The provincial government says it supports a revived ecological goods and services program but it’s not certain who will foot the bill.
“The government has made this a priority and the minister of agriculture and the minister of sustainable development have been mandated with creating a program based on the Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) model to help reduce flooding and improve water quality and nutrient management,” Brandon West MLA Reg Helwer told the Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) summer advisory meeting here last week.
ALUS would compensate farmers for providing ecological goods and services such as holding back water or maintaining wildlife habitat. Before being elected earlier this year, the Progressive Conservatives promised to implement ALUS province-wide. Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler says this remains a top priority.
“My first goal is to get through this with our federal-provincial meeting, the second goal would then be to start reducing our red tape and then the third mandate would be the ALUS program,” Eichler said following an industry consultation session in Portage la Prairie on July 12.
One of the original ALUS architects is Ian Wishart, formerly KAP president and now minister of education. Another is Jonathan Scarth, former senior vice-president of Delta Waterfowl Foundation and now principal secretary to Premier Brian Pallister.
The first ALUS pilot project in the RM of Blanchard expired in 2008 and none have been implemented in Manitoba since. ALUS now has a national office with staff and a board of directors, and several projects have been started in six other provinces.
KAP was a key partner in the Blanchard project and asked an ALUS representative for an update at last week’s meeting.
“Up until recently the prevalent thinking has been that the cost of ecosystem services on private land should be borne by the landowner, but as environmental land degradation worsens, this is changing,” said Lara Ellis, director of strategic initiatives with ALUS Canada. “The vision of ALUS is to create a healthy landscape that sustains agriculture, wildlife and natural spaces for all Canadians.”
But who will pay?
KAP president Dan Mazier said he supports the concept.
“One good advantage here is that it was piloted in Manitoba, we backed away for a while and now we have a chance to make this a really good made-in-Manitoba program that is tailored to our geography and our problems. I think it is a really good program to look at,” Mazier said.
But he added that there is a long way to fruition, with the largest obstacle being its estimated $25-million price tag.
“The big question of course is, ‘Where is this money coming from?’ But, there are a number of different entities at play here and if they feed programs like this as a pre-emptive movement to try and mitigate risks presented by Mother Nature, there is a lot of possibility but it will be a long road,” Mazier said.
Ellis says it is ALUS Canada’s goal to see the program funded through a number of streams, not solely on the backs of the federal and provincial governments.
“It is our goal that this program be funded through a large spectrum of sources. So, not solely by government or philanthropic contributions but a combination of government, corporate, individuals and also new markets, which the government has a role in creating,” Ellis said.
Projects under ALUS usually involve marginal land with little to no potential for profit. Previous examples would be wetland restoration, pollinator projects, tree planting, repairing buffers and modified agricultural processes.
“Most of our projects are in marginal or eco-sensitive land. We do not want to create tensions between food production and ecosystem production, so we mainly do our projects on the margins,” Ellis said.
ALUS programs are developed by local communities to respect local agricultural and environmental priorities and are delivered by producers.
“We know that farmers and ranchers are in the best position to deliver ecosystem services,” Ellis said. “Each ALUS community has a Partnership Advisory Committee (PAC) leading it and the rule of thumb is that each PAC should be made up of at least 50 per cent farmers. The others are made up of representatives from municipal and agricultural board reps and non-government organizations with interest in agriculture or conservation.”
Ellis said ALUS Canada would work with local communities to supply the framework, funding, communication support and federal and provincial government relations, leaving the PAC to determine specific goals for the region.
“Everything that we do is geared towards outcomes on the ground, delivered by farmers and ranchers in a program that was developed by farmers and ranchers,” Ellis said.
In current ALUS projects, the PAC also makes decisions about producer payments and according to Ellis, most are set on a payment per acre at this time.
“It is generally based on land rental rates for marginal land and then some sort of variation if we are looking at modified agricultural practices on productive land,” she said. “As ALUS grows and these markets are more defined, because right now there are not really hard prices for a lot of these ecological services, then our pricing will get more sophisticated as well.”
Changes coming soon
Ellis says ALUS Canada has recently been working with civil servants putting together background information on how the program can be run and has plans to meet with a few different ministers later this month.
“The government commitment is very exciting and I think there is an opportunity to do large-scale work here that would be beneficial not only to the environment but also in terms of keeping costs for infrastructure lower, so it is a great opportunity and if Manitoba does it right, it will be something that should be recognized on a global scale,” Ellis said.
Eichler says this project is certainly on his radar and hopes an ALUS-like program will be ready to go by the spring of 2017.
“We’re hoping, we have a lot to do… it’s very ambitious,” Eichler said. “But we’ll have those conversations prior to the spring, and it depends on what legislation we have to bring in place to move it forward.”
With files from Shannon VanRaes