The last two days will have a large influence on my thinking about community engagement. I attended the 4th South Australian Weed Conference. I was impressed the way people worked together using science and best practice community consultation processes to find the best solutions to a range of weed problems. At the same time I was impressed with the size of the growing gap between these practitioners and mainstream public knowledge, politics and what the media covers.
The first keynote speaker told us about being interviewed by the media, but the situation was not as disastrous as journalist had expected and nothing was published. The interview would have been valuable to put things into perspective, but the saleability of story was the deciding factor, not the information that the relevant community needed to know.
One speaker told us about the status of controlling Buffel Grass in this state. This weed has been described as the Cane Toad of the plant world; it is destroying habitats and it is difficult to see how it can be controlled. Some areas have already been written off as for only limited protecting of assets. Queensland and Northern Territory governments are still seeking to promote more weedy varieties that are more drought resistant, faster growing and reproducing more readily. They are seeking to promote the worst weeds possible. Great work is being done by a small dedicated team monitoring hundreds of kilometres of roadsides and controlling infestations. A local cattle grower was horrified by what they were doing!
We were privileged to have Tim Low, author of Feral Future, speak to us. He told us about a weed on the banks of a reservoir near the upper reaches of the Murray Darling system. This weed has the potential to be spread throughout the whole system with the next major flood event and would never be controlled if this happened. The best plan was simply to lower the water level for two months so that the weed could be eradicated. Residents along the edge of the water body objected to having their view spoilt for this long and the plan was abandoned. It seems that they will not be held accountable for the cost of their maintaining their scenery to the rest of the country.
Another told us about trials to control Gazania, a colourful daisy that takes over in coastline areas and their sand dunes. Owners of expensive houses along these coasts were upset that the pretty flowers were being sprayed out. The owners were only present for a small proportion of the year and were almost impossible to contact and consult. Some did not even have a letter box. They were having success replacing the weeds with native vegetation and stabilising sand dunes that were being used by some sort of board riders.
A pioneer of restoration of an urban degraded watercourse told of the wonderful success he and his team of volunteers had achieved in replacing a very weedy area with native plants. Many of these were natural regeneration. The site is popular the public to walk along and many were concerned that this team was somehow destroying the environment. So they learnt to leave the Arum Lilies and other weeds on one side of the watercourse to reduce the opposition from the locals. The area of new work looks great with lush growth of native plants. Many, however, prefer the weeds.
Finally the conference was finished with a keynote address by popular identity, Professor Chris Daniels. He did not speak about weeds, but about citizen science. He told us about connecting people with nature and with science. He was not too concerned about the 3% who thought that the only good possum was a dead possum. There were different attitudes, feelings and behaviours from people in relation to wildlife. Negatives and positives could both be used to engage people in discussion resulting in education. He said we need to bring the community along to understand how science works and that we need to build trust between scientists and the community.
When we had the opportunity to ask questions I said about the contrast we had presented over the previous two days between good science and a largely uniformed public. I did not get to phrase my question and Chris took my point and elaborated. He said about our stories being important. Stories make our message personal.
The lesson I learn from this is that even the most negative people are part of the community that we need to engage. We are all in this together. I want more informed government, decision making and setting of priorities. Yet I don’t even want to offend people by saying that I think that they are uninformed.