April 25, 2016

Land clearing: seeing red, not green

In Europe, farmers are often considered whingers if they complain about their lot. If they're over-privileged landed gentry, they receive little sympathy, but small producers being screwed by powerful supermarkets are a lot more deserving of attention. Curiously, French farmers are obsessively protected by their government from risk of any kind.

In Australia, dairy farmers, for example, are similarly squeezed, by a supermarket duopoly. Not everyone has the resources of Scenic Rim 4Real Milk who set up their own bottling plant to be free of the system, and many go to the wall. In Queensland's drought-stricken far west, beef producers don't complain enough in my opinion. Successive state governments have been slow to react to an ongoing crisis, necessitating the Buy a Bale campaign supported by those of us back east who have failed to redirect our rainfall inland.

Sometimes farmers push their luck, however, which happened a week ago. Agforce, Queensland's rural lobby group, urged landholders to object to The Vegetation Management (Reinstatement) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill introduced into Parliament in March and currently before the Agriculture and Environment Parliamentary Committee. (The Bill seeks to overturn damage done by the 'green-tape cutting' LNP government, who made land clearing much more of a free-for-all.)

Agforce misrepresented a key aim of the Bill after the fashion of sensationalist tabloid journalism. '[The Bill] re-introduces the reverse onus of proof and takes away the "mistake of fact" defence, meaning farmers are presumed guilty until proven innocent, relegating them to a level below most criminals.' In fact, the Bill reinstates the onus of proof that applies under any law. Farmers will be obliged to be fully aware of land clearing regulations, and will not be able to plead: 'Oh sorry, I didn't know I wasn't allowed to doze that last stand of remnant woodland for fodder cropping.'

And again: 'These outrageous changes… will restrict supply and drive up food prices, stifle development and cost jobs.' That old chestnut: strike fear of higher prices and fewer jobs in the hearts of those who are not fully aware of what the Bill actually intends, which is to protect high-value regrowth and remove provisions that permit clearing applications for high-value agriculture and irrigated agriculture, in order to reduce Queensland's shockingly high rate of land clearing in recent years. The notorious clearing of large areas of Olive Vale in Far North Queensland last year was supposedly for high-value agriculture, but it is extremely doubtful that would be possible in the soils of the area.

Australia has a history of rampant clearing and burning, an almost inevitable consequence of settlers let loose over a vast, even though largely inhospitable continent. These days, one person's opportunity to raise extra cash from growing fodder crops is many others' loss of biodiversity.

A couple of days later, it was reported that a former LNP branch president (from Atherton in northern Queensland) and 'land-clearing consultant' – whatever that is – had recommended to landowners that they hang up on Federal government employees investigating whether land clearing had breached conservation laws, and that they refuse access to Federal Environment Department officers turning up without a search warrant. This shocking encouragement to flout environmental regulation is consistent with Coalition attitudes to conservation, climate change mitigation and land management generally. They are, of course, beholden to big business donors, so it is hardly surprising.

The clearing of trees destroys habitat and therefore wildlife, and ultimately biodiversity; increases salinity and carbon emissions; and reduces the wild places in which we seek sanctuary and solace (Bimblebox Nature Refuge, in Central Queensland, top). The continued planet-wide loss of woodland and forest is likely to trigger more serious climate change than already threatens. Those who cut down trees must bear a huge responsibility.

Trees, especially large old trees (or LOTs), affect hydrological cycles, nutrient cycles, ecosystem disturbance regimes and the distribution of plant species. In the human psyche, they are massive, both literally and figuratively.

By the way, the cut-off point for submissions concerning the Queensland government's proposed Vegetation Management, or land clearing, amendments has been extended until next Friday, 29 April. You still have time – see Land Clearing Act Now, my blog post from 18 April.

1 comment:

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