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Destroying the Gilbert catchment to feed governments’ food bowl

Northern Australia has some of the last free flowing rivers left on the planet. They teem with aquatic life and are critical for wildlife to survive through the dry season. However, while these rivers are the arteries that underpin the ecological function of this incredible landscape, they are also targeted for industrial scale agricultural developments.Gilbert river Andrew Picone ACF

The form that development takes is already being played out in the Gilbert catchment of the Gulf of Carpentaria. There are at least two major agricultural developments proposed for the Gilbert catchment. Together, they threaten the future of 200,000 ha of remnant bushland and the ongoing health of the Gilbert River and the livelihoods that currently rely on it.

This is not a theoretical threat anymore. As you read this, 30,000 ha of previously protected remnant vegetation is being bulldozed on Strathmore Station, near Croydon.

This clearing represents an effective reversal of the ban on broad scale clearing in Queensland.

It’s unlikely to be a one-off.

Strathmore Station wants to clear another 70,000 ha. The Etheridge Integrated Agricultural Project – a $2 billion, 65,000 ha, irrigated sugar proposal near Georgetown – wants to clear 100,000 ha and take 555,000 ML/pa – the equivalent of Sydney Harbour – from the Gilbert river system.

Land clearing has historically been one of Queensland’s foremost environmental issues. Previously identified as the single greatest threat to biodiversity, at its height, millions of animals were killed each year and huge stores of carbon were released into the atmosphere.

The science is also clear that damming and draining rivers has irreversible consequences for biodiversity and fundamentally alters catchment wide landscape function, including impacts to marine and estuarine environments.

Unfortunately, politics, not science or even common sense, is determining how these projects are being considered by governments.

The Queensland Government approved Strathmore’s clearing under the High Value Agriculture exemptions in the Vegetation Management Act. The “high value” agriculture in question is dryland sorghum. However, a $6.8M CSIRO report released in February found that dryland sorghum will only deliver a break-even yield in the Gilbert three years in every ten. This defies any common sense definition of “high value”. And yet the land clearing was approved.

The same CSIRO report found that the water and land required by the Etheridge mega-farm are simply not available. CSIRO’s findings should have been the trigger for the Queensland Government to revoke the project’s coordinated project status. Instead, the Queensland Government announced a fast-tracked review of the Gulf Water Resource Plan, and has separately entered into a Development Protocol with the project proponents, the terms of which have not been publicly released.

The science is clear that Northern Australia will never be the food bowl of Asia and projects like these are never going to deliver economic outcomes. Instead, they’re more likely to leave a wake of environmental destruction, economic loss and broken expectations.

The Wilderness Society believes Northern Australia can have a thriving economy without destroying its landscapes and wildlife. However, that will require the Federal Coalition and the Queensland Liberal National Party  to drop the food bowl fantasy and look to more innovative solutions and investment options than the projects currently on the table.

For more information, please contact Karen Touchie at Karen.Touchie@wilderness.org.au

Permanent link to this article: http://cafnec.org.au/2014/03/25/destroying-gilbert-catchment-feed-governments-food-bowl/