Graziers in the Paroo shire are sounding the environmental alarm on the practice of carbon farming as they watch a buildup of pest and weed threats, alongside a drastic decline in community revenue.
The potential perils of locking up south west Queensland’s mulga lands completely has been enough of an incentive for Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, to urge his federal counterpart, Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg, to travel north and see the situation for himself.
As the Member for Maranoa, Mr Littleproud is familiar with the region’s cashflow needs and he told a posse of concerned Wyandra graziers recently that the minister had contacted his office to discuss a potential future visit.
“I sat down with Minister Frydenberg and said, no-one’s trying to blow the program up but there’s been some unintended consequences in my patch I’m a little worried about,” Mr Littleproud said.
“He pulled up the maps and he could see the concentration (of carbon farms) in this part of the world, and that’s when it did raise some alarm bells to get the department involved and out there.”
Carbon farming, which retains regrowth and sells carbon credits to the federal government through a $2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund, has been touted as both a valuable environmental practice and a financial boon for some of the most drought-stricken people in Queensland.
An estimated 324,000ha of land in the Paroo shire, nine properties, all owned by corporate investors, have entered into carbon farming projects since the scheme was announced by the federal government.
Anyone would think the Paroo shire was trying to solve global warming by itself
He was very concerned about a landscape in which “not one dollar” from corporate owners was going back into the community.
“The shires have no income at all except out of rates now.” he said.
“No-one lives on these properties so there’s no-one to buy groceries at the store.
“They don’t pay a power bill – the power’s switched off.
“The truck drivers that used to cart cattle off those joints, every year, five decks, 10 decks, well they’ve lost all that income.”
Estimates are that between $2m and $3m gross has been lost to the towns of Cunnamulla and Wyandra a year as a result.
Looking into the future, Kane Lucas predicted knock-on effects when young people trying to enter the industry were competing with large companies for land.
“The country (the carbon famers) are buying is generally cheaper country so these carbon blokes have pushed them out and they simply can’t afford it.
“They’re paying $26 for country that should be $10.”
‘A sinkhole of pests and weeds’
The state of the landscape under a proliferating carbon farming regime has been on South West NRM chairman, Mark O’Brien’s mind, who wants to see credits accompanied by a strict land management regime.
“These places have the potential to become a sinkhole of pests and weeds,” he said. “In some cases you can still graze but some agreements won’t allow that, so someone’s got to put their foot down and say you’ve got to manage that.”
Because the program’s funds originated with the federal government, Mr O’Brien said the responsibility lay with them.
He believed the idea of carbon farming was good in theory but the practicalities hadn’t been thought through.
“I have a concern that we will wake up one day and find it’s all smoke and mirrors,” he said. “Someone has got to grow our food, and someone’s got to pay.
“It might be better in the short term to have carbon credits but I don’t think they’ve thought about it strategically enough.”
Land locked up
One of the landholders benefiting from the concept is Stephen Schmidt, who has locked up 1214ha of his 55,440ha property south of Charleville with DA Carbon.
He said he was approached with an offer, which was an instant income stream as well as providing ongoing income, with country that was never likely to provide that kind of cashflow from running livestock and would not provide the returns from development.
“We’re getting enough to cover power bills, phone bills, lease payments,” he said.
The methodology Stephen has agreed to means that while he has stopped mechanically clearing category X country on his maps, he is encouraged to integrate livestock with his carbon because it reduces the surrounding fuel load.
“What I understand of the other methodology is, they’re wanting you to take your stock off so it’s a locking up. There’s no income from livestock, there’s nothing happening on the property.”
He would like to see an agreement implemented as part of carbon agreements with corporate managers that tied them to pest control.
Peter Lucas noted that there was already a responsibility for them to control wild dogs, as a class two pest, which needed to be enforced.
He and the other graziers suggested restricting the amount of land on each property that could be locked up for carbon credit purposes, as a possible solution.
According to Kane Lucas, the problems didn’t lie with landholders such as Stephen locking up a few thousand acres and receiving income that was subsidiary to their grazing enterprise.
“The issue we have is the corporate companies coming in and buying chunks of land – five or six places – and just locking them up.
“So they get paid for their carbon and they also get paid for the reduction of methane.
“That gives them an incentive to run no stock – they don’t employ anyone, no-one’s on there, there’s nothing.
“What the program was originally designed for is a good idea, there’s just flaws in the system.”
Mr Littleproud said the federal Department of Environment was preparing to undertake a carbon farming review.
“We’ve already started engagement and making sure you guys are going to be aware.
“You can let them know the unintended consequences of this policy.
“Let’s get the facts on the table and have a look at it in the cold hard light of day.”