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Column: The land that binds the people

Nestled in the heart of South Australia's riverland country, the sleepy village of Renmark produces some of Australia's finest wine and citrus.

A drought worse than any experienced in the previous century currently ravages the region along with all of Australia, making life particularly difficult for this agricultural town.

Yet, beneath this almost stereotypical story of a farming community struggling with economic hardships, lies a greater story of community. The people here have come to understand the necessity of sustainable land-use and conservation and acted upon this recognition.

The Bookmark Biosphere Preserve lives as a result of this realization, located on the outskirts of Renmark, it contains 2.2 million acres.

Until 10 years ago sheep and goats roamed the land, over-grazing vegetation, thereby causing desertification. The floodplain and lakes experienced extreme salinization resulting in salt concentrations twice those found in the world's oceans.

Yet, despite these extreme environmental degradations, the program here efficaciously restores and protects habitats within the reserve. Cooperation between the local community, the government and donors, makes Calperum Station (the Bookmark Biosphere) a model conservation paradigm for the whole world.

While substantial financial resources (around $18 million Australian dollars have been invested throughout the program's 10 years) and dedicated staff are essential, the community ultimately provides the essential pillar of support.

Only Duke-ECU football crowds equally represent society's socioeconomic spectrum as well as the volunteers at Calperum. The different people participating at various levels comprise a unique blend of characters that occur only in the quirkiest literature.

Years ago Rod Holland raised his family on the road. He operated a road grater paving the way for Australia's expansion, while his wife hauled the kids in the family car as the first travelers on the roads Rod built. They spent much of their lives living in the bush, learning the meaning of resourcefulness.

Five years ago Rod bought 500 acres worth of garbage dump as a place to finally settle down and at his age (58) enjoy the golden years. Who chooses a dump over anything else to inhabit?

Well, Rod did.

He bought the land and with limited money and decided to clean it up rather than build a house. He and his wife, along with their grandson, inhabit a two-room quonset hut as they work to clean and restore the land they call home. Rod represents a dying breed of Australian. As he put it "I like opera, but I'd prefer drag racing. I've got diesel in me veins." He settled disputes with his fists rather than legal jargon that confounds him today.

Rod loves the Bookmark Biosphere and while he cannot support it financially, he gives with blood (his veins aren't merely for diesel) and sweat. When a bridge was needed on the property, he loaded an abandoned railroad car on his front end-loader and installed the new bridge. Using materials from his extensive back yard-there's no shortage of metal in a dump--Rod built a barbi for Calperum.Whenever a job requiring heavy machinery is needed, the station calls Rod, who has two garages--both several times larger than his house--full of equipment. In a few weeks, he will donate his time building a wetland to protect the new environment center from flooding.

Every undertaking of this nature requires more than muscle, it needs a spark to light the community afire and inspire cooperation and motivation. Mick Panjero is more than a spark. He's a blowtorch. With a mouth and personality as big if not bigger than his 6'3", 290 lb frame, this Italian immigrant works tirelessly to keep people united and working at Calperum. At times he is unpopular, but he does not waver. Australia's largest (both physically and economically) lime producer envisions Calperum stations across the continent; as he foresees community land management replacing ineffective governmental control.

Mick realized long ago that his own practices as a citrus farmer were unsustainable, and slowly (as money allows) he is helping to change his along with other growers' behavior. He will stop at nothing to ensure the land Australia depends on maintains vitality, rather than slipping towards the point of no return as Calperum was many years ago before Mick and company helped rescue the preserve.

Aside from organizing people, Mick donates $2,000 annually while helping to manage the largest section within the Bookmark Biosphere by setting fox baits, culling goats and simply enjoying the outdoors.

Ian Tolley completes the range of Australians helping the preserve with his intellect. Ian's a former citrus grower and world-renowned horticulturist, who lectures and consults around the world. When not traveling or "playing" in his orchard that he maintains in retirement, Ian lends his academic prowess to the Bookmark Biosphere.

At 72, he contributes to a different aspect of the operation than others. Ian lends his expertise as a horticulturist to the sustainable agriculture project, while also volunteering for other projects as they arise (such as grant writing). Graham Broughton, the preserve's general manager, describes Ian as an excellent ambassador for the project and an intellectual member of the community.

These three men comprise but a small part of the driving force behind the Bookmark Biosphere. The community (men and women, young and old) make this conservation effort succeed. Overcoming bureaucratic obstacles and small town conflicts that often occur in places such as Renmark, the community reversed the land's fate.

They turned a dying environmentally degraded property into a vibrant ecological community. The fight continues, as it shall in the future to ensure that this area does not share the fate of so many other newly ruined lands turned into deserts. Proponents of the Bookmark Biosphere are many, from different backgrounds, each with their own specific vision for the program's future. They often vehemently disagree, yet at the end of the day they are bound together by a commonality.

The Renmark citizens supporting their preserve epitomize community as a diverse people with a common goal: to preserve the land, which grants them all life.

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