Australia’s largest promoter of forestry-based Managed Investment Schemes—Great Southern Plantations—has been using unskilled foreign backpackers to carry out land clearing operations in sensitive savannah forests on Melville Island.

According to the ABC’s Background Briefing, Great Southern is now facing prosecution by Commonwealth authorities over substantial breaches of federal environmental conditions on its wood chipping operation. The breaches include failure to comply with the 11 conditions former federal environment minister Robert Hill imposed on the project.

In the ABC program, Great Southern blames “mapping technology” to explain why it bulldozed sensitive buffer zones approaching rain forest pockets.

A backpacker’s travel blog suggests otherwise.

Writing his travel diary (see among others here), Birmingham lad Niki Maguire recounts his employment as an unskilled “land evaluation officer” by Great Southern Plantations for six months this year, after arriving in Darwin with only “$15 to my name”. He obviously had the time of his life, but in recounting his traveller’s tales, he reveals an approach to managing the Tiwi traditional lands that don’t meet the company’s rhetoric.

From the last day of March:

Hey guys! Well its finally Happened. The reason i flew into the Northern Territory has worked out for me and I have landed a job on Melville island a hundred times better than I thought I would have! There was me thinking I’d be doing the typical Planting and picking of fruit that most backpackers do but instead I have taken a step up the ladder and onto the steps of Agricultural Planning. I’m top of the food Chain Baby mooooooooooooohahahahaha xXx

An ecstatic Niki goes on:

… the week started out with the basic sorting of sites we would visit for the week as possibilities only due to excessive rainfall on the island! … The Monday and Tuesday were a little bit bit different for me! Usually, as I’m not qualified I get to go out with Rob and make a few decisions based on wether the ground or the routes for the walk are good enough for the day but the Monday in question I was as good as in charge! I went out with a guy called Chris who knows what he’s doing but is as new to it as me (but with Qualifications). So off we go in the Troopy (jeep) to this site up in the middle of the island called Andra 12 where we were to walk the typical 10km in search of rainforest through the creeks!! The day went great and I got to make the route decisions which is cool as I’ve only been here 14 days working!

… The second day was pretty much the same going back to the same site but this time with Rob I guess to check how we had got on!! On our say so from the day before we had almost as good as rejected the block but we needed official checking! OOOOoh and we got it!! My first Rejection … and let me tell you it doesn’t happen often hahah i wish!!

… So rigged up for the day we get out to the Jeep (myself and Rob) and head out to a site that was a bit different to others! The deal was that instead of normally getting most of the way by road and then walking we had to get to the site i was working on with Chris earlier in the week and walk through the entire block before even reaching our Second Target! This meant that even before the Mandatory 10km walk we would do to get around a Boundary we would first have to walk that far to get there just to begin! Well almost!

… Through the Wet land and bush myself and chris were chased through by Buffalo…. And onto the trails of a creek… we thought! As Rob had forgot the maps we weren’t really sure what creek we were crossing or for that fact how many there would be to help orientation.

As i said earlier we didn’t know how many creeks there were! So pulling up to another Creek side it now seemed that from the Gps readings this was the one we had saw earlier on the maps in the office!

For the remainder of the week we were all at a lost end as with rain the roads on the island were out so every one who was on them got bogged! The best way to get through a boring day is to go fishing! Or as it was this time it turned out to be more like Crabbing! We got four and a few little fish! All good for a days work!! Nothing but love for the way the Abo’s nock up a bit of tucker too!! Its a great experience!!! I’m living a traveling dream!

A month later, Niki gives further Boy’s Own details:

8 day shift!! The shift went pretty well!! Plenty of variety for this shift as I was out Setting traps to assess endangered animals in the surrounding Blocks already accepted and Marked for Clearing! The other Bonus was that we had got to go back out to The block I talked of in a previous Blog where myself and Rob were crossing some Hairy looking creeks!! Ahhh it was as good this time though we walked some K’s this time over the three days!! The first of the three was a really an entrance mission!! After getting pretty disorientated last time we had to find a better way in but from maps you can never really tell what the land is going to be like!! All they really do is give you knowledge into the possible locations of Creeks etc but Wet lands and swamps don’t seem to be picked up, then hence all the walking to assess actual plantation areas! So the first Day we were looking at better access routes to the area! From all directions the distance was about 3km in which is a pain in the arse for later Work loads like Dunnart (small mouse like things) trapping where tonnes of Material needs to be carried to the sites!!

Looking at maps we decide to go in from another Block already cleared and planted which would potentially put us nearer the area and make access easy!! Hahhaha like I said before the Maps don’t tell all so into the swamps we went sh-tting our pants as this is a known Crocodile Breeding ground!! … Health and safety will go mad if they read this hahahaha! (on that note we want SHOT GUNS)

My first Successful block was sorted and I was chuffed!! In between the Walking Days I was out helping Sean (an Ecologist) dig survey traps which made things a little less monotonous!

And later in May, he was joined by a mate:

So out on the island I was running the drill of digging rock for holes that would be used in Dunnart trapping doing some things slightly different it would seem hahaha (god the working life is getting tedious) when I heard of GSP (Great Southern P???? something, id reckon Plantations) were back dooring the agencies and getting guys employed through internal and external but direct applications!! This was on the Wednesday. Thursday morning I had blagged Brett a place and he was out on the island

… I don’t know if I’ve mentioned in other blogs but i’m now allowed to lead walks making my own decisions on the land restrictions deciding for officials where we can and cant plant.So me and Sabo taking one route and Rob, Brett and Romeo taking another we were all out doing transects on this pretty tough walking terrain. Loads of low level vegetation and thick grass making visibility poor Sabo and Romeo collectively over the Radios decided to get a bit of a burn going. This was awesome there were bush fires everywhere and on leaving the Block we looked back to see the vegetation was burning nicely. One week prior to what is known on the island as Tiwi Bush burn week our blocks were going beautifully.

And in early August:

Back tracking a little though Melville over the last few weeks has been interesting!! I’ve been working with Matty and Sean on the Dunnart trapping in attempts to rest my leg until full recovery! It’s been sweet!! Basically we now use a tractor instead of shovels to dig holes and I have been learning to drive a bit.

… Reading a coordinate out over the radio I started up the car and headed in there direction!! I was chuffed!! Out I was driving on bush tracks with no license!! At least I’m learning though ay!!!!

It’s hard not to like Niki: he’ll have stories he can tell his grandchildren. Great Southern Plantations has stories it can tell the federal department of environment and water.

Peter Fray

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