The forests of the Amazon basin are often referred to as the lungs of the Earth, nurturing life through rich, tropical biodiversity. Although often overlooked, it’s equally fitting to consider the jungles of the Asia-Pacific as the Earth’s heart. After all, they contain 20% of the world’s plant and animal species, and by some measurements make up six of the world’s 25 biodiversity hotspots. Australia adds to the variety, with its wealth of native vegetation. Each one of these areas is unique and plays an integral part in the world’s interrelated ecological systems.
The positive news is that the international community recognises them as such. Last month marks the one-year anniversary of the Asia-Pacific Rainforest Summit in Brunei-Darussalam, an initiative set up in 2014 to discuss the alarming rate of deforestation in the region.
In the last five years, Indonesia has overtaken Brazil to become the greatest forest-clearing nation in the world. South-east Asia more broadly has lost almost 15% of its forests over the last 15 years. Representing the Turnbull government at the summit, then-newly promoted Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg himself recognised the significance of these figures and declared that Australia was “committed” to rainforest protection throughout the Asia-Pacific.
A year on, Australia has appeared to take steps to support its Asian neighbours, such as contributing funding to assist in ending illegal logging. However, it is interesting to note that while the government seems to portray itself as one of the chief proponents in curbing international deforestation, land clearing remains hugely significant in Australia. In actual fact, the east coast of the continent is considered one of the worst deforestation areas in the world today.
The statistics from 2014-15 — the most recent figures we have — show that 2960 square kilometres of forest was cleared in Queensland alone. To place that number in perspective, The Wilderness Society (TWS) depicts an area of vegetation the same size as the Melbourne Cricket Ground — this is the amount of forest land cleared every three minutes, every day, all year round. A recent report by the World Wildlife Fund found that the primary reason for the land destruction is for livestock farming. However, an important secondary cause is “unsustainable logging“.
National nature campaigner with TWS Jessica Panegyres considers this Australia’s “great hidden environmental crisis”. Speaking to Crikey, she highlighted that the key reason such significant destruction has been allowed to proceed is due to states “progressively winding back land clearing control”. This has led to a “massive escalation in the rate of deforestation”, which has resulted in the deaths of “countless native animals” and has impacted the Great Barrier Reef significantly; much of the current land-clearing is occurring in Great Barrier Reef catchment areas.
In June of this year, Frydenberg highlighted that the federal government had committed funding to quell sediment runoff in Queensland. This will, it is argued, greatly improve water quality and so maintain a healthy ecosystem within the Great Barrier Reef. However, if land-clearing continues unabated and soil along the Queensland coast is left eroded, it would seem the runoff may increase in any case. The program — “Addressing gully and steambank erosion” — actually earmarks re-vegetation as a means to stop erosion, but if trees are being cleared at a faster rate than they are being planted, this would appear to be a questionable investment of time and money.
Looking to the future, it is difficult to imagine how land-clearing can be curbed in Queensland without government intervention. The Palaszczuk government remains unable to pass land-clearing reforms, and as such associate professor of environmental management at the University of Queensland Martine Marron is doubtful there will be any significant change in the near future. Speaking to Crikey, she said: “Given that the large-scale land clearing for agriculture that we know has been approved has been proceeding … it seems likely that the resurgence of land clearing in Queensland (will) continue.”
Panegyres agrees, and champions the need for a change in legislation: “The number one thing that brings down the rates of forest and bushland destruction is strong laws. If we do not see change in this area, the deforestation rates will continue to be out of control.”
For the moment, then, it seems that Australia will continue to bear witness to the loss of not only the forests of south-east Asia, but of the habitat destruction that is happening in our own backyard.
Crikey contacted Frydenberg’s office and received no response.