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The Gilbert River

Northern Australia has some of the last free flowing rivers left on Earth, containing natural and cultural values of national and international significance. However, they are also seen by many as the key to unlocking the ‘dining boom’ – large scale ‘food bowl’ projects bringing much needed development and jobs to the region while feeding Asia’s growing middle–class. 

This has seen a dramatic increase in Federal, State and Territory government attention to policy focussed on how to develop northern Australia, and its river systems in particular. 
The Gilbert River catchment in the Gulf of Carpentaria is at the forefront of the debate. What happens in the Gilbert catchment will set the tone for development for many of Northern Australia’s rivers.
Unfortunately it seems to be a case of destroying the Gilbert catchment to feed the food bowl fantasy.
There are at least two major agricultural developments proposed for the Gilbert catchment. Together, they threaten the future of 200,000ha of savannah wilderness and the ongoing health of the river and the communities that rely on it.
Historically tree clearing has been the single greatest threat to biodiversity in Queensland. In a return to the bad old days, bulldozers have already started to raze 30,000ha of previously protected savannah wilderness on Strathmore Station, near Croydon, with another 70,000ha of clearing expected. This clearing represents an effective reversal of the ban on broad scale clearing in Queensland and another broken promise from the Queensland Government.
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 2014 found that dryland sorghum will only deliver a break-even yield in the Gilbert three years in every 10. This defies any common sense definition of “high value”, yet the clearing was approved.
Meanwhile the Etheridge Integrated Agricultural Project - a $2 billion 65,000ha irrigated sugar proposal near Georgetown – wants to clear 100,000ha and suck out the equivalent of Sydney Harbour from the Gilbert river system every year.
Credit: Wayne Lawler
The science is clear that damming and draining rivers has irreversible consequences for biodiversity and has devastating impacts on marine and estuarine environments. 
Unfortunately, politics, not science or even common sense, is determining how these projects are being considered by governments. The Etheridge project alone requires at least twice the land area and three times the water volume the CSIRO has said is available. 
CSIRO’s findings should have been the trigger for the Queensland Government to revoke the project’s coordinated project status. But that didn’t happen! The project is still being fast-tracked through the Government’s approval processes.
The science and economics are clear. Northern Australia is a graveyard for failed ‘food bowl’ projects, which 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 Abbott and Newman governments to drop the food bowl fantasy and look to more innovative solutions and investment options than the projects currently on the table.

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