Dr Anika Molesworth – Young Conservationist of the Year

Dr Anika Molesworth, who grew up on a property near Broken Hill, was named Australian Geographic Society’s Young Conservationist of the Year yesterday – Friday.

The local farmer and academic extraordinaire has fast become one of our country’s leading names when it comes to sustainable farming, food security and climate action.

Dr Anika sat down with us for an interview from her Sydney hotel, just before she officially received the prestigious award.

BARRIER TRUTH: Congratulations. What does winning Young Conservationist of the Year mean to you?

DA: It’s a great honour to receive this award from Australian Geographic. I feel incredibly humbled by such a recognition and to be recognised by such a well-known organisation like Australian Geographic.

But I don’t think this is an award just recognising me, its actually a reflection of all the people who are working hard on social and environmental change. Especially rural people and farmers who are working to solve very complex challenges like climate change. This award really highlights people who are working in that space, and that is terrific.

BT: You have a Bachelor of Science specialising in Agribusiness, a Masters of Sustainable Agriculture, and a PhD in Agroecosystems. Tell us about your time studying and all the hard work you did in earning those degrees.

DA: I am very passionate and fascinated by the food and farming systems, not only here in Australia, but also globally. That’s a passion that came from living and working on my family’s sheep station near Broken Hill and falling in love with this incredible region of Australia and witnessing how it was impacted by the Millenium Drought and watching the land deteriorate, the wildlife disappear, we sold our livestock.

I saw the impact it had on the people around me. Their mental health, people leaving town and I thought ‘gosh, the science says we are going to experience more frequent and intense extreme weather events like droughts and heatwaves, as well as floods and bushfires.’ So how do we overcome these challenges? How do we deal with them now before they become too bad and become irreversible?

So that set me down the path of my life’s work and fascination, I guess, of how we overcome these complex global challenges and what do we need to do personally, locally as well as nationally and globally.

As far a study goes, I think the more you learn the more you realise you don’t know. I did my Bachelor and thought wow this is big and complex. Then I’ll do my Masters. And still I feel like I have only seen the tip of the iceberg. It is that constant curiosity and questioning and realising there is no finish point in learning.

BT: So your hunger for knowledge and education is to find answers to these very difficult questions?

DA: It’s really driven by my love and respect of my home. Living on this beautiful part of the country in Broken Hill. Seeing how fragile it is, seeing how vulnerable the community is to droughts and heatwaves. And recognising that there are so many opportunities out there that allow us to tweak the system and do things differently. That is super exciting.

BT: You have written a book Our Sunburnt Country and you are also a founder and deputy chair of Farmers for Climate Action.

DA: As much as I love science, often it is communicated very academically and abstract and then people feel a little disconnected from the science, or they don’t understand how we use that science to make real world changes. I am really interested in how we translate science into English so people can understand what it means, what we can do and how we use it. I feel helping people be engaged and feel empowered is really important. Scientists aren’t well known for their communication to the general public. It’s often not their forte.

BT: Tell us about Farmers for Climate action.

DA: It’s about reducing emissions on farms and finding solutions that benefit rural communities. How we do that is working very closely with scientists who deliver masterclasses for people who grow food and fibre. They answer questions like; what are the current projections? How do you reduce emissions? How do you adapt to changing climate conditions?

We want farmers’ stories to be heard by people who live in cities. We don’t want people who don’t have farming backgrounds speaking on farmers behalf. We want those true authentic stories coming through. Farmers talking about their heartache as well as their hope for the future.

Farmers for Climate Action formed six years ago, and it was 30 farmers who got together in the Blue Mountains and sat down and said, you know, climate change is impacting our businesses, our homes, our communities already and we don’t think the politicians are doing enough. There is a lot of misleading narrative in the media, a toxic narrative surrounding climate change in the media, and what can we do to fix this.

Fast forward to today we have a network of almost 8000 farmers around Australia and around 35000 non farmers in our network. There is amazing support from rural people, and people who support rural people, to see these strategies adopted on farms and within that food system. It’s incredible.

BT: You are also the founder of Climate Wise Agriculture.

DA: As I was going through university I set up, originally, a Facebook page called Climate Wise Agriculture and people started watching, liking, sharing and it just grew and grew from there. Eventually I was running seminars, speaking, running workshops and it has grown to the point where I am involved in a number of international projects. I am leading a project in Nigeria and one in Afghanistan at the moment helping to train farmers.

BT: Who inspires you?

DA: Definitely my family. I have a strong and beautiful family unit around me. My parents, my husband, my brothers. When one looks at climate change closely and frequently it is easy to get glum or overwhelmed. The problem is so big, and I am so small comparatively.

So having this amazing support group around me, family who bring me cups of tea, listen to me vent, or come for walks in the paddock. Without them I wouldn’t have the energy or longevity to do what I do.

BT: What do you think of the steps Broken Hill is taking to become a world leader in renewables, with things like Hydrostor coming to the Silver City?

DA: it’s exciting. It’s really brilliant. This is what we need to be doing all around the country and in our rural communities is looking to the future and thinking how do we have good stable social systems. How do we have the jobs, the finances in our communities. How do we increase these opportunities in our communities.

We know as a country, and across the world, we have to transition away from fossil fuel energy and renewable energy is that replacement. Those technologies are absolutely critical and if we collectively put our hands up as a community and say we want to be involved in these projects of the future, then we secure those jobs and economic return of the future and we secure long term vibrancy for Broken Hill.

It’s a great story too. This outback mining town, you know, mining the sunshine and being a renewable energy superpower. That’s cool.

In Broken Hill we are no strangers to challenges. Whether it be via geographic isolation or environmental. It has bred a special resilience and these innovative strategies are what we need to be talking about.

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