealth) policy
  • has a suit of statutory land use management tools
  • has widely accepted ‘sustainability’, (particularly in the sense of the ‘Triple Bottom Line’) as a foundation of its operations.

Just like local government does not have the expertise it needs for NRM, so the knowledge based organisations, which I shall call the knowledge brokers, are largely unable to see their science tested or put into practice in the field of NRM.

So all these things point to the necessity for knowledge sharing arrangements and I would like to use my Council, the Douglas Shire, as an example of how this can work, pointing out the benefits and the costs of implementation.

At the outset I should point out this agenda is not wholly secure. While the concept of sustainability is well accepted there is not universal understanding or commitment to change.

This is set against a background debate of who should bear the cost and responsibility and of competing interests for scarce council financial resources.

Nevertheless the changes we are introducing to achieve ecologically sustainable management will have far reaching implications if carried through over the next ten or twenty years.

I’ll describe our experience by telling the story of how it unfolded from an arbitrary point in time about three years ago rather than simply provide lists of outcomes and arrangements.

This story however is set against a background of

  • being one of Australia’s most biologically diverse shires:

o the Daintree Rainforests,

o 80 per cent of the shire World Heritage Listed

o directly adjoining the GBR WHA

  • some lively local conservation debates
  • a planning scheme with strong environmental goals and controls including well defined limits to growth
  • a lot of data collected on the shire
  • a strong successful tourism industry whose asset is the environment
  • a green tourism strategy.

So I’ll begin the story of our engagement about five years ago when CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology approached us about doing some tourism research one component of which was regional planning.

We established a partnership between Council, CSIRO and the tourism industry whereby

  • council provided office space, computer, phone and car for visits by CSIRO people
  • the tourism industry provided accommodation, distribution of survey forms and collection of data
  • CSIRO provided the scientists support resources and its IP.

CSIRO produced the Tourism Futures Simulator, modelling tool software that linked cause and effect so that ‘what if?’ questions could be asked when planning management and development control.

Supporting that was a data base of information collected by questionnaire at accommodation premises, on tours to reef and rainforest and at the Daintree Ferry.

The software analyses this data and presents it in a very readable way providing very useful information about where visitors come from why they come, what they expect and what they get.

It analyses how and where they spend their money and on what. It tells you lots of other useful information.

You can get copies of the reports from us or from Paul Walker, CSIRO, Div of Sustainable Ecosystems, Canberra and the Software from Paul W.

The software and data are downloaded to the Council system and our staff trained to use it.

At a cost of about $12,000 per year we repeat the survey annually, put it through the software and print a report. CSIRO has given us excellent backup support.

You can understand how this information is very useful to Council, industry and investors.

Recognising the benefits this partnership, about three years ago, we subsequently approached the cane industry in one of our annual routine meetings with the local sugar mill — the Mossman Central Mill and asked if they would be interested in a joint venture program with Council and CSIRO looking at diversification, value adding and sustainability.

The industry was, and still is in serious financial difficulty with low sugar prices and declining productivity with an isolated mill providing no alternative option for processing if the mill goes out of business. So it is either the entire industry chasing all the cane it can for survival or none at all.

Council had to consider the future use of 13,000 ha of land currently under cane should the entire industry go down. Add to that the socio economic impact of the loss of an entire industry, indeed the only industry until the tourism boom of the 80’s.

The Mill saw merit in the proposal, Council prepared correspondence supported by both Mill and Canegrowers, brokered some meetings and a new partnership was born adopting the name suggested by CSIRO, ‘Sustainable Futures’.


  • formed a loose knit steering committee,
  • brought other farming interests and community stakeholders into the picture
  • established our objectives, workplans budgets and co-operative agreements
  • we supported the program with a cash budget made up of contributions as follows:

o $35,000 collectively from Canegrowers, the Mill and their productivity Board

o $35,000 from Council

o $70,000 from CSIRO

Fitting in with our broad objectives of diversification, value adding and sustainability we applied, under the name of the Douglas Shire Council for a grant from the Australian Greenhouse office for $7.35 m to seed fund an integrated energy project to abate 230,000 tons of carbon annually.

Would never have got the money without the combined expertise, particularly CSIRO’s.

The project involved:

  • fermenting ethanol from molasses, a by product of sugar with a low value
  • finding alternative biomass feedstocks for the mill for ethanol
  • planting 3,000 ha of trees for sequestration
  • A total investment of about $50 m ???

We were successful and now the Council has stuck out its neck effectively contracting to the Commonwealth Government to abate that much carbon to help meet Australia’s supposed commitment to address climate change.

The contract was signed date October 2001 after lengthy contractual negotiations with the AGO — the first of its kind, so no criticism of anyone intended.

At the same time Stanwell Corporation began investigating options for cogeneration using another low value byproduct bagasse, the fibre from cane which is currently burnt to make steam to run the mill.

With a $50 m investment in efficient boilers Stanwell could generate a surplus of 50,000 MW (enough for 20,000 houses or 3 times the population of our shire) in addition to running the mill and all without burning any more than they do now.

With the cane industry now having some new options for the future, looking for more feedstock for the Mill, a worried conservation movement asked the question — how can you claim sustainable energy if your industry is not sustainable.

Stanwell and the Mill, to their credit, commissioned a study which found the industry wanting in terms of ecological and economic sustainability and responded with policy to make it sustainable.

This response represents a profound departure from the state based cane growers and involves a commitment to fundamental land use change and to independent accreditation.

In essence the industry recognises at the least it must:

  • move from intensive cultivation to minimal tillage
  • move from soluble fertilisers to slow release
  • move away from residual herbicide and pesticide
  • restore riparian vegetation.

The Qld EPA’s Department of ‘Sustainable Industries’ and the Department of Primary Industries have become enthusiastic participants offering advice, money and extension services.

For this program to work, in other words if the Mossman based cane industry is to reach the point it where it can call itself sustainable, all these agencies and organisations have to work together.

As this program began to gather pace we were approached by the Co-operative Research Centre for Sustainable Tourism approached the Douglas Shire about another joint venture between local government, science and industry.

Their idea was apply an accreditation system for ecologically sustainable tourism to the Douglas Shire as a destination rather than to individual organisations as is usually the case.

The system they are using is Greenglobe 21, born out of the Rio Earth Summit as an attempt to establish an international ecotourism accreditation system.

Collaboratively we have established a system that benchmarks performance against a range of indicators that can generally be applied anywhere and to then commit to annual auditing and continuous improvement.

The ecological indicators we chosen were:

  • vegetation cover (as a surrogate for biodiversity)
  • per capita water consumption
  • per capita energy consumption
  • treatment and beneficial reuse of solid and liquid waste
  • water quality
  • air quality
  • development of a community sustainability strategy.

Going through our measurement and performance is a talk on its own for which we employed a specialist contractor to co-ordinate the whole affair — to set up systems, collect the data etc

Suffice it to say we found ourselves performing well in vegetation and waste management, possibly becoming a net exporter in sustainable energy and not knowing quite where we are in terms of water quality, particularly the export of nutrients and sediments to the GBR lagoon.

The links between agriculture and tourism, between environment and economy became clearer and the need for a broader framework engaging our two major industries, tourism and agriculture with the broader community became obvious.

As required under the Greenglobe accreditation process we embarked on the development of the community based sustainability strategy.

We employed the person who benchmarked our Greenglobe performance, Kirsty Sherlock. She accumulated and sifted relevant studies and information, put together a large reference group to identify issues and propose solutions and drafted a document for council with over 230 actions.

It’s currently on public display. Critically council has agreed this document is to form the foundation of how we do business — of our corporate plan, land use planning, development control, of our relationship with industry and the way we do our own works.

Those actions have been also been used to identify 8 key research areas:

  • identifying unsustainable agriculture practice and developing codes of practice
  • employment self sufficiency for indigenous communities
  • water pollution source and monitoring
  • public good vs individual benefit cost sharing for environmental outcomes
  • how to get tourists to eat local produce
  • mechanisms to encourage/mandate alternate energy production
  • tourism impacts on environment, economy and community well being
  • ecoefficiency in new and existing buildings.

These research priorities have been used to forge a relationship between Council and North Qld’s James Cook University, called ‘Douglas Laboratory’ — it views Douglas Shire as a living laboratory for research and teaching purposes.

This is only just beginning with a small budget of $20,000 from the university but we hope we can get some mutual value by integrating research needs and opportunities in the Douglas Shire with graduate and post graduate research aspirations from the community.

So in summary we have finished up with two industry programs — Greenglobe 21, Agricultural Futures — tied together by Sustainable Futures, the broader community program.


  • Agreement to real change in land management.
  • A strong partnership between council, industry and community.
  • A $7.35 m grant from the Australian Greenhouse office for an integrated.
  • $100,000 from EPA.
  • A sustainable prosperous future for tourism and agriculture and a high quality of life.


  • $35,000 ag futures co-ordinator.
  • $15,000 Greenglobe accreditation.
  • $35,000 community strategy.
  • $15,000 DSC staff support.
  • $12,000 per year for tourism data collection for the TFS.
  • $100,000 future annual implementation.

Other associated programs like vegetation and waste management are not included and are taken to be core business activity of LG

About the author

Cr Mike Berwick is the Mayor of the Douglas Shire in Far North Queensland and has held this position since 1991. He has an Honours degree in Physiology from the University of Queensland. Since being elected to council, Mike has been actively involved in a number of regional, state and national committees and organisations dealing with natural resource management and sustainability.

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