Regional leaders set out to strengthen natural capital market opportunities

For Renée Bartolo and her Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP) project group, natural capital markets are more than just an idea or some remote frontier. They are a part of their jobs and livelihoods that increasingly looms large.

In fact, it’s one of the main threads that connect Renée and the primary producers she’s been collaborating with throughout course 29 of the ARLF’s iconic experiential program.

What are natural capital markets?

In other words, resources from the natural environment (ie. soils, air, water, geology, living organisms) that have long provided us with free goods and services. Rising conservation and environmental awareness has led to a market-based system that values this natural capital.

Why focus on natural capital markets?   

During the 15 month program, the cohort forms small groups that identify a challenge or opportunity and devise a project designed around it. Collectively the projects have a positive impact across the regions. 

Renée, along with seven diverse group members – Stuart Austin, Angus Street, Jane Wardle, Steve Fawns, Ryan Brown, Luke Hooke and Rob Fish – created a project with the aim of improving the integrity and equity in natural capital markets.

“We all had different viewpoints and experience in terms of natural capital markets,” Renee explains. “From a policy perspective, I understood the importance of transparency, and the farming and fisheries backgrounds in the group understood the challenges on the ground … It can be highly complex.”

As the Chief Remote Pilot for the NT’s Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, Renée has a ‘drone’s eye view’ of the biodiversity across Australia. She also works closely with First Nations ranger pilots and community members who have intimate knowledge of ecology. It was a key reason she and her group locked on to natural capital markets, which commodify natural assets like vegetation, soil, water and biodiversity.

Demystifying the complexity

“We looked at the power of telling stories of managing the process of natural capital markets and setting up a system where we could ensure more integrity. Most people lack a fundamental understanding of how these markets function and work,” Renée explains.

She and her group conducted interviews across industries and sectors to understand different points of view and decided a framework was needed to share lessons learned and successes on the ground at a regional level.

“When people have conducted trials and tests themselves, this helps inform others about natural capital. It’s not a perfect science. We could see we needed change to come from the ground-up rather than as a regulatory response from the top-down. That’s where you get integrity and trust issues, and the potential for ‘gaming’ the system.”

Where to now?

As recent graduates of the ARLP, Renée and her fellow group members have re-dispersed across the country. They plan to establish a pilot model in regional WA and NSW where group members live, sharing insights from existing projects.

“It boils down to networks between farmers and businesses on the ground; sharing what worked and didn’t work in a space of vulnerability,” Renée says.

“People don’t have to start from scratch but can establish marketplaces that have transparency and integrity built in, and we can do that through stories and connection.”

While it’s too soon to say how far their project will reach when fully realised, Renée and her team were inspired by CSIRO’s recently released Natural Capital Handbook.

“We’re starting to see some useful guidance coming out and we can add to this by working on setting up an impact network and providing support for that,” she says.

With greater consistency emerging in natural capital market frameworks, the collaborative, collective leadership embodied by ARLP graduates has the potential to mitigate challenges on the ground across regional Australia.

“We have already created an interesting way of presenting information about the natural capital markets that exist and how they function. It takes some of the mystery out of it,” Renée says.

“It’s all about the solutions process where the more insight we have, the better we will be able to solve any problems along the way.”

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