15/06/2004 - 22:00

Plan seeks to boost Ord growth

15/06/2004 - 22:00

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The State Government is hoping a report due this month will help to kick start much-needed expansion of the Ord River project. Mark Beyer reports.

Plan seeks to boost Ord growth

Plan seeks to boost Ord growth

The State Government is hoping a report due this month will help to kick start much-needed expansion of the Ord River project. Mark Beyer reports.

Mention the Ord River irrigation project to people in Perth and they immediately think ‘white elephant’.

Mention the project to people in Kununurra and they will show you abundant fields growing sugar cane, melons, bananas, pumpkins and other produce.

The locals are desperate to expand, and have been for years, but have been frustrated by numerous barriers.

The project was meant to create a new era of agricultural prosperity in Western Australia’s far north.

But four decades after farming started, only one fifth of the original project area has been developed and it supports only 40 full-time farmers, some of whom are clinging to an uncertain future.

Successive State governments and a complex mix of Native Title, Aboriginal heritage, water supply and environmental issues have blocked farmers’ desire to grow.

The Gallop Government is hoping to break the impasse by calling tenders this year for the development of stage 2, which covers 30,500 hectares, more than double the size of the existing stage 1.

A report by Melbourne consulting firm Marsden Jacobs, due to be handed to the Government this month, will play a key part in the process.

Marsden Jacobs has been charged with preparing business cases for the development of stage 2. A critical aspect will be its analysis of broadacre crops, needed to underpin development of the region.

Sugar is currently the main crop in the Ord, with annual production worth $17 million, and sugar miller CJ Ord Sugar is keen to double throughput.

But low world market prices make the future of sugar uncertain.

The main broadacre alternative to sugar is genetically modified cotton.

Extensive field trials indicate that GM cotton can be grown sustainably in the Ord, in contrast to the conventional cotton crops in the 1970s that were destroyed by insect pests.

The politics of GM agriculture, highlighted by Premier Geoff Gallop’s declaration of WA as a GM-free zone, could be the main hurdle for cotton.

As well as broadacre crops, the Ord is home to a small but thriving horticulture industry, with melons, pumpkins, mangoes and bananas all grown successfully in the area.

Hybrid seed (e.g. sorghum and maize), chickpeas and Indian sandalwood plantations add to the diversity of the Ord.

Importantly, Marsden Jacobs has been asked to look at both staged and full development scenarios for stage 2.

Governments invariably like ‘big bang’ developments – especially if the developer covers some of the infrastructure costs – but this option has backfired badly in the past.

In 1998, the Court Government awarded an exclusive mandate to a Wesfarmers Marubeni consortium to develop stage 2.

The consortium planned a massive $500 million sugar project, but after four years of feasibility studies it walked away, citing low sugar prices and uncertainty about land access and water supplies.

Many locals, frustrated by the lack of new land, would prefer the Government to clear the way for incremental growth.

“We’ve been very outspoken on that,” said David McKerrell, executive officer of the Kimberley Primary Industries Association.

“We stand for staged development.”

This could include development of areas such as Green Swamp, which is adjacent to stage 1, and Cave Springs, which is part of stage 2.

Mr McKerrell believes staged expansion would provide more opportunities for local contractors to pick up extra work.

Many locals believe big projects, like the Wesfarmers consortium, would result in outside contractors picking up most of the flow-on work.

Mr McKerrell is also pushing the Government to foot the bill for water, roads and power infrastructure.

The Government’s strategy is to try and clear all possible hurdles, including Native Title claims, environmental clearances and water allocations (see next page) so the best development options can proceed.

It has entered into global negotiations with the Kimberley Land Council to settle Native Title and heritage issues affecting the Ord, and the Government is determined to resolve the matter this year.

“Underpinning the negotiations are State-issued compulsory acquisition notices,” according to the Office of Native Title.

“This means there is a timeframe attached to the negotiations.”

The settlement is likely to include claimants receiving some of the proceeds from land sales, the transfer of at least 50,000 hectares of land to traditional owners, and possibly profit sharing with commercial farming developers.

Agriculture Minister Kim Chance is encouraged by the status of negotiations.

“We now have a formal negotiation process that sets timelines,” Mr Chance said.

“We’ve not had that before.”

He said the Government had made a conscious decision to widen the scope of negotiations, to try and resolve historic grievances associated with stage 1 as well as deal with claims affecting future expansion.

That goal frustrates locals who want to see more action.

As Mr McKerrell puts it: “The thing has been strung out for 10 years and people have become really frustrated”.

ORD TIMELINE

1945: Kimberley Research Station established.

1963: Diversion dam (Lake Kununurra) and irrigation system established.

1972: Ord River dam (Lake Argyle) completed.

1973: Cotton production ceases.

1985: Rice production ceases.

1995: Sugar mill established.

1996: Final land release in stage 1.

1997: Pacific Hydro power station completed.

2001: Wesfarmers Marubeni consortium abandons stage 2 expansion.

 

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