Opinion | Which way from here in the battle for the Upper Hunter?

CONTESTED HOTSPOT: "One form of rural land use does not have to override another", the author says of the Upper Hunter.
CONTESTED HOTSPOT: "One form of rural land use does not have to override another", the author says of the Upper Hunter.

As Novocastrians and residents of the Hunter, we have all felt something when we have seen headlines proclaiming ‘coal vs foals’. What led us to this point and what happens next is the complicated part.

Although rural regions across Australia are experiencing change in their economic, environmental and social make up, the Upper Hunter Valley is a uniquely contested hotspot where the stakes seem increasingly high in a context of multiple possibilities.

For tourism, many people’s hope for the future, such public conflict poses two key problems. Firstly, it can discourage potential visitors who become confused about the region’s image. Tourists are increasingly looking for sustainable options for their travel which they may not see reflected in the public debate. The second issue being collaboration. Tourism research tells us that the best tourism planning is collaborative and mutually beneficial. Public conflict between stakeholders over land use is on both accounts a far cry from ideal.

So what brought us here?

Ideological differences between miners, environmentalists and other stakeholders existed long before the dramatic headlines began. We may begin to find our answer when we look to the work of Professor John Holmes, who developed the idea of rural multifunctional transition. Holmes argues that rural regions across Australia are adopting consumption and protection values alongside the traditional production values that have been prominent and associated with rural lifestyles for as long as we can remember.

In most cases, traditional production makes way for the introduced consumption and protection in a combination that is suited to the surrounding landscape. In the Upper Hunter, the mining boom from the late 1980s indicates a significant increase in the area’s production leaving less room for consumption and production to be reflected in how the area’s land is used. The catalyst for this situation has been the introduction of open-cut style mining.

Recently famous by Missy Higgins’ album release of the same title, Glenn Albrecht’s concept of solastalgia (meaning distress and loss experienced due to changes in your surrounding landscape) has strong academic credibility. For the stakeholders in the Upper Hunter Valley, change also threatens their identities and capacity to interact with the landscape as directed by how their group represents it.

Over the past 200 years, stakeholders have established and entrenched their representations of the landscape through names like ‘wine country’ ‘horse capital’ and ‘coal town’ which are reflected in land use. The public conflict we are witnessing is a defence of all of the above, of identity, of lifestyle and of different ways to use the land.

Where to from here? A sensible start would be to bring the stakeholders to the table for discussion. It is encouraging to see that the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet and NSW Department of Primary Industries have been supporting such discussions.

Further progress can be made by keeping track of which values are reflected in land use be they production, consumption or protection. This can be used to demonstrate measurable gaps that can then be rectified. Secondly, policy-makers and planners would be well-advised to increase flexibility where possible to allow for increasing multifunctionality. In other words, one form of rural land use does not have to override another.

Discussions between traditional owners and pastoralists in North Queensland show us what this could look like.

Finally, it is essential that stakeholders see public recognition of how changes in the landscape impact on their ideal representations of the landscape.

Maybe then we can begin to move forward. 

Sinead Francis-Coan recently completed a Master of Philosophy in Leisure and Tourism at the University of Newcastle