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Submission to the Pastoral Land Board - Pastoral Land Board Compliance and Enforcement Framework

On 24 September 2021 Environment Centre NT made a submission to the Pastoral Land Board regarding the Pastoral Land Board compliance and enforcement framework.

A summary of the submission is below or download the full submission here.

We appreciate the opportunity to provide a comment on the Pastoral Land Board’s (PLB) draft compliance and enforcement framework (Draft Compliance Framework). 

The Environment Centre NT (ECNT) is the peak community sector environment organisation in the Northern Territory of Australia, raising awareness amongst community, government, business, and industry about environmental issues, assisting people to reduce their environmental impact, and supporting community members to participate in decision-making processes and action. 

Close to half of all land in the Northern Territory (45%, or 596 542km2) is held under just 224 pastoral leases.  Importantly, pastoral leases comprise a very limited form of tenure (effectively a right to graze cattle and ancillary purposes) and are subject to co-existing native title rights and interests recognised under the Native Title Act.  Custodians of sacred sites have rights of access to sacred sites on pastoral leases under the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act (NT). Pastoral leases in the Territory are also subject to public rights of access (see for example, the right of the public to access perennial natural water without the permission of the pastoral lessee at s79(1) of the Pastoral Land Act.  The pastoral estate must thus be managed by the PLB for the benefit of not just the pastoral lessees, but native title holders, traditional custodians of sacred sites, and the public at large. 

The pastoral estate of the Northern Territory has never been more at risk. Recent research indicates that Northern Australia’s tropical savannas and its arid zone are two of 19 ecosystems in Australia that meet the criteria of being under collapse.1 Bergstrom et al suggest that it is imperative to understand how different threatening processes combine cumulatively (acting in what they term “threat webs”) to further threaten Australia’s collapsing ecosystems. As habitats become increasingly fragmented through land clearing or degraded through unsustainable practices, threatened species become more vulnerable to other threatening processes, such as climate change, changes in streamflow regimes, predation by invasive species and destructive fires, and they lose the ability to recolonise suitable habitat. Other research indicates that, based on current trends, many native mammals will be extinct in northern Australia in the next 10-20 years.2 

Amid this troubling environmental context, the Northern Territory Government, and the PLB, have proceeded with plans to streamline pastoral land clearing approvals to facilitate the rapid expansion of industrial-scale irrigated and dryland agriculture in the Territory, including for cotton, predominantly on the pastoral estate. The Pastoral Land Act is manifestly inadequate to manage the impacts of these large-scale proposals, as ECNT has repeatedly maintained publicly and through numerous submissions to the PLB, the NTEPA and the Minister.  

ECNT acknowledges that the preparation of the Draft Compliance Framework represents an important step forward in the history of the management of the pastoral estate in the Northern Territory.  However, given the significant environmental threats to the pastoral estate in the Territory (outlined below), ECNT’s view is that the Draft Compliance Framework is inadequate to safeguard the Territory’s pastoral estate for all Territorians. This is largely due to the poor enforcement and compliance mechanisms in its governing legislation, the Pastoral Land Act. Where remedies exist for breaches of the legislation, they are discretionary and do not provide adequate certainty.  In ECNT’s view, it is imperative that the Northern Territory Government enact new legislation to protection native vegetation, such as that recently proposed by the Environmental Defenders Office.3 The proper regulation and sustainable management of native vegetation and biodiversity, together with a comprehensive framework to establish and guide modern conservation policy through ecosystem or landscape scale management, would deliver significant benefits for the Territory’s environment and communities. 

If anything, the Draft Compliance Framework gives even more discretion and latitude to the PLB and individual departmental officers with respect to the crucial functions of compliance and enforcement of illegal activities and practices on pastoral land.  The creation of “non-statutory compliance pathways” is dubious, and is likely to give pastoral lessees a green light to pursue illegal activities on their land without appropriate consequences.  

ECNT believes that the consultation process and period for the Draft Compliance Framework is inadequate and cursory, given the importance of the issues raised by the Framework, its length and its complexity. ECNT had a one hour meeting with departmental officers, and was given approximately one month to respond to the Draft Compliance Framework. It is unclear which stakeholders were consulted prior to the release of the Draft Compliance Framework, but ECNT wishes to put on the record that it was not consulted prior to its release. Nor has ECNT been consulted about the proposed changes to the Pastoral Land Act which have been introduced to Parliament this week. These amendments would appear to be directly relevant to matters the subject of the Draft Compliance Framework.   

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