Sea- and tree-change landscapes: environmental thresholds in the Wet Tropics, Far North Queensland, Australia

Schultz, Pamela Anne (2011) Sea- and tree-change landscapes: environmental thresholds in the Wet Tropics, Far North Queensland, Australia. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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The Wet Tropics bioregion of Far North Queensland, Australia, is a highly contested landscape between developers and natural resource managers (NRM) because it is wedged between two World Heritage Areas, the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area (WTWHA) and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP). The tropical bioregion is a mosaic of different classes of vegetation and land-use patterns. Cairns city is the social and economic hub, reliant on the water of the Barron River that originates on the Atherton Tablelands and culminates in a sudden descent from the Barron Gorge (of an altitude of about 400 m) into a relatively small (about 50 square kilometres) but dynamic delta region.

Sea- and tree-changers (STCs), a popular metaphor for people who move from cities to attractive coastal, hinterland or riverine areas are migrating in greater numbers to live in these beautiful regions. This migration pressures local governments to provide for housing and infrastructure that ironically depletes the aesthetic landscapes that STCs have come to enjoy. In the search for new places, developers and governments are encouraged to invest in unsuitable hillslopes, rainforest and flood-prone real estate. Sea- and tree-changers also modify their surroundings to suit their specific purpose for being there. In doing so they deforest the terrain, introduce exotic vegetation and animals, and deplete precious and scarce agricultural land. This leads to a deterioration of biodiversity and ecosystem services, resources that are conceptually undervalued by this relatively affluent Western population who mainly live in urbanised environments.

Until this study, research concentrated on ecological systems of the Wet Tropics and so the knowledge gap that my research addresses is the paucity of social science investigations. Thus, I set out to explore how STCs might affect future tropical landscapes by conducting qualitative interviews with consenting participants within the parameters of two locations transacted by the Barron River. The first was on the Barron Delta floodplains and coastal hamlets, and the other Myola and environs, about 12 – 14 km northwest on the Northern Tablelands. I aimed to investigate who the people are, why they come, and specifically, why they might leave the Wet Tropics. I also wished to determine the social, cultural or environmental 'thresholds' of these landscape environments and if they retained the aesthetic features that attracted people there in the first place.

Ethnographic fieldwork was conducted using the Grounded Theory methods of qualitative interview techniques and inductive narrative analysis to provide a perspective of the type of people that live in the Wet Tropics. The database of narratives contains their worldly individual and unique views, values and concerns on various issues that were important to them at the times of their interviews. These narratives can be compared with the present plans of governments and natural resource managers to determine what people are likely to do or want for their future in these tropical landscapes.

The research on STCs also revealed rich data on peoples' perceptions of Ecosystem Services (ESs), the conceptual framework that was developed by the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment (MA), the team of global scientists formed to address biodiversity loss on the Earth. The flexible research methods were juxtaposed with the rigid ESs MA framework to find three categories of ESs within the narratives. They were provisioning, regulating and cultural services. Through the inductive analysis of their narratives, participants' perceptions of landscape values, conditions, threats, pressures or thresholds that might affect ESs functionality was identified. The transcripts revealed that the aesthetic landscape amenity and their contributors, trees, forests and water, were the most highly valued. The ESs offsets, i.e. climate impacts and biodiversity naturally followed in relative importance. If these highly valued assets were destroyed or changed to a great extent as to also change the ecology at a level that did not support these assets, then a threshold of wellbeing for all concerned would be reached. Until this research, there has been little understanding of socio-cultural thresholds relating to ecosystem service dynamics, and tools to reveal these.

Contrary to the sea- and tree-change metaphor, the results also showed that people move to the Wet Tropics not just for a lifestyle change, but for a variety of reasons including to get away from difficult personal situations, for employment, adventure or to return to live permanently after a holiday in the Wet Tropics. Some STCs are concerned however that moving away from family and friends depletes a needed support base. Besides, if they lose their economic base, they are likely to leave with additional worries that both young and old have for the lack of infrastructure such as transport and medical facilities.

Personal matters were cited as the overriding reason for most participants to leave the Wet Tropics, although it was often both personal and environmental reasons that first attracted them. It is noted that environmental and social thresholds are cultural perceptions constructed by individuals through their emotional, societal and environmental interactions. The decision to migrate indicates various degrees of ambivalence and discontentment to place due to the Australian and international 'migrant culture' that causes this uprootedness.

This thesis argues that the policies devised by natural resource managers, industries and governments to manage and preserve these tropical landscapes in a sustainable way are not administered strongly enough. I also argue that theories and praxis of NRM at all levels of government plans and the social, institutional and industrial praxis do not combine effectively for sustainable NRM. The need is urgent to develop policies more suitably directed to environmental conservation so that biodiversity stays intact and ESs appropriately supports future generations.

Item ID: 29309
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: sea-changers; tree-changers; Wet Tropics; North Queensland; ecosystem services; cultural ecosystem services; thresholds; threshold of wellbeing
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Date Deposited: 14 Oct 2013 22:00
FoR Codes: 16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1604 Human Geography > 160404 Urban and Regional Studies (excl Planning) @ 50%
05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050299 Environmental Science and Management not elsewhere classified @ 50%
SEO Codes: 97 EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE > 970116 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of Human Society @ 50%
97 EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE > 970105 Expanding Knowledge in the Environmental Sciences @ 50%
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