Getting wild where the rivers run


Natasha Bita, Sarah Elks and Andrew Fraser, The Australian –

Date of publication: 
16 January 2010

A YEAR ago, Wayne Butcher planted 5000 pongamia seedlings on the banks of Queensland’s Claudie River, to grow a biofuel plantation employing hundreds of Aboriginal people in the remote Cape York community of Lockhart River.

Today, the plan to expand to 20,000 trees has withered away. The Mangkuma Land Trust, which operates the pilot scheme in hand with a private biofuel company, is discouraged by restrictions on riverbank farming under Queensland’s Wild Rivers legislation.

“What’s making us angry is the way Wild Rivers was imposed on the people of Cape York,” says Butcher, the trust’s chairman. “It’s a backdoor deal between the Labor government of Queensland and the Greens.”

Wild Rivers – legislation designed to protect pristine waterways, covering swaths of Queensland’s remote Cape York and Gulf country – is shaping up as the biggest environmental showdown since the Franklin dam in Tasmania.

Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott lit the fuse on Wild Rivers as an election issue this week when he promised to introduce a private member’s bill invoking the Constitution to override the state legislation.

In the past, federal governments have wielded their constitutional clout to strike down state laws that damage the environment: stopping the Franklin dam in 1983 and nominating the wet tropics as a World Heritage site in 1988. In this case, Abbott is proposing to use it in reverse, to permit development in areas protected for their wilderness values.

The snowballing argument over the rights of remote communities to make a living from their land is pitting greens against graziers and inflaming indigenous groups who consider the environmental legislation to be unfairly restrictive to the point of racism.

Queensland’s Minister for Natural Resources, Mines and Energy, Stephen Robertson, argues that the legislation was prompted by the former Howard government’s national water initiative, which required all states and territories to identify and protect high conservation water systems for their ecological values.

But in Lockhart River, the Aboriginal community on the eastern coast of Cape York, there is a sense of confusion about what residents can and cannot do under the Wild Rivers legislation.

Cape York Land Council chairman Richie Ahmat laments that a development application for a business near a declared wild river will be costly and convoluted.

“To get through all the red tape, you’d need a lawyer and an ecologist. Where are Aboriginal people going to get the money for that?” he says. Ahmat also believes the wild rivers legislation targets Aboriginal people.

“Why would they put red tape over an area of land where most of the people are indigenous?” he says. “Why don’t they do the same thing for the Brisbane River?”

Robertson insists development is not nearly as restricted as the Aboriginal groups and graziers make out, yet he does concede the state government “could have done our consultation better”.

“The feedback we were giving those communities would often be months after the declaration was made, and that would cause frustration and in some cases anger,” he says. “That to me didn’t seem a good way of doing business. So we actually now give feedback to the communities on what they bring up before the time of [a] Wild Rivers declaration. That doesn’t mean everyone gets what they want. But they know that they’ve been listened to.”

The Queensland parliament passed the Wild Rivers Act in 2005, to protect 21 pristine river systems by restricting development in “high preservation” buffers within 1km of rivers. New farms, aquaculture and mining projects – all traditional sources of income for Aboriginal communities – are banned within the buffer zones, as are dams and weirs. Permits are required for tourism projects. If a local council already requires a development permit for buildings in a Wild River area, they will have to meet conditions in the Wild River code.

Grazing, recreational fishing and indigenous cultural activities can still occur, and a Wild River declaration does not affect activities such as camping, hunting, fishing and gathering.

Until only a month ago, even private jetties and boat ramps could not be built in Wild River buffer areas. The state government had to relent – permitting jetties and ramps subject to a permit system – after an outcry from indigenous landowners.

When the Wild Rivers legislation was first enacted, it barely caused a ripple until the Bligh government gazetted the Archer, Lockhart and Stewart rivers in April last year, shortly after the state election.

This provoked a furious backlash led by Noel Pearson, director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership, who accused the government of a pre-election deal with the Wilderness Society for green votes, a claim the Labor Party denies vehemently.

Pearson labels Wild Rivers as “racist in practice”, given its overwhelming effect on land owned by impoverished indigenous communities in one of the most remote regions of Australia.

“We’ve spent 10 years securing the rights of Aboriginal people and just as we are starting to see the fruits of our work, we have to fight the battle again,” he says. “We have to preserve the ability of these communities to develop economic enterprises in the future. There’s no road out of poverty without an economic base.”

Businessman Peter Holmes a Court has backed Pearson, visiting a biofuel project in the area late last year and saying the legislation is being applied in an “unjust and immoral” way.

AgForce, Queensland’s peak farming lobby, says Wild Rivers “locks the agricultural sector into a time warp”. “The bill looks purely at environmental issues. It doesn’t take into account the social or economic impacts,” says policy director Drew Wagner. “Any intensification of management systems may not be permitted, and feedlots would not be permitted in a high preservation zone.”

Even the Australian Conservation Foundation has reservations, calling for greater balance between indigenous aspirations and environmental protection of waterways. Suzanne Jenkins, the ACF’s northern Australian manager, wants the federal and state governments to spend at least $3 million a year more on identifying and testing development projects in northern Australia.
“There may be scope to provide for greater flexibility for traditional owners to establish ecologically sustainable enterprises under the normal planning and approval laws,” she says.

Abbott’s constitutional strategy is doomed to fail on the floor of the federal parliament, yet it is sure to prove popular with voters in the seat of Leichhardt, which sprawls from Cairns to Cape York.

Labor seized the seat at the 2007 election after longstanding Liberal MP Warren Entsch retired; but Entsch is now planning a comeback, making it one of the most tightly contested seats at the next election.

Robertson is trying to downplay the effect of Wild Rivers on the Cape and Gulf country, insisting that it is the region’s isolation – which makes for difficult logistics and high costs of transporting raw materials and produce – that stunts development for indigenous communities.

“Otherwise you’d have seen economic development go ahead in the Cape over the past 20, 50, 200 years,” he says.

“The reason you haven’t is not because of Wild Rivers. It’s because of the unique geography of that part of Queensland, the fact that it is isolated, the fact you can’t access it during the wet, the fact that you don’t have good roads through much of the place. That’s the reality of the Cape.”

Such reasoning infuriates Pearson. “What is he saying, that everyone should go and live in Brisbane?” he asks.

“If it is hard to develop an economic presence in remote areas because of those realities, why make it harder?”