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.
- Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek says reports of extensive land clearing for cotton in the NT “are very concerning”
- A study has found cotton uses a lot of land, water and machinery but creates very few jobs
- The researcher says subsidising the industry with free water is bad economics and bad environmental policy
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.
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.
The calls have been backed by Independent senator David Pocock.
But green groups are now raising questions over the breadth of the investigation and why action wasn’t taken sooner.
The Environment Centre NT director Kirsty Howey said that while she welcomed the investigation, the slow response was disappointing.
Multiple attempts to alert the government of clearing without a permit at three cotton stations were ignored, she said.
“Minister Plibersek’s investigation needs to be far wider in scope. [The ABC’s] 7.30 revealed a complete failure of regulation by the NT government that raises serious questions about its capacity to regulate and its relationship with the cotton industry,” she said.
Ms Howey said the cleared land is the likely habitat for the threatened Gouldian finch, the ghost bat, the partridge pigeon, and five other threatened species listed under the EPBC Act.
“It’s absolutely a matter for federal scrutiny given the Albanese government’s commitment to halt the extinction crisis engulfing Australia,” she said.
No economic benefit from NT cotton, study finds
Since a ban on cotton was lifted in the NT in 2018, industry proponents and the NT government have repeatedly claimed cotton would be good for the economy and create jobs.
In 2020, a study commissioned by the NT Farmers Association and financed by the NT government found that a cotton industry in the NT has the potential to contribute $200m to the NT economy, and generate 91 direct and indirect jobs across the Territory.
But the Australia Institute says its new study shows these assertions don’t add up.
Research director Rod Campbell said Census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows cotton growing employs just 1,121 people nation-wide.
And it doesn’t pay very much tax.
“Minister Manison has said she’s left and I quote, ‘scratching her head’ about opposition to agricultural developments like cotton in the NT, and urges people to look for the benefits,” Mr Campbell said.
“That’s exactly what we’ve done here, we’ve looked for the benefits.”
“What is the potential employment? Very low. What are the potential tax payments and revenue implications for the NT government? Near zero or negative.
“If the NT government insists on subsidising the cotton industry by giving away water and potentially funding infrastructure, I just call it bad economic policy and bad environmental policy.”
Michael Murray, the general manager of Cotton Australia said the cotton industry does generate economic activity and a “lot of extra employment”, and has cast doubt over what he described as “selective” census data.
“If people want to see the impact of the industry, go through towns like Moree, or Goondiwindi, or St George … when cotton has been produced. You feel the buzz about the place,” he said.
The ABC reached out to both the NT Farmers Association chief executive Paul Burke and Bruce Connolly, the president of the Northern Cotton Growers Association, but both declined to comment.
Mr Campbell said that while its hard to predict exactly what could happen in the NT, he pointed to the Ord Scheme in Western Australia, where millions have been spent on expansion by both the federal and state government.
“The WA auditor general found that created around 60 jobs. We’re talking millions of dollars per job,” he said.
“I’m certainly not against the farming of cotton in Australia … But this is a bit of a different situation.
“If the NT is looking to create agricultural jobs, they should be looking at just about any other sector of agriculture.”