06/05/2010 - 00:00

Face off in Kimberley land grab

06/05/2010 - 00:00


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THE pitched battle over the proposed LNG hub at James Price Point near Broome is likely to be just a pre-cursor to a bigger war over development in the Kimberley region – considered the nation’s next frontier by both sides of the political div

Face off in Kimberley land grab

THE pitched battle over the proposed LNG hub at James Price Point near Broome is likely to be just a pre-cursor to a bigger war over development in the Kimberley region – considered the nation’s next frontier by both sides of the political divide.

In almost every respect, the fight over James Price Point is not as simple as traditional stoushes of this nature have been, reflecting the fact that all the forces involved recognise there is a bigger picture.

The LNG hub does not just pit Woodside against a local coalition of conservation forces and indigenous groups.

There are bigger agendas at play, which have: led to the state government driving this development; indigenous groups splitting in their support for the hub; and bigger, multinational environmental players paying much closer attention to what is taking place.

For instance, the Pew Charitable Trusts and The Nature Conservancy, which jointly hold more than $12 billion in assets, have identified the whole of the Kimberley as an area to preserve under its Wild Australia program, which has a major focus on WA because the state has vast areas with high preservation values backed up by a democratic system that better ensures conservation efforts will stick.

At the same time, the Kimberley region is also attracting the interest of a more centralist federal government, which is likely to add another layer of bureaucratic involvement in any decisions that shape the area.

Representing indigenous land holders across the region, the Kimberley Land Council has taken a measured position in the midst of the tectonic plates of conservation and development, backing the James Price Point development but also seeking to extend its influence over the north of the state via the federal government’s Australian Heritage Council assessment process.

The AHC is nearing the end of an eight-week period for comments on its West Kimberley National Heritage Assessment, a process that harks back several years and which covers great swaths of the region (see map). The AHC’s original assessment two years ago identified 200,000 square kilometres of the West Kimberley it deems as potentially having the high threshold values that would qualify it for the national heritage listing.

This review comes after the release of last year’s Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce report, which played down the opportunities in the tropical regions of the nation, including the Kimberley, in part due to the constraints on secure, year-round water availability.

These also precede the WA government’s as-yet-undisclosed Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy, which has been at least a year in the making.

The WA strategy is chaired by former Liberal senator Chris Ellison and was cited by state Environment Minister Donna Faragher as an opportunity to identify issues and approaches that will facilitate economic development, including employment opportunities, while maximising the conservation of natural and cultural values.

The fact that this report has not been released has concerned some observers of what is taking place in the state’s north.

Association of Mining & Exploration Companies CEO Simon Bennison is one who is worried about the posturing over the north and believes the state government needs to act with greater haste.

“You can’t do what the feds are doing and effectively put a dirty great ring around the Kimberley and say ‘that is a conservation estate’,” Mr Bennison said.

“There is a bit of confusion about what is happening; there are state and federal processes overlapping themselves, that is not helping industry.”

“They (the state government) are dragging their feet and will get gazumped by the feds,” said Mr Bennison who sees the review process as far from transparent.

Inquiries by WA Business News have found that submissions to the AHC will remain secret.

Like others, Mr Bennison describes the Kimberley as the state’s next frontier for resources development. AMEC agrees there are important places with heritage values but it doesn’t want to see too much of the region made inaccessible to exploration and mining.

“Our view is that a lot still remains to be discovered in the Kimberley region,” he said. “Basically, it has to be carefully planned.

“I think there are a lot of people who live in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne making decisions on the Kimberley who have never stepped outside their front door, they don’t have a feel for the region or understand its untapped potential.”

The Chamber of Minerals and Energy, which is soon to release its own Kimberley report, is also concerned about the current uncertainty and the size of the area being considered, even though it has been significantly reduced from that outlined in a previous AHC review conducted two years ago.

“The area identified for assessment is still substantial – and CME continues to question whether the values required for heritage listing can legitimately apply to such a vast stretch,” a CME spokesperson said.

“Detailed examination of the area’s social and economic values, including resource potential, must also be considered during the assessment period.

“CME is concerned about the uncertainty for current and future projects caused by national heritage listing.”

KLC CEO Wayne Bergmann has been at the centre of the James Price Point fight, where a split has occurred among the local indigenous people, some who oppose the land council’s support for the LNG hub.

Mr Bergmann believes that environmental groups, particularly the Wilderness Society, have teamed up with local tourism operators to oppose the gas development.

He has little time for the tourism sector, which he claims has delivered little value to indigenous people over three decades of growth, and he’d prefer to see resources projects – a compromise he admits is about lifting Aboriginal people out of poverty and giving them opportunities that won’t come if all development is stopped.

“I think the mining industry has been tarnished with this brush, about how little it does, but I think it creates the biggest opportunities for Aboriginal people,” Mr Bergmann said.

He said his interactions with indigenous people from the Pilbara had revealed that their young people had a better grasp of their culture than young Aboriginal people from the Kimberley did of theirs.

“They have strong culture, and that [region] is the epicentre of major development,” Mr Bergmann said.

However, he believes mining companies are also using scare tactics with regard to the AHC assessment.

“Gunns pulp mill (in Tasmania) is in a heritage area; it was approved with conditions,” he said.

Mr Bergmann also points out that the large amount of land in the AHC assessment reflects the fact that Aboriginal people have shaped the land with their burning techniques and have changed it over centuries to create a unique landscape and habitat.

“It is a bit like maintaining your supermarket.”

Mr Bergmann is also reluctant to extrapolate too much from James Price Point across the region. He points out that the area for the development is not even in the area being considered by the AHC. Nevertheless, he said Aboriginal people missed the recent boom and they had to take their chances with the next one.

The Kimberley, which extends over almost 422,000sqkm and is nearly twice the size of Victoria, is seen as a major opportunity for resources development, with the James Price Point hub just at the periphery of a small and eclectic group of operating projects which together generate more than $1 billion in revenue per year.

Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA chief economist John Nicolaou said the peak industry body believed the environmental challenges could be balanced with development opportunities.

Mr Nicolaou said there was too much bias against industry with regard to its environmental track record.

“There is a massive assumption built into that claim that business can’t be trusted to protect the environment,” he said.

“The message is you can’t just assume the environment is detrimentally affected by the pursuit of economic activity, they are not mutually exclusive. This a great opportunity and you don’t want to see the region suffer because it must be protected at all costs.”

Of course, it’s not just the big opportunities that come from mining and gas.

CCIWA believes the gross regional product is about $2 billion, just 1.2 per cent of total activity in regional WA, which includes irrigation, tourism and pastoral land use.

The state government has pledged $220 million in funding for the expansion of the Ord River irrigation scheme, a decades-old development that produces goods worth about $50 million a year. The federal government has committed $195 million to deliver social and common-use infrastructure in the East Kimberley region.

The pastoral industry, which has operated extensively, contributes up to $80 million a year to the region.

Pastoralists and Graziers Association spokesman Geoff Gare is one who is suspicious of the federal government’s motives. Mr Gare said the AHC was currently holding meetings with pastoralists in the area.

“They want to allay pastoralists fears that they are here to lock up the land, but we know different,” he said.

“We have learned from experience in Shark Bay and Ningaloo.

“There is a layer of federal bureaucracy and, when it goes to World Heritage listing, there is an international bureaucracy.

“Pastoralists have been operating here since the 1880s. (The industry) is the backbone of the infrastructure up here, no-one looks after the area cheaper than pastoralists.”


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