Local Attitudes to changing land use - Narrabri Shire
The study Local attitudes to changing land use – Narrabri Shire, is a collaborative research project between The University of Newcastle (UON) and the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) on how land use and land use change is conceptualised and understood within local contexts. The study focuses particularly on the Narrabri Shire, which is an area of NSW that has a long history of significant land use change. In addition, Narrabri has more recently experienced an intensification of coal mining and emergence of gas interests, which have challenged the traditional agricultural base of the community. The community’s experience with the contested introduction of cotton and, later, genetically modified (GM) crops established Narrabri Shire as a possible site for comparison of historical and contemporary attitudes to changing land uses.
The study has resulted in two reports, which can be accessed below. The reports present comprehensive and useful evidence-based research on how a particular rural community is affected and responds to land use change. They draw on semi-structured interviews with 65 Narrabri locals, comprising residents and key stakeholders (planners, policy makers and decision makers).
The key findings that are discussed in the reports include:
- Land use change does not occur in a vacuum and local experiences and perceptions of land use change are framed by particular social, cultural, economic, political and natural dynamics.
- Conceptions of place are critical mediators of attitudes to changing land use. In Narrabri, place is connected to notions of rurality, economic diversity and harmony. Land use change that is seen to threaten such visions of place will cause tension, friction and conflict.
- Water and soil are the ultimate resources that must be protected. Conceptions of place are closely intertwined with notions of water and soil. Water and soil are at the top of the resource hierarchy and land use that are believed to jeopardise these resources are seen as a threat to the social and economic vigour of Narrabri and a threat to individual well-being.
- Attitudes to land use are shaped by three interconnected modes of proximity: spatial, moral and socio-economic. These three modes of proximity cannot be viewed in isolation and people’s location in spatial, moral and socio-economic terms is not static. Attitudes will be transformed in response to individual’s movement within spatial, moral and socio-economic landscapes.
- Local communities become ‘casualties of spatial proximity’. Narrabri residents express a general consensus that the local community disproportionately carry the costs of extractive activities and are disadvantaged because they are at the centre of impact.
- A cultural code of reciprocity shapes people’s attitudes to land use change and, more specifically, various agents in the land use sphere. The cultural code of reciprocity demands a fair and appropriate exchange of costs and benefits.
- Knowledge and scientific ‘truths’ are contested. Knowledge is politicised and there is subsequent uncertainty associated with technical science. This often leads people on their own fact-finding missions.
- Witnessing and circulating stories hold a validating force and transform ‘gut feelings’ to ‘truths’. Personal experiences or testimonies from significant others represent tipping points in people’s assessment of truth and, subsequently, their positioning on a particular land use issue.
- The Sandstone Curtain is a service delivery and communication barrier that shields decision makers from the consequences of their decisions. The urban-rural (policy) divide is symbolised by the Great Dividing Range or the ‘Sandstone Curtain’. The notion of a curtain attains metaphorical force in that it represents both a physical separation between urban-based decision makers and the perception of governments ‘pulling the curtain’ and remaining oblivious to what is happening beyond the ranges.
- Perceptions of preferential treatment are profuse. Many of the locals experience a sense of bias favouring the extractive industries. The perceived interconnection between industry and government is leading to cynicism and making many locals sceptical to land use change as it is seen to be led by external interests.
- Effective land use governance requires local empowerment. Local government is seen to have limited authority and decision-making powers when it comes to critical land use changes yet are seen to be burden with various negotiations and engagement functions. There is a ‘governance in the gaps’ scenario emerging from failures to create integrated planning frameworks to ensure coordination and collaboration.
- New alliances are emerging within the Shire. In the face of what is experienced as an antagonistic other, many local farmers and environmental groups meet and express a new forms of rural citizenship.