The public exhibition by the NSW Government of a new Biodiversity Conservation Bill and the Local Land Services Amendment Bill early in May has raised concerns with many environmental groups as they will undo a number of key environmental protections. As an example, the NSW Environmental Defenders Office released a statement outlining their concerns with the reform package, including:
– Increased land clearing under self-assessable codes
– Reduced public transparency
– No requirement to maintain or improve biodiversity, water quality, soil and salinity
– Missed opportunity for reform in regards to disparities between development rights of farmers compared to miners
– Heavy reliance on flexible and indirect biodiversity offsets
Concern about the reforms is also based on the experience in Queensland where in 2013 the Newman Government relaxed native vegetation clearing laws which then led to 300,000 hectares of bushland being cleared just in 2013-14. Furthermore, tracking land clearing in NSW is already challenging and the self-assessable codes would conceivably make it even more difficult.
In response the NSW Farmers Association has consistently stated that amongst other things, the current system includes confusing regulations relating to land use and a lack of autonomy for farmers to manage their land to stop invasive plants and animals. However, it could be countered that while the funding allocated to the Catchment Management Authorities ($430 million) was available the system worked well; property vegetation plans were created within a reasonable time period and were embraced by farmers, it is only during recent times where funding has reduced that the administration of the system has broken down leading to the current problems.
Considering the experience in Queensland, it is tempting to say that the same result will happen in NSW, however that assumes that all farmers are alike. Farmers are also custodians of the land they farm and many farmers take that obligation seriously. This can be seen in the winners and nominees of the National Landcare Awards. A biennale award ceremony, farmers are represented, and win in numerous categories for the commitment they show to conserving their land while producing food and fibre that everyone relies on. To their credit, the EDO will be participating in community workshops in Murwillumbah, Byron Bay, Lismore, Newcastle and Gerroa to hear concerns from farmers and also to present its analysis about the proposed changes.
Rightly there are concerns over protecting biodiversity and the Queensland experience should not be ignored, however it would be a mistake to ignore farmers’ worries, especially those who see agriculture and conservation as inseparable.
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