Australian bioregionalism

A lot has happened since this was written in 1996. We published in the bioregional journal Inhabit, which was produced out of Melbourne for about 3 years … i’m hoping to do a bit of an update on the last decade soon.

Australian bioregionalism

Australia has a history of bioregional thought and development. There have been two main strands of this thought: one based around land management, and one focussed on personal appreciation, action and lifestyles.

One early development was the Australian Association of Sustainable Communities (AASC) which sought to promote the idea of sustainable rural and urban communities throughout the 1970’s and 80’s. Barrie Griffiths, Marg McLean, Strider and Michael Petter would be names that many people familiar with this stage in bioregional development might recognise. AASC published ‘News from Home’, which covered regional reports on activities around Australia. It used the main drainage basins of the continent as the defining criteria for bioregions, although this developed as time went on. It focused on land co-operatives, environmental issues, watershed management, and was an early advocate of computer networking as a way of sharing information.

AASC and Green Alliance co-ordinated regional gatherings of activists, and these two groups constitute the most organised stage of grassroots bioregional thought to date. The Manning River Bioregional Association is one of the groups in Australia that uses explicitly bioregional concepts in it’s organising. Urban Ecology in the Tandanya bioregion (SA) is another.

Parallel to these grassroots initiatives, there has been a history of government interest as well. There have been a number of attempts to map Australia by natural criteria. An early one was the National Mapping Program that identified 233 major drainage divisions. In 1974, the CSIRO identified around 300 distinct bio-physical regions. In 1981, the Department of Home Affairs identified around 300 regions. This work is hard to find, but appears to have included cultural rather than just biological/natural data- a key component of bioregional thinking.

In recent times we saw the development of regional terminology under the Better Cities program but there are no set criteria for determining regions and the driving force is mainly development rather than sustainability. At the present time, we have seen an excellent program called the Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation of Australia (IBRA), which has been co-ordinated by the Federal Environment Department (DEST) – now called Environment Australia. The IBRA process, linked to the National Reserve System Conservation Program (NRSCP), is part of a three stage program, which has identified natural regions, then determined what percentage of each region is protected in nature reserves, and is now making recommendations about what areas should no be included in the reserve system.

the Eccentre, St Kilda

the Ecocentre, St Kilda

The IBRA program has identified 80 regions, based on biomes; these constitute geomorphic units that include climate, soil and vegetation. It originally used a definition of bioregion that included cultural considerations: “areas of land and/or water whose limits are defined not by political boundaries but by geographical distribution of biophysical attributes, ecological systems and human communities”.

Other recent developments include a Federal House of Representatives Standing Committee on Australia’s carrying capacity. In October 1995, DEST hosted a conference on bioregional planning. There are now state-based catchment management structures in place, such as the Catchment and Land Protection Legislation in Victoria. These potentially radical shifts in planning systems have, for the most part, been made fairly safe – they operate under a business-as-usual model and are not perceived as being intermediate stages on the path to a bioregional governance structure. However, they do mark a step in the right direction. The move towards regional agreements between stakeholders (such as the Cape York agreement between traditional owner groups, land holders and environmental organisations) heralds a remarkable confluence of government jurisdiction and grassroots concern, and is going to be the main way forward for most of Australia in providing practical ways of developing bioregional control – that is, local control – over the next decade or so.

[this was originally published in Inhabit, a bioregional journal, issue  #4, Autumn 1996]


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