Traditional Owners from across 20,000 square kilometres of the Northern Territory have today travelled to Canberra to ask for protection of the Roper River from threats posed by new water intensive industries in the catchment and to be at the forefront of decision-making for the river.
Representatives of communities across the catchment will present a 13-metre hand-painted cultural map and associated statement, which has been signed by hundreds of remote community residents, to the Federal Parliament.
There are proposals to take hundreds of thousands of litres of surface and groundwater from rivers including the Roper for big industries including cotton, fracking and mining. The cotton industry has flagged 100,000 hectares will be bulldozed for crops in the Northern Territory by 2030, which could lead to a Murray Darling style disaster. Traditional Owners have not been properly consulted about these plans and their cultural knowledge and community aspirations have not been considered.
“We’ve got so many important springs to protect,” Alawa Traditional Owner Naomi Wilfred said about her Country near Minyerri.
“We made that map to show Canberra about the water connection. The threat we’re worrying about is cotton is coming in and I think we’ll have no water left. We want to tell them to stop taking water and start listening to the rightful Traditional Owners.
“We want to see this river protected for our future generations.”
The river catchment – which covers an area about the size of Tasmania – boasts some of the last intact native savanna and free-flowing tropical rivers in Australia, but the future health of the river is under immediate threat.
The delegation is calling on the Australian Government to acknowledge their Indigenous water rights, to implement proper consultation mechanisms about major water decisions, and for the whole of the river catchment – including important cultural and dreaming sites – to be properly protected.
Artist Simon Normand, who worked with communities to create the map, said:
“This map is an Aboriginal way of showing their world to an outside audience.”
“It is the culmination of 18 months’ collaboration with communities in south-east Arnhem Land, who are extremely worried about their river system being irreversibly destroyed.
“The map draws on more than 25 years of working with elders who want their songlines preserved.”
Mitch Hart from the Pew Charitable Trusts, who supported the delegation to travel to Canberra, said:
“Water hungry industries, such as industrialised cotton production, are setting up shop along rivers like the Roper – despite the damage caused by over-extraction, bulldozing and pollution.
“Communities that live along the Roper and rely on it for survival are extremely concerned about its future. The Federal Government has an opportunity to respond to this powerful message from Traditional Owners and support communities who rely on these rivers.
“We cannot let mistakes made in the Murray Darling be repeated on the Roper.”
The map will be officially unveiled at an event in the Mural Hall of Australian Parliament at 3.30pm on Tuesday 28 November 2023. The event will also feature a cultural performance by songmen from Numbulwar.
Notes for editors:
Environmental groups have today expressed outrage at the Northern Territory Government’s plan to support and enable hundreds of thousands of hectares of native vegetation to be bulldozed for water-hungry crops.
The NT government today released their ‘Agribusiness Strategy’, which includes:
The release of the strategy follows a 7.30 Report investigation highlighting repeated instances of alleged unlawful land clearing in the Northern Territory, an investigation by Minister Tanya Plibersek about the allegations, an increase of 300% in land clearing approvals in the NT, and a Supreme Court challenge to a pastoral land clearing permit by ECNT and the Northern Land Council, which argues that clearing land to grow cotton is not allowed under the Pastoral Land Act because it is not a “pastoral purposes”.
The Northern Territory is the only jurisdiction in the country with no specific native vegetation laws and no overarching biodiversity conservation strategy to protect ecosystems already collapsing.
The Environment Centre NT is calling on Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek to intervene to stop rampant biodiversity destruction by the Northern Territory and ensure proper consultation with Traditional Owners. They are also calling for new NT-specific nature laws that protect, rather than destroy, our precious ecosystems.
The cotton target comes as representatives from the agricultural industry gather in Darwin for the 2023 Northern Australia Food Futures Conference.
Executive Director, Kirsty Howey:
“The NT Government have finally put in writing what we’ve long suspected – that they have a long-term plan to actively support a huge expansion of large-scale cotton production which will fuel the biodiversity crisis while our ecosystems are literally collapsing.”
“Australians should be alarmed about today’s announcement. For a long time, we’ve seen an ineffective, opaque, and ill-equipped system that has been only too happy to rubber stamp permits for bulldozing – all the while riding rough-shod over the views and rights of local communities and Traditional Owners.”
“Now they’ve gone one step further – pre-emptively enabling the cotton industry to expand with even less scrutiny, whilst preparing to shield themselves from future legal challenges.”
“Politicians should be standing up for our intact rivers and savannas, not facilitating their destruction.”
“The Northern Territory’s savanna is a national treasure and the world’s largest remaining intact tropical woodland – but it’s at risk of being bulldozed by cotton producers.”
“Big cotton devastated the Murray Darling Basin – we don’t want to make the same mistakes
here,” said Ms Howey.
Released today, the Mirages in the North: Ending the Northern Myth report has outlined systemic problems with the Australian Government’s program of funding large-scale irrigation projects in the country’s north.
The report, which reviewed expected performance of water resource investments under the Northern Development Program (NDP) against stated program targets and beneficiaries, uncovered no evidence to support that the focus on large-scale irrigation projects have achieved its overarching objectives.
“Northern Australia is a unique region renowned for its outstanding and globally significant natural and cultural values. Central to many of these unique values are the intact rivers and floodplains of the north and their boom-and-bust cycles of flooding and dry,” said the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Deputy Director Tim Nicol.
“Unfortunately, these same rivers and lands have also long been viewed as economic resources to exploit for industrial food and fibre agricultural projects. We have seen spending by successive governments into large-scale irrigation projects in the north with little to show.”
“It’s welcoming to see the Government commit to a review of its 2015 White Paper on Northern Development – this is timely, especially in the face of increased climate change and threats to biodiversity and nature.”
“We know that few large-scale irrigation projects in the north have shown positive financial returns – most indeed end up losing money, and provide little public benefit on social, economic, or employment indicators. For example, the Auditor General of WA found the 2012 Ord River expansion cost $6m per job created,” said Mr Nicol.
“Australia’s north needs investment, but this must be done in such a way that it can generate benefits for communities and support their own objectives. The best way to achieve this is through a process that truly builds on the unique natural, cultural, and social assets of the north. Ultimately, that means ensuring the future health of the rivers that run Australia’s north.”
“It is time to end the northern myth and replace it with an evidence-based development strategy that positions Australia’s north in a modern, sustainable economy,” said Mr Nicol.
The full Mirages in the North report can be downloaded at territoryrivers.org.au/mirages-in-the-north
Conservation advocates are calling for federal intervention to protect native savanna and rivers in the Top End following national revelations that the Northern Territory’s existing environmental protection regime may be failing to provide proper oversight.
“The public is rightly shocked by the media coverage of satellite pictures showing what appears to be unpermitted clearing and regulatory inaction on land clearing, right next to iconic rivers such as the Daly River,” said Pew Charitable Trusts’ Northern Territory manager Mitch Hart.
“The activity – revealed on ABC TV’s 730 current affairs program this week – raises questions about the Northern Territory Government’s capacity to protect our environment, culture, fishing and the lifestyle which Territorians value highly.
“We welcome the strong concern raised by the Federal Labor Government Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, who calls for a stop to unauthorised land clearing, as well as the intervention by independent Senator David Pocock and the call for an Inquiry by Senator Sarah Hanson-Young of the Australian Greens.
“This is a key test of whether the Northern Territory Government can meet its responsibility to properly look after the Territory’s environment. We need properly enforced environmental standards that actually protect our rivers, floodplains and savannahs. First and foremost, the government must act to stop the rush to bulldoze Australian bush for cotton crops,” Mr Hart said
“We need to approach river management in a completely different way to ensure that we don’t repeat the dire mistakes made in rivers elsewhere in Australia. That means involving communities in developing management plans and mapping out new pathways for protection right across the Territory – using local Indigenous knowledge incorporating best science around water flows, native species’ requirements and climatic change impacts.
“Industrial cotton farming is not compatible with the sustainable management and protection of the Territory’s intact tropical river systems – some of the last in the world,” he said.
Note: The report – A Fork in the River – the consequences of a major new cotton industry in the Northern Territory, warns that the establishment of a major cotton industry in the Northern Territory could jeopardise Top End river systems, threatening their unique biodiversity and putting at risk the NT’s lucrative fishing and tourism industries.
The Fyles Government’s plan to allow big business to take more water through the controversial practice of extracting life giving flood waters could be devastating for Top End river systems
NT residents and conservationists have issued a warning to the Fyles Government that a new draft government policy to allow surface and flood water to be taken from rivers puts at risk the health of the Territory’s rivers and the people and nature that depend upon them.
The NT Government on Tuesday released the Draft Surface Water Take – Wet Season Flow Policy for public consultation.
This policy opens up the floodgates to dams and sanctions industry taking more water from our rivers and floodplains, according to Territory Rivers: Keep ‘Em Flowing – an alliance of non-government organisations, local communities and scientists working to safeguard the health of Top End rivers.
“Building dams on floodplains to take water in a practice called ‘surface water harvesting’ has been plagued by regulatory failures and has had devastating effects on rivers in the Murray Darling Basin. Why would we want to repeat these mistakes on our Territory rivers?” said Sasha Pavey from Territory Rivers: Keep ‘em Flowing.
“Taking any additional amount of water from the NT’s rivers and floodplains, whether it’s 5%, 20% or any other amount, risks the health of these systems. The science is very clear on this.”
Adelaide River floodplains (above).
Mark Casey, Nauiyu elder who lives on the banks of the Daly River, said:
“Those of us who live alongside these rivers know that healthy floods equal healthy rivers. Wet season river flows and floodplains power the natural cycle of our river systems.
I’m very concerned about the future of our rivers and their floodplains – especially if we see the government allow big business, like cotton, to take billions of litres of extra water that flows in the Wet season.
We can’t allow this ‘surface water take – wet season flows’ to go ahead – whatever they want to call it, it allows for more water to be taken from our river systems. We need to look after our rivers to make sure they’re here for everyone to enjoy in the future. Territorians want our government to get this right from the start.”
Sasha Pavey, from Territory Rivers: Keep ‘em Flowing, said:
“Our rivers are already under pressure. Taking any additional amount of water from the NT’s rivers and floodplains will have disastrous impacts on the future health of these systems – the science is very clear on this. This policy does nothing more than sanction the extraction of more water from our rivers and floodplains. The cotton industry wants more water.
If dams or other diversions are built that stop billions of litres of water from flowing in our rivers and aquifers we put endangered species, tourism businesses, and a multi-million dollar fishing industry at risk.
We’ve seen the disastrous impacts when the promises of ‘floodplain harvesting’ go wrong on the Murray-Darling River. It would be a huge mistake to repeat them in the Territory.
Communities are calling for governments to reset their thinking on rivers – to look at these systems as a whole, to listen to communities on the ground and do more to protect rivers for the long-term.
This starts by ensuring that no extra water is allowed to be taken from our river systems, a commitment to work with communities to build resilient protections and a guarantee to Territorians that our rivers and floodplains will remain healthy into the future.”
Rob McBride, a grazier from NSW, also expressed his concerns:
“There is no doubt that the same cotton industry that has wreaked havoc on the Murray-Darling is spreading north and will push for plans that destroy Territory rivers, floodplains and financial future.
Our family has been sustainably farming for 160 plus years – we respect the river and try to work in partnership with nature. But we’ve also seen the cotton industry explode further upstream, in the process snuffing out livelihoods and communities who act with integrity.
I’d urge anyone in the Northern Territory to look at the total destruction of the Darling River here in NSW, and act early to stop the cotton industry from killing your rivers. If not for yourself, for future generations who may want to walk in your footsteps.”
Environmental groups have called for greater protection of Northern Territory rivers, following a decision by the Northern Territory Government to grant a retrospective land clearing approval for a large cotton gin facility near Katherine.
Construction at Tarwoo started months before the proponents obtained planning and environmental approvals. Despite requests from local residents and environmental groups, the NT Environment Protection Authority (EPA) decided not to undertake a full environmental assessment into the direct and indirect impacts of the facility.
After discovering the land clearing through satellite imagery, the Territory Rivers alliance submitted a formal complaint to the Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security (DEPWS), asking for a full investigation of the unpermitted clearing.
“Despite the alarm bell being sounded and an ongoing investigation by DEPWS, the NT Government still approved the clearing. You have to ask the question – why are the cotton industry being allowed to charge on without observing the rules others have to follow?” Co-director of the Environment Centre NT (ECNT) Kirsty Howey said.
“Territorians are rightly concerned about the future of this industry’s impact on our rivers and floodplains. The proponents of this cotton gin failed to wait for key approval processes and began clearing and building the facility, thereby putting pressure on decision-makers to keep things moving according to the industry’s schedule. The NT Government is rewarding non-compliance by granting a retrospective clearing approval. This is sending a clear message that some individuals will be allowed to break the rules without any consequences,” said Ms Howey.
“More than ever we need strong safeguards to protect the health of our rivers and landscapes, but instead we’re seeing industry charge ahead, facilitated by slipshod regulation and retrospective approvals.”
“As the rush for cotton to feed this gin intensifies, further pressure will be placed on communities, fishing economies and iconic rivers like the Daly and Roper.”
“Hundreds of Territorians have called for the NT Environment Protection Authority to take a closer look at the industrial cotton gin and its downstream impacts on our iconic Top End rivers,” said NT Manager for the Pew Charitable Trusts Mitch Hart.
“This facility will enable industry to clear much larger swathes of land for crops such as cotton. Despite industry claims of ‘dryland’ variants, history has shown that this is the first step towards massive amounts of water being taken from our river systems and floodplains.”
“Right now, we need to see the NT Government doing more to get this right, to listen to communities, protect our fishing and avoid repeating the mistakes of the Murray Darling,” said Mr Hart.
Environmental groups and residents have renewed calls for the Gunner Government to undertake a full environmental assessment of the proposed Tarwoo cotton gin, following revelations the proponents have continued clearing before obtaining planning and environmental approvals.
Satellite imaging* has revealed that vegetation clearing started on the site in July 2021, the same month that proponents applied for planning approval to clear 197 hectares of native vegetation.
Despite residents raising concerns, it appears proponents have continued to clear more land beyond 1ha – the threshold for formal approval – while the application is still under review.
The Territory Rivers alliance has submitted a formal complaint to the Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security this week, asking for a full investigation of the clearing.
Co-director of the Environment Centre NT (ECNT) Kirsty Howey said the proponent’s actions demonstrate a clear need to examine the cumulative impacts of large-scale cotton expansion plans.
“We are calling on the Department to investigate and to issue an enforcement notice to prevent further clearing while the application is still under assessment.
“Addressing this issue immediately is critical to preventing a precedent in clearing native vegetation while public approval processes are ongoing. As the rush for cotton to feed this gin intensifies, this is not a precedent that we want in place.”
“A comprehensive environmental assessment of this facility by the NT EPA is more important than ever,” said Ms Howey.
Long-term Edith Farms resident Lori Martin lives next door to the cotton gin site and said the government needed to send a strong signal that this kind of behaviour is not acceptable.
“It appears there’s already been a significant amount of clearing. How can we trust the cotton industry in the future if they are steamrolling forward before they’ve been given any approvals for this gin? It shows a blatant disregard for communities who may be affected and the environment.”
“These rushed actions are a sign of things to come. I’m asking the NT Government to take responsibility and look into the full impacts of the gin, the clearing, and the associated cotton industry. Those of us who live with the direct consequences deserve to know what we’re being asked to live with, now and into the future,” said Ms Martin.
*Sentinel 2-L2A satellite data provided by Sinergise Laboratory for geographical information systems Ltd, EO Browser (showing clearing as of October 28).
Katherine area residents have today called on the Gunner Government to undertake a full environmental assessment of the proposed Tarwoo cotton gin, following revelations that the proponents have started construction before obtaining planning and environmental approvals.
Satellite imaging* has revealed that vegetation clearing started on the site in July 2021, the same month that proponents submitted an application for planning approval to clear 197 hectares of native vegetation.
Long term Edith Farms resident Lori Martin lives next door to the site and said the rush for clearing is disrespectful to the communities who will be affected if the gin goes ahead.
“People like myself have been left completely in the dark about how this industrial facility will impact on local residents and the natural environment.
“By forging ahead without waiting for the government to reach a decision on their planning application, industry is showing a blatant disregard for local concerns. There’s too much at stake to rush this,” said Ms Martin.
Katherine resident Shirley Crane expressed her concerns at the impact of a massive increase in cotton cropping on the Daly and Katherine River catchments.
“Our rivers are the lifeblood of our region. Our lifestyles rely on our environment, and it’s critical we look after our rivers in the face of industry expansion plans,” said Ms Crane.
“With industry spruiking the potential for rapid expansion of cotton cropping across the region, many people have been concerned about what this will mean for our rivers.”
“We need the NT Government to urgently intervene to ensure that the cotton gin and associated expansion of cotton cropping don’t go ahead without full environmental assessment and appropriate community consultation,” said Ms Crane.
“Hundreds of Territorians have called on the NT EPA to call in this proposal for a full environmental assessment,” said Pew Charitable Trusts NT Manager Mitch Hart.
“Territorians should be able to trust that our government will do the job of protecting our water and landscapes for the future – and that the cotton industry should do better than this if it wants to earn the community’s trust,” he said.
*Sentinel 2-L2A satellite data provided by Sinergise Laboratory for geographical information systems Ltd, EO Browser (accessed on October 3).
Following recent media comments from cotton industry proponents about works starting on the Tarwoo Cotton Gin and approval of large-scale land clearing applications, environmental groups, local residents and fishing tourism operators have urged the Northern Territory Government not to let the cotton industry take hold in the Top End without proper scrutiny.
Territorians value our healthy rivers and savanna landscapes and the role they play in supporting our iconic fishing, tourism businesses and for our lifestyle. With a cotton gin on the horizon, these applications are a sign of things to come and highlight the importance of the NT Government taking active steps to get this right from the start.
Co-director of the Environment Centre NT (ECNT) Kirsty Howey
Co-director of the Environment Centre NT (ECNT) Kirsty Howey said the rush to feed the proposed gin is already well underway with several land clearing applications submitted.
“This is just the beginning. We’ve just seen the Gunner Government wave through its first “streamlined” pastoral land clearing approval to bulldoze nearly one thousand hectares of savanna bushland at Claravale Station, despite Territorians sounding the alarm about the impacts on important populations of threatened species such as the Gouldian Finch, ghost bat and partridge pigeon,” she said.
“Last week we welcomed the news that plans to clear thousands of hectares at Ucharonidge Station had been referred to the NT Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) for environmental assessment, but there is a clear need to examine the cumulative impacts of large scale cotton expansion plans.”
NT Manager, Pew Charitable Trusts, Mitch Hart
NT Manager, Pew Charitable Trusts, Mitch Hart said big questions remained over plans for a cotton gin, which could lead to billions of litres of water being taken from our floodplains and rivers.
“Territorians have heard the warnings from communities in the Murray Darling who have witnessed first-hand the impact that large-scale cotton crops have on river catchments, corroding public trust and destroying local communities.”
“We remain concerned at the prospect of a rapidly expanding cotton industry, with proponents telling the media that construction of the cotton gin will start this month. It’s imperative that the NT EPA immediately investigate the gin proposal including a full environmental assessment of indirect and cumulative impacts.”
Edith Farms Road resident, Lori Martin
Long term Edith Farms resident Lori Martin lives adjacent to the Tarwoo site and says she has been left in the dark over the proponent’s efforts – if any – to minimise potential impacts on her health if the cotton gin goes ahead.
“The potential impacts on my health, air quality, pollution, water resources, local environment and my quality of life is causing me serious anxiety,” Ms Martin said.
“This application provides no clarity as to what concrete steps would be put in place to avoid, mitigate and manage any likely impacts on water consumption from aquifers that are shared by Edith Farm resident’s bores. That’s before we even get to the potential downstream water impacts.”
Daly River Tourism Operator, Adrian Koenen
Long term tourism operator and fisherman at Woolianna on Daly, Adrian Koenen, says there has been little consultation with tourism operators or fishing groups and scarce information from the NT Government.
“The Daly River is widely regarded as the premier Barramundi sports fishing location in Australia. Tourists from far and wide travel to the NT to try and catch one of the Daly’s legendary Barramundi and explore one of the most beautiful and healthy rivers in Northern Australia.”
“Any new plans for expanding an industry with risks like cotton needs to stack up economically, socially and environmentally. Without that we risk putting Territory jobs, businesses and lifestyle at risk.”
“There needs to be a proper assessment of the Tarwoo cotton gin proposal to firmly establish what building this gin will mean for the health of our rivers. We need to know how increased land clearing, water extraction and applications of agricultural chemicals will affect our rivers and the long standing tourism businesses that rely on them”.
Tourism operators from the Daly River region have written to the Northern Territory Government, outlining their concerns about proposed large-scale cotton operations further upstream.
“The Daly River is widely regarded as the premier Barramundi sports fishing location in Australia. Tourists from far and wide travel to the NT to try and catch one of the Daly’s legendary Barramundi and explore one of the most beautiful and healthy rivers in Northern Australia,” said Harold Sinclair, who operates a recreational fishing business on the Daly River.
“Fishing tournaments held here inject many dollars into the NT economy and significantly boost the Territory’s tourism brand. Business owners like myself have financially invested in developing and growing the infrastructure with a long term operational business plan based on Barramundi fishing.”
NT Minister for Small Business and Recreational Fishing Paul Kirby is today attending a community meeting in Daly River, to address concerns raised by local businesses.
“Many of us have concerns about the increasing demands for water access from large Agribusiness companies seeking to expand operations in the Daly catchment. We are proud hard working business people, we’re creating jobs, and we know what is sustainable here at the Daly,” said Mr Sinclair.
The NT Government is currently developing a surface water policy to allow capture of overland flows. Tourism operators have expressed concerns that this could have impacts for the health of the river, and therefore the many tourism operations and jobs that depend upon it.
“Many years of scientific research has firmly established that a healthy Barramundi Fishery relies on regular wet season floods. These floods create highly productive ecosystems on the floodplains and billabongs and explode with life – particularly the local Barramundi,” said marine ecologist Jason Fowler from Territory Rivers: Keep ‘em Flowing.
“Floodplain ‘harvesting’ of water may have serious effects on the size and duration of floods which would be disastrous for healthy Barramundi stocks and the vibrant tourism industry that relies on them. We shouldn’t be risking Territory jobs, businesses and lifestyle in favour of big business coming up from down South,” said Mr Fowler.