The Queensland government is on the verge of releasing a plan to cut environmental protections and open up the Cape York Peninsula for large-scale development.
Cape York Peninsula’s natural and cultural values face unprecedented threat with the imminent release of the Queensland State Governments regional plan for the Cape. Under the new plan as it currently stands, more than half of Cape York Peninsula will be opened for development with greatly reduced environmental protection.
Prior to winning government the LNP made a crystal clear commitment that any major development on Cape York will continue to be assessed against state and federal legislation. In what appears to be a departure from the LNP’s election commitments, over half of Cape York Peninsula will no longer be subject to state assessment provisions. Instead, local planning frameworks with minimal environmental assessment requirements will be put in place to facilitate development.
Under the draft plan provided to the committee, general use areas account for over half of the region in which mining, forestry, grazing, horticulture, aquaculture, farming, water storage and heavy industry all become imminently possible. By reducing regulation and deferring most responsibility to under-resourced local governments – the State government risks entrenching land-use conflict.
To the Government’s credit, they have mapped and identified 23 areas of unique environmental significance. These include outstanding areas such as the Mitchel River Delta, the Wenlock River corridor, Shelburne Bay and the Aurukun wetlands. Despite their significance these environmental areas, accounting for 31% of Cape York, are still vulnerable to resource and agricultural development.
The State’s approach to cultural values under this process remains ambiguous. The Deputy Premier and Chair of the Cape York Regional Planning Committee openly conceded that cultural values were too difficult to map and that the entire Cape was of cultural significance.
Perhaps for the first time in Queensland’s history, the State Government is proposing regulation that will capture the mining sector under regional planning provisions. In principle, this is a welcomed move. However, the State seems to have gotten it back to front on Cape York. The type of regulation required to protect Cape York’s values needs to be applied to the majority of the region – with mining categorically ruled out in environmentally significant areas.
Of course, much of Cape York is Aboriginal land. Many people from across the region have expressed dismay that decisions about their country are being or could be made without them. Central to their concerns is the imposition of mining on country that is not compatible with cultural or environmental values. In response Traditional Owners are becoming increasingly assertive about what happens on their country and everything from gravel extraction or big new mines is being questioned and contested.
With many Traditional Owner groups well advanced in developing their own land use plans, the anticipated regional approach is at risk of further alienating many people from the mainstream economy. How are people meant to plan their own economic initiatives in the face of exploration and the threat of unwelcomed mining?
So far, the Queensland Government has failed to fully appreciate environmental matters beyond state interests. Natural and cultural values and the intact connectivity of the landscape are what make Cape York internationally renowned. It would be a wasted opportunity if the economic potential of World Heritage in the Cape was not recognised in this process.
By relegating over 50% of Cape York Peninsula to potential development, there is a demonstrable failure to appreciate ongoing ecological process and the need to build ecosystem resilience planning in response to the likely impacts of climate change.
The health, diversity and connectivity of Cape York’s landscapes are its greatest asset. Extensive savannas, rainforest, wetlands, estuaries and heathlands are combined with a unique flora and fauna of New Guinean and Australian origin. It is these natural attributes – combined with the continued discovery of new species – that give the Cape its iconic status.
When it comes to balancing sustainable economic prosperity with the adequate protection of environmental values in Cape York, it appears the Queensland Government still has a long way to go.