Strider. Darwin, June 2011

This is a guest post* by Strider, a long-time friend of mine. You can see more of his thoughts and words here and here.

In his blog posts I particularly like his observations of clouds and fire and the rest of the natural world at the Solar Village south of Darwin where he has lived since the late 1970s. Strider is a far better observer of these things than most of us.

This is an edited version of his submission to the Draft Native Vegetation Management Bill & Proposed Amendments to the Pastoral Land Act about which you can read more here.


I made the call for a total and permanent shut down of the pastoral industry in the Northern Territory just a few days before the Australian Government imposed a temporary ban on the export of live cattle from northern Australia.

As I see it the industry is not economically viable, it is not ecologically sustainable, and it is an obstacle to obtaining wise fire management in the Northern Territory.

I believe that the time has come for a general re-evaluation of the industry in the light of the current economic circumstances and modern ecological knowledge.

It will be a good thing if the current temporary ban on live exports triggers off the long overdue re-evaluation of the industry in northern Australia. I do not expect my call to close the industry down to be welcomed by the governments involved or by the industry. I do see the need to close the industry down. We should not ignore this “elephant in the room“. We do need to deal with this matter.

I would like to see immediate talk about the best way to close the industry down over the next 5 to 10 years. The ecological situation is urgent. Orders to de-stock the land (made under the Soil Conservation and Land Utilisation Act) could be issued this year, and the country could be mainly de-stocked a year from now. That would help a great deal and maybe buy us some time.

The wave of native mammal extinctions that is currently going on across northern Australia is an urgent matter. We are dealing with a natural disaster here. Emergency action (such as de-stocking) is fully justified by the circumstances. Obviously the industry will need interim financial support, and eventual compensation when the industry is finally shut down. We need the cooperation of the people in the industry as we plan for its eventual abolition. In my view we should aim for a minimum of pain for all of those involved, and a fairly quick shut down of the industry.

I was very disappointed that the need to abolish the pastoral industry was overlooked in the Northern Territory’s Integrated Natural Resource Management Plan 2010-2015 that was produced by the Natural Resource Management Board (NT) in 2010. Why did they overlook this matter? Was it a failure of imagination or a failure of nerve?

Failure of nerve is the popular explanation. I would like to say that a failure of imagination is also involved. People cannot even begin to imagine the Northern Territory without a pastoral industry. When I suggest it they are shocked. It is something that many people just take for granted.

A common reaction to the suggestion is to observe that the industry is politically powerful, and to expect that no change will eventuate for that reason. That it is “too big to fail.” I simply wish to point out that the industry is a house of cards in ecological terms. It is very vulnerable to criticism. It really should be shut down.

Let us look at the facts. One thing is for sure, it is not an ecologically sustainable practice. The industry has been exporting nutrient elements in stock for more than 100 years without making any attempt to replace them with fertiliser. This is a serious matter. This is tantamount to theft of a common resource – pure and simple.

A northern cattle herd. Photo: Karyn Wilson.

Cattle did not co-evolve with the Australian biota and its ecosystems in antiquity. Inevitably they are parasitic grit in the machinery of our ecosystem. How could it be otherwise? How could the pastoral industry possibly be ecologically sustainable in the Northern Territory?

Pastoralism in the Northern Territory is really a form of strip mining. The pastoralists are mining some of the soil nutrient elements (chemicals) out of the grasses and other leaves and exporting them as live cattle. This is happening to some of the poorest soils and ecosystems in Australia. The operation is being subsidised by the government to a considerable extent.

As primary producers the pastoralists get a tax exemption. The public built and maintains the beef roads system. I think that there are also other forms of subsidy in place.

The cattle stations are not operating at a profit but absurdly high prices are being paid for them at auction. Clearly a speculative property bubble has developed here that has nothing to do with the potential earnings of the stations through pastoral operations. The Northern Territory Government is aware of the situation, and the Minister has commented on it.

The lands in northern Australia only produce “store cattle” that need to be “grown on” somewhere else. If the animals are slaughtered locally all you get is low grade manufacturing beef. For long periods of time there have only been small markets for these cattle. At other times there has been no demand at all for these animals. Live trade export markets have come and gone over the years. It has always been a stop and go industry.

For most of the history of the cattle industry in the north there has been no market for cattle from the north – there have been long periods between viable markets. There have been a number of short-term markets – the Phillipines, Hong Kong etc – but something always happens and they all fall down in a heap.

This theft of what is basically a common resource (the chemical nutrients and trace elements in the soil) inevitably weakens the ecosystems and sabotages the natural essential element recycling systems. It inevitably reduces the net primary productivity of the ecosystems. It has probably already brought that productivity down from 20 tonnes of Carbon fixed per Hectare per year to 10 tonnes per Hectare here in the Top End of the Northern Territory. There are Carbon budget implications in this calculation. Large and important implications.

The relatively cheap and simple fire regimes imposed by the industry have also caused a loss of nutrients to the atmosphere and the removal of organic matter that should have been food for the organic recycling system in the soil.

Fires have also killed young trees so that the recruitment of new trees to the community has been blocked. Soil compaction, trampling and grazing have also damaged the soil and the hydrology, and blocked the recruitment of new trees. In many places it seems that run-off of rain water has increased by a factor of 10, so that the infiltration of water into the soil (and to some extent down to the underground water supply) has been reduced to one tenth of what it was.

Central Australia holds the Guinness Book of Records record for the most mammal extinctions on the planet in modern time. This disaster was caused by grazing beef cattle in the Northern Territory. Read “Flying Fox and Drifting Sand” by Francis Ratcliffe if you want the gory details. The events are adequately documented, there and elsewhere.

The grazing of beef cattle in central and northern Australia was identified as ecologically unsustainable in the national State of the Environment Report in 1996. The unsustainable pastoral use of land has been illegal in the Northern Territory since the passing of the Pastoral Land Act in 1992.

I believe that we should cut our ecological losses and shut the industry down now. The industry is not ecologically sustainable, and it is not economically viable. It is an anachronism in modern Australia.

What the NT government seems to be trying to do is to make the stations profitable again by allowing them to diversify into non-pastoral business operations. Exactly the wrong thing to do in my opinion. What we should be doing is working out how to replace the fire management role of the industry and organise appropriate compensation for the lessees when the industry is closed down. It is quite simply wrong to soldier on with the old “Kings in Grass Castles” view of pastoralism. I would like to see the Pastoral Industry Abolition Bill introduced into the N.T. Parliament in 2012.

The Pastoral Land Act of 1992 makes it very clear that the pastoral use of land must be sustainable – it is there in black and white in the Objects of that Act:

“The objects of this Act are: (a) to provide a form of tenure of Crown land that facilitates the sustainable use of land for pastoral purposes and the economic viability of the pastoral industry.”

I have little doubt that this means ecologically sustainable in accordance with the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (NSED) 1992, and the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment (IGAE) 1992.

I have before me a copy of a media release issued by Karl Hampton, Minister for Natural Resources in the Northern Territory Government, dated 24 March 2011. The release is headed “Better Land Management For the 21 st Century”.

The Minister is quoted in that document as saying. “The Territory Government believes in protecting the environment and the pastoral industry and that’s why we have developed landmark legislation to achieve this goal.

In my opinion the Minister can protect one or another of these two things but not both together. Shall we call it Mission Impossible? What he seems to have done in the end is to opt for protecting the pastoral industry at the expense of the environment.

This is what I said to the Northern Territory Bushfires Council when I applied to be appointed as a Member of the Council, 11 February 2011.

“ Desertification caused by the Pastoral Industry is the most important ecological issue in the Territory today. A genuine eco-catastrophe is in progress because of cheap and nasty fire management. To my perception the Council has been too much of a Pastoral Industry Club for too long. The industry is not (and cannot be) ecologically sustainable despite a provision in the Act that the pastoral use of land must be sustainable. We have a genuine eco-catastrophe and a real political crisis here. I think that you need me on the Council in these circumstances and that is why I am volunteering.”

It would appear as if the Minister is unaware of the ongoing eco-catastrophe and the impossibility of protecting the environment and the pastoral industry simultaneously. I would guess that the Minister is also not aware that the grazing of beef cattle in Central and Northern Australia was identified as ecologically unsustainable in the 1996 national State of the Environment report.

There is a very recent publication, “Into Oblivion: The disappearing mammals of northern Australia” by James Fitzsimons, Sarah Legge, Barry Trail and John Woinarski that gives us a situation report on the mammals and portrays a truly shocking situation. Every Australian should read it. Every Australian needs to know about this eco-catastrophe. This is a very important document.

I myself produced a situation report on the status of the trees in our forests and woodlands, “The Secret of the Layered Forest” in 2008 and published in the September edition of the newsletter of the Environment Centre N.T., “environmeNT”. It interpreted the information that was reported in the “Vegetation Survey of the Northern Territory” 1991.

I supplied the Minister for the Environment of the day with my analysis of this data. She was kind enough to confirm that the information contained in the vegetation survey report had never been officially analysed or evaluated by government. My analysis of the data was confined to the area north of Daly Waters.

I described the overall situation in the following terms.

“ Very soon after 1870, cattle were introduced into the north Australian ecosystem. By 1920 the cattle herd was big and a severe drought had concentrated the stock near water. In 1920 the whole of the Northern Territory was burned by the ‘Oodnadatta Fire’ after a wet year. The land has never recovered from those disasters.

The pastoral occupation of the lands had drastic consequences for the Aboriginal people and their traditional economy. The new fire management regime imposed on the land by the pastoralists blocked the recruitment of new individuals to the mid-stratum and the upper-stratum of the forests and woodlands. Grazing and trampling by cattle and other introduced stock animals wrecked the lower-stratum. Frequent burning has stopped the nutrient recycling systems in the soil from working well and nutrients are being lost from the system. Many trees are sterile or nearly so because they are malnourished due to the nutrient recycling failure.

It is a great pity that more people do not understand the situation. It is a great pity that people who should know better keep on mouthing platitudes about “our unspoilt natural environment”. In the circumstances this amounts to big lie propaganda.

I think that we could call the general standard of fire management in the Northern Territory “cheap and nasty” and view it as a natural disaster. I do not think that the pastoral industry would be profitable if it had to deliver the sort of fire management and the rest from grazing that is needed to restore our forests and woodlands to a state of health. Perhaps the Federal Government will declare a state of emergency and compulsorily acquire the Pastoral Leases in the Northern Territory? As things stand today, we are fiddling while Rome burns, as it were.”

As things stand today the Department and the Minister seem to me to be still fiddling while Rome burns, and peddling little more than propaganda.

The Minister’s media release went on to say.

“ This legislative reform will ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes of our southern counterparts so that we keep our landscapes and ecosystems healthy.”

In his famous 1949 essay The Land Ethic Aldo Leopold said that:

“ A land ethic then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity. “

My own field research in the Top End causes me to believe that in the bush all of the existing big trees were already big in 1870, and that the land stopped self-renewing in 1920. There is a blockage stopping new recruitment, and the overall productivity of the ecosystem has probably been reduced by half since 1870.

The Minister’s bland reassurance that the reforms will keep our landscapes healthy is frankly quite incredible – in the true sense of that word.

Nor am I taken in by the line that “the reforms will ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes of our southern counterparts”. I appears to me that this is exactly the result to be expected from these reforms.

Even the title of the “Vegetation Management Bill” is a big lie. It should be called the “Land Clearing Bill”. Like the existing “land clearing guidelines” it will be based on at least two false premises and have been quite inappropriately imported to the tropics from some ruined temperate climate State in eastern Australia. This is a little more than a very bad practical joke. Land clearing has had catastrophic consequences here. In my opinion the document is an elaborate facade of denial and spin and little more than smoke and mirrors.

Large-scale land clearing for agriculture and pastoralism in the Northern Territory should be stopped. This is how I described the situation in a letter to the Northern Territory Pastoral Land Board in late January this year.

“In tropical woodland situations most of the nutrient elements are located in the standing crop of vegetation rather than in the soil. The fertility of these systems depends on rapid and leak-proof nutrient recycling. Fungi associated with the tree roots are believed to play a vital role in the recycling process, and the lingo-tuberous roots of the trees hold nutrient drought reserves. If the trees are removed there will be a serious loss of nutrients by downward leaching, we can be confident of that fact.”

This is a notoriously well known fact in ecological and geographical circles, and it has been that way for a hundred years or so. How can this be overlooked by the Government and it’s advisers? It begins to look like a willful and cultivated ignorance to me.

And the Government’s own gatekeepers seem unable to effectively monitor activities on the vast pastoral lands of the north. In this report on the ABC in late 2010, the Chairperson of the NT Pastoral Land Board revealed the parlous extent of compliance monitoring of pastoral stations:

In its 2008-2009 annual report, the Government-appointed Pastoral Land Board revealed only 22 of the Territory’s 221 leases were inspected by Department of Natural Resources field officers. Board chairman Tony Young says the infrequency of departmental visits is putting Territory land at risk. “Without the resources being directed to ground-based monitoring the board cannot fulfil its statutory function,” he said. “We’ve taken on this job to fulfil the function that the Pastoral Land Act requires us to fulfil, that is to monitor pastoral land condition, and we simply don’t believe we can do it satisfactorily with this level of resources.”

The Northern Territory Environment Protection Agency, in it’s report “Ecologically Sustainable Development in the Northern Territory” 2010, said that.

“The maintenance of ecological integrity involves preserving processes which shape climate, cleanse air and water, regulate water flow, recycle essential elements, create and regenerate soil and enable ecosystems to renew themselves. Maintaining ecological integrity involves maintaining and preserving ecosystem health, functioning and services.”

The Environment Protection Agency report went on to say “the conservation of biological diversity and ecological integrity should be a fundamental consideration in decision making”.

One very important ecosystem service in the Northern Territory is the provision of fire management services to the ecosystem by human beings. Humans are the fire management specialist organism on this planet and the whole biota depends on us for this vital ecosystem service. There is a grave conflict between the fire regimes required to conserve biological diversity (and ecological integrity) and the fire regimes that suit the pastoralists. Inadequate and unsatisfactory fire management seems to be an inevitable side effect of the pastoral occupation of the land.

Since 1980 I have been living at the Solar Village in Humpty Doo. A deliberate effort has been made to exclude fire from the Solar Village area, in a spirit of scientific experiment, since 1979. I have seen recruitment to the upper levels of the forests and woodlands resume. I have seen a tree flower after being protected from fire for 13 years. The system can recover to a considerable extent once stock is removed and it is given a rest from fire.

Obviously it will not be able to recover the fertility and productivity that it had in 1870, but it can be nursed back to a better state of health. In ecosystem first aid terms, we need to stop the present rapid nutrient loss.

Think of it as “stopping the bleeding”. The first priority is to obtain effective control over fire. Our efforts in that direction have been inadequate to date. I would not have you think that the situation is hopeless. The situation is serious and we do need to address it as a matter of urgency.

In my opinion the legislation that the government currently proposes would be counter-productive. It would be part of the problem, not part of the solution. It would waste valuable time and increase the cost of shutting the industry down. It would allow the eco-catastrophe to continue. It would be a tragic mistake.

It disturbs me that the legislative proposal is accompanied by a barrage of big lie propaganda launched by the Minister. I suspect that the Minister has been badly advised by the Department.

I have conveyed my thoughts on these matters to the previous inquiry into the Pastoral Land Act. I have been lobbying this point of view for some time now. I do not believe that the Department can say it does not know the score. It pretends not to know, in my opinion. I do not think that it is good enough.

As I said above – we should cut our ecological losses and shut the industry down. The industry is not – and has never been – ecologically sustainable, and it is not economically viable.

It is an anachronism in modern Australia and it is time we did something about it. The current live export crisis gives us a good opportunity to start fixing this problem now.


* Bob Gosford works for the Northern Land Council. The views expressed in this article are those of its author, and are not to be taken as the views of Bob Gosford or the Northern Land Council.