Farmers take vegetation fight to the streets of Bundaberg
"DON'T Trad on me!” came the cry down Bourbong St today as around 100 farmers fired up to protest against legislation changes by the state government that they feel will put Australia's food bowl at risk.
They marched from Buss Park to rally outside Bundaberg MP and Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, Leanne Donaldson's office.
The chant was a dig at Deputy Premier Jackie Trad, who introduced the bill this year to tighten "loopholes” created by the Newman Government to the Vegetation Management Act.
While both farmers and environmental campaigners agree on one thing - that they are tired of the issue being a political football - AgForce general president Grant Maudsley said they now had no choice but to get political.
"If the government doesn't want to listen, we've got to do something about it,” Mr Maudsley said.
"If Leanne doesn't stand up for us, it's very disappointing.
"If she's responsible for driving up food prices in Queensland, she's very remiss of her duty.”
Leanne Donaldson was at the Ekka in Brisbane, so was unable to meet the protestors outside her office.
"I have been speaking with farmers, and their representatives in AgForce and QFF about vegetation management for months and will continue to do so,” Ms Donaldson said in a statement.
"I understand it is a contentious issue but the Palaszczuk Government took restoration of its vegetation management legislation to the election last year.
"Here in Bundaberg we have a lot to lose from damage to the Great Barrier Reef caused by man-made climate change and run off.
"We have seen land clearing increase by 46% in Reef catchments areas since 2011-2012.”
The changes include extending the zones that the laws encompass to include all six of the state's Reef catchment areas. The "self-assessable” codes for landholders introduced by the Newman government will be retained (Note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the self-assessable codes would be removed).
Among the most controversial changes is the move to reverse the onus of proof, with landholders required to prove they did not clear land illegally, rather than the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries having to prove they did.
"It means they are guilty until proven innocent,” AgForce media officer Neville Galloway said.
AgForce policy advisor Greg Leach said regulations "had been moving left and right” for years.
"There have been 38 changes to the Vegetation Management Act since 1999,” Dr Leach said.
"Landholders are now starting to dig their heels in and say this is too much.
"When there's so much uncertainty in the legislation, it cripples and paralyses decision making on the farm.”
A Queensland government science department study on land cover found 296,000 hectares of land was cleared in 2014-15, more than a third of it in Great Barrier Reef catchments.
But many farmers said toughening up on tree clearing was too simplistic.
Bronwyn and Tex Burnham, who run cattle on Boogal station near Eidsvold, believe they know their land better than anyone and said they had found grasses more effective at preventing erosion in some areas than trees.
"We pride ourselves on having the experience to manage our land,” Mr Burnham said. "We don't like that they can just make laws in Brisbane without consulting us.”
"Nobody wants to clear every tree in sight,” Mrs Burnham said.
"A lot of areas have regrowth problems and we've always felt that grass is better at controlling erosion than trees,” she said. "We're only 1 or 2% of the population. It's only because of us that nobody else has to worry about where their food comes from. The government needs to stand up.”
Mr Burnham said landholders are determined to do the best for their land.
"Without our land, we have nothing,” he said.
"We're not going to do anything that's detrimental to the land. Whatever we do, we do it by learning from experience, and from previous generations.”
Bundaberg Landcare president Mike Johnson said many farmers had a "narrow view” of the legislation.
The rally also attracted members of the fishing and irrigation industries who were protesting against changes to fishing laws and rising electricity prices.
Facts on the changes (Source: Queensland Government)
Clearing for agricultural expansion and development will still be able to be undertaken through a range of mechanisms including:
Self-Assessable Codes, under which smaller parcels of land can be cleared for numerous agricultural purposes
- State Development and Public Works Organisation Act 1971, under which large agriculture projects can be assessed and approved
- Cape York Peninsular Heritage Act 2007, under which approval to clear indigenous land for agriculture can be granted.
Statewide Landcover and Trees Study 2014-15 facts:
- 91% of the 296,000 hectares cleared in 2014-15 is being used for pasture, not for cropping.
- In 2014-15, 71% of clearing was of vegetation that has not been cleared since 1988 or never cleared.
Farmers 'only see as far as the fence': Landcare
ON THE flip side to the farmers' march is what Bundaberg Landcare calls the "appalling tree clearing regime of the LNP Newman government era”.
The environmental group supports the reintroduction of tree clearing laws in Queensland.
President Mike Johnson said the changes proposed were "long overdue”.
"It's basically been a clearing free for all,” Mr Johnson said. from a site in Gin Gin.
"Here in Gin Gin, some guys thought these laws might affect them and they have gone and cleared all these old gum trees - which may not have even been affected by the changes,” he said.
"It's misinformation by AgForce; it's a fear campaign.”
Bundaberg Landcare placed a submission citing the clearing of 12ha of protected vegetation at Coonarr earlier this year.
"Those who are protesting these changes are not seeing the big picture,” he said.
"There are good landholders, but many of them treat rivers and creeks running to the reef as some kind of drainage ditch.
"They only see as far as their fence - they don't see any further.
"Daily, across the globe, we clear and degrade over 100,000 hectares of land whilst adding 220,000 people to the planet.
"So is this really about farmers rights to clear, or the very survival of our oxygen supply and our future?”
An investigation by the World Wildlife Fund found that since the Newman government relaxed the laws, 125,000 hectares of previously protected remnant vegetation had since been re-mapped to remove all clearing controls had become under threat..
"Trees are like a big water machine and if you've got a forest, it attracts rain,” Mr Johnson said.
"If you talk to old blokes in the region they will tell you that since (a large amount of clearing) at Goodwood, there hasn't been as much rain in that area,” he said.