15/02/2012 - 10:36

Is the Kimberley a case of opportunity lost?

15/02/2012 - 10:36

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Why does it take a Texan to talk sense about the opportunities in the Kimberley?

Why does it take a Texan to talk sense about the opportunities in the Kimberley?

LATELY when I hear the words ‘food security’ I can’t help doing a little word association game; and the one that comes to mind is ‘hypocrisy’.

At the moment the ‘food security’ alarm word (no dog whistling here) is being used by those opposed to coal seam gas on the eastern seaboard – some who want to stop this type of development and others who just want to extract a better price for access to their farmland.

Of course, food security is a silly thing to talk about in Australia. We produce vastly more food than we as a nation could ever consume. In reality, food security is an issue for our export customers – some of whom we treat with disdain like cutting off their beef supply at a whim.

For them, energy security is equally as important.

Oddly enough, many who claim they are concerned about food security oppose measures that could ensure Australia produces even more food than it does now.

We have huge amounts of land, like that in the Kimberley, which we refuse to develop.

Not only are we missing out on an opportunity, but we might also find out to our peril that other people take their food security more seriously than we do. 

I am sure some more populous nations look at our north and wonder why we don’t do more with it in a productive sense. As their populations grow, they might take the ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ view that we impose on corporations in the resources field.

On a global level we ought to be careful about looking like greedy hoarders of productive land; especially as we have such a small population. 

Perhaps we would ensure our own security by being as productive and efficient as we can in terms of using our land for food production – being left in peace and growing wealthier while we do?

The food security issue has irked me for a little while as I watched the issue develop on the east coast. I don’t believe that gas development should be allowed at any price but I have a sensitive bulldust detector when it comes to various emotive strategies used by those who oppose development of any kind.

In the Kimberley there is also a lot of nonsense claimed about it being a ‘pristine wilderness’.

I was reminded of this and provoked into writing this column when I saw wannabe agricultural developer Jack Fletcher speak last week at the Perth Rotary Club.

I was vaguely familiar with Mr Fletcher’s story of trying and failing with agricultural developments in the west Kimberley, to create a food bowl based on using the huge quantities of untapped water from its seasonal flooding and massive aquifers.

It is intriguing that Premier Colin Barnett puts so much store in the Ord River expansion and the James Price Point gas developments as major ways of providing the region with economic impetus, yet most of the Kimberley and the people who live between those two projects could benefit from farming beyond that of grazing cattle.

Intensive agriculture based on irrigation would provide far more employment at a consistent level than pastoral pursuits, which are marginal operations at the whim of a tough climate.

In the main, however, the law prevents the pastoralists of the region from developing their leases and, as Mr Fletcher attests, over the past few decades governments of every hue have, at best, been lukewarm to the idea of big-picture development in the region.

While the 86-year-old Texan said his biggest difficulties came from dealing with Labor governments at both federal and state level, it is clear the conservatives have done little in the intervening years to open up the region. Even if political will was partly there, he seemed to suggest, the bureaucratic machine behind it was impossible to bypass.

As history shows with development, the longer you leave it the harder it gets. Far from being more valuable, mining and agriculture faces much bigger bureaucratic hurdles as each year passes, along with a host of laws and regulations.

The Ord River Dam built in the early 1970s was long seen as a white elephant but these days the value of that asset is just being realised. Imagine trying to build that dam now? We should have built more when we had the chance.

Instead, we are rapidly locking big parts of the state away from useful development.

I think the federal government’s effort to heritage list big areas of the Kimberley is a major mistake. Certainly some substantial parts could be added to our national park inventory, but they should be special, not average savannah with little value without irrigated farming.

Currently, pastoralists are bemoaning the restrictions and costs both federal and state governments are imposing on them. It seems our governments want to stop these industrious people, rather than encouraging them to make the most of the remotest reaches of our land – or even stay there.

To be fair to Mr Barnett, his poorly executed policy to take water from the Kimberley to the south shows that he is not averse to development of this kind.

His backing of the Ord project, too, is evidence that he believes in agriculture as a means of giving the Kimberley economic independence from the rest of Western Australia.

There are some private players, such as Liveringa Station, which have invested in irrigation, mostly on assets created by the trials of those like Mr Fletcher that were burned out by the intransigence of past political leadership.

There is much more we can do that will not be about ruining pristine regions. The Kimberley is host to significant introduced species, especially grasses which are the main form of cattle feed. Much of the land is degraded.

Furthermore, if ever there was evidence of climate change it is in this region. It is well established that the rainfall has increased by about 40 per cent in the past 40 or 50 years. 

Surely there is an argument that if such additional regular inundations are not part of the natural order of things they ought to be captured and diverted from damaging ecosystems that may not be able to cope. 

If a drying climate in the south is a concern for native wildlife then an increasingly wet one in the north must have equally significant ramifications.

Why not avail ourselves of the opportunity?

That doesn’t need to be all about billion-dollar projects with transcontinental water pipelines and huge corporate-owned food bowls.

Such a transformation can be done bit by bit, allowing the infrastructure to keep pace. That at least would give the current pastoralists of the region hope that they can invest in their own families’ futures in the region; and we could see progress.

Indigenous people, too, could benefit from this kind of development. Their history in grazing as workers and station operators means Aboriginal people of the Kimberley have more experience with farming than those anywhere else in the country.

Having listened to Mr Fletcher I can’t help wonder whether the opportunity that went begging a few decades ago may have been lost forever – or until we are made to come to our senses.

• mark.pownall@wabn.com.au

 

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