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Canavan should hear farmers, who know land clearing isn’t the future

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An opinion piece by Wilderness Society National Director Lyndon Schneiders, as published in the Australian on 17 May 2018


For a generation, fierce debate has raged in Queensland over landclearing and deforestation. Elections have been won and lost, laws have been made and unmade. Tensions have spilled over. Protests and counter-protests have come and gone.
The issues are complex and the ­solutions hard. Consensus to balance the needs of the environment and the interests of farmers, primarily cattle graziers, has been fleeting and easily lost.

Finding the balance demands wisdom and leadership from government and from the combatants in this polarising debate.

Clearly, this leadership won’t be coming from senior Turnbull government minister Matt Canavan, who has trotted out a stale ­series of half-truths and mis­information in his attempt to fan the flames of division between the bush and the city.

Resources Minister has trotted out a series of claims that are hard to sustain. He appears to be saying the environmental impacts of deforestation and clearing are without foundation and that laws to restrict clearing have no impact on the environment.

Yet hard facts suggest otherwise. The most authoritative source of information about threats to Australia’s environment is the national State of the Environment Report by a panel of Australia’s leading scientists on behalf of the government.

The most recent report was released by Canavan’s cabinet colleague, Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg, last year.

The report found land clearing, the primary cause of habitat fragmentation, was a key threat to the environment. Each report stretching back to the first in 1996 said the same.

It noted that everywhere except Queensland, land-clearing rates have remained stable or declined.

A decision by Campbell Newman’s Liberal National Party government to break an election promise and weaken the laws in 2013 led to 1.2 million hectares being cleared during the next three years. Almost instantly, Queensland became a global deforestation hot spot, rivalling ­places such as the Amazon and Borneo.

The impact on wildlife is profound. Last year the CSIRO published a report estimating 50 million mammals, birds and reptiles were killed annually by land clearing in Queensland and NSW, but the vast majority occurs in Queensland.

The RSPCA appeared before the recent Queensland parliamentary inquiry into land clearing and called it the greatest single threat to animal welfare in the state.

The CSIRO, the RSPCA and Australia’s leading scientists are hardly wide-eyed greenies, as Canavan would have us believe. But they all agree there is a problem in Queensland and that the problem has been created by gutting previously strong laws.

It wasn’t always like this. When land clearing began in earnest in Queensland in the 1950s, no one understood the impact of clearing on soil productivity and on the ­environment.

It was government policy to support land clearing in places such as the Brigalow Belt. Over time, the balance was lost.

Stretching across millions of hectares in central Queensland and NSW, 90 per cent of the brigalow forests have been cleared. This forest type is now listed nationally as endangered under our national environment laws.

Four brigalow-dependent animal species, including the beautiful paradise parrot, are extinct. Another 17 species are threatened.

Importantly, most leaders in the beef industry know that the era of massive land clearing is over and that demonstrating the sustainability of farm management is the key to market access and farm productivity.

One of Australia’s largest purchasers of beef, McDonalds, is developing policies aimed at “eliminating deforestation from our global supply chains”, while last year the China Meat Association committed itself to “avoiding land degradation, deforestation and conversion of natural vegetation in the livestock production . . . feed chains”.

Industry leaders also are leading the charge. The Australian Red Meat Advisory Council has developed the Australian beef sustainability framework, which includes improving animal welfare prac­tices, protecting conservation values and promoting tree cover.

But these voices are being drowned out by the noisy mob. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are about 28,000 farm businesses in Queensland. Protests held against new laws passed by the Queensland parliament last week attracted fewer than 200 people.

The vast majority of farmers care about the environment and know that the future is all about sustainability, not a return to the past.

There is more than enough ­land already cleared in Queensland, more than 20 million hectares, to base a vibrant industry producing high-quality food for Australians and overseas markets.

Canavan is not doing the Australian farm community any favours. He is a senior leader of his party but his political antenna is wrong. He has misjudged the electoral benefits in respect of land clearing.

Five times in 15 years Queenslanders have gone to the polls with a clear choice in respect of land-clearing laws and five times they have endorsed the party with the strongest laws. The only time they backed the LNP was when it promised to keep the laws — a promise immediately broken. It is time to turn the page on the past and look to a better future.