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Traditional Owners slam 'overstated, under-consulted' Top End horticulture project

Giovanni Torre -

A Top End irrigation project has been slammed by the Central Land Council for "overstating" economic benefits and allegedly failing to properly assess ecological and cultural impacts.

The Singleton Horticulture Project entails the development of 3,500ha of intensive irrigated horticulture on Singleton Station, a 295,000ha station in the Western Davenport region of the Northern Territory.

The project is dependent on gaining access to 40 billion litres of groundwater annually once fully developed, and would be established through staged development over eight years.

An independent report led by University of South Australia water economics professor Jeff Connor analysed the business case put forward for Singleton by Fortune Agribusiness, which acquired the station in 2015.

Fortune Agribusiness claimed Singleton would create 110 permanent and 1350 seasonal jobs, but the report found it "delivers little" for the Northern Territory.

The experts concluded Singleton was likely to generate 26-36 fulltime equivalent jobs for Territorians, with fewer than ten of those jobs going to Aboriginal communities in the Barkly.

The report found a realistic estimate of economic benefit to Territorians was between $13 million and $28 million a year, rather than the $110 million claimed by Fortune Agribusiness.

By analysing prices paid for water on other Australian projects, the analysts estimated the value of the free water subsidy being given to Fortune by the Northern Territory government at between $70 million and $300 million.

Mr Connor said Singleton was one of a long line of irrigation proposals which promised more than it would deliver.

"It seeks the allocation of a large volume of water free of charge in return for employment benefits which are largely illusory, especially as regards the creation of full-time jobs for local indigenous workers," he said.

Central Land Council chief executive Les Turner said the report's findings posed serious questions about the project's social, cultural and environmental costs.

"Not only has the project failed the economic benefits test, it has also neglected to account for the damage it would do to Aboriginal communities and country," he said.

Mr Turner said the Central Land Council would continue to stand with Traditional Owners who opposed the Territory government's decision to give Fortune 40 gigalitres of ground water every year for 30 years.

"We are talking about emptying Sydney Harbour twice, about giving away water worth hundreds of millions of dollars," he said.

The report also found the Territory government's "lack of proper consultation with Aboriginal communities" contradicts the government's own policies on Closing the Gap and the Everyone Together 2019-2029 Strategy, and the government's obligations under the National Water Initiative.

An NT government spokesperson said given the matter is currently before court, it would be inappropriate for the Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Water Security, Lauren Moss, to comment.

A spokesperson for Fortune Agribusiness said the company obtained the report on Tuesday and identified a number of errors and inconsistencies.

"(The) authors did not... seek to contact Fortune Agribusiness to obtain relevant details or any information about the project and plans for the development," she said.

The spokesperson said the report had drawn conclusions "without any detailed information".

"More than 110 permanent positions will be required for the farm itself plus around 40 in support services," they said.

"More than 1350 seasonal workers will also be required once the farm is fully developed which will happen in four stages over nine years.

"There will be opportunities for local Indigenous people in the farm itself, in support services, as well as environmental ranger monitoring roles."

The spokesperson said an NT Farmers report, cited in the independent study, which said just 11 per cent of jobs would be filled by Territorians related only to seasonal workers.

They said an estimated investment of more than $250 million would generate jobs and economic activity during the construction phases of the project.

Fortune said the CLC was consulted when it applied for a water extraction licence.

"More recently the same parties on behalf of the Traditional Owners have provided input to the consideration of non-pastoral use and pastoral land clearing permit applications by Fortune Agribusiness and will in the near future have similar opportunities with regard to a referral to the Environmental Protection Authority," the spokesperson said.


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