UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Ted Alter, professor of agricultural, environmental and regional economics in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, is among an international group of community, industry, government and academic leaders who are being lauded for their work to help manage an invasive and destructive species in Australia.
The team has received the 2019 United Nations Public Service Award, the most prestigious international recognition of excellence in public service, which rewards the creative achievements and contributions of public service institutions that lead to more effective and responsive public administration in countries worldwide. The group accepted the award during this year’s United Nations Forum, which was held June 24-26 in Baku, Azerbaijan.
The team’s initiative, the Victorian Rabbit Action Network, or VRAN, was focused on reframing and renegotiating the relationships between government agencies and citizens for more effective management of Australia’s worst invasive species — the European rabbit, according to Michael Reid, program manager for Agriculture Victoria, an agency of the Australian state of Victoria.
Reid explained that since its introduction into the Victorian landscape in the 1850s, the European rabbit has damaged land and valuable agricultural crops, has threatened more than 300 endangered native species, and has burrowed in and dug up sensitive cultural heritage sites, most notably indigenous burial grounds.
“The widespread distribution of these rabbits required much more than just government enforcement,” said Reid, who pointed out that the species’ destructive behavior impacts Australia’s rural economy to the tune of $250 million annually. “For successful management, we needed a collective and collaborative approach that included citizens.”
Alter said that community engagement initiatives require “an openness to learning from others and sharing power.”
“At the end of the day,” Alter said, “issues like rabbit management and control are fundamentally human issues; to not recognize that reality typically leads to frustration, unsustainable partial solutions, and failure.”
A multidimensional problem
The VRAN initiative was established in 2014 to promote community-led action for more sustainable and effective rabbit management in the state of Victoria. The initiative brought together a wide range of stakeholders, including government agencies, landowners, land managers, community groups, scientists and members of academia.
“We needed people with different knowledge, mindsets and experiences,” Reid said, adding that it was important that community voices not be marginalized, especially because there were differing views, experiences and knowledge around rabbit management.
“Talk of controlling the rabbits created a storm of angst,” said VRAN community member Neil Devanny. “It was a multidimensional problem: environmentally, economically and socially. At one time in history, the rabbits were a source of income for some but quickly became a ‘shot in the foot’ to the environment and to agriculture. We needed to find a balance.”
With so much at stake, and because bringing a diverse group of people together can present challenges, the program turned to Alter, co-director of Penn State’s Center for Economic and Community Development, for guidance on how to navigate the intricacies of community engagement.
Alter also was one of four researchers from Australia and the United States who conceived, led and conducted a five-year research study aimed at providing people in the field of invasive-species management with tools to meet the social and human behavior challenges of their work. A book based on the study, “Community-based Control of Invasive Species,” was published earlier this year.
‘A revolutionary way of thinking’
“Ted provided us with a revolutionary way of thinking,” Reid said. “He has great knowledge in theory and practice and helped us wade through the politics of the engagement process, providing the language and structure needed for successful collaboration. Using a light touch, he made us think about things differently, and his contributions were hugely powerful.”
Alter conducted a series of master classes, workshops and small-group discussions in leadership for community engagement. His approach is grounded in the unwavering belief in the expertise, experience and wisdom of every individual concerned with an issue: landowners, community residents, scientists, industry representatives and government program officers. He also believes in the power of people collectively to co-create better and deeper understandings of the complex problems and approaches for addressing those problems.
“Community engagement is not for the faint-hearted — it requires the ability to respectfully appreciate and value differences as a source of creativity and innovation,” said Alter, adding that community engagement involves creating enabling settings that allow people to come together constructively to understand their differences, learn from each other, and build productively on those differences.
The VRAN initiative has reached more than 6,000 people, many of whom are responsible for millions of acres of public and private land. It also has encouraged participants to build capacity within and across their communities and view a collaborative approach as an effective way to improve their rabbit management.
Most notably, the rabbit population has been reduced in many towns. In Devanny’s community of Gooram, there were about 1,070 rabbits per 18 kilometers (approximately 11 miles), an estimate derived from 1996 field observations. Through work at the local level, the rabbits have been reduced over the past several years to about 20 or fewer over the same area of land.
Being recognized by the United Nations is a bonus for the group’s work, Devanny noted.
“We are astonished that our project is being recognized on such an international and prestigious level,” he said. “It shows what can be done when people work together.”