Systemic constraints on capacity in the community environment movement

In 2020, CLEA has been finding ways to strengthen networks between the initiators in community environment groups. Previous years have tested out ways for committees of management (CoM) to work as peers to build the capacity of their groups. A Question Without an Easy Answer, that anticipates the group’s likely future context, was used to peer-to-peer (p2p) learning. Past approaches to the question reviewed by the CoM led to a decision on what should be tried next. This approach to p2p learning had worked well while I facilitated, and with a strong sponsor within the CoM, but had fallen away when that person left. Facilitators leave, committee members change.

CLEA has also promoted use of p2p learning in the State-level forums run by Victoria’s Landcare peak body. A little less chalk-and-talk and a bit more problem-solving between peers was appreciated, but again, when I wasn’t there to shepherd through the use of p2p, the default reasserted itself: speakers and powerpoint presentations, with p2p at mealtimes.

Offered a fourth year of funding, I decided to have a crack at something that seemed simple enough – connecting the initiators in a community group to initiators in other groups. Initiators are the people who start things and keep them going. If they could connect around their interests to others like them, this would speed up knowledge sharing, particularly knowledge about handling the social dynamics of organising in community, collaborating between community and government, and influencing agendas locally and regionally.

Our trial site has been Victoria’s North East region, made up of the rivers that flow out of the Australian Alps and run through valleys out onto the floodplains and eventually to the Murray River.

Rather than go in with ideas about how to do this, I decided to build the project around the matters people in the region thought needed attention. I didn’t want to impose my ideas; I wanted to find what people in the region thought needed attention and devise a way with them to address this.

This is systemic co-inquiry—inquiry into a situation that brings together what people with differing perspectives, and that looks systemically for problems and opportunities. Easy to propose, difficult to do.

CLEA’s focus was collective networks, those networks woven between individuals with a shared interest but located in different places in the region. The specifics of what emerged as leverage points for strengthening networks you can find at the CLEA website, but that work also threw into focus four systemic constraints that lock down capacity and make movements like Landcare almost another arm of government:

  • Little institutional investment in building movement capacity
  • Little interest by the movement itself in building its capacity
  • Little practitioner investment in building networks
  • Little community interest in diversity.

The dedication, creativity and knowledge-ability of members, committees and staff of community environment groups are not in question, but they are short-changed by these constraints. If we want a way to grow capacity on the social side of community environment work. we better look hard at what’s holding things back.

Little institutional investment in building movement capacity

In the Natural Resource Management (NRM) sector, government funders want projects that deliver countable on-ground outcomes, by which they mean biophysical outputs. The NRM sector is staffed with people whose role description includes building capacity, at group, Landcare Network, regional or State level, but whose time is pulled toward putting together the next project bid, starting the next funded project, or tidying up the last finished project. Capacity build is on the list, but other necessities sit higher up the list.

The capacity of the Landcare movement is effectively no-one’s job. Facilitators have only the rudiments of community development in their biophysically-focused degrees. Regional Landcare Coordinators attend to their CMA’s demands, not the development of Landcare Networks or groups. Regional Landcare Facilitators focus on agricultural production. The State Landcare team has few staff and no budget for development. The Minister’s Office invents policy without troubling itself about implementation.

There’s no sustained budget at State level for the professional development of facilitators, and no career path. Facilitators migrate in and out of positions, and in and out of the sector. For the one third or so who stay in their positions for a decade or more, developing an intimate knowledge of their communities and the institutional world in which Landcare is embedded, there’s no systematic harvesting and sharing of knowledge. Facilitators are solo operators. For the first decade of the State’s funding of Regional Landcare Coordinators, there was a substantial commitment to learning and knowledge sharing between these key influencers, but in the last decade that has been stripped way.

Government spending on NRM has steadily declined. Policy has become a rebranding of funding criteria every few years around the next set of new fixes, packaged in a new program identity. ‘Caring for Country’ becomes ‘the National Landcare Program’, each an appropriation of the work that others have done, in the case of Landcare, for 30 years, in the case of indigenous custodians of Country, for 60,000 years.

Targets become ever-more specific, and administrative arrangements ever tighter. Timelines for submission, approval and implementation continue to fit the work demands of funders, not of groups working on ground. Paid staff like local facilitators keep the system turning over; committees wait in hope of the next funding round and the spike of activity it will bring to their membership.

NRM is organised around bureaucratic ways of working through contractual relationships, not community ways of working, which depend on voluntary collaboration around a shared responsibility. Landcare staff and committees spend a lot of time looking up into the mechanisms of funding, and not so looking out into the dynamics of their communities. The funding criteria never ask for the social analysis behind a project, just the polygon, and the project reporting never asks for what is shifting in the community, just the headcount of biophysical outputs.

Landcare groups and Networks have become the service delivery arm of decisions made elsewhere, a cheap option for stretched government budgets, but not a support for creative communities who know what needs doing and can mobilise the necessary knowledge and effort.

Little interest by the movement itself in building its capacity

Why aren’t more Landcare’s leaders approaching movement capacity as a thing in itself, something that can be grown, just like interest in soil health, or perennials in pasture systems, or biolinks? Reading case examples of network development in June Holley’s work in the USA, and following conversations between people developing networks internationally (for example, at SumApp, and Commons Transition, I’ve started to ask why the same conversations don’t seem to be breaking out here, in Victoria.

After the heady years of Landcare’s early growth, groups have spent two decades going from funding round to funding round, holding onto their local base but not often expanding it. For dedicated Landcare farmers, the big changes have been made, the hard work done: it’s time to retire. Urban refugees arrive chasing sustainability and lifestyle, not production, providing a flow of customers for Landcare to pass on the basics of land management, but returning to the city at the rate to leave space for a new crop of novices.

In the meantime, corporate and next-generation family farmers are reinventing agriculture towards more tightly managed production. Driven by the pressures of a warming climate, they lean toward new technology solutions and the ethos and the gains of 30+ years of Landcare on uncertain ground. Basic land management knowledge has been drawn into production systems, and Landcare continues to break into new territory—soil health the last decade, regenerative agriculture the next.

However, Landcare’s social knowledge remains local and tacit. Important questions, such as how to organise projects when people are no longer willing to join committees, or how to connect to young people, are asked by each group and Network, but not collectively across groups. Stalwart Landcare activists have held the State Government to its funding of local facilitators, but there’s nothing for capacity beyond that core funding.

When capacity is considered, by the movement and by government institutions, it is thought of as a matter of adding to people’s skills and knowledge from some store of expertise, rather than of mobilising the capacity for learning in collaboration with one’s peers. That is an assumption shared by most educational institutions, professional associations and organisations, despite the evidence that much of the learning people use in practice is gathered on the job, in action, with their peers.

Little practitioner investment in networks

Why didn’t the people I interviewed called me back when I emailed the next round of documentation or tentative conclusions ? I don’t begrudge the effort, but I’m interested as to why it is that without my calling back, the project would have stalled.

Covid-19 has had a numbing effect on communication per se, and on initiative. NRM staff and committees are chronically over-worked. But why do I feel, when I get on the phone to a facilitator, that I’m talking weird stuff? Community developers have network building in their professional lexicon; State and national level environmental organisations (like ACF and Environment Victoria) have been cultivating locally-based activist networks quite explicitly for a decade. Community environmental work is all about networks, so why is there little systemic inquiry into the ways networks are developing around landscape and agricultural issues and how they could be better used?

Landcare shares in the folk wisdom of the importance of networks, and in the contemporary sensibility about networking in a digital age. But perhaps the practice of ‘networking’ has been narrowed to stuffing more email addresses into Mailchimp and keeping your Facebook and Instagram account up to date. Maybe the idea of people connecting to other people has been swamped by digital networking, and we have become befuddled by trying to keep up with a proliferating set of platforms and by the outright abuse of personal data by enormously powerful digital companies.

What’s lacking is a sensibility about the social that has been worked through into an explicit practice of social influence that even begins to critique such trends. At practitioner level, NRM remains resolutely biophysical. Landcare committees typically staff their positions from the hard sciences, not the social sciences. They tend not to recruit from the field of social activism or community development, out of necessity: when the working language of funding criteria is the language of polygons, not community segments, of workshops conducted, not emergent narratives, you hire someone who can talk that language.

Little community interest in diversity

This is a maybe, and put tentatively. Is there something in rural communities in Victoria that runs against the deliberate cultivation of networks? Taking the NE region as an instance, is there a culture that is suspicious of difference, of differing persons, a culture that values sticking with the dominant ‘us’, rather than valuing and happily embracing the various minorities of ‘them’.

In CLEA 2020, this comes through in the apprehension felt by those convinced of climate change, who fear a tongue-lashing from climate deniers if they speak out in public. It comes through in the slight mutual disdain between full-time producers and part-time farmers, and between urban residents and the farming community. People draw away from these differences, back into their familiar social identify, rather than being curious about the different other.

Landcare groups could engage these differences directly, but this is difficult territory. They don’t want to upset people, or be seen as divisive, so the differences sit there, out of public discussion. That means conscious use of networks sits unattended.

You can read what CLEA is doing in the context of these four constraints to develop capacity for strengthening collective networks, at www.lviclea.org.au.