Australia is currently in the grip of the worst drought ever faced. The current El Nino weather pattern ensures the dry conditions will continue as we experience much lower than normal rains. Longer term the prognosis remains clouded. Some assert this drought is a natural part of our landscape whilst others contend drier conditions represent the flow on effects of global warming.
Barry Hanstrom, NSW regional director of the Bureau of Meteorology is concerned: The evidence for climate change is compelling, in several examples of that across Australia. The fact is that south-west Western Australia since the 70s has dropped almost 20 per cent. The last 10 years in south-eastern Australia the rainfall's down 10 to 20 per cent. 2005 was the warmest year ever recorded in Australia, so there are strong indications, both with rainfall and temperature across Australia that the climate is changing.
The current position means crops like wheat and barley are likely to yield at most 30% of last year and the effect to country areas is devastating. Increased suicides and depression arise with Rural Councillors streched to the limit, but notwithstanding most remain focused to change what they can for the better, to stay positive and look forward to next years season.It’s also hard for city folk to imagine the devastation of a crippling drought in country towns.
The response of the Government was to announce an extra $350 million for farmers and to confirm they are considering a further $400 million, having already spent $1.25 billion on needy 50,000 farming families since 2001.
The basis of this relief is “exceptional circumstances” since normal drought is expected to be managed by farmers.
Water scientist Professor Peter Cullen, has been quoted has suggested such aid only prolongs producers struggling on land no longer sustainable. Clive Hamilton from the Australia Institute was quoted as saying “Farmers shouldn't be getting assistance; they should be leaving the land when it's like this?”
The debate has raged, as if fanned by our recent hot northerly winds, the familiar smell of smoke from earlier tham expected bush fires.
Our Prime Minister commented.
Well, I reject that completely. I reject it. I mean, the basis of his argument is that in some way the payments farmers receive under Exceptional Circumstances represent us paying people to stay on the land. I think that would come as a great surprise to farmers, who know that the Exceptional Circumstances gives them the equivalent of the dole and provides some interest rate subsidies. And that's hardly paying people to stay on the land. "It is, in many cases, paying people to put some food on the table. It's a very unrealistic attitude for people to take. We are not a country that pays people to stay on the land. We're a country that gives people who want to stay on the land support to survive through desperate drought circumstances, and that's what we're living through at the present time. So I reject completely the argument that this drought assistance is, quote, 'paying to keep people on the land', unquote.
It’s a complex situation but I feel the current position is not enhanced by the current aid programme. Consider the value of rural land in Australia and indeed in many parts of the western world and why it is is vastly overpriced. This is a consequence of continued income support to farmers over successive frequent droughts that ensures the price of land reamains unrealistically high. Overseas huge subsidies paid to farmers inflate the value of the land.
Rural land in Australia has appreciated in real terms around 5-6%, thats 5-6 % above the rate of inflation over the past 20 years, putting undue pressure to obtain a commensurate improved return.
I also think Australian farmers are the most efficient in the world and most are responsible environmentalists who do a magnificent job looking after the land for future generations. During dire times such as we are currently experiencing they immediately begin de stocking and mitigating the effect of drought,in other words caring for the land. Many are debt free 3rd generation farmers whose reserves and or alternative incomes tide then through these most difficult of times.
What I favour as an alternative to income support is government assistance in the form of interest free loans, made during such times but to be repaid during good seasons. I think most farmers would prefer a loan to income support schemes, which is nothing more than a handout.
I also think additionally its worth considering a heritage type annual payment, in recognition of the Farmer custodian role of looking the land, that's on on our behalf to preserve it for future generations.
On the longer terms I believe the current exceptional circumstances will not be so exceptional in years to come, but I also believe the Australians farmers will adapt and cotinine to preserve the land for future generations in a sustainable way. That means much more diversity for Farms, a sole farming income will be unsustainable, and other income streams will need to be added for it to be viable overall as we experience drier conditions. This is already occurring to a marked degree and will accelerate in the near future. In effect it will be engaging of country and the city, with new industries such as echo tourism, as it always could have been. The dichotomy or tension between country and city, farming and non framing and or industry need not exist at all as we are all co dependant upon one to another.
In fact I think it wil be true for most countries the world over. The pooling of skils and sharing between communities, that is between country and city, allows us us to learn together as to how to be sustainable, in partnership with nature. It's how we evolved and its how we will survive the future.