10/10/2012 - 10:55

Bureaucracy a blight on Pilbara potential

10/10/2012 - 10:55


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Pilbara pastoralists need to be able to diversify their production options.

Pilbara pastoralists need to be able to diversify their production options.

WHY are so many things that should be relatively simple to achieve made so difficult?

I was buoyed to see Rio Tinto finally announce that it had started its much-talked-about irrigation project east of Tom Price, using flows from the massive dewatering process at its Marandoo mine site to grow hay, native plants needed for rehabilitation and, no doubt, other horticultural pursuits.

The hay will be used as feed for cattle on the stations the company manages as part of its mineral extraction business.

In fact, Rio Tinto owns six pastoral stations in the Pilbara, five of which it manages itself. Those five cover 1.5 million hectares and run 25,000 head of cattle.

Does Rio Tinto want to be a player in the agricultural sector? Probably not. Its cattle stations are a by-product of mining; Rio probably found it easier to buy the existing pastoral leases and keep them operating on some form of commercial basis than try to work around them.

As for irrigation, Rio and other miners have had to flush millions of litres of potable water out into the environment for decades as they dealt with an unlikely obstacle to mining in a desert. It has always made sense to do something with the water but the flows, though at times massive, are irregular and isolated from places that need it most, such as towns.

An obvious answer is to grow crops or trees with the water, preferably close to a mine because that requires less infrastructure.

But the 850ha irrigation farm it has started – the Hamersley Agricultural Project – has taken five years to plan. I’d suspect that is an understatement; I’ll bet Rio has been thinking about it, at least at an unofficial level, for a lot longer than that.

The problem the mining giant would have encountered, and appears to have overcome, is the massive bureaucracy that stops most forms of innovation in Western Australia’s remote regions.

That an irrigation project was allowed at all – despite millions of litres of water going to waste (a perverse travesty) – is a minor miracle. Perhaps it was just the scale of the wasted water that convinced the state to approve the idea.

Plenty of other pastoralists would like to diversify their operations but, generally, state governments have frowned upon irrigation, preferring to see graziers living hand to mouth instead of experimenting and finding out what may flourish.

It is hard to understand this. While the scale of the problem might not be so huge, there is plenty of water that goes to waste on traditional pastoral stations, which have unstoppable artesian bores running all year whether their cattle can drink the water or not. Why is this any less wasteful?

There are pockets of irrigation near Broome and in other places in the Kimberley. In general, history shows that state governments have been lukewarm in supporting such projects and those that exist tend to be on freehold land – often small, historical accidents – rather than the leases that cover most of the northern two thirds of the state.

This aversion to development is troubling, especially from governments that have embarked on irrigation mega-projects such as the Ord River Scheme, which was a white elephant for most of its 40-year life.

The aims of the average pastoralist would be far less ambitious. They like to feed their animals and diversify their incomes – providing a hedge against climatic and market variations that can hurt a business reliant on one product and the weather to deliver it.

Pastoralists would be far better placed to test crops for the local and foreign markets, offering products that are either hard to grow locally or out of the usual seasonal-supply period. 

Having pastoralists do this work not only spreads the risk across numerous potential locations but also puts farming in the hands of farmers. That sounds more sensible than having miners do it; not that I oppose Rio Tinto having a crack.

Imagine if pastoralists had been doing this for 40 or 50 years, which is the period that I am aware that this has been talked about and, occasionally, acted upon. 

They would be far less susceptible to the capricious politics of Canberra, where people like Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig and his bureaucrats can shut the live cattle or sheep industry down in a heartbeat and destroy livelihoods. You almost think they would like to remove these self-employed individualists from the remote reaches of our state and let it become a completely uneconomic backwater.

Ironically, many of the hurdles to this kind of development, such as environmental concerns, are ridiculous. The Kimberley is already seeded from west to east with introduced grass species to feed the ranging cattle, which, again, do plenty of additional damage. 

It is likely that less reliance of cattle would allow pastoralists to stock their land more judiciously, allocating small parts of their holdings for intensive farming to take the pressure off the wider reaches of their property. Only a pastoralist turning a decent profit can truly turn their mind to conservation and, again, who better to do that than someone living on the property, rather than some public servant in a distant capital?

Rio Tinto’s project won’t have been cheap. It has 35 kilometres of pipe, 22 pumps, and a host of additional infrastructure; and let us not forget the additional administrative overhead, including five years of development before payback.

Few pastoralists can afford that today, which is why there is so much talk of needing foreign investment. Arguably, various state and federal governments saw-off the first wave of attempted foreign investment in agriculture in the Kimberley in the 1970s when it made life simply too hard for an American venture led by Jack Fletcher, about which I have written before.

Not everyone needs such large-scale investment at the start, however. Pastoralists, if allowed, could start smaller. Furthermore, pastoral companies might be struggling today but there have been plenty of occasions when the profits were high; it was then that they ought to have been encouraged to retain some of that profit for investment in alternative sources of income. Instead they were given no option but to focus on the monoculture of cattle, in WA’s north, and sheep, in the middle of the state.

I have never understood why our pastoralists have been so corralled into concentrating on one particular product for a limited number of markets.

The hope I see with Rio Tinto’s project is that a precedent has been set and other pastoralists can get on with the job of diversifying their operations and giving the north a more robust economic outlook.

• mark.pownall@wabn.com.au



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