Above Melissa Tuliranta removing tree guards from a former Grow West planting site.
With fires raging across much of the eastern seaboard in December 2019, Melbourne-based IT professional Belinda McPhee felt a call to action.
She wanted to champion the environment with her own hands rather than from behind a keyboard.
Less than 18 months on, and despite an untimely pandemic, Belinda now gets her hands dirty daily combating weeds and other environmental threats.
Belinda is one of more than 60 people who joined the Port Phillip and Westernport CMA’s (PPWCMA) Environmental and Agricultural Work Crews project as a member of the Central Environmental Work Crew.
Crew members were from a range of backgrounds, many whose working lives were upended by coronavirus (COVID-19) and the associated lockdowns.
For Finnish-born Western Environmental Work Crew member Melissa Tuliranta, 2020 started in Warrnambool where she was working from home supporting an eco-tourism business she had founded.
By the time she relocated back to Melbourne mid-year, her former industry had stalled, and she was living off JobKeeper.
But toiling with mates tackling weeds and being part of a team has been a tonic for her.
“I have the best crew; we are all completely different in our life experience and background but are really like minded,” Melissa said.
“When you are together all day working beside each other, you end up learning a lot about everyone – I think we’ll be friends for life. At the end of the day I can see the impact of our efforts to take out weeds like prickly pear in Bacchus Marsh and boneseed at Plenty Gorge – it’s really satisfying.”
Last year Aaron Harris was a pro-golfer and a manager at a pro-shop, but this career stalled with coronavirus (COVID-19). Aaron is now second in charge of the Central Environment Work Crew.
“I worked in IT for 15 years, but then there was just this day I thought, the world’s on fire, I have to do something,
so I quit that day,” Belinda said.
“I enrolled in a Certificate IV in Conservation and Land Management and I was getting so much out of it and the volunteering for my practical studies, and then came coronavirus (COVID-19).
“I lost a little momentum with the volunteering in particular, but I got out on Parks Victoria land in between the lockdowns and in the course of the studies I learnt about the CMA’s work crews.”
Supported by the Victorian Government through the Working for Victoria Initiative, the PPWCMA’s Environmental and Agricultural Work Crews project supported farmers, organisations and community groups to deliver their agricultural and environmental projects while providing employment to Victorians. The PPWCMA was one of a number of organisations delivering projects through this initiative.
Six crews worked across the western (Werribee and Maribyrnong catchments), central (Yarra catchment) and south-eastern areas of the Port Phillip and Western Port region to provide a range of agricultural and environmental services.
The crews were allocated to a mix of settings each day, including Parks Victoria and local government properties, Landcare work sites and private agricultural properties.
“The pandemic made me reassess everything and it demonstrated how fleeting so many of our concerns are. My empathy went out to nurses and supermarket staff keeping us going throughout COVID-19… since this role came along, I’ve gained an appreciation for Landcare – all of these people are making serious contributions to the world.”
“I’ve learnt so much about how our Australian environment is imperiled by weeds and pests and what an effort it takes as a community to rehabilitate it,” Aaron said.
It’s not just the crew members that have benefitted. Landcare groups and landholders have seen weed and pest infestations confronted, and stalled projects reinvigorated.
Marijke de Bever-Price witnessed the blackberry problem on her Jindivick property obliterated in one day.
“We have a wetlands project that we had replanted through a Landcare grant which is actually a citizen science site for the local primary school kids.”
“Birds dropping blackberry seeds had set off an infestation which had got out of hand. When the crew came, my husband and I got to work with them – they had a real motivation about them – once they took in what they were doing they just got to work and were so positive and mindful,” Marijke said.
Since the program began the crews have worked at more than 50 sites. The crews were assisted by members of the Andersons Creek Landcare Group and Moorabool Landcare Network. Invasive weeds including boxthorn, boneseed and pittosporum have been tackled.
Crew members have received training in first aid, chemical handling, and animal safety.
The PPWCMA’s Environmental and Agricultural Work Crews project concluded in May 2021. Many crew members are now getting paid employment in the environmental sector as well as volunteering for groups.
Barry Kennedy is Regional Landcare Coordinator for PPWCMA.
For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org