Nine years ago, the Lake Cowal Foundation was created to align the interests of conservationists, farmers and a mining company around the Cowal gold project in New South Wales, Australia. The Foundation was tasked with enhancing the environment in the Lake Cowal area, a nationally significant wetland. The skeptics said it would never work, citing distrust and incompatible goals for the land.
Today, the Foundation has proved its critics wrong, winning praise from nationally respected scientists, landowners and dozens of partner organizations. So far, the Foundation has contributed to projects worth US$7.2 million and has improved close to 14,000 hectares of land, working with well over 100 landowners in the Cowal area.
Set up as an independent, non-profit environmental trust, the Foundation conducts a range of conservation, sustainable farming, educational and research projects in conjunction with the local community and environmental groups.
Representatives from the rural New South Wales community converged for the Foundation’s fi rst “partnership forum”, held June 1-2 at the Lake Cowal Conservation Centre, to review the organization’s progress to date.
The Foundation’s work is largely undertaken through partnerships, which allow it to deliver its projects more effectively on the ground. The forum brought together local farmers and landowners, council representatives, educators, scientists and environmental experts from top universities, as well as Barrick Gold staff.
Foundation board member and internationally respected wetland ecologist David Mitchell of Charles Sturt University said the organization’s achievements in a relatively short time period have been remarkable, adding “the national significance of this project cannot be underestimated.”
His positive sentiments were shared by local landowners, some who admitted to being initially skeptical of the Foundation and the Cowal mine.
“I was once a big critic of the establishment of a gold mine in the district. However, after being involved with the Foundation, our family has benefited and used many projects to try new concepts and farming methods,” says Howard Mangelsdorf, a local farmer whose property borders the Cowal mining operation. “The gold mine has changed our lives, but the positive effects for West Wyalong and the Bland Shire have been a big plus for our community.”
Barrick Gold helped to build trust between the Foundation and landowners when it offered one of its two seats on the Foundation’s board of directors to a representative from the community.
“The success of the Foundation has exceeded my expectations, and the support of the local farming community has been essential for that success,” says long-time Cowal Community Relations manager Bill Shallvey. “Barrick is committed to leaving the area in better shape than when we arrived and our commitment to the Foundation remains strong.”
“People are now happy to work in partnership with Barrick, something that was not always evident in the early stages of the development of the Cowal mine,” adds Shallvey, who also acts as company secretary to the Foundation’s board.
Past community surveys back up Shallvey’s assessment, indicating that a vast majority of the community supports the Cowal mine.
Since acquiring the Cowal gold project in 2001, Barrick Gold has been the organization’s principal funder. The company also makes in-kind contributions and provides access to land for the Lake Cowal Conservation Centre, now the focal point for the Foundation’s training and education programs.
“Support for the Lake Cowal Foundation is a key pillar in our approach to responsible environmental stewardship in the Cowal area,” said mine general manager Brian Grebenc. “The Foundation’s work has the ability to create sustainable environmental benefits for the local community.
The Foundation’s projects have focused on conservation, sustainable agriculture, environmental education and research. Much of its work has been shaped by the severe drought conditions that have plagued rural New South Wales for the past eight years.
The Bland Incentive Grant program has been one of the Foundation’s most successful projects to date. The two and half year partnership with Greening Australia, the Bland Creek Catchment Committee and the Lachlan Catchment Management Authority improved 120 kilometers of riparian areas, conserved 1,885 hectares of natural vegetation and re-vegetated an additional 450 hectares of land. The project also involved nutrient control and sedimentation work on hundreds of hectares of land and over 8,000 hectares of improved grazing systems.
When it concluded in December 2008, the program had injected over US$1.7 million into conservation projects, with an estimated total project value of over US$3.3 million.
The Lake Cowal Foundation opened its Conservation Centre on Barrick Gold’s Hilgrove property in November 2007. The interactive facility is now a hub for the Foundation’s work, and serves as an educational facility for visitors, local students and community members. Since opening its doors, the Centre has welcomed over 1,850 visitors. Students learn about Lake Cowal’s ecosystems, conservation principles and native plants and animal species.
The Foundation also forged a partnership with TAFE, a postsecondary educational institution in Australia that provides vocational and technical training. Using its expertise in land management and environmental stewardship, the Foundation teamed up with TAFE to deliver an accredited course in farm planning to 40 local landowners.
Natural Sequence Farming is one of the Foundation’s newest projects. Introduced by Australian agricultural pioneer Peter Andrews in the 1970s, the method involves repairing land that has been degraded by deforestation and agricultural activities by recreating the role of natural watercourses. This has been found to reverse salinity, slow erosion and increase soil and water quality, enabling native vegetation to regenerate. Natural sequence farming does not use artificial fertilizers or herbicides.
The Foundation is testing this method in a 3,000 hectare catchment area along 10 kilometers of Spring Creek. Undertaken in partnership with the National Landcare Program and the Bland Shire Council, the project has a total value of more than US$237,000.
The Lake Cowal Foundation is reviewing its long-term strategy in collaboration with its partners, in order to prioritize future projects and identify new partners and funding.
For more information visit http://www.lakecowalfoundation.org.au