Powerful agribusiness lobbying and erosion of regulations driving deforestation to new heights in Australia

28.03.2018

This species of koala has recently been listed as vulnerable to extinction in Queensland due to habitat destruction Photo: Flickr/cuatrok77

A surge of deforestation in eastern Australia driven by cattle ranching has made it one of the world’s worst places for forest destruction, facilitated by a powerful agricultural lobby that is eroding the rule of law.

The situation in eastern Australia has become so serious that WWF has listed it among its 11 worst deforestation fronts in the world. The state of Queensland is now destroying its forests at a faster rate than Brazil. Between 2015 and 2016, 395,000 hectares of forest were cleared in the state.

The rise in deforestation has been accompanied by evidence of illegality on a systematic scale. Last year Earthsight reported on illegal deforestation in Queensland and on farmers’ defiance of federal government’s orders to cease forest clearances. 

In New South Wales, where in 2014 a landowner murdered an environmental officer who had been investigating illegal deforestation, authorities are examining at least 300 cases of illegal land clearing.

The phenomenon has been accompanied by efforts to erode environmental legislation. In 2013 the Liberal National Party in Queensland loosened the Forestry Law, allowing farmers to fell up to 75% of trees in their properties without a permit, leading to an immediate doubling of its deforestation rates the following year.

In 2016, the New South Wales government announced it would replace three pieces of legislation on forest protection with a single act that would make land clearing easier. Experts warned that this would lead to a doubling of deforestation in the state.

Reporting by The Guardian found that MPs from Queensland lobbied the federal government to back off from enforcement action against illegal deforestation in 2015 and 2016.

The federal government has come under pressure to counter states’ dubious records on environmental protection. Jessica Panegyres of the Wilderness Society has told The Guardian that the federal government is “not doing any proactive monitoring” of deforestation in private lands.

Steve Miles, Labor’s Queensland Environment Minister, has warned that recent increases have been exacerbated by the failure of the federal government to investigate allegations of illegal clearing in north Queensland.

Prospects for the near future are not promising. Despite promises by the Labor Party to reverse the Liberal Party’s policies in Queensland, vast tracts of land are being earmarked for clearing in the Northern Territory, where deforestation permits have increased more than tenfold in the past two years compared to the previous 12.

David Morris, former chief executive of the Environmental Defenders Office in the state, has told The Guardian that the Northern Territory has “a totally inept regulatory regime” and that “there is a very clear trend of increased approvals of broad-scale land clearing in the Northern Territory”.

Glenn Walker of the Wilderness Society, also talking to The Guardian, has argued that “having a board full of agricultural business people as the ultimate decision maker is mind-boggling” and that “the [Northern Territory] has the worst regulation for deforestation of any jurisdiction in Australia”.

The states of Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania have also been unveiling new measures to make forest clearing easier for cattle ranching and logging.

The destruction of forests in eastern Australia can have serious environmental impacts. The Great Barrier Reef can be harmed by extra sediment flowing into the ocean. It is estimated that as many as 68 million animals were killed in Queensland between mid-2013 and mid-2015 due to deforestation.

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