Farmers bulldoze bush to beat laws

By Boyd Champness

QUEENSLAND has one of the highest rates of land clearing in the world, with the equivalent of two football fields of native vegetation bulldozed every minute, 24 hours a day.

Farmers in the northern state of Queensland are cutting down record swaths of native bush in the rush to expand their farms ahead of State Government controls on freehold land clearing.

The Federal Governments Statewide Landcover and Trees Study, based on satellite imagery, showed 340,000 hectares of native bush were cleared annually in Queensland between 1995 and 1997, up from 289,000 hectares felled annually between 1991 and 1994. This equates to about 200 million trees in three years in one state.

Furthermore, a Bureau of Agriculture and Research Economics farm survey estimated that 1.8 million trees were cleared in Queensland in 1997-98 alone.

In the first nine months of this year, permits were issued to clear 246,000 hectares of virgin bush (plus 197,000 hectares of regrowth) on leasehold land alone, which doesnt include farmers own freehold land.

Green groups, the National Farmers Federation and government sources say the alarming jump has been caused by farmers fears that new regulations on freehold clearing are about to limit their livelihoods.

Farmers argue that, in light of low commodity prices, they must clear in order to survive, and that proposed State Government restrictions on clearing could endanger the $1.7 billion beef industry.

Queensland Conservation Council co-ordinator, Imogen Zethoven, said the figures projected a 500% increase in the rate of land clearing this year from 1998.

“We are seeing shocking levels of panic clearing and the Government has to find the courage to act immediately to stop a major environmental disaster unfolding,” she told The Age newspaper.

Ms Zethoven told the newspaper that the increase in clearing would make it much more difficult for Australia to meet its greenhouse emission targets agreed to at the 1997 international conference on climate change in Kyoto. (Australia promised to limit emission increases to 8% by 2010, but is on track to grow by more than twice that amount.)

The problem is that many Queensland farmers have paid large sums of money to convert their land from leasehold to freehold in a bid to have greater control of their land.

Larry Acton, president of Agforce, a farmer lobby group, said farmers would suffer an 80% decline in land values if strict land-clearing laws similar to other states were introduced.

Mr Acton said a compensation package of up to $100 million paid over several years would be required if farmers were prevented from clearing their land.

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