By Boyd Champness

AUSTRALIAS farmers and environmentalists have celebrated their new working relationship by calling on the Howard Government to support a A$65 billion (25bn), 10-year strategy to repair Australias natural environment.

Joining forces in a new assault on land and water degradation, the National Farmers Federation and the Australian Conservation Foundation have called for annual spending of A$6.5bn over the next decade to address salinity, acidity, erosion and other problems.

According to an article in The Weekly Times newspaper, the two lobby groups want the Howard Government to chip in A$3.7bn annually – compared with the A$500m currently spent on the environment – with the rest coming from investment by farmers and private industry.

“We need to repair our country, and repair it now,” said ACF president Peter Garrett – more familiar abroad as the lead singer for Australian rock band Midnight Oil.

“We are still losing the battle. Environmental damage is occurring faster than ever.”

NFF president Ian Donges told the newspaper that the ACF and NFF “were together again to begin the fight against possibly the greatest challenge Australians will ever take on – to save the land itself”.

He added that the pace of land degradation was “almost too big for the human mind to comprehend”.

To welcome in their new working relationship, the NFF and ACF commissioned an audit into environmental degradation.

The audit found that 2.5m hectares of land is affected by salinity, and that will grow to 15.5m hectares (an area larger than the island of Ireland) if left unchecked.

This means more than 40bn trees would have to be planted on 24m hectares of land to help address the problems, the audit said.

The study, titled Repairing the Country, found that land and water degradation around Australia was costing A$2bn a year, or around half the net annual value of farm production.

This could balloon to more than A$6bn annually by 2020 unless dramatic action was taken, the study said.

In an attempt to put the cost of repairing the landscape into perspective, Mr Donges told the Stock and Land newspaper that the Howard Governments recent Budget had allowed A$24bn in spending for health, A$18bn for defence, A$49bn for family and community services, and about A$11bn for education training and youth affairs.

“We estimate the public share of the investment we believe is needed for the health of the country, to be just $3.7bn a year,” he said.

Mr Donges added that Australias public, government and farmers had prospered for hundreds of years at the expense of the land and now it was time for each of us to put something back.