Biophysical, Political, and Cultural Dimensions of Deforestation

Deforestation is a well-recognised global threat to biodiversity and ecosystem function, and the conversion of forests to productive lands is responsible for the majority of world-wide deforestation. These patterns are mirrored in Queensland, Australia, which has exhibited some of the highest deforestation rates around the world in the last three decades. In response, the Queensland government enacted the contentious Vegetation Management Act (VMA) 1999 to regulate the clearing of remnant (i.e. old-growth) trees on private lands across the state. Since its inception, however, the policy has spurred heated debate from the agricultural sector, with landholders arguing its lack of transparency, inconsistency, and ignorance of economic impacts on the agricultural sector. To date, no robust, objective investigations have been made into the direct and indirect roles of the VMA in changing tree clearing behaviours. Yet if we want to develop relevant and effective policy instruments to create sustainable change in tree clearing, it is imperative that these instruments are tailored to reflect the drivers of clearing across all relevant dimensions.

For this project, which formed most of my Doctoral thesis, I explored the biophysical, political, and cultural dimensions of tree clearing in Queensland to highlight how landholders have responded to policy intervention, uncover the potential perversities of its implementation, quantify its effectiveness, and understand its influence within the cultural landscape of tree clearing. A more diverse suite of policy instruments should be employed to combat ongoing clearing, and their design should be informed by greater communication with landholders, which will promote knowledge exchange and trust-building. Monitoring the absolute clearing rates and their characteristics at smaller spatiotemporal scales will also allow the government to monitor how landholders are differentially responding to intervention, including identifying early warnings of perverse outcomes. There must be a shift from an overarching reliance on impact indicators to more robust causal inference analyses, and policy instruments will need to be designed to make these inferences accordingly. Lastly, greater regulatory compliance could likely be achieved using more strategic communication approaches that emphasise the stewardship values of landholders and target messages to the most prolific clearing communities. Ultimately, greater consideration for top-down and bottom-up approaches will be needed to ensure sustainable land management behaviour change can be achieved in Queensland.

Below, I outline the seven papers produced from this five-year investigation, the first four of which are featured in my thesis.

Spatial and temporal patterns of land clearing during policy change

Environmental policies and regulations have been instrumental in influencing deforestation rates around the world. Understanding how these policies change stakeholder behaviours is critical for determining policy impact. In Queensland, Australia, changes in native vegetation management policy seem to have influenced land clearing behaviour of landholders. Periods of peak clearing rates have been associated with periods preceding the introduction of stricter legislation. However, the characteristics of clearing patterns during the last two decades are poorly understood. This study investigates the underlying spatiotemporal patterns in land clearing using a range of biophysical, climatic, and property characteristics of clearing events. Principal component and hierarchical cluster analyses were applied to identify dissimilarities between years along the political timeline. Overall, aggregate landholders’ clearing characteristics remain generally consistent over time, though noticeable deviations are observed at smaller regional and temporal scales. While clearing patterns in some regions have shifted to reflect the policy’s goals, others have experienced minimal or contradictory changes following regulation. Potential ‘panic’ or ‘pre-emptive’ effects are evident in the analysis, such as spikes in clearing for pasture expansions, but differ across regions. Because different regions are driven by different pressures, such as land availability and regulatory opportunity, it is imperative that the varying spatial and temporal behavioural responses of landholders are monitored to understand the influence of policy and its evolution. Future policy amendments would benefit from monitoring these regional responses from landholders to better assess the effectiveness of policy and the potential perversities of policy uncertainty.

Frequent policy uncertainty can negate the benefits of forest conservation policy

Policy-driven shifts from net deforestation to forest expansion are being stimulated by increasing social preferences for forest ecosystem services. However, policy uncertainty can disrupt or reverse the positive effects of forest transitions. For instance, if the loss of remnant (primary) forest continues, the ecological benefits of net forest gains may be small. We investigated how peak periods of uncertainty in forest conservation policy affected forest transition outcomes in Queensland, Australia, as well as a globally-relevant biodiversity hotspot in the state, the Brigalow Belt South (BBS) bioregion. Political, socioeconomic, and biophysical factors associated with net forest cover change and remnant forest loss from 1991 to 2014 were identified through spatial longitudinal analysis. This informed a Bayesian structural causal impact assessment of command-and-control regulation and policy uncertainty on remnant and non-remnant forest cover. The results indicate that forest cover was negatively influenced by increasing temperatures, food prices, and policy uncertainty, and positively influenced by strengthening regulation. Regulation during 2007–2014 avoided 68,620 ± 19,214 km2 of deforestation (with 18,969 ± 10,340 km2 of this in remnant forests) throughout Queensland, but was ineffective on remnant forests in the BBS. For state-wide remnant forests, perverse effects from policy uncertainty (e.g. pre-emptive deforestation) were strong enough to negate regulatory impacts. This study reveals a cautionary tale for conservation policy: despite strict environmental regulations, forest transition can be delayed (or reversed) when political inconsistency or instability provoke unintended reactions from landholders.

Effectiveness of regulatory policy in curbing deforestation in a biodiversity hotspot

Recent rates of deforestation on private lands in Australia rival deforestation hotspots around the world, despite conservation policies in place to avert deforestation. This study uses causal impact estimation techniques to determine if a controversial conservation policy—the Vegetation Management Act (VMA)—has successfully reduced deforestation of remnant trees in the Brigalow Belt South, a 21.6 M ha biodiversity hotspot in Queensland. We use covariate matching to determine the regulatory effect of the policy on deforestation rates over time, compared to two counterfactual scenarios representing upper and lower estimates of policy impact. The VMA significantly reduced the rate of remnant deforestation in the highest impact scenario, saving 17,729 ± 1,733 ha during 2000–2016. In the lowest scenario, ‘panic clearing’ before and after enactment of the VMA minimized the amount of remnant forests saved and may have marginally increased deforestation relative to the counterfactual (−404 ± 617 ha). At peak effectiveness, the VMA successfully counteracted the amount of remnant deforestation during 2010–2012, but this only represents 4.78% of the 371,252 ha of remnant forests cleared in the bioregion since enactment in 1999. Thus, while deforestation rates in the region have substantially reduced since the policy was enacted, our results of positive yet limited direct regulatory impact suggests the policy’s effectiveness is strongly confounded by other deforestation drivers, like changing socioeconomic or climate conditions, as well as new social signals provoked by the policy. The mechanisms through which the policy influences deforestation behaviour must be further investigated to ensure real, desirable change is achieved.

Landholder typologies illuminate pathways for social change in a deforestation hotspot

Psychosocial factors determine individual and collective behaviours, and there is growing evidence of their influence on land management behaviours. Native vegetation management encompasses biophysical, economic, political, and cultural dimensions that are immensely complex, and a more thorough understanding of the personal and cultural dimensions of deforestation activity is required. We emphasise this interdisciplinary imperative using Queensland, Australia, as an exemplar case study, where the controversial Vegetation Management Act 1999 has been met with significant scrutiny over its effects on private landholders and its ability to curb deforestation behaviours. We surveyed landholders across Queensland in order to identify different landholder typologies based upon (1) their recent tree clearing behaviours and (2) their psychosocial characteristics, mapped their distribution in the landscape, and determined the unique demographic and psychosocial factors associated with typology membership. We identified a heterogeneous mosaic of landholders in the clearing landscape, composed of four clearing typologies and five psychosocial typologies. Social norms, identity, trust, and security played crucial roles in distinguishing different types of landholders. The two most contrasting clearing typologies—active and inactive clearers—were primarily located in hot- and cold-spots of deforestation, respectively; in contrast, most psychosocial typologies could be found throughout the landscape, highlighting the potential benefit of complementing generalised state-wide psychosocial targets with localised behavioural targets. We discuss how conservation policy instruments can be regionally tailored, and relevant strategies for effective communication and engagement can be developed to create behaviour change by understanding the characteristics and distribution of these types of landholders. If modified top-down efforts (e.g. strategic messages, community-based communication) can be supplemented with more bottom-up approaches (e.g. collective learning, building network support), sustainable land management in deforestation hotspots around the world may be achievable.

Psychosocial drivers of land management behaviour: how threats, norms, and context influence deforestation intentions

Understanding how private landholders make deforestation decisions is of paramount importance for conservation. Behavioural frameworks from the social sciences have a lot to offer researchers and practitioners, yet these insights remain under-utilised in describing what drives landholders’ deforestation intentions under important political, social, and management contexts. Using survey data of private landholders in Queensland, Australia, we compare the ability of two popular behavioural models to predict future deforestation intentions, and propose a more integrated behavioural model of deforestation intentions. We found that the integrated model outperformed other models, revealing the importance of threat perceptions, attitudes, and social norms for predicting landholders’ deforestation intentions. Social capital, policy uncertainty, and years of experience are important contextual moderators of these psychological factors. We conclude with recommendations for promoting behaviour change in this deforestation hotspot and highlight how others can adopt similar approaches to illuminate more proximate drivers of environmental behaviours in other contexts.

Program awareness, social capital, and perceptions of trees influence participation in private land conservation programs in queensland, australia

Voluntary private land conservation (PLC) is becoming an increasingly important complement to state protected areas around the world. PLC programs can serve as valuable strategies to increase biodiversity on agricultural lands, but their effectiveness depends on high participation rates. Amidst growing concerns regarding scalability and effectiveness of conservation strategies like national parks, researchers and practitioners are looking for new strategies to increase adoption of PLC. This study investigates the demographic, social, and psychological factors associated with participation in three classes of voluntary PLC programs—grant payments, land management agreements, and covenants—and how this relates to landholders’ attitudes toward tree clearing. We compare participation rates between these programs in Queensland and identify the most frequently cited reasons why land managers have or have not participated. Land managers who are more involved in agricultural organizations and whose tree clearing decisions are more influenced by the aesthetic value of trees are more likely to have participated in one or more of these programs. Participation was highly biased toward once-off grant payments, and participation in covenants was lowest of all programs. Although 58% of land managers have never participated, nearly half expressed interest in one or more programs. A lack of program knowledge and perceived losses of autonomy were the most frequently cited barriers to participation. We conclude with recommendations for increasing participation rates and raise important questions that need to be answered in order to promote a PLC culture that effectively curbs ongoing habitat degradation.

Heterogeneity in preferences for non-financial incentives to engage landholders in native vegetation management

Australia has a long and tumultuous history with native vegetation management dating back to colonisation by European settlers in the early 19th century. Demand for agricultural products has led to large-scale changes in the landscape, as landholders have cleared native forests and bushland to make way for pasture and cropland. This historical trend is particularly evident in the northern Australian state of Queensland. Over the last 20 years, land clearing rates in Queensland have fluctuated dramatically, largely due to a politically charged environment. Currently, many ecosystems are severely threatened or overexploited. Furthermore, relationships and trust between Queensland landholders and the Queensland state government have deteriorated. Generally, there is pressure on policy makers to restrain budgetary expenses. Hence, policy mechanisms that have been heavily utilised in the past—involving direct payments to landholders to compensate them for changes in regulation or as part of environmental extension programmes—are now seen as unaffordable, even as pressure to regulate increases. In Australia and globally, these pressures have led to a growing interest in how policies and environmental schemes can be designed to increase conservation outcomes without relying on financial incentives. This interest has led to a need to better understand the potential effectiveness of non-financial incentives in terms of increasing participation in agri-environmental schemes. Despite some research efforts reported in the literature, the effectiveness of non-financial incentive mechanisms remains poorly understood relative to financial incentive mechanisms, which have been the focus of much of the conservation-related economic research to-date. We contribute to this knowledge gap by evaluating the preferences of landholders in Queensland, Australia for financial and non-financial incentives to participate in bush management schemes. The main aim of this study was to investigate how landholders rank non-financial incentives compared to financial incentives. We designed and implemented a survey to identify the relative importance of these financial and non-financial attributes and their relevance for designing more effective bush management schemes. We further examined whether a link can be established between key socio-demographic characteristics of landholders and their preferences for non-financial incentives. Finally, we discuss the implications of our findings for future design and targeting of bush management programmes with the aim of increasing their conservation effectiveness.