Furore over northern food bowl plan

Related story from The Land

FRESH divisions have emerged between Aboriginal leaders on Cape York over Queensland’s wild rivers legislation as the row widened into a debate over the merits of agricultural development in tropical Australia.

The chairman of the Mapoon Council, Peter Guavarra, said his community was divided over the legislation, which seeks to provide permanent protection to pristine tropical rivers and their catchments.

“Some people are worried they might not be able to fish and hunt if the rivers are damaged by development,” Mr Guavarra said.

“Other people say we need the economic development and the river shouldn’t be locked up.”

Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson has claimed the near-unanimous support of Cape York communities for his stand against wild rivers legislation.

Mr Pearson has quit the Cape York Institute, a vehicle for the economic advancement of impoverished communities, in protest at the law because he says it undermines their prospects for development.

The Wenlock, the main watercourse at Mapoon on the west coast of Cape York, is expected to be the next river gazetted under the legislation.

Six rivers have been protected in what critics claim is a step towards the World Heritage listing of Cape York.

Opponents say it stops development of large-scale irrigated agriculture on Cape York, which had most potential for indigenous advancement. Cairns economic consultant Bill Cummings said there was a great deal of potential for agricultural development in Cape York and other parts of the vast “savannah belt” of tropical Australia.

“Locking the doors on this with the wild rivers legislation is ill-considered and inappropriate,” he said.

“What many people do not realise is the size of the area we are talking about, and the comparatively minuscule impacts likely to be involved.”

An expert on tropical river management, CSIRO scientist Garry Cook, said the prospects for large-scale agriculture in the north were extremely limited for reasons ranging from poor soils and the hot climate to a lack of service infrastructure.

“There is no potential for the sorts of things we see in the south like the wheat belt,” Dr Cook said.

He said a big problem facing agriculture on Cape York is the wet season. “You have the potential for massive flooding along those rivers that can cause a lot of damage,” Dr Cook said.

Australian Rivers Institute director Stuart Bunn said low-key developments such as ecotourism and recreational fishing provided the greatest potential for indigenous advancement. “It is sheer fantasy for people to think we can have another Murray-Darling Basin in northern Australia,” he said.

Nationals Senate leader Barnaby Joyce said the north had the right fundamentals for agricultural development — plenty of water, sunlight and fertile land.

“When the arse is hanging out of the pants of Aboriginal people in remote areas, you can’t have people in the cities foisting their environmental conscience on them,” he said.

The indigenous chairman of the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce, Joe Ross, said Queensland was right to protect pristine tropical rivers but should do so in consultation with indigenous leaders.

“We don’t want to end up with more unhealthy river systems like the Murray-Darling,” Mr Ross said.