The Guardian August 2, 2000


Greenhouse crisis

by Peter Mac

An estimated 2.5 million hectares of land in the Murray-Darling basin are 
now affected by salinity, caused by the massive clearing of land. This 
practically unfettered destruction of trees, vegetation and wildlife is 
increasing at three to five percent per annum, threatening some 12 million 
hectares and contributing to the growing danger greenhouse gas emissions 
pose to the future of the planet.

The 1996 Kyoto agreement on greenhouse gas emissions allowed Australia to 
have an eight percent increase in greenhouse emissions above the 1990 level 
by the year 2010. However, by 1998 Australia's emissions had already risen 
to 16.9 percent over the 1990 figure, i.e. more than double the permitted 
increase for 2010.

The energy generation sector accounts for 79 per cent of emissions, of 
which 37 percent comes from electricity generation, much of which has now 
been privatised.

And the figure is rising. In 1997 alone, emissions rose 5.2 percent, 
without taking into account the effects of land clearing.

The Kyoto agreement counted land clearing as contributing to emissions, and 
tree planting as a reduction, even when those doing the planting did so in 
a country other than the one felling trees.

For example, a Japanese corporation which recently established a tree 
plantation in NSW will gain greenhouse credits for Japan.

Not so for Australia! The rate of clearance in Queensland in particular has 
soared. Clearance has alarming implications for the quality of the soil, as 
well as the air, because it has the potential to increase soil erosion and 
salinity.

(Salinity is caused when the removal of trees, whose deep roots soak up 
water deep beneath the soil surface, allows the water table to eventually 
rise to the surface, bringing with it salt which crystallises or forms 
salt-saturated surface water, and kills off the area's vegetation.)

Phillip Toyne, former director of the Australian Conservation Foundation, 
and Rick Farley, former director of the National Farmers' Federation, have 
issued a call for a tax to fund land remediation.

They've also proposed that a condition of receiving public funding for land 
management should be the adoption of sustainable land-use practices, and 
that land remediation programs should be implemented on the basis of 
regions rather than individual holdings.

There is now broad political and growing community opposition to the mass 
clearance of Queensland bush. However, Queensland Premier Beattie wants the 
rest of Australia to leave "Queenslanders" to sort it out.

With less than wholehearted enthusiasm the Commonwealth Government is 
considering either the use of lame controls on land management practices, 
or "salinity credit" grants, to tackle the problem.

The National Party has said that any government action must avoid affecting 
farmers' property rights and must not restrict their use of the land.

The Federal Minister for Agriculture said that the Howard Government would 
be reluctant to increase taxes to deal with the problem: suddenly they have 
a problem with making a tax "reform".

Even if the Federal Government were to take action it would do so in order 
to pressure the public to accept the sale of the rest of Telstra to fund 
the its implementation.

Whose interests are they serving? Many farmers are deeply concerned about 
the implications of soil degradation, and would be only too happy to go 
along with an effective soil remediation program. However, others, mostly 
the big players in the agribusiness stakes, would not.

Last week Greens Senator Bob Brown called for the Stanbroke Pastoral 
Company, the biggest land clearing offender and a subsidiary of insurance 
giant AMP, to cease its environmental vandalism.

Stanbroke has already cleared vast areas, in some cases ignoring local land 
management guidelines and destroying native animal habitats.

The Beattie Government has now issued a permit for this company to clear 
another 100,000 acres, part of which is in the headwaters of the Murray-
Darling River system.

Senator Brown commented: "Stanbroke Pastoral Company is no battling farmer. 
It is the largest single landholder and beef producer in the world, 
controlling over 13.2 million hectares.

"... AMP should call a halt immediately to all clearing of native 
vegetation on their properties, pending a proper public evaluation of the 
impacts on salinity, greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity.

"... AMP should be setting an example, not single-handedly contributing 25 
per cent of Queensland's annual rate of clearing."

The Federal and Queensland Governments are more attuned to the requirements 
of corporate interests like the Stanbroke Pastoral Company than to the 
wishes of small farmers and the ordinary working people of Australia and 
the critical need of the entire planet.

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