The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) recently conducted its fourth session, meeting in Nairobi, Kenya over the period 11-15 March 2019. The theme of this year’s session was:
“innovative solutions for environmental challenges and sustainable consumption and production.” During the five day assembly, delegates for the ‘African Group’ submitted a paper “Innovations in sustainable rangelands and pastoralism.” This is the first time that the UN has acknowledged that the restoration of rangelands should be given the same status as those of more well-known ecosystems, such as rainforests. Head of the Australian Delegation and Australia’s High Commissioner to Kenya, H.E. Ms. Alison Chartres, delivered a national statement to the Assembly, supporting the session’s main theme. To avoid pre-empting the African Group’s submission, rangelands and pastoralism, in the Australian context, were not mentioned. Approximately 81 per cent of Australia is classified as rangelands. This may be an appropriate time to reassess Australia’s environmental rangeland policies in the context of the latest UNEA session and the upcoming UN Decade for Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030.
Although Australia’s contribution to the estimated 500 million pastoralists worldwide is small in comparison to the countries represented by the African Group, many similar environmental challenges exist for Australia. The African Group’s submission urged Member States to raise awareness and promote innovative solutions to the environmental challenges affecting rangelands. Two factors should be considered: firstly, did the UN session raise awareness as it intended, including a focus on the UN’s 2016 International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists Initiative? Secondly, how is Australia planning to achieve the future goals for rangelands and pastoralists outlined by the UNEA, regardless of the latest UN environmental meeting?
Australia’s rangelands are extremely diverse, containing 53 of Australia’s 85 bioregions. They comprise areas of non-irrigated land, including grasslands, tropical savannah, semi-arid and arid lands. They are culturally and economically important for their food production, water security, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, mineral resource extraction and tourism. Each of these activities fall under the UNEA emphasis on sustainability, as outlined in their latest session.
Currently, Australia’s Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council (NRMMC) has in place its “Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010–2030”, the second decade of which coincides with the UN’s dedicated Decade. Rangelands are not discussed in the NRMMC document. It is only by going back nearly ten years to the NRMMC’s “Principles for Sustainable Resource Management in the Rangelands 2010”, that a national document is found. This was predated by the 2008 Australian Collaborative Rangelands Information System (ACRIS) report “Rangelands 2008-Taking the Pulse”, and the 2001 ACRIS “Rangelands – tracking changes”. Each report evolves from its predecessor.
What can be deduced from each document is an increasing complexity in balancing sustainable development with an increasing population and a corresponding demand for additional resources for Australia’s rangelands. This is coupled with the imperative of preserving our distinct and sometimes unique ecosystems and the ongoing protection of those areas and the biodiversity contained within them. In conjunction with the UNEA’s focus on rangelands and the ACRIS 2009 report, it is an opportune time for new policies that consider the current global challenges of higher populations and resource demands, together with the new processes that aim to mitigate climate change, such as carbon sequestration.
Although Australia has either signed or ratified numerous legal international environmental obligations, including the World Heritage Convention, none specifically relate to its rangelands. Public awareness through the global reach of the UN’s ‘dedicated years or decades’ may provide the impetus to reinvigorate Australia’s national policies relating to the importance of the rangelands, which make up such a large proportion of its landmass. Regardless of UN initiatives, Australia should show its leadership by taking a responsible approach in developing sustainable practices to protect and manage its unique rangelands.