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Forgiving land clearers because of drought is like comforting a fat child with chocolate

Yet we’re clearing more forest than ever. It’s not just the Amazon. In the year 2016-17, anticipating new, relaxed land-clearing legislation in NSW, landholders cleared some 20,200 hectares for crops, pasture or thinning, more than twice the pre-existing annual average.

Then, in 2017, with much of NSW already in drought, the government carried out its threat to loosen land-clearing laws dramatically, replacing the very effective Native Vegetation Act with the cynically misnamed Biodiversity Conservation Act that lets landholders self-assess.

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon Letch Credit:

Landholder self-assessment is the agricultural equivalent of developer self-certification of buildings – only worse. The legislation purports to require clearing to provide “offsets”. In fact, it precipitated a free-for-all. Given that it is self-assessed, that there’s no like-for-like offset requirement and that the statutory maps were so woefully inadequate that “ground-truthing” was impossible, open-slather was inevitable.

It has brought eastern Australia the dubious distinction of being the only developed region named (both in anticipation of the laws and again since) as a world deforestation hotspot. Even the NSW auditor-general has criticised our land-clearing law as “weak” and ineffectual, saying “there is no evidence-based assurance that clearing of native vegetation is carried out in accordance with approvals”. Not to mention the 1700 threatened species suffering habitat loss.

Yet still the tree-haters weren’t content. “Kill more trees, cut them off at the knees, kill more trees…” chanted the chainsaw-wielding spirits of cash-driven cataclysm.

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So last week, days after the drought was officially declared the worst ever – worse than the Federation drought, the WWII drought and the Millennium drought – the Berejiklian government promised to waive prosecutions for the probably hundreds of landholders who cleared land illegally under the old Native Vegetation Act.

Of course, drought formed the pretext. Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall told landowners in Moree he understood “the considerable pain [you] must be going through, particularly as [you] simultaneously battle one of the worst droughts in living memory”.

What’s the message? To the farmers it says fine, do whatever you like. To the world it says, we in Australia disdain our public responsibilities towards survival and instead chase cash. And to environmentalists – like the family of environmental officer Glen Turner, shot dead as he lay wounded by serial land-clearer Ian Turnbull – it says: “Your work is without meaning and your life without value.” Money rules.

Basically, NSW has positioned itself with all of the attitude, and none of the smarts. We’re rude, cavalier and self-destructively stupid. Forgiving land-clearing because of drought is like handing a fat child daily chocolates to comfort him in his obesity.

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Why? Because trees reduce drought and diminish its effects, five ways.

First the most obvious. Shade. Trees, even Australian trees, offer shade. They cool the land and reduce ground evaporation. Second, in deepening soil and increasing its carbon content they dramatically increase water-holding, especially down low – metres below the surface – where it’s more evaporation-resistant. Third, trees provide habitat – for the birds, insects, bats and koalas that live in their branches but also, perhaps more crucially, for creatures and microbes of the soil. All this conserves water, reduces temperature and sequesters carbon.

Fourth. Water vapour is an important greenhouse gas. As air warms, its vapour-holding capacity increases, further exacerbating warming and increasing capacity further still – generating a destructive feedback loop. So retaining water underground is exponentially important to drought reduction and climate survival.

Fifth, rain generation. Increasingly, scientific scholarship suggest that forests proactively generate rain. Exactly how is still controversial. One theory is the “biotic pump”, which holds that water vapour released by transpiration (up to 1000 litres per tree per day) but cooled by the trees’ solar absorption creates a low-pressure system, drawing more wet air in from the oceans. Cooled by the forest, the vapour condenses and falls as rain.

Whatever the mechanism, the upshot is that the precepts of industrial farming in this country are more problem than solution. The idea that Australia is so infertile you need vast acreage in a single paddock or sown with a single crop with dozens of uncovered dams, eroded creeks and nary a tree to disrupt your ploughing is self-fulfilling. Fifty years of this and it’ll be infertile all right.

But that orthodoxy is barely 200 years old. For 60,000 years prior, Australia’s farming habits more closely foresadowed the kind of tree-dotted, multi-species, managed mosaic sylvopasture that could support us into the next century.

Far from validating illegal clearing we should mandate planting, incentivise rainwater collection tanks build soil-carbon and cover all dams.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have trees to hug.

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