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Thursday, 29 October 2009
Page: 7596

Senator SIEWERT (11:31 AM) —I too would like to address the Forestry and mining operations on the Tiwi Islands report of the Environment, Communications and the Arts References Committee. It was the Greens that referred this matter in the first place because we were concerned about a number of so-called economic development opportunities and projects that were occurring on the Tiwi Islands, the latest being the plantation project. Since it was referred to the committee, as has been highlighted in the chamber, the project has gone into administration and it is posing very serious questions for the people of the Tiwi Islands and for the Tiwi Land Council. I share Senator Crossin’s concerns about the future of that project and its future viability. The Tiwi Land Council is seeking in the vicinity of $80 million to keep it going before it starts to be harvested in 2013.

A lot of evidence was presented to the committee about the plantation: its environmental management; the breaching of environmental conditions, such as plantations being planted in buffers; the advice of the Northern Territory government on the proposal in the first place not being accepted that there should have been bigger buffers; and recommendations that a national park be put in place to protect some of the ecologically important, highly biodiverse areas on the Tiwi Islands. The questions that hang over the project regarding its environmental management vary significantly. From the evidence received during the inquiry, it appears the trees were planted as a result of a management investment scheme to make the project look good—to maximise profits for the company but not necessarily for the Tiwi islanders. There has also been some heavy government financial support for infrastructure for the project—over $4 million from the ABA fund for the establishment of the wharf. We were not able to ascertain exactly how much government funding has gone into supporting that project. We believe there needs to be a forensic audit of the project and a sale of the native forest logs. A number of submissions indicated concern that one of the reasons driving the establishment of the plantation was the clearing of native forest to replace the highly valuable so-called Red Tiwi timber.

It is unclear from the information that we received—there is contradictory evidence and I highlight that in the Greens minority report—whether there was an almost $610,000 loss to Pirntubula, which is the financial arm of the Tiwi Land Council. That was clarified. It was said there was a loss of expectation and that in fact the loss was to the company Sylvatech. Quite frankly, it is unclear what happened there. It is unclear where the logs went, who bought them, what was paid for them and where that money went—whether it went back to the company or whether any money was received for those logs. There is also a large number of logs sitting on the wharf that are unable to be dealt with because of the collapse of the wharf.

We are concerned that the Tiwi islanders may now have to take on responsibility for a plantation that may not be viable. We very seriously doubt that it will provide the financial returns that the Tiwi islanders were led to believe they would receive. A distribution strategy has not yet been devised on how any harvest royalties that come from the plantation will be divided amongst Tiwi islanders. There was a concern raised with us around the distribution of the money received from rents for the plantation.

The Greens very strongly support development of a sustainable economy on the Tiwi Islands—an economy that supports and embraces the Tiwi way of life, that respects their culture and that manages their land and water resources for the future. As a result of what we have learnt from this inquiry, we are not convinced that logging and plantation operations on the Tiwi Islands have been sustainable, have made the best of Tiwi’s natural resources or have delivered an appropriate level of community benefit. The plantations are there. We certainly do not believe there should be an expansion of the plantations, but we believe help needs to be provided to the Tiwis to make sure that they get the maximum benefit and do not bear the losses in what has turned out to be a very unfortunate circumstance where there was overconfidence in investment and the profitability of the development was inflated, and the Tiwis are now having to bear the consequences of what the administrators say is an unviable operation. In other words, the Tiwi islanders are being asked to take over a failed company. What the administrators are saying is that it is financially unviable. That is of very deep concern to us. The environment of the Tiwi, we believe, has been compromised for what is turning out to be an unsustainable and unviable project.

The evidence to the inquiry leads us to believe that the harvesting and exporting of woodchips from Melville Island may not be profitable in the foreseeable future, as it was predicted to be, and that in the meantime it is very clear that additional capital will be required to undertake plantation management. We therefore believe that, if there is any further investment in this area, it has to be on the basis that you are looking at how to make this operation sustainable, how to maximise the employment of the Tiwi people—because, as Senator Crossin said, very few Tiwi people have actually been employed in these operations to date—how to make sure that the area is sustainable, how the environmental conditions put on the operation of the plantation can be maintained and how the area can be rehabilitated.

We believe that the weight of evidence to the inquiry indicated that the environmental management of the forestry project was flawed from the outset, and we believe that avoidable damage has been caused to the natural environment as a result. We have very strong concerns about ensuring that the existing environmental conditions and requirements of the project are met in light of the fact that at the present time it is unviable and it is unclear where the money will come from. It is reported that upwards of $700,000 a year is required to manage the project. Plus I understand that a significant investment in infrastructure is being asked for to enable the export of the woodchips.

We believe that there are economic alternatives available for the Tiwi. We explored some of those in the committee. For example, we felt very strongly that the carbon economy was such an area. We received evidence from people who are working on the mainland about the role that proper management of the area could play in the carbon economy. We also received evidence of successful involvement in the arts industry. There are very good examples from the Tiwi where they are already actively involved, and we believe that needs to be further explored.

We believe that as a matter of priority the federal government and Northern Territory agencies need to work with the Tiwi Land Council and Tiwi Islanders to undertake an adequately resourced research project to determine the most appropriate process for rehabilitating the plantation area as it is harvested. We need to consider the provision of financial and technical support to ensure the full range of employment and rehabilitation opportunities is explored and that ongoing management of the area is undertaken. That is absolutely critical. The plantation is there. We now need to make sure that it is adequately managed. Otherwise, we will have an even bigger problem on our hands in the future.

As I said, we need to ensure that all the existing environmental requirements are met. It is unclear now where the $450,000 that was committed to the ongoing range of projects is going to come from. In estimates I did in fact ask about that and it is unclear where that money is coming from, so that needs to be addressed. We need to make sure that the remediation plan to address the environmental damage caused by the breach of the EPBC conditions of the project is available and implemented. We believe there needs to be a full forensic financial inquiry into the logging and plantation operations to uncover the extent to which taxpayers’ money has already been spent on infrastructure and to look at what happened to the native forest logs that were exported, for which there was basically no financial return to Tiwi Islanders. (Time expired)