Human capital


Section 4.3 focused on the systems that inform management about the land environment. Management effectiveness also depends heavily on the quality and overall capacity of the human resources, networks and infrastructure involved in land planning and management. In large measure, improvements in land use during recent decades have been due to:

  • increased land literacy in the community (e.g. through the Landcare movement and other community-based programs)
  • improved levels of environmental education, due to a greater focus on the environment in school curricula, and professional learning and development programs
  • a better understanding of the intrinsic suitability of particular areas of land for different uses (e.g. based on land resource and ecological surveys)
  • effective adoption of outcomes from research and development (e.g. better crop varieties and fertilisers, conservation cropping strategies)
  • more formalised management practices that result in better planning and timing of operations (e.g. grazing systems, farm planning, forest codes of practice)
  • better access to information on sustainable systems of land management (e.g. through industry groups, Landcare networks and the Internet).

Although the improvements in land use are to be applauded, it is clear from this report that, in many regions, the decline in land condition has not been completely arrested. The significance of this problem is sharpened when we consider the scale of the global land and water challenge (see Section 1.3). Another worrying trend is an apparent weakening of relevant human capital—knowledge, education and experience—in Australia. There are several dimensions to this problem, with interlinked causes and impacts:

  • Loss of connection to the land—Australia is becoming increasingly urbanised, and many Australians now have minimal direct contact with people in rural and remote regions. This affects both the awareness and sophistication of public discourse on land-related issues (e.g. debates on the management of feral animals, fire policy and genetically modified organisms).
  • Higher education—Numbers of students taking higher degrees in agricultural science and forestry have diminished significantly over the past decade.119-120 The same trend applies to NRM-related degrees more generally and relevant vocational education and training programs. As a result, there is now a growing professional and technical capacity gap in land and NRM. The reasons for this are complex, but reflect in part a decline in the status of these fields, perceptions that primary industries are in decline, and an apparent lack of career paths for graduates.
  • Career paths for land managers—Many of the traditional career paths for land managers no longer exist, as a consequence of agency downsizing and shifts to shorter term, project-based funding. Despite large investments in programs such as the Natural Heritage Trust and Caring for our Country, there has been limited consideration of workforce planning and career development for the thousands of people employed through these programs.121
  • Scientific and technical capability—This is closely related to the career-path problem and the issue of investment in research and development discussed above. Many committed and capable scientists and technicians have been trained in land-related disciplines in the past 20 years. For example, the survey programs during the Decade of Landcare (an Australian Government initiative aimed at addressing land degradation, conducted in 1990-2000) resulted in a cohort of experts in vegetation science, rangeland ecology, soils, salinity, regolith and applied ecology. However, the shift to project-based funding resulted in many of these young and mid career professionals leaving their chosen field. Rebuilding this capability requires career pathways that offer opportunities for around five years’ field experience in a range of landscapes subsequent to degree completion.
  • Indigenous capacity—As Indigenous Australians assume formal responsibility for managing or co-managing more of Australia’s land environment, and as their interests in, and potential contributions to, land management are recognised more widely, there is a corresponding need to build their capacity in both traditional and scientific management. There is also a need to build the capacity of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to work effectively together in managing the land environment.6,122-123
  • Scientific and professional inputs into policy and planning—The weakening of human capital has a direct impact on the level of scientific and professional advice provided to governments. The likelihood of informed policy and planning outcomes is reduced accordingly.
Kanowski P, McKenzie N (2011). Land: Human capital . In: Australia state of the environment 2011, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b6585f94911