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River restoration through people and stories


River restoration through people and stories

The Australian River Restoration Centre (ARRC) is a non-profit organisation dedicated to connecting people with an interest in river restoration.

“If we want rivers restored, we have to engage people.” That is the view of Dr Siwan Lovett, co-founder and Director of the Canberra-based organisation.  “When it comes down to it, managing our natural resources is all about people and how we interact with our environment,” she says.

This approach is in stark contrast to a technical-based approach to river management, which prioritises biophysical scientific, rational and logical methods.

“Most people make decisions on emotional rather than rational grounds,” Dr Lovett explains. “There is no point undertaking practical activities without tying in with people and what they are doing.”

“Even for something like wanting to regulate the number of people that access a river, you need to get people on board to make that happen.”

Sharing stories

It is no surprise then that the ARRC is an organisation that links, connects and facilitates opportunities for scientists, irrigators, conservationists, farmers and anyone with an interest in their local creek to come together and find out who is doing what in terms of river restoration and management.

The ARRC also values and celebrates emotion as a vital part of river restoration efforts, as the organisation appreciates that people care deeply about the rivers in their communities.

“What are needed are collaborative approaches that start with sharing stories and finding common ground,” says Dr Lovett.

The establishment of ARRC

Dr Lovett has extensive experience in natural resource management, including working for the now defunct Land & Water Australia where, she says, she was “an undercover social scientist”.

After Land & Water Australia ceased operating at the end of November 2009, Siwan says she perceived a gaping hole left behind. She says that legacy websites are useless when it comes to sharing knowledge and keeping the networks and relationships established through organisations like Land & Water Australia alive. Given this gap, she decided, in conjunction with Dr Phil Price, to establish the ARRC as a connecting hub of knowledge about people and rivers.

“The ARRC builds on the success of Land & Water Australia’s National Riparian Lands Research & Development Program, which ran for 13 years and significantly improved our understanding of Australian river function, and the management actions that can protect, enhance and restore riverine environments.”

A focus on people

Dr Lovett was was fortunate to be the recipient of a Winston Churchill Trust Fellowship and travelled to Europe to examine the network of River Restoration Centres that exist in Italy, Denmark and the United Kingdom.

“While river restoration centres overseas were focusing on engineering, we decided to focus on the people aspect,” she says.

“A plan to restore a river needs to start with a common goal, a shared vision. All people care about their river and that needs to be acknowledged. You need to know where people have come from to know where they want to go.”

ARRC in action: Conserving the Pumicestone Passage

The ARRC is currently working with the Sunshine Coast Regional Council to develop a Catchment and Estuary Management Plan for the Pumicestone Passage, an area of outstanding beauty as well having significant industry and commercial usage. Dr Lovett says working out how to manage competing interests in the Pumicestone Passage is a microcosm of what is happening in the Murray Darling Basin and elsewhere in Australia.

The approach the ARRC and the Sunshine Coast Regional Council is taking is one where people’s relationships with the river are acknowledged and referenced prior to writing anything down or ‘telling’ people what is going to happen.

“The first meeting started by hearing from people involved in past work on the Pumicestone Passage, so that those involved in developing the new plan could reflect on what had gone before and build on this knowledge and experience. Acknowledging the past and building on prior knowledge provides a solid foundation upon which groups can then work together to develop a common vision for the future.

“By focusing on the stories and connection communities feel with their river and environment, new plans and initiatives can be seen as a positive step in sustaining a long-term environmental, social and economic future,” Dr Lovett says.

“If people don’t feel heard, they get angry and won’t listen to others. What is needed instead is a collaborative approach that starts with sharing stories and finding common ground, and then moving into a new phase based on a shared future.

“If people share the original goal, they are happy for an organisation to do the work required to carry out that goal.”

The value of relationship-building

So for Dr Lovett and the ARRC, environmental goals need to be connected to human ones.

“The best communicators in any organisation are the ones that take time for relationship building and network building,” she says. “Sharing stories is the currency of life.”

She rues the current trend in natural resource management that works against collaborative approaches.

“Natural resources management has become very competitive, in terms of both funding and ideas.

“It has become harder to share knowledge as it is now a mechanism of power to secure funding. This is not a healthy way to be organising ourselves.”

So in her role with the ARRC, Dr Lovett leads workshops designed to build community capacity by transferring her skills to others. For example, earlier this year, she conducted Knowledge Management and Sharing Workshops with the Sunshine Coast Regional Council, the Sydney Metropolitan Catchment Management Authority and the Lachlan Catchment Management Authority, as well as workshops in Canberra and Melbourne that attracted people from a wide range of educational and natural resources management agencies.

“Perhaps the most enlightening moment for all involved in these workshops came when we asked people why they do what they do,” says Dr Lovett.

“In the workshops, the responses were the same – a belief in the need to protect and care for our environment, combined with a desire to ‘make a difference’. We were delighted to see people reconnect with their reason for doing what they do – knowing what you believe in is vital to sustaining yourself and those around you – it is why we do what we do and why the ARRC exists.”

Recent projects of the ARRC include an evaluation of the Hawkesbury-Nepean River Recovery Program, using both quantitative and qualitative techniques to review the relationships that have been formed and out of the program.

Sharing knowledge in innovative ways

The ARRC is also involved in the “True Tales of the Trout Cod’ research story. Author Will Trueman has written an extensive book on the history of the trout cod in the Murray Darling and Dr Lovett and her colleagues are working to produce films, booklets and an interactive website to bring the stories to life and provide information targeted at different audiences and localities.

Future plans for the ARRC include trying to secure support to revitalise the Natural Resource Management Navigator, a tool developed through the Knowledge for Regional NRM Program formerly run by Land & Water Australia, as well as launching a successor to the popular RipRap magazine Dr Lovett edited for 13 years. All of these projects seek to facilitate web-based knowledge sharing.

It is clear Dr Lovett and her colleagues at the ARRC are passionate about the environment through the techniques of sharing knowledge, of valuing people and their emotional connections to the environment, and through assisting various people involved with rivers and river management to talk to each other.

The methods are reaping success. Doug Rhodes from the Office of the Hawkesbury Nepean, provided this reflection on ARRC workshops: “We are now talking about WHY we do what we do and using this as fundamental motivation for all our work and communications.”


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