Landclearing skyrocketing

Unique savanna woodlands need protection

2 November 2022

The Northern Territory is unique for many reasons, not least because of its spectacular natural environment – from free-flowing rivers, waterfalls and desert landscapes to plants and animals that are found nowhere else in the world.

Amongst these spectacular natural phenomena is Northern Australia’s vast tropical savanna woodlands. Sweeping across more than one million kilometres from the Kimberley to Queensland’s topical coast, these savanna woodlands represent more than 20% of the entire world’s savanna.

Savannas are made up of mostly eucalypts and tall grasses, and while there might not seem to be a lot of activity at first glance, they are home to a huge array of colourful birds, ancient reptiles, mammals, rare insects, edible plants and wildflowers.

Every part of the NT has been named and cared for by First Nations people – we continue to look to and learn from Indigenous ranger groups and management in Indigenous Protected Areas to improve biodiversity in the NT.

Extraordinary ecosystems in collapse

Savannah woodlands are an extraordinarily rich, complex and fragile ecosystem. In this bubble of life, the woodland’s plants, animals, insects and other organisms, as well as the weather and the landscape, are intricately interconnected.

Yet this ecosystem is under increasing pressure from land clearing, agriculture, mining, feral animals and poor land management, alarmingly, the NT’s savanna woodlands are now considered a ‘collapsing’ ecosystem.

Ecosystem collapse is a dire wakeup call. Researchers in a 2021 study put it bluntly: “current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.”

These researchers classified 19 critical ecosystems across Australia as “collapsing”, defined as “the state where ecosystems have changed in a substantial, negative way from their original state – such as species or habitat loss, or reduced vegetation or coral cover – and are unlikely to recover.”

Until recently, the NT’s savannahs were the least damaged and unpolluted in the world. But they’re changing fast – and right now, the Northern Territory’s laws are too weak to protect them.

Between 2018 and 2021, there was an almost 300% jump in land approved for clearing.

So far in 2022, the NT government has approved 15,743.17 hectares of land for clearing. This is around the same as 7,780 MCG fields. A further 16,882 hectares is currently under assessment.

Land clearing is considered the greatest threat to wildlife in Australia and the single biggest factor adding to Australia’s list of threatened species, according to 2017 research. This is likely to still be the case today, as noted in the 2022 State of Environment Report.

Broadscale land clearing is also a major contributor to the emission of greenhouse gases. Once an area has been cleared, the usual practice is to burn the rubble, releasing significant carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere – transferring a carbon sink to an source of climate damage.

Why is this such a big problem in the NT?

The vast majority of broadscale land clearing is occurring on pastoral leases, which make up approximately 45% of land in the NT. Land clearing on pastoral leases is regulated under the Pastoral Land Act 1992 (NT). Unlike every other state and territory in Australia, the NT does not have native vegetation laws or a conservation strategy.

This is problematic for many reasons, but some that stand out:

  • The Pastoral Land Act is designed to facilitate the use of land for agricultural purposes. Unlike native vegetation laws, it does not focus on conserving vital ecosystems
  • Enforcement of the Pastoral Land Act is highly discretionary and relies on the Pastoral Land Board and the relevant Minister. To our knowledge, breaches are rarely enforced;
  • There is no requirement for biodiversity surveys to be undertaken before land clearing applications are submitted. To our knowledge, the Pastoral Land Board has never refused a permit application, and areas up to 4,000 hectares (that’s around the size of 1,977 MCG’s) are approved without surveys; and
  • There are no third-party appeal rights under the Pastoral Land Act.

In the NT, pastoral leaseholders are allowed to apply for a permit to clear up to 5,000 hectares of land before the application must be referred to the Environment Protection Authority for a decision on whether environmental impact assessment is required.

This is an enormous area of land to clear without assessment. Other Australian jurisdictions have much more rigorous thresholds.

The Territory Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1976 (NT) sets up a system for listing threatened species but provides weak enforcement mechanisms and there is little interaction with the Pastoral Land Act. There are no mechanisms for listing ecological communities, or even fish under NT laws. And while Parks and Reserves are protected, they make up only 3.7% (approximately) of land in the NT.

In addition to the legislative deficiencies, there is also a distinct lack of long-term biodiversity monitoring in the NT. This means there is almost no understanding of what is being cleared before it is gone – we don’t know what animals and plants might be there and what condition the land is in.

For example, there is:

  • no standard methodology to assess vegetation condition or extent in the NT;
  • a lack of fine scale vegetation and regional ecosystem mapping;
  • no agreed set of biodiversity indicators, metrics or goals; and
  • no State of the Environment reporting.

What is EJA doing about it?

The NT government has a responsibility to protect savannah woodlands in the face of increasing threats. Increasing land clearing requires a particularly strong response.

EJA, alongside community groups, is asking decision makers – the Pastoral Land Board and the Environment Protection Authority – to refer land clearing applications for environmental assessments or refuse to grant permits where there are real risks of harm to the plants and animals.

Each time a new land clearing application becomes publicly available, we assist community groups to scrutinise them, and prepare submissions to ensure they can shape decisions.

EJA recently assisted the Environment Centre of the NT (ECNT) to request the Federal Environment Minister revoke an approval to clear savanna woodland at Lee Point in Darwin. The campaign is ongoing and is supported by amazing grass roots groups. You can read about the campaign here.

We are investigating potential legal challenges to land clearing applications particularly where cotton cropping is proposed. Many novel legal questions have arisen since we have started this work, and it is a steep learning curve.

We also are working with ECNT to put together a robust proposal to reform native vegetation and biodiversity laws in the NT.

As custodians of the world’s largest relatively intact tropical savannah woodlands, we all have a responsibility to defend and regenerate them. As this ecosystem is already at the brink of collapse, there’s no time to lose.

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