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Resident perceptions of the relative importance of socio-cultural, biodiversity, and commercial values in Australia's Tropical Rivers - Report for the North Australia Water Futures Assessment

Stoeckl, Natalie, Neil, Barbara, Welters, Riccardo and Larson, Silva (2012). Resident perceptions of the relative importance of socio-cultural, biodiversity, and commercial values in Australia's Tropical Rivers - Report for the North Australia Water Futures Assessment<br />. Townsville, Qld.: James Cook University.

Document type: Research Report
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Author Stoeckl, Natalie
Neil, Barbara
Welters, Riccardo
Larson, Silva
Title of Report Resident perceptions of the relative importance of socio-cultural, biodiversity, and commercial values in Australia's Tropical Rivers - Report for the North Australia Water Futures Assessment
Publication Date 2012
Publisher James Cook University
Place of Publication Townsville, Qld.
Total Pages 142
Field of Research 300800 Environmental Sciences

Background and overview of project (chapter 1):

This report describes research that was commissioned by the Northern Australia Water Futures Assessment (NAWFA) Cultural and Social program. The NAWFA Cultural and Social program has funded a number of research projects to help fill some of the critical information gaps about Social and Cultural values associated with Australia’s Northern Rivers.

The TRaCK NAWFA Social and Cultural project was comprised of three research activities that were carried out by CSIRO, Charles Darwin University (CDU), James Cook University (JCU) and Griffith University (GU) as part of the Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge (TRaCK) program. The three activities ran in parallel from March 2011 for a period of 12 months, and were:
    • Sub-project 1 – Social and cultural values in the planning cycle (CSIRO and CDU);
    • Sub-project 2 – Relative values of water for trade-offs (JCU); and
    • Sub-project 3 – Developing management models for Indigenous water strategies (GU).
This report relates to Sub-project 2 – Relative values of water for trade-offs.

The overarching aim of this project was to improve our understanding of the Social and Cultural
values associated with Australia’s Tropical Rivers. Its specific objectives were to improve our
understanding of:
    1. the relative values of water for different stakeholder groups;
    2. the rate at which different stakeholder groups are willing to trade-off
       economic development for those values;
    3. the extent to which stream flow and/or water quality could change before there was a
       ‘significant’ impact on Social and Cultural values; and hence
    4. the likely response of stakeholders to the consequences of upstream development scenarios and
        to potential changes in the downstream uses of water.

The project was undertaken within a limited timeframe. Although data collection processes ensured that a reasonable cross section of views were obtained, these views are not considered to be   representative of the views of all residents of Northern Australia. Furthermore, although researchers have been able to conduct a relatively detailed analysis of much of the data and  produce useful results, there is scope for further, more sophisticated analysis that may generate further insights. As such, this work should be viewed as generating ‘preliminary’ findings.

Generic methods (chapter 2):
A hammer is not capable of fixing all building problems. Likewise, no single valuation method can be used in all situations. One needs to consider a variety of different issues, including data availability, ethical and information requirements.

Social and Cultural values are only loosely associated with the market (if at all). As such, many valuation techniques (particularly those which rely on observable market prices) could not be used to asses ALL values of interest. Instead, stated preference techniques were chosen since they alone are able to assess a full range of values (irrespective of whether or not they are associated with the market).

However, researchers were aware of the fact that if they used stated preference techniques to measure preferences at an individual level by asking about Willingness to Pay (WTP), and if they then added those ‘preferences’ across multiple individuals (each with a different income), they would create what is – in essence – a weighted index of value (where the weights are a function of income). Researchers therefore decided to use both dollar and non-dollar denominated stated preference techniques.

Sampling (chapter 3):

Researchers were cognizant of the fact that the work was commissioned by NAWFA, with the overarching goal of providing information (about Social and Cultural values) to assist water planners. These planners work, almost exclusively, with local residents. So, researchers decided to assess only the ‘values’ of residents in the tropical river’s region – although great care was taken to ensure that information was collected from a broad cross-section of those residents.

A questionnaire was mailed out to more than 1500 residents across Northern Australia. Researchers received 252 usable responses, which were supplemented by interviews that were conducted with 39 residents of the Upper Mitchell River, QLD. The upper part of this catchment was chosen for an intensive case study for three reasons: (1) it is in the formative stages of water policy and planning, so a study such as this was well-timed to provide information that might assist those involved in the planning process; (2) Researchers needed to ensure that data were collected from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents, and they had already worked with several Indigenous people in and around the upper reaches of the Mitchell, making it relatively easy to engage with various groups in a short study period of time; and (3) development issues confronting those in the Mitchell Catchment are likely to precede those in other TR catchments (with the exception of regions in and around Darwin), meaning that lessons learned from this case-study could be useful in other regions in later years.

The entire sample included a smaller percentage of Indigenous people, large families, young people and people who did not go to university, than the population from which the sample was drawn. The  sample did, however, contain observations from a broad cross-section of most of our targeted  ‘stakeholder’ groups, namely residents who depend upon the agricultural, mining, government and ‘other’ sectors for income and employment, allowing many important observations to be drawn.

Readers are cautioned not to simply look at aggregate measures (e.g. means), and assume that those measures can be used to draw inferences about the population at large. Instead readers should first check to see if the variable of interest is ‘consistent’ across stakeholder groups. Where differences exist, readers should look at the information most pertinent to the group(s) of interest, rather than at aggregate measures. If used in this way, the information generated in this report is likely to be very useful.

Readers are, however, urged to exercise extreme caution when seeking to use insights from this study to draw inferences about Indigenous values in other parts of the TR region. This is because of the relatively low number of Indigenous responses received, and the fact that most Indigenous respondents came from one small area of the TR region. But readers should even be cautious about trying to draw inferences about the values of other Indigenous people within the study area; our Indigenous sample did not include people from ALL traditional owner groups in the Upper Mitchell.

Objective 1 – (chapter 4):

Researchers sought to assess the relative importance which a wide variety of residents of Northern Australia place upon nine different goods/services associated with Australia’s Tropical Rivers, including the values associated with the ‘use’ (consumptive or otherwise) of rivers for: supporting human life (referred to as Life); for supporting Biodiversity; for use in Commercial ventures; for future generations (termed Bequest); for simply ‘being there’ even if never used (termed Existence); for recreational Fishing; for other types of Recreation; for Aesthetics; and for Teaching.

Importantly, the list of values comprised six examples of Social and Cultural values, and three examples of other (non-Social/Cultural) values. These other values were included to enable researchers to gauge the importance of Social and Cultural values RELATIVE to other ‘values’.

Respondents were presented with a list of those values and asked to indicate (i) how important each was to their overall well-being; and (ii) how satisfied they were with it. When not completely satisfied, they were asked to explain why. The data were analysed using several different approaches, clearly highlighting the following:

• In terms of importance, the top three values identified by respondents were Biodiversity,
  Life, and Bequest.
• The highest satisfaction ratings were associated with Biodiversity, while Life, Bequest and
  Aesthetics were equally second highest.
• Many of the stated causes of dissatisfaction related to concerns about what might happen in the
  future (rather than to concerns about what was happening now).
• Most stakeholder groups held similar views about the ranking of values (in terms of ‘importance’)
  from highest to lowest, although some socio-demographic, economic, and sense of place factors were
  found to have a minor influence on importance scores.
• One of the highest policy priorities seems to be that of Commercial values. This is not
  because such values were considered to be important (they were rarely in the ‘top three’), but
  because the satisfaction scores associated with these values were so low. Evidently, the issue here
  is not one of protecting Commercial values, but of addressing problems, and concerns relating to
  the commercial use of water. Resident concerns included, but were not limited to issues associated
  with: pollution (past, present, or potential future), pricing, overuse, lack of certainty in
  supply, allocation and lack of monitoring. Interestingly, there were no systematic or predictable
  differences in the responses of different stakeholder groups in either the satisfaction scores or
  the indices of dissatisfaction associated with Commercial values; evidently respondents were
  consistently ‘dissatisfied’ with this value (although for many different reasons).

A small subset of respondents (interviewees) were also asked to participate in a cognitive mapping exercise – the aim being to determine the extent to which the values assessed in the survey could be viewed as complementary or competitive. Biodiversity, Life and Social/Cultural values were viewed as being largely complementary to each other. In contrast, Commercial values were
consistently viewed as quite separate from – and often competitive or detrimental to – these other values (with the important exception of tourism).

Objective 2 (chapter 5):

Respondents were also presented with a series of (hypothetical) development ‘scenarios’. First, they were asked to indicate how much they would be willing to pay (WTP) to prevent development that would impact upon Social and Cultural values. Then they were asked to indicate how much they would be willing to accept (WTA) as compensation if development caused damage to their Social and Cultural values. Finally they were asked how much they would be willing to pay to reduce current  development, thus increasing their opportunity to enjoy Social and Cultural values.

Data were analysed using a variety of different methods, highlighting the following:

1) A large proportion of respondents were strongly opposed to the development scenarios,
    evidenced by the fact that
 - Fewer than 33 per cent of respondents indicated that they approved of the development scenarios
   presented in the first two scenarios – even when the impact on Social and Cultural values was
   relatively small.

- A relatively large percentage of respondents refused to consider any trade-off at all (between
  30% and 70%, depending upon the format of questionnaire presented).

- Some respondents noted that they had already spent thousands of dollars fighting development
  proposals in and around ‘their’ rivers.

- Of the group that agreed to ‘play’ the trade-off ‘game’, approximately 5 per cent were WTP/A
  significant sums of money to avoid damage or to ‘repair’ damage to their Social and Cultural
  values) with maximum values cited in the survey of $1 million and many values in excess of $10,000.
  These maximum values generated highly skewed distributions with mean WTP/A ranging between almost
  $6000 per annum per household, to almost $28,000; median values were much more modest (between $15
  and $100).
- More than 50 per cent of respondents indicated that they would be willing to accept a DECLINE in income if it was associated        with improved opportunities to enjoy their Social and Cultural values.

This strong sentiment is not altogether surprising given the fact that the previous chapter clearly showed that Commercial values were, almost always, rated as being less important than some Social and Cultural values – particularly Bequest. Moreover, it is consistent with previous studies in the region (e.g. Straton and Zander, 2010).

This strong sentiment may also at least partially reflect an assumption on the part of respondents that the scenarios would affect more than just Social and Cultural values (i.e. they may be assuming that the development will also impact values such as Biodiversity which are viewed by some as essentially inseparable from Social and Cultural values).

2) When outliers (i.e. the very high WTP/A dollar votes) were excluded, researchers found that:
- WTP was strongly linked to ability to pay, but that those on low incomes are willing to sacrifice
  a much higher proportion of their income to protect their rivers than those on high incomes (three
  to four times higher). This is also consistent with previous findings of Straton and Zander (2010).

- The importance which people place on Biodiversity is, almost always, a positive and statistically
  significant determinant of their WTP to protect Social and Cultural values (reinforcing earlier
  observations about the complementarity of these values).

- People’s expressed willingness to accept compensation for ‘damage’ to Social and Cultural
  values (which they are unable to prevent from occurring) is significantly higher than their
  expressed willingness to pay to avoid the damage from occurring in the first place. The potential
  policy significance of this is discussed in chapter 7 (summarised under issue 3, page vi).

Objective 3 (chapter 6):

Respondents were asked to consider a range of hypothetical scenarios that involved changes to stream flows and water quality in nearby rivers. Specifically, they were asked to indicate (on a five point Likert scale) how these changes would affect their satisfaction with Social and Cultural values. Analysis of the data highlighted the following issues:

• Any change which stops the flow of perennial rivers – even if only for a month or two – is likely
  to have a significant, negative impact on Social and Cultural values. (The term significant
  indicates that more than 50% of respondents said that such a change would either reduce or greatly
  reduce their satisfaction.)

• Respondents were generally positive or ambivalent about changes in stream flow which reduced dry
  periods. In other words, those who live near an intermittent river system stated that they would
  either have increased or consistent levels of satisfaction with their Social and Cultural values if
  the dry periods were shortened (or if the river becomes perennial). The important exception to this
  occurred with respect to perennial but UNPREDICTABLE flows. Perennial flows are viewed positively –
  as long as the flows are constant, or related to natural, seasonal fluctuations.

• Scenarios that reduce water quality (be it due to increased levels of turbidity or algae) are
  likely to create a significant negative impact on Social and Cultural values; improvements are
  likely to generate a significant positive impact.

• Respondents viewed reductions in water quality more negatively than reductions in stream flow,
  and were consistently more positive about scenarios that involved improvements in water quality
  than about scenarios that involved increases in stream flow. This may be at least partially due to
  the fact that respondents are used to living in regions that have extremely variable climates.
  Changes to stream flows may thus be considered somewhat ‘normal’.

Concluding remarks and recommendations (Chapter 7):

Objective 4 asked researchers to determine:

What is the likely response of stakeholders to consequences of upstream development scenarios and
to potential changes in the downstream usages of water?

Chapter 4 clearly showed that Commercial values are considered to be less important than  Biodiversity, Life and some Social/Cultural values, while chapter 5 clearly showed that at least some people are WTP substantial amounts of money to prevent development that impacts upon their  Social/Cultural values. As such, it seems that developments which impact upon downstream usages of water are likely to be met with quite a negative reaction.

The opposition is likely to be characterised by significant disquiet amongst a possibly vocal minority (those refusing to consider any trade off at all, or WTP very large sums of money to prevent the development from occurring) and a present, but less significant disquiet amongst a larger group of other residents.

Those most willing to accept trade-offs for development include the wealthy and/or people who place
highest values on Commercial uses of rivers; those who place a high value on Biodiversity (a
significant proportion of respondents) and/or those who are relatively poor seem to be much less
willing to trade their Social and Cultural values for greater income flows.

Other important comments/insights

ISSUE 1: Interviewee data indicates that Biodiversity, Life and Social/Cultural values are somewhat  complementary to each other, whereas, Commercial values are almost always viewed as quite separate from – and often competitive or detrimental to – these other values (with the important exception of tourism). Moreover the larger (mail out) data set showed a strong correlation between WTP to protect Social/Cultural values and stated importance of Biodiversity values.

Evidently, for many Northern Residents, the existence of biodiversity may be a necessary pre-condition for maintenance of many Social and Cultural values. Determining whether or not the existence of biodiversity is also a SUFFICIENT condition for the preservation of Social and Cultural values, stands as a vitally important topic for further, more thorough, research. Why is
this so important?

• If the existence of high quality biodiversity values is both a necessary and sufficient condition
  for the existence of high quality socio-cultural values, then preservation of the former
  guarantees preservation of the latter. However, if the existence of high quality biodiversity
  values is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for the existence of high quality socio-
  cultural values, then preservation of the former does not guarantee preservation of the later;
  other steps may be necessary (e.g. guaranteeing access to areas of high biodiversity value).

• Moreover, if the Biodiversity and Social/Cultural values that are derived from one ‘area’ are
  non-rivalrous (meaning that society can benefit from both, simultaneously), then their values
  should be added together1 before being traded off against other competing uses of that ‘area’. This
  is analogous to the situation where a private property owner seeks to determine how much land to
  devote to cattle and how much to wheat: he/she should firstly estimate the value of ‘cattle’ by
  considering potential income from both beef and leather, and then compare that (combined) value to
  the potential income that can be earned from the alternative (wheat). Failure to do so, would be to
  under-allocate resources (e.g. land, or in this case, possibly aquatic resources) to activities
  that generate multiple values (e.g. cattle, or in this case, possibly biodiversity and
  socio-cultural values).

Until we are able to learn more about these important issues2, planners may, therefore, wish to adopt a pre-cautionary approach (as advocated by the NWI). That is, they may wish to proceed as if these values are non-rivalrous, perhaps setting aside MOREthan the ‘bare minimum’ that is required to maintain biodiversity values, and also ensuring that other steps are taken to facilitate the appreciation of socio-cultural values (e.g. ensuring residents have access to important areas).

ISSUE 2: Respondents were particularly concerned about changes which impact upon water quality, although those who live near perennial rivers were also very concerned about any change that would stop their stream/river flowing for even a short period each year. Moreover, comments made during focus groups and in interviews (as well as comments written on returned, mail-out questionaries) indicated that (a) many respondents have a holistic view of their environment (incorporating  social, cultural, economic and biophysical values); (b) they did not feel as if all local environmental management issues were being dealt with effectively; and that (c) their opposition to development scenarios could be considerably tempered by effective, and well-aligned, social and environmental management systems.

In other words, the size of the ‘trade-off’ between development and Social/Cultural values is unlikely to be ‘given’: it varies according to the environmental management systems that are associated with the development.

Some current policies and institutional arrangements separate issues surrounding water quantity  (and allocation) from water quality (and environmental management)3. However, this research clearly highlights the importance of ensuring that governance systems account for the relationship between the two – and that residents are made aware of the steps that have been taken to ensure this.  Evidently, opposition to proposed developments could be at least partially redressed by taking steps to ensure that the developments do not adversely affect EITHER water quality OR stream flows  (taking particular steps to protect perennial flows).

ISSUE 3: Our development ‘scenarios’ clearly indicated that the amount which respondents expected  as compensation for damage, exceeded the amount which they would be willing to pay to prevent a development from going ahead.

This suggests that it is in the interests of policy makers to discuss (and, where feasible, negotiate) development options with affected parties BEFORE development occurs. Compensation after the event could prove much more costly.

The NWI highlights the importance of community consultation and public participation in water planning, and this research provides clear evidence of the fact that this type of consultation is  not just a ‘nice’ thing to do – it is also financially sensible. Those who attempt to avoid  expenditure on appropriate consultative processes may run the risk of having to bear greater costs  in subsequent periods when/if aggrieved residents seek ‘compensation’4 for actions have been taken  without appropriate consultation and negotiation (and/or if they seek to prevent proposed  developments from taking place because they feel they have not had appropriate opportunity to participate in water planning).

ISSUE 4: Finally, it is important to note that the values of residents may differ, perhaps substantially, from the value of non-residents. This may generate conflict – particularly in situations where non- residents are able to influence decisions and planning processes – and raises an important ethical question: Where differences arise, WHOSE values SHOULD be given greatest voice?

If one relies exclusively on dollar-denominated non-market valuation techniques to help address that question, one will – even if unwittingly – give greater voice to the ‘rich’ than to the ‘poor’. And this may, by extension, give greater voice to non-residents than to residents (who are often at considerable socio-economic disadvantage – particularly Indigenous residents). Evidently,  it is important for planners to use more than mere dollars when seeking to assess and/or redress  the many tradeoffs relating to the uses of Australia’s Tropical Rivers.

1 If one wishes to generate an estimate of the market value of a (non-rivalrous) public good, one
must conduct a vertical summation of the ‘value’ which each individual derives from it.
2 There are some very interesting scientific challenges facing researchers who wish to ascertain
just HOW to measure highly correlated values such as these in a manner that facilitates
“adding”. Standard approaches – such as choice
modelling – may not be suitable, and may thus need to be adapted. For example most choice
experiments, allow researchers to assess the marginal WTP for changes in one attribute, whilst
holding other attributes constant. But if respondents view the attributes as inseparable, then the
choice sets that are presented to people may not be viewed as realistic representations of true
choices, making it difficult to assess the reliability of estimates so obtained.
3 E.g. mine water quality management tends to be managed separately from other water management
4 Where appropriate property rights provide for such an entitlement.
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