Technological advances and a global trade in carbon will provide greater opportunities in northern Australia.
IT is the year 2030 and the world’s population is approaching 9 billion. While Australia’s population has increased by only 8 million in the past 20 years, nearly 6 billion people live in neighbouring Asian and South Pacific nations.
In northern Australia, the population has increased dramatically, principally as a result of growth in eastern Queensland. Nearly half a million people live along the coastal strip between Townsville and Mossman. Darwin is approaching 250,000 inhabitants in response to its position as a major service centre for the offshore petroleum, gas and mining industries; as a regional hub for Australia’s trade with Asia, and increasingly as the hub for Australia’s defence forces.
Smaller towns such as Katherine, Kununurra and Broome have also expanded significantly.
While indigenous people make up less than 3 per cent of Australia’s population in 2030, they comprise nearly 50 per cent of the population in northern Australia. In some areas, such as the Kimberley, indigenous people represent nearly 60 per cent of the population.
In 2030, the people of the north no longer suffer from the same tyrannies of distance experienced by their forebears. Telecommunications infrastructure has improved dramatically in the past 20 years, such that 90 per cent of the population has access to digital fibre optics facilities. Every resident of northern Australia has high-speed access to the internet. These technological innovations have dramatically altered the way business is done in the north and overcome many of the economic, social and geographic barriers of the past.
The effects of climate change have made the north hotter and largely drier, although in some places, wetter. Overall, there is less water available than in 2000. The region is subject to more extremes of weather, with the intensity of severe floods, tropical storms and cyclones in 2030 exceeding 20th century averages. The sea level has risen, on average, by 0.3 metres since the year 2000, inundating low-lying areas such as Kakadu’s World Heritage-listed wetlands, and increasing the vulnerability of infrastructure such as ports and processing facilities on Cape York and in the Kimberley.
In the year 2030 the structure of the northern Australian economy has altered significantly when compared with that of the turn of the century. Two-thirds of the people in the north are employed in the oil and gas, mining, conservation and land and sea management, agriculture, fisheries and the tourism and recreation sectors.
New oil and gas industries in the Kimberley and bauxite developments on Cape York are contributing to export income, as well as contributing materially to reducing indigenous disadvantage through education, training and employment.
Only 25 per cent of the population in northern Australia in 2030 is employed in the government, health and education sectors – a far cry from approximately 40 per cent in 2000.
In 2000, government administration and defence, health and community services and education accounted for nearly 65 per cent of indigenous employment in northern Australia. In 2030, this has been reduced to 25 per cent.
Joint-venture business development activities initiated by indigenous people utilising traditional knowledge and cultural assets are thriving.
Increased diversity of business development opportunities and employment also contribute. More effective use is being made of resources for training and education and, most importantly, for new ventures on Aboriginal land. These ventures are based largely on the global trade in carbon and have contributed significantly to reducing indigenous disadvantage and ‘Closing the Gap’.
The gross value of production in 2030 in northern Australia is now approaching $35 billion; more than double the value recorded in 2000.
Tourism, mining, marine-based and environmental service industries now account for 90 per cent of GVP, compared with about 60 per cent in 2000.
Targeted and coordinated investments in road, airports and other essential infrastructure have enabled the tourism industry to broaden its attractiveness and to grow across a diverse range of market and ‘experience’ segments. This has also generated significant and sustainable indigenous opportunity and employment.
The emergence of a global trade in carbon has enabled northern Australia to utilise the carbon storage capabilities of its extensive savannah landscapes. The carbon market has generated significant new revenue streams, creating enduring employment for traditional owners and providing diversification opportunities for primary producers.
The north is also playing its role in the global greenhouse gas emissions reduction effort. Australian LNG exports are enabling countries to access lower emission gas-fired electricity generation.
In the year 2030, GVP from agricultural production in the north has increased by 40 per cent from 2000. The northern pastoral industry has almost doubled in productivity (and up to four times in some areas) as improved technologies and flexible lease arrangements have allowed enterprises to diversify and intensify production. At the same time the industry is contributing to better environmental outcomes through improved management and stewardship partnerships. Owner/operator families continue to be an important part of the pastoral industry and the social landscape of the north more generally. The success of business development and management support programs focused on the pastoral industry has significantly improved the viability of a large number of indigenous pastoral properties. Acquisitions initiated in the 1990s mean that half of all pastoral holdings in northern Australia are owned and managed by indigenous Australians.
While no new dams have been built in northern Australia since 2005, irrigation continues to play an important role. Water use efficiency on irrigation farms has, on average, increased by 300 per cent since 2000 through the adoption of advanced water delivery technologies and new crop varieties. All irrigation farms now use a ‘closed system’ approach, where excess water no longer drains into aquifers and rivers. Nutrient and pesticide use has also dramatically declined.
Large numbers of enterprises have implemented small-scale irrigation systems that have carefully combined arable land with available water. These new ‘mosaic systems’ have allowed landholders to increase overall unit productivity and better manage risk. Intensification of pastoralism has enabled large areas of pastoral land to be taken out of production and managed for a range of other cultural, conservation and economic activities (such as carbon storage and land stewardship).
International and national recognition of the global significance of the natural and cultural landscapes of northern Australia has resulted in an expansion of the conservation estate and the conservation effort across all land tenures.
An ecosystem services economy based on payments for ongoing management of biodiversity is now a mainstream part of the regional economy. As a result of these efforts on both public and private lands, in 2030 over a third of the north is now within the National Reserve System, thereby making a profound contribution to restoring the health of Australia’s unique biodiversity assets.
All of these transformations were enabled by a series of key reforms to land tenure in the north. Consistency has been achieved between leasehold and perpetual title lands across all three northern jurisdictions, thereby enabling greater flexibility of land use on leasehold land, including cropping, tourism, environmental stewardship and Indigenous cultural uses. Minimum requirements for stocking rates on leasehold land were also removed and assistance provided to enable the destocking of marginal pastoral land.
Private wildlife sanctuaries have been established in some locations in partnership with pastoralists and provide ranger jobs and income for indigenous traditional owners.
In 2030, indigenous people are central in land and water planning, management and decision making, reflecting the new demographic, economic and political reality in the north. Indigenous aspirations and rights are now fully recognised as a result of the integration of native title and non-indigenous land use objectives.
A significant feature of these reforms was the change in emphasis from native title being seen in terms of real estate issues based on Western notions of exclusive possession, to one of coexistence where indigenous rights are an accepted part of all lands and their use in northern Australia. Contested native title recognition, which led to extensive litigation in the 20 years following Mabo around legal concepts such as extinguishment, gave way to values of mutual respect, dialogue and inclusion.
In 2030, indigenous and non-indigenous interests are also closer to effective integration in land and water planning and management practices through multiple-use strategies for indigenous and non-indigenous controlled land. These strategies not only deliver economic viability, but also parity between indigenous tenure and management systems and non-indigenous institutions. Indigenous social and community issues are now also explicitly included in land and water planning and management activities.
n This is an edited extract from the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce’s final report on sustainable development of northern Australia, released this month. Taskforce chairman Joe Ross said this vision was just one description of what northern Australia might look like in 2030 and had been offered to stimulate discussion.