Thursday, 17 March 2011

Building Trust, It's Not Easy

I find myself thinking about, and coming back to in this little blog, that grey zone where land use, economics, the environment, cheap food, politics, public perception, public demands, all mix together. It was on full display Monday night at a meeting at the Pownal Rink.  The watershed enhancement group from Stratford was the host. It wanted to see if there is interest in expanding the watershed groups work further east through Hazelbrook, Earnscliffe, Vernon Bridge and so on. There was a good mix of farmers and other landowners,  environmentalists, concerned citizens.

I have a lot of respect for the watershed enhancement groups throughout the province. Most are volunteers who want to see the province's rivers run clean again after decades of poor land use practices by a whole bunch of people, farmers, forest contractors, highway construction crews, the overuse of salt and sand in the winter, golf courses, home and cottage owners with poorly maintained septic fields and paved driveways, causeways,  the list goes on.  Climate change and "severe weather events" are just adding to the problems.

The provincial government doesn't have, or is refusing to cough up, enough money to do all the work the watershed enhancement groups want to do. That's why its asking the groups to expand their work to include adjacent watersheds, hoping the limited resources will go a little further. In some cases this has discouraged  people who are interested in their own watershed, but unwilling to take on 4 or 5 more.

All of this and more was on display Monday night. Farmers worried that what folks in Stratford really want  is a new source of water to meet the needs of a growing community, and that they will be jackbooted into doing things on their land to protect someone else's interests. Many complained the province had already gone overboard with environmental regulations. One farmer even suggested that cattle walking through streams actually controls the growth of weeds and keeps the streams cleaner. I'm hoping he was kidding.

I find it very discouraging to see how isolated and misunderstood farmers  have become. It comes across as being stubborn and out of touch, it leads to frustration and disrespect from the general public.  Farmers, livestock farmers in particular, have lost a lot of money over the last six years. Having your farming practices continually questioned on top of that has to hurt, although organizers of the meeting went out of their way to say that no one from any watershed enhancement group would or could do anything without permission from the landowner. It's almost as if farmers think if they openly agree to some of this work that it's an admission that they've done something wrong in the past, and it has to be fixed.

We've seen some of these dynamics at work before with Rails to Trails. When CN finally left, there were many well-meaning people in the tourism industry who said, well we'll just transform the railbed into walking trails and attract a new class of tourists. It's a no brainer, we were told.  No one took a moment to wonder how farmers might feel about this, and there were pockets in Dunstaffnage and Eastern PEI who went to the wall to keep Rails to Trails out of their community. What might have happened if a phone call or letter to farmers early on had said "What do you think about this?" Yes there would have been objections and the need for meetings, but think of the time and legal fees spent sorting it out in the end anyway.

Towards the end of Monday night's meeting another farmer suggested that it might make more sense for landowners around Pownal and Orwell Bay to join together in a watershed enhancement group, separate from Straford. Scott Roloson talked about growing interest in a group wanting to clean up the Vernon River. He's set up a facebook page (beyond my scope to give you the co-ordinates.) More meetings are planned for the future. So, as these meetings go, this one ended pretty well.

There is an excellent example of a community coming together to improve local land use practices, in Souris. It had all the elements conflict resolution theory says is needed. A strong co-coordinator,  Fred Cheverie, a retired local teacher well-known and respected by people in the community, money (it was a pilot project and received a lot of Federal dollars), and time. There were months of meetings between farmers, shellfish harvesters, and others. Information was shared, and most importantly trust was built up.  A plan that well over 90% of local farmers agreed to was developed: farmers would receive  small payments for taking additional steps beyond what the law requires, to protect the environment. This became the basis of what's called the Alternative Land Use Services or ALUS program that's now available across the province.  There aren't a lot of Fred Cheveries across the province, and there certainly aren't the kind of federal dollars that were available in Souris for the pilot project.. In fact many of the watershed enhancement groups make a good case that they are competing with the ALUS program for provincial environment dollars, and that both groups are being shortchanged.

I've done this before, but I think it's instructive to look at how other jurisdictions deal with what is really a world-wide struggle between the demands on farmers to produce lots of cheap food, the industrialization of farming methods, and deterioration of the environment. There are countries in Europe that recognize the benefits of a working landscape to the environment and the tourist industry, and pay farmers a lot of money  to maintain it. In France, farmers sign Farmland Management Contracts that pay on average $58 thousand dollars (Can) a year to maintain pastures, and protect waterways. In Switzerland  what’s called the “multifunctionality” of farms is entrenched in the Constitution, with broad public support to use government subsidies to keep farmers on the land using environmentally sound farming practices.  On average farmers get more than 30 thousand dollars (Can)  a year under this program, with smaller farmers getting larger per hectare payments than larger farms.  Organic farms, and farmers practicing humane livestock rearing, receive even more.  This pales what the ALUS program pays out, a few hundred dollars at best. There is a generation of Europeans who starved during the Second World War, so they take the idea of food security and. it looks like, the environment much more seriously than we do here. The European political culture is also more collective in nature and action than in North American. We don't want others telling us what to do unless the circumstances are very dire.

Without a lot of money to throw around, trust is really the crucial currency here, but trust is never given, it has to be earned by all sides.

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