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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 at the time, “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.

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.

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.

This article was published in the Australian Independent Media network on June 24th 2015.

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