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
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
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
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.
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
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.