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Wednesday, 19 September 2007
Page: 56

Senator MILNE (1:11 PM) —I rise today to draw the Senate’s attention to land clearing on the Tiwi Islands. I think most Australians would be appalled to know what is happening in this beautiful part of Australia. I am talking about the Tiwi Islands, which are off the Northern Territory; Melville and Bathurst islands, owned by the traditional owners. It is Aboriginal freehold land, under the Commonwealth Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Act 1978. Different parts of those islands are owned by different clans of Indigenous people and traditional owners. The areas have high biodiversity values, with eucalypt forests and tropical savannas side by side with rainforest patches such as Jump-up Jungle. They are sensitive to fire and disturbance and they are important as biodiversity areas, particularly as species refugia, as biodiversity is being diminished in other parts of the Northern Territory because of the spread of the cane toad, amongst other things.

These forested areas in the Tiwi Islands are now the subject of a major clear-felling and woodchipping project approved by the Howard government in 2001, so the Tiwi Islands are becoming an industrial monoculture. That, by any definition, is deforestation. Deforestation is when you have natural forest areas cleared for crops, and that is precisely what is now happening in the Tiwi Islands, contrary to the Global Initiative on Forests and Climate that the Howard government released in July this year and of which it is so proud. At the press conference in July, the Australian government said that almost 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from clearing the world’s forests and that, if the world could halve the rate of global deforestation, we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by three billion tonnes a year. It went on to say that the Australian government was investing $200 million to support new forest plantings, limit the destruction of the world’s remaining forests, promote sustainable forest management, and on and on it goes.

At the same time as the government through this initiative and the Sydney declaration is telling the other APEC leaders about this, and leading up to the Bali conference—at which avoided deforestation will be a major issue—native areas of vegetation, tropical savannah and the buffers of rainforest patches are being cleared illegally, and we are seeing a massive conversion taking place. We are talking about 31,000 hectares since 1998 approved for clearing by the Howard government, and it must stop. It is particularly important to draw attention to it now because there is a proposal to take the area to be cleared up to 80,000 hectares. That would for the first time see the inclusion of 20,000 hectares of forest on Bathurst Island.

I rise today to say that this has to be investigated, that the breaches of the agreement that the Howard government had for this land clearance need to be properly investigated and that people need to be brought to account. You might wonder how this could be possible in an age where we recognise we are losing biodiversity and native vegetation at a great rate and where we are concerned about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. In 2006 alone, 10,000 hectares were cleared. That was the single largest native forest clearing project for the whole of Northern Australia and it was done essentially for woodchips. The native forest is cleared and burned. The project is currently under federal investigation for serious breaches of environmental laws, such as clearing buffers around rainforest patches, and it is to be hoped that when that investigation is concluded the companies involved will be fined and required to restore native vegetation.

There are people working on the project who allege unsafe work practices and who say that there is complete disregard for the environment, largely because of the isolation of the Tiwi Islands. The project is supported by the Tiwi Land Council, a Commonwealth statutory body created to represent the interests of traditional owners. In 2006 almost 500 Tiwi Islanders signed a petition calling for an inquiry into the Tiwi Land Council in relation to its land use decisions, and the petitioners also called for the resignation of the longstanding non-Indigenous executive secretary of the Tiwi Land Council, John Hicks, due to concerns about his influence over traditional owners. A company called Pirntubula was created by the Tiwi Land Council in 1987, and there are concerns that the majority of the board are non-Tiwi and work for the companies exploiting the islands’ natural resources, which of itself is an incredible conflict of interest. The project was instigated in the late nineties by Silvertech Ltd. It had close political ties with the Northern Territory Country Liberal Party and the federal coalition. It was approved by the Howard government in 2001, after a fast-tracked environmental assessment, and since it was approved millions of dollars of government subsidies have gone to Tiwi forestry projects, including over $1½ million for road upgrades and $4.3 million for a new port, from the Commonwealth controlled Aboriginals Benefit Account.

Silvertech was taken over by Perth based MIS company Great Southern Plantations in 2005. Since then Great Southern has boasted about how much it is saving by leasing the Tiwi Islanders’ land:

The Silvertech acquisition will provide Great Southern access to extensive plantation land for future projects at a significant discount to current market prices for land in Great Southern’s traditional plantation regions.

Great Southern is paying the Tiwi traditional owners only $17 a hectare a year for leasing their land, while southern landowners get paid $150 to $350 per hectare per year for the use of their land by similar woodchip plantation companies. What is going on when Great Southern Plantations (a) gets the benefit of managed investment schemes for deforestation and (b) is able to so badly rip off Indigenous people in the Tiwi Islands? That is clearly what is happening.

But it gets even worse. We have discovered that the Tiwi owners were told that the export of the logs from this deforestation would earn them millions of dollars, but the first seven shipments of these logs to Asia incurred a net total loss to the traditional owners of $525,000. How is it possible that the government could approve a project to deforest the Tiwi Islands and sell that timber and that the shipments could lose that amount of money? That just does not seem possible. There is no satisfactory explanation that has ever been given as to how so many shipments could be sold at a loss to the traditional owners. Somebody made a lot of money out of that, but it was not the traditional owners. It is unclear whether the companies involved in the export and sale of these logs—that is, Pentarch Forest Products and Stratus Shipping—also made a loss or made a profit. There needs to be a full investigation not only of the environmental breaches of the conditions set down under the EPBC Act, because we know that there have been serious breaches, but of how there has been such gross mismanagement of this project that the traditional owners have made a loss when they were led to believe that they would benefit from the logging operation in the Tiwi Islands.

That is the main point that I want to make today in relation to this project. At least 2,000 Australians have invested with Great Southern through the MIS and believe they are doing something in relation to wood production. Great Southern needs to explain to their very own investors how they have got mixed up in actively pursuing a deforestation project to the detriment of the traditional owners of the Tiwi Islands. More particularly, we want from the government a clear statement that they will not continue to approve any further deforestation in the Tiwis, that they will not allow this application for expanded logging of up to 80,000 hectares.

There have been some excellent media reports on what is going on up there. The Tiwi women have put out a petition and in that petition they made it very clear that what they wanted was an investigation and they wanted the logging to cease. What they have discovered is that they have been completely misled, that they have been ripped off and that the people making the money are these forest companies. Indeed, the company that was supposed to be to set up to represent them is full of people who do not represent them. For example, the board of this company, which is meant to be representing the traditional owners, includes John Hicks as the company secretary and, as I have indicated, he is a non-Indigenous executive officer. There is also the director, Bill Headley, of Great Southern plantations. So the company is on the board of the company representing the traditional owners. That is a gross conflict of interest.

I believe this would not occur anywhere else in Australia. In fact, it would not be occurring if this area were easily accessible. I think it is a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’: because it is the Tiwi Islands, because people are not going there regularly either as tourists or as businesspeople or in any other capacity, this is going on behind the scenes. I think it is about time that people look at the corporate social responsibility and ethical responsibility of companies like Great Southern and the banks that are financing some of these operations.

More particularly, I would like to know from the government how the investigation of the breaches of the conditions set down under EPBC is progressing and whether any charges are going to be laid in relation to that investigation. When is the community going to know where that investigation is up to?

Secondly, I would like a commitment from the Commonwealth to stand by its Sydney declaration and its global initiative on deforestation and to stop deforestation in the Tiwis. How ridiculous is Australia going to look, how hypocritical, at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in Bali later this year, when the community groups get up and point out to all the other APEC leaders, and indeed to all of the signatories of the UNFCCC, that Australia is saying to Indonesia ‘Stop deforestation’, saying to PNG ‘Stop deforestation’, but right next door in the Tiwi Islands the Australian government is not only encouraging and approving the conversion of native vegetation but it is also subsidising it—and subsidising it directly as well as through the MIS. That is not going to be something that the rest of the world is going to overlook in Bali. It is going to significantly diminish Australia’s standing.

The fact is you cannot get away with this. A simple search on Google Earth will take you to where Great Southern have cleared the buffer zones to that rainforest patch of refugia.

We have to make sure that this stops and stops soon. I am calling on the government and the minister for the environment to become serious about what is happening on the Tiwi Islands, and I am calling on Great Southern to explain themselves, because they are a company which is trading on goodwill and trading on being ‘out of sight, out of mind’, and this cannot continue. Some scrutiny needs to be given. Where did the money go? Who benefited from these shipments, since the traditional owners ended up losing money on the logging of their own forest to the detriment of the wellbeing of that community?