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Tag Archives: Cape York

Cape York in Crisis

Once again Cape York is in crisis.

Tens of thousands of hectares of native bushland are being cleared on Cape York on a scale not seen since the Bjelke-Petersen years. The aim is to open up the region to high-value agriculture in a bid to boost the struggling economy of the Cape.

The controversial approvals were quietly granted by the Queensland LNP government on January 20th just 11 days before they were voted out in a landslide defeat, and without any environmental impact assessment by the commonwealth.

It’s a horrible deja-vu.

Tim Seelig of the Wilderness Society said the timing of the decision raises serious concerns about the politics involved, “coming just a few days before the outcome of the election was known.”

Changes to land clearing legislation

The incoming Labor government inherited the weakened laws around tree-clearing from the LNP government, who made changes to the Vegetation Management Act in 2013. The amendments made it easier for farmers to clear native bush for high-value agriculture, no longer needing to apply to the Department of Natural Resources for permission.

The 2013 changes were strongly opposed by environmental groups, calling it “the biggest roll-back of environmental protection in Australia’s history”. It was also opposed by the opposition Labor government with Jo-Ann Miller saying, “The Newman Government will be back on its D9s, back on its big machinery, ripping the guts out of Queensland.”

In the lead up to the 2015 election the Labor government had campaigned to tighten restrictions on clearing, but since coming into office in February have done very little to act.

Olive Vale Station

90km west of Cooktown on the Laura River lies Olive Vale Station. Previously owned by Leichhardt MP Warren Entsch, the 136,000 hectare cattle station is now run by Ryan Global.

With almost 32,000 hectares approved for destruction, more than any other property on the Cape, Olive Vale is now the centre of an investigation into the questionable approvals process.

The bulldozers quickly moved in with clear-felling taking place an unprecedented scale to make way for commercial trials of high-value crops like rice, sorghum and chickpeas. Owners Ryan Global also hope to increase their head of cattle on the property from 15,000 to 25,000.

Image: Wilderness Society

Image: Wilderness Society

Conservation groups warned that the project would have unacceptable environmental outcomes on the heritage value woodland and wetland impacting 17 threatened species including the Gouldian Finch, increasing run-off pollution into the Great Barrier Reef catchments, and contributing to nearly 2% of Australia’s annual CO2 emissions.

Amid pressure from environmental groups the Palaszcuk government ordered an urgent investigation into the approvals. According to Palaszcuk, “The allegations into the clearing of land on Olive Vale Station while the caretaker conventions were in place, is a matter of great concern to me.”

Warren Entsch was less diplomatic, accusing environmental groups of “bullshit” and hyping the issue to raise funds for their own campaign issues.

On June 12th the clearing was halted while the commonwealth assesses the claims under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. Federal environmental compliance officers visited the Olive Vale property on June 11th and 12th after which owners Ryan Global agreed to suspend the clearing while the investigation takes place.

Queensland Environment Minister Steven Miles welcomed the decision to suspend clearing and expressed his deep concern about the approval.

Northern Australia white paper

The Abbott Government released their first ever Northern Australia white paper last Thursday which outlined a blueprint to create an “economic powerhouse” in Australia’s north, particularly through large scale, intensive agriculture and the development of the resources industry. This is hardly a new idea, with many governments trying and failing to bring this dream to fruition.

A common and worrying theme of the paper is the need to reduce red tape and to create a more welcoming investment environment through the establishment of a, “single point of entry for investors in major projects to help them through all regulatory hurdles.”

This includes plans to create a one-stop shop for environmental approvals, loosen fisheries restrictions, provide infrastructure loans to the resources industry, and to dam certain river systems for use in agricultural irrigation.

The document repeatedly states that the development plan will greatly benefit the Cape’s indigenous population and is something that communities both want and need. Cooktown Mayor Peter Scott is supportive of the plans which he says are important for economic growth and employment in the heavily disadvantaged region.

Others are more sceptical.

Labour Senator Nova Peris says the white paper will benefit big business and investors, but does little to help native title holders steer their own development outcomes. In fact, the document proposes “a whole lot of mucking around with native title”, encouraging title-holders to open up their land to development.

The Australian Conservation Foundation has questioned the suitability of intensive agriculture in the region.  In 2013 Traditional Owners said that a push to open up Cape York to more farming was, “grabbing at the sky”. Michael Ross, former chairman of Cape York Land Council, warned that most of the Cape is not suitable for farming with weeds, erosion and regrowth affecting cleared areas.

Image: ACF Online

Image: ACF Online

Cape York is one of our most precious wilderness areas, a biodiversity hotspot and a region of rich indigenous culture and heritage.

It’s difficult to reconcile the white paper with plans for a World Heritage listing for Cape York, which environmental groups have been pushing for years. Despite missing the deadline to submit a proposal to UNESCO in 2014, Environment Minister Greg Hunt still maintains that it’s committed to seeing a World Heritage listing happen but only after “broad community agreement” on the issue.

Working with the land instead of against it, Cape York has the potential to become a world leader in sustainability and attaining World Heritage listing is central to that. The short term and exploitative approach to economic development outlined by the Federal Government will ultimately fail the Cape’s marginalised communities.

 

Wild Rivers No More: Newman Decision Threatens the Cape

This week, the Queensland Government finalised their repeal of the Wild Rivers Act.

Introduced in 2005 by the Labor government, the Act aimed to protect Queensland’s 13 pristine rivers from the threat of bauxite mining, CSG drilling, major irrigation plans and damming.

The Queensland Government had its repeal in their sights for some time. A draft Cape York Regional Plan was released by the new LNP government in November 2013 which outlined a plan of economic growth through industrialisation, resource sector development and the removal of existing ‘green tape’.

Described it as “flawed, a fraud and a fail”, the government was accused of ignoring areas recognised for their ecological significance, and weakening existing protections.

The draft plan evolved into the Regional Planning Interests Act, which will replace the Wild Rivers legislation.  According to QLD Environment Minister Andrew Powell, the strict environmental protections of Wild Rivers will be maintained, but he does not go so far as to say mining and industry will be ruled out.

“The Government must now, as per the Wild Rivers Act before it, look at any development in that area at a higher environmental bar than what we would anywhere else in the state.” – Andrew Powell

Concerns over Repeal

Under the new legislation, formerly protected zones are termed ‘Strategic Environmental Areas’. Planning approvals for these areas will now be made by either local or State-level government, depending on the nature of the development. While these areas will be protected from some forms of exploitative industry (such as open-cut mining), there are provisions for environmentally damaging activities like strip mining, gas exploration/production and broadacre cropping.

“The repeal of the Wild Rivers Act will once again expose sensitive, pristine rivers to destructive development threats… In its place… weaker policies, regulation and ever-changing maps which will operate without any parliamentary oversight and will lead to arbitrary decision-making.” – Tim Seelig, Wilderness Society

The Channel Country is an area in south west Queensland, also covering parts of South Australia and the Northern Territory. Three protected Wild Rivers run through this region – Georgina, Diamantina and Cooper Creek.  Many Channel Country landholders have reacted strongly against the repeal, saying that the weaker legislation is merely opening up the doors for mining companies to exploit the land.

“My opinion of it is that it’s much weaker legislation that will make it easy for the mining and resources companies to trash our rivers and floodplains in western Queensland, if and when when they want to.” – Grazier Angus Emmott

South Australia’s Minister for Water and the Environment Ian Hunter has also expressed concern, worried about the impact of the weakened legislation on his State’s water supply.

“The changes made to the management of these river networks in Queensland could have serious impacts…. We’ve repeatedly expressed concerns about what these changes will mean for local communities – and are deeply concerned about what this may mean for flows downstream, groundwater recharge and the base level of flows in the Lake Eyre Basin.” – Minister Ian Hunter

Cape York heritage should be protected

The wilderness of the Cape York Peninsula is one of Australia’s most precious.  One of the last wild places on earth it is a biodiversity hotspot, home to undisturbed tropical forests, wetlands and over 300 species of endemic flora and fauna.  The Cape is also a region of rich indigenous culture and heritage, spanning 40,000 years.

Cape York is also one of the most economically disadvantaged areas of Australia, particularly for the indigenous population whose living standards are far below national averages. Roughly two thirds of the Cape identify as indigenous.  A history of dispossession, forced removal from their lands, struggle for land rights, and the lack of economic and educational opportunities have contributed to the serious indigenous disadvantage which exists in the Cape today.

Conservationists have long argued the case for a World Heritage listing for the Cape.  In 2007, the Queensland Government created the Cape York Peninsula Heritage Act which set the terms for the conservation and appropriate development of the region.  This was backed up by the Federal Government’s promise to,

“work with the Queensland Government and traditional owners to pursue World Heritage listing for appropriate areas of Cape York”

But despite promising to protect Cape York during the last election, the QLD Government is now eager to exploit the Cape’s rich mineral wealth and open up the region for resource exploitation.

Despite missing the February 1st deadline to submit a nomination to UNESCO, Environment Minister Greg Hunt assured Australians that the government still supports a heritage listing for the “best of the best” natural areas.  Greens Senator Larissa Waters is sceptical, arguing that this really means protection for areas of no value to the mining industry.

Photo: Wilderness Society

Mixed reactions from Indigenous communities

Indigenous communities were divided over the Wild Rivers legislation, many celebrating the repeal.

Prominent indigenous figures Marcia Langton and Noel Pearson opposed the introduction of the Wild Rivers Act on the grounds that it removed the ability for traditional owners to make decisions about their land, depriving them of economic opportunities.

While there were provisions within the Wild Rivers Act for traditional owners to engage in activities like hunting, fishing, eco-tourism and fire management, large scale development was forbidden.

Many indigenous communities also felt they were not properly consulted during the process.  Others have argued that the majority of traditional owners would not agree with large scale development occurring on their land, so supported measures to keep big mining companies out.

The Queensland government will argue that the new Act better suits the needs of the Cape’s indigenous population, allowing economic activity in the region to diversity and grow.  But while the government speaks of the need to diversify economic activity in the region, development plans seem to be focused on opening up areas to further mining and intensive agriculture.

An alternative model for development

There is an alternative to the LNP Government’s quick-fix, exploitative model.  Conservationists favour working with the land instead of against it, arguing that Cape York can be a world leader in sustainability.

Attaining a World Heritage Listing is central to this plan. World Heritage protection is a flexible regime and will not lock away the entire Cape, protecting some areas while other lands are used for culturally and environmentally appropriate economic purposes.  It recognises the Cape’s long history of sustainable indigenous land management, and that strong indigenous partnerships are central to any successful strategy.

A conservation economy would be central to this strategy.

Sadly, anything resembling a conservation economy is far away as the government continue on their “dig it up, cut it down” path of short term economic gain.  By removing existing environmental safeguards and opening up sensitive lands to damaging resource exploitation, the Regional Planning Interests Act will fail the marginalised Australians of the Cape.

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