Aerial view of the Daly River next to Claravale Station where land has been cleared to make way for cotton crops.

The federal government is investigating potentially unlawful land clearing in the Northern Territory, where satellite images obtained by the ABC suggest swathes of unique savanna have been flattened to make way for a cotton industry.

Officials declined to say when the investigation was first launched, but the probe was confirmed following an investigation by the ABC’s 7.30 this week.

A spokesperson from the federal environment department said it was working with the NT government “to determine whether [land clearing] activities are compliant with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, as well as the relevant Territory legislation”.

Substantial penalties apply for land clearing without approval in the case of significant impacts on threatened species.

Individuals can be fined almost $1.5 million dollars, while sanctions for corporations reach as high as $13.75 million and up to seven years’ imprisonment.

A woman speaks at a lectern
Tanya Plibersek says land clearing is putting enormous pressure on Australia’s native plants and animals.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said the reports of extensive land clearing in the NT are “very concerning”. 

“There must be serious consequences for anyone who does the wrong thing,” she told the ABC.

An NT government spokesperson said the federal government had previously “sought advice” on the clearing approval for one of properties investigated by the ABC, following a complaint they received from Environment Centre NT”.

“The federal department has not advised the NT government of any additional or new investigations,” the spokesperson said. 

Calls for a wider probe

This week, Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young called on the federal government to launch an urgent inquiry into the allegations, citing “deep concern” over the lack of response from the NT government and the regulations currently in place.

“The NT government has so far failed to regulate and is instead paving the way for a huge expansion of the cotton industry in this fragile ecosystem,” she said in a letter sent to Ms Plibersek.  

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