Land Clearing – Environmental Harm in Australia

Over the past century, the exponential increase in human activity has had far-reaching consequences for ecosystems globally. Australia has recently been identified by the Word Wildlife Fund as an epicenter of environmental degradation and currently among the top 11 countries with the highest land clearing rate (WWF-Australia 2020). Land clearing is of great significance in Australia, with prominent actors such as Shane Fitzsimmons of the New South Wales Rural Fire Services linking it to the 2019-2020 bushfires. Furthermore, land clearing is a fundamental issue warranting further discourse especially since climatic changes that have taken place over millions of years have resulted in gradual drying of the continent and the creation of an ecological time bomb. Although Aboriginal Australians were known to clear dense vegetation for hunting and the creation of footpaths, the arrival of European settlers took the practice to epic proportions for agricultural purposes.  Land clearing and the accompanying deforestation is now identified as major human factor with regard to global warming likely to occasion the loss of flora and fauna while increasing the frequency of bushfires (Environmental Development 2013). This paper will, therefore, provide an in-depth evaluation of land clearing as a major environmental issue in Australia and the nature and extent of the problem. A ‘green victimology’ lens will also be applied in examining the notions that federal and state government regulation of land clearing serves public and corporate interests. Furthermore, this paper will also feature a discussion of how the Victorian government could better serve victims of this environmental harm.

Scope, Nature, and Extent of Land Clearing in Australia

            Land clearing within the Australian context is an age-old practice characterized by deforestation and the elimination of native of vegetation. The arrival of European settlers in the 19th century and technological innovations have further exacerbated the situation by speeding up environmental harm in continent. For instance, large scale farmers and ranchers frequently level native forests, woodlands, and wetlands for commercial purposes. According to Diamond (2014), 90% of the native vegetation in Australia was cleared between 1920 and 1980 at the height of the “Million Acres a Year” program which was initially endorsed by the Australia state government. Land clearing in Australia has now been taken to the extreme, resulting in immense environmental pressure which causes the degradation of native vegetation, salinity, and sedimentation in coastal regions. Agriculture is among the primary motivations for land clearing in Australia. The extensive forests, woodlands, and wetlands of the Australian Outback have historically viewed as waste land in need of development. The Commonwealth and State Governments have traditionally supported this idea with the main aim of improving the nation’s economy. Ranching and wheat production also emerged as lucrative ventures which prompted the implementation of institutional incentives in New South Wales and The Australian Capital Territory in support of systematic land clearing.

            The extent of land clearing in Australia has also had a significant impact on land condition. By removing native vegetation, the soil has been left bare which has had a negative impact on is stability while making it prone to erosion. This eventually prevents native vegetation and biotas from re-establishing in areas where they were removed thus creating nutrient-deficient soils. A environmental crime study by the Australian Institute of Criminology (2016) into deforestation and related land clearing practices in areas adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef noted a clear association between the practice and soil erosion. Furthermore, land clearing destroys the local flora and fauna while also creating a unique opportunity for invasive species such as feral cats and red foxes thrive, eventually upsetting the ecological balance. Dry salinity, the emergence of salt on the land surface, is a direct result of land clearing practices in Australia. The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development currently estimates that 1 million hectares of land in South West Western Australia alone is severely affected by dry salinity (The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development 2020). This is a consequence of an abrupt rise in the water table due to the clearing of native vegetation which relies on deep root systems which previously prevented the rise of salt to the surface. Australia’s land clearing epidemic is also linked to greenhouse emissions owing to a diminished capability by the remaining vegetation to engage in the absorption of carbon monoxide.

            Perhaps one of the most profound impacts of land clearing is the loss of biodiversity across the territory. According to the World Wildlife Fund-Australia, a total of 108 species of plants, birds, and terrestrial mammals have gone extinct within the past 60 years as a result of human activities, chief among them being land clearing (WWF-Australia 2020). The fragmentation of habitats has added pressure on native species of flora and fauna which fail to adapt to this abrupt change that has often ended in their disappearance. Forests, grasslands, and health play a major role in supporting Australia’s diverse ecosystem. The extermination of native vegetation has also impacted climate extremes and may very well represent the onset of earth’s sixth mass extinction event.

Critical Evaluation of the Notion that Federal and State Government Regulation of Land Clearing Serves the Public Interest

            Cognizance of the reality of the damaging effects of land clearing in Australia and a shift in attitudes prompted Australian policymakers to lobby for the implementation of state and federal legislations to regulate land clearing. These efforts resulted in the implementation of sweeping land clearing regulations which are currently implemented in Australia. Although legislations differ from one jurisdiction to the next, they all endeavor to minimize land clearing as a viable solution to this crisis (Durrant 2015). The implementation of a large majority of land clearing legislations was as a result of the recognition of non-human victims of environmental justice and a first step towards eco-justice in Australia. Equal victimhood affirms that all species residing within a specific ecosystem should be viewed as being equal in their fundamental worth, hence the need for a moral computation of interests and possible harms within any given scenario.

            The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999) has served an important role in controlling land clearing in Australia.  Among its core objectives has been to control all activities relating to land clearing in Australia and the protection of endangered plant and animal species (Wells & Wells 2016). The Act has been successful in the creation of a clear framework for the protection of biodiversity and the environment in Australia. Furthermore, its application was also supported since it emerged as public interest litigation to safeguard the public from the adverse effects of the “Million Acres a Year” program. The EPBC Act also recognized culturally significant sites which may bear the full brunt of environmental degradation through land clearing. By replacing the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act of 1975, the EPBC Act was now sanctioned to use its discretion to promote activities and policies bound to result in cumulative benefits for both the environment and the public (Environmental Protection Authority 2014). For instance, the Act created clear provisions for the issuance of permits and approvals for activities capable of having sweeping environmental consequences. Failure to adhere to these provisions would result in criminal penalties for any infractions noted. The notion that federal regulation of land clearing serves the public interest is applicable in this particular case. Land clearing is motivated by the financial incentive. A sizeable majority of individuals involved in such activities are a handful of rich and corrupt individuals who endeavor to clear land for their self-interests. This culture of impunity may result in dire repercussions such as environmental extremes and loss of biodiversity which would have negative on the average citizen.

            The Northern Territory’s policy on land clearing is informed by The Planning Act 1999. This legislation was particularly important in establishing a formative state legislation for the regulation of land clearing through elaborate clearing controls. Its implementation has since transformed land clearing practices within the region by enforcing permits.  The creation of zoned and unzoned land has also created a clear delineation of areas formally recognized by the Northern Territory Planning Scheme (NTPS) in controlling land clearing within the region. The axiom that state government regulation of land clearing serves public interest also rings true in this particular scenario. For instance, Clause 10.2 (3) recognizes the importance of clearing applications in preventing negative impacts of environmental clearing particularly on rural Aboriginal communities in Australia (Kinsella 2012). It is noteworthy to acknowledge that unequal distribution is a clear hallmark of environmental victimization with marginalized communities living within the fringes of society bearing the full brunt of this current state. The illegal clearing of land in the Northern Territory is mainly the precinct of wealthy ranchers, landowners, and agricultural companies motivated by profit (Steffen 2010). However, the adverse effects caused by deforestation and loss of biodiversity are the Aboriginal Australians and rural communities who are typically disempowered. By creating clear provisions for land clearing, public interest takes precedence by considering its effects on marginalized communities likely to be disproportionately affected by natural disasters occasioned by such illegalities.

How Government Could Better Serve Victims of Land Clearing in Australia

            The Victorian government has plays a central role in controlling land clearing in Australia through legislation. Although it is apparent that copious efforts have been made to serve victims of land clearing, much still remains to be done. This will guarantee the implementation of an elaborate framework capable of serving both human and non-human victims of land clearing in Australia.

            In recent years, much focus has been given to trees and native vegetation as the main non-human victims of land clearing. However, legislations have systematically failed to underscore the plight of wild animals killed in the millions across Australia as a result of land clearing. This may be due to the largely indiscernible nature of the effects of land clearing on animals. Land clearing often causes traumatic injuries on animals especially in the presence of earth-moving machinery. Additionally, land clearing restructures the ecosystem; creating an unfamiliar and hostile environment for survivors of the clearing process. Land clearing is responsible for the movement of terrestrial animals such as lizards and koalas into urban settings in search of a new microhabitat (Healey 2011). State and government legislations have focused solely on salinity, the fragmentation of habitat, and salinity as major areas which require urgent focus but failed to acknowledge the effects of land clearing on animals. The government should, therefore, amend legislations governing environmental impact assessments to consider animal welfare when approving clearing process. Proposed clearings should also be evaluated thoroughly to review their impact on animal welfare.

            The Victorian government could also better serve human victims of land clearing in Australia through restorative justice programs for environmental crimes. Although it may initially require some adjustments, restorative justice is a promising alternative capable of mending relationships between victims of land clearing and perpetrators. While punitive measures serve an important role in enforcing the law, restorative justice may be instrumental in achieving justice for victims of the crime. Unresolved conflict is capable of affecting the social fabric of a community and may cause a breakdown in relations (Williamson et al. 2010). Moreover, the application of restorative justice in the context of land clearing will serve an important role in highlighting communities that interact with and rely on the environment. This ultimately results in their stake in the environment being subsumed in the government’s broader objectives. The decision by the presiding Chief Judge to opt for restorative justice during the 2007 Garret v William case over the destruction of Aboriginal artifacts during land clearing in New South Wales for the purpose of mining should inform similar scenarios (Environmental Protection Authority 2014)

Conclusion

Land clearing is a contemporary debacle plaguing Australia resulting in extensive destruction of the environment. The implementation of legislations such as Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999) and The Planning Act 1999 have played a major role in reiterating the notion that federal and state government regulation of land clearing serves public interest.Nevertheless, amendments to current legislations and the application of restorative justice are also bound tobetter serve human victims of land clearing in Australia.

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