Tiwi Islands – Northern Territory

What has happened to the Investigation…?

Posted by tiwiccbb on February 20, 2008

27 August 2007 – 10:00AM
Tiwi Islands logging under fire
Rosslyn Beeby
Australia’s biggest agribusiness investment funds manager could face fines of more than $6million for alleged illegal land clearing, after a federal investigation of its woodchip operations on the Tiwi Islands.

Tiwi traditional land owners claim the project has failed to deliver jobs and income for their communities, despite promises it would “deliver millions” in royalties from sawlog and woodchip exports to Asian markets.

More than 90 Tiwi women have signed a petition claiming the project is ruining the land for future generations, clearing forests providing ceremonial artefacts, bush foods and materials for sought-after traditional arts and crafts.

A former president of the Tiwi Islands football club, Gawin Tipiloura, was sacked recently from the Tiwi Land Council after suggesting it had not acted in the best interests of Tiwi people by becoming a partner in the forestry project.

Perth-based company Great Southern, which manages more than $1.9 billion for 40,000 investors in tax-minimisation schemes including forestry plantations, olive and almond groves, vineyards and cattle feedlots across Australia, acquired the Tiwi Islands forestry operation in 2005 from South Australian forestry company Sylvatech.

Former federal environment minister Robert Hill gave approval in 2001 for Sylvatech a subsidiary of Adelaide company Australian Plantation Group to clear up to 26,000ha of native eucalypt forests on Melville Island to establish quick-growing acacia plantations for export woodchips. The decision approved what was to be the biggest single land-clearing operation in northern Australia, imposing 11 environmental conditions, including retention of buffer zones around rare tropical rainforest habitat, wetlands, river banks and nesting sites for threatened bird species. It also stated that no more than 10,000ha could be cleared over any two-year period.

After complaints to the federal and Northern Territory governments by Tiwi land owners and Darwin-based environment groups, a team of Commonwealth audit compliance inspectors visited the plantations on Melville Island earlier this year.

Sources within the Department of Environment and Water Resources recently told The Canberra Times a report on the alleged breaches had been passed to the Attorney-General’s Department for further consideration.

If Great Southern is found to have breached its permit conditions, it could face fines of more than $6 million under newly tightened land-clearing laws within the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

The results of the investigation are potentially embarrassing for Prime Minister John Howard and environment minister Malcolm Turnbull, after their announcement earlier this year to pledge $200 million to reduce deforestation in South-East Asia.

Tropical forests there are being cleared for palm oil plantations.

A spokesman for the company said Great Southern had conducted an independent audit of the Tiwi forestry project after taking it over from Sylvatech and “chose to share certain of these findings with the government”. Company literature recently distributed to Tiwi Island communities admits clearing of protective buffer zones “happened accidentally” in some places because of outdated maps and technology.

According to the company’s reports, the Tiwi project provides “a low-cost source of land” to meet growing global demand for woodchips. The company leases Tiwi land for $17 a hectare, with investors paying $3300 to invest in a 0.33ha acacia woodlot which provides a return on investment when harvested about eight to 12 years after planting.

Tiwi Land Council executive secretary John Hicks told a recent Senate estimates committee the project employed “three full-time Tiwis” and there had been losses of $600,000 on shipments of logs to China, with only one out of seven shipments returning a modest profit.

The Environment Centre of the Northern Territory claims the company has breached seven of its 11 permit obligations, including retention of buffer zones, scientific monitoring of environmental impacts and submission of a detailed threatened species monitoring plan.

Wilderness Society forests campaigner Peter Robertson said freedom of information requests revealed that ecological studies required by the permit had not been undertaken, and “no final threatened species management plan has been submitted or approved”.

Mr Robertson said that as former coordinator of the NT Environment Centre he wrote to Mr Turnbull earlier this year, listing the potential breaches and calling for further clearing on Melville Island to be suspended and for a full investigation into all aspects of the forestry operation.

According to research published last year in the international Journal of Biogeography, up to 12 native mammal species “are likely to be severely disadvantaged by plantation development” on the Tiwi Islands. A scientist with the Tropical Savannas Cooperative Research Centre, Ronald Frith, said the plantation development “targets the tallest and most well-developed eucalypt forest environments” and would “substantially reduce” the habitat of native mammals on the islands.

Source: The Canberra Times, ACT

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