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Healthier Places, Healthier People

murray darling river

Full Project Title: 'Healthier places, healthier people': An innovative approach to strengthening adaptive capacity in the Basin

Theme 1 : Drivers of change - understanding and integrating the economic, social, health and drivers of change in the Murray-Darling Basin

This project was let by Professor Helen Berry and Dr Jacki Schirmer

Landcare dicsussion - Goondiwindi Land care co-ordinater Mathew Flechers with farmer Nevil Boland on the property Mandeena. Looking at grass barriers that stop soil running in to the local creek. Photo courtesy of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.Catchment Management Authorities focus squarely on working with communities to improve and protect the natural resources of the environment, biodiversity of soil, water and native vegetation. Human health and wellbeing has not traditionally been part of CMA activity. However, recent years have seen increasing interest and investment of CMAs in understanding and addressing human health and wellbeing as part of their NRM work. In one particularly unique initiative, the Southern Rivers CMA has presented compelling preliminary evidence that one of its approaches to natural resource management (NRM) projects, titled 'Locals linking landscapes':

  • Addresses water-related land management requirements in a way that seems also to co-create sustainable social and health benefits.
  • Models how the health of landscapes, communities and individuals are linked, and how working together towards positive goals strengthens these links, harnessing potentiated benefits for environments, communities and health.

In 2009, the Southern Rivers CMA prepared a Health Impact Assessment in collaboration with the NSW Health Southern Local Health Network and the University of New South Wales Centre for Health Equity, Training Research and Evaluation. The Assessment concluded that joint landholder-CMA natural resource management projects could benefit farm families' wellbeing, particularly their mental health and sense of empowerment.

This raises the broader question of how to best design NRM interventions that support positive social, as well as environmental outcomes; and what elements of design are critical to achieve this. By achieving positive social outcomes it is more likely that positive environmental outcomes will be achieved, as projects are less likely to fail in early stages and more likely to achieve a positive self-reinforcing cycle of action that results in joint benefits for both social and environmental systems. In an environmentwhere supporting landholder wellbeing is recognised as critical to supporting farmer adaptation to the stresses of reduced water availability, climatic change and other stresses, it is important to design NRM projects to ensure they have positive social, as well as environmental outcomes.

Since February 2012, initial desktop review and consultation with NRM agencies has identified that across the Murray-Darling Basin, multiple approaches are used to deliver NRM projects, ranging from giving competitive grants to individual landholders, through to cooperative projects involving landscape-wide collaboration between landholders. Existing evidence suggests potential for both positive and negative health and wellbeing outcomes from these different modes of delivery, but there is little research available to identify where, when and how NRM projects affect the health and wellbeing of landholders and local communities, and how to design them to achieve positive wellbeing outcomes. CMAs have stressed a need for this project to examine the health and wellbeing consequences of multiple approaches to NRM, as well as to investigate some of these in more depth via specific case studies.

CONNECTION TO THEORY. The sequence of events that occurs in many collaborative NRM projects is an example of group mobilisation and norm formation to achieve a goal, and it is suggestive of two kinds of social processes, each operating effectively: SOCIAL CAPITAL and SOCIAL IDENTITY.

In simple terms, SOCIAL CAPITAL contains two central components: the 'structural' component, or 'what people do', and the 'cognitive' component, or 'what people think and feel'. The structural component describes the many ways in which people can and do participate in their communities, the networks and relationships that derive from participation and the degree of sufficiency and satisfaction associated with participation. The cognitive component refers to the social cohesion that grows from participation. It encompasses such thoughts and feelings as trust in others, the give-and-take of reciprocity and mutual support, understanding of and compliance with norms of behaviour, and, perhaps most important of all for wellbeing, a sense of belonging and connectedness. The structural and cognitive components appear to be causally linked such that participation precedes, even generates, sense of cohesion. While these processes are, of course, ultimately reciprocal, it seems that the more and better the participation, the greater the sense of social cohesion. This is of great benefit because higher levels of social capital are robustly linked to better health and greater economic opportunity. If 'locals linking landscapes' projects produce these benefits, they would, as a consequence, increase local community adaptive capacity.

The SOCIAL IDENTITY perspective captures three important additional points about social processes. Simply put, it holds that (i) people tend to define themselves in terms of their group memberships (i.e. they have 'social identities', for example, 'I am a farmer'), (ii) people tend to define their group memberships both in terms of who is in the group and what people in the group should do (i.e. social identities have behavioural norms, for example, 'farmers should look after their land'), and finally (iii) people tend to join and stay in groups that make them feel positively distinct from other people (for example, 'farmers do a great job caring for the land'). When this happens, people will spontaneously take action to protect their group. Consequently, the more that a sense of social identity is deeply felt and generally shared, the more the collective behaviour of group members becomes proactive, influential and sustainable. In this way, social identity dynamics provide a way of understanding how a group of collaborative landscape managers can become a growing force in a community, simultaneously reinforcing the relationships between participation, social cohesion and health as articulated by social capital theory.

AN INTEGRATED SOCIAL CAPITAL-SOCIAL IDENTITY APPROACH. For two principle reasons, this project will take an integrative social capital/social identity approach to investigating scientifically whether and how NRM projects generate health and social co-benefits (or costs) for landholder families, and how best to design NRM projects to maximise benefits:

  1. Social capital theory and the social identity perspective are compatible with each other and provide a well-documented, well-accepted, flexible and sufficiently sophisticated framework that, prima facie, fits well with the observed NRM project outcomes.
  2. Adopting an appropriate theory-based approach enables research findings to be (i) understood and interpreted in terms of an explanatory framework, rather than just described, and (ii) transferred to other projects and locations or to future stages of the same project/s. That is, social capital and social identity theories provide a framework that will help participants and researcher teams understand why the projects may be strengthening communities and conferring co-benefits and, therefore, what can be done to obtain similar benefits in a new project.


Photo courtesy of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. Landcare dicsussion - Goondiwindi Land care co-ordinater Mathew Flechers with farmer Nevil Boland on the property Mandeena. Looking at grass barriers that stop soil running in to the local creek.

MDBfutures is supported by the Australian Government's Collaborative Research Networks program.