Producing rice while conserving the habitat of an endangered waterbird: Incentives for farmers to integrate water management

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Effective incentive programs for farmers to conserve biodiversity on their properties are vital for sustainability. Most such programs have focussed on natural areas, like revegetating waterways, but novel agricultural habitats amplify the commitment required of farmers and the need for collaboration in the conservation process. The rice fields of Australia's Murray-Darling Basin are a key habitat for a globally endangered waterbird, the Australasian bittern, but early and sufficient ponding periods that facilitate successful breeding are inconsistent with maximising yield per megalitre of water used. We aimed to understand farmers’ willingness to undertake ‘bittern-friendly’ rice growing practices and their preferences for hypothetical incentive programs. Public recognition of the habitat values of their fields was a key motivation for participation, and, across the industry, we estimated that rice growers were willing to forgo an annual profit margin totalling $AU1.42 million per annum to further bittern conservation. We tested for social desirability bias, finding the inferred valuation – their nearest rice growing neighbour – was 51 % lower, but still a substantial in-kind contribution. More than half of growers did not need compensation to control foxes and cats, or to avoid herbicide use on rice bay banks, while about a third would undertake each of the other conservation actions. For financial incentives, a choice experiment showed the payment rate was important but farmers strongly preferred less demanding management requirements. The 11-day variation in ponding commencement and period was highly valued by growers, and can be crucial to bitterns. Growers also preferred higher levels of contract flexibility, while the intensity of compliance monitoring had little impact on their choices. The preferred incentive type was to use public environmental water with no money exchanged, followed by a consumer-funded program with bittern-friendly rice products, and a standard government contract, whereas a pledge system and a tender were relatively unpopular. Bittern-friendly rice growing incentive programs should be successful if they foster custodianship, harness in-kind contributions, improve rice farming's public image, and work with growers where opportunity costs for additional water are low.

Original languageEnglish
Article number106269
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalLand Use Policy
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2022


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