Press Release - May 31, 2023

Landmark case shows the Territory’s land clearing laws are broken

31 May 2023

The Northern Territory’s savanna is a national treasure and the world’s largest remaining intact tropical woodland – but it’s at risk of being bulldozed by cotton producers. 

The Northern Territory government is attempting to re-write the rules for managing pastoral land, in a knee-jerk attempt to embrace big cotton and stop environmental groups and Traditional Owners from protecting precious woodland savanna.

In February, the Environment Centre NT (ECNT), represented by Environmental Justice Australia, launched landmark Supreme Court action against the NT Government over approval of a land clearing permit for cotton growing at Auvergne Station.

ECNT asserted that the land clearing permit issued to Clean Agriculture and International Tourism was invalid, and the proponent’s cotton plans required better environmental assessment.

The Northern Land Council also launched court proceedings challenging the same decision by the NT Pastoral Land Board.

The proponent has now backed down and agreed to revoke its own license to bulldoze more than 923 hectares of tropical savanna at Auvergne Station, so ECNT will seek to discontinue its Supreme Court proceedings.

With convenient timing, the Northern Territory Government has released its ‘Agribusiness Strategy’, which includes a proposal to radically change pastoral land rights to enable cropping. This may hugely impact the potential for future legal action against land clearing and native vegetation destruction.

These law reforms appear to undermine genuine consultation with native title holders and circumvent proper scrutiny from environment groups.

The government has also outlined a target of 100,000 hectares of “broadacre cropping” by 2030, which will include cotton.

Environment groups are calling for Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek to urgently intervene to stop rampant biodiversity destruction by the Northern Territory government and ensure proper consultation with Traditional Owners.  

Executive Director of ECNT, Kirsty Howey said: 

“We launched this landmark legal action on behalf of concerned Territorians who want to make sure that Big Cotton can’t keep decimating the environment without proper oversight or consultation with native title holders.

Whilst we are glad that in this specific instance, the clearing won’t go ahead at this stage, it’s extraordinary that a multinational corporation is revoking its own land clearing permit because of failures by the Northern Territory government.

The government shouldn’t be able to re-write the rules to favour multinational corporations.

This case sends a strong message that the system is broken, and we urgently need reform to nature laws in the Northern Territory. 

As we’ve done with Auvergne, we will keep scrutinising and challenging land clearing permits across the Territory.”

Senior Lawyer at Environmental Justice Australia, Ellen Maybery said:  

“This was set to be the first time a court tested the Territory’s land clearing laws in the Pastoral Land Act. It’s clear that the laws don’t pass the test and urgent reform is needed.  

That this multinational corporation revoked its own permit is a failure at every level. The NT Pastoral Land Board failed to properly respond to our client’s concerns about this permit from the get-go.

The Northern Territory is the only jurisdiction in the country with no specific native vegetation laws and no overarching biodiversity conservation strategy to protect ecosystems already collapsing.

We’re seeing land clearing across the Territory accelerate at an alarming rate. In the past four years, land clearing approvals increased by around 300%.”

For media enquiries, please call or email Jem Wilson on (03) 8341 3110 or [email protected]