Rock art, traditional hunting grounds, burial sites and significant camps were at risk of being illegally bulldozed by renegade pastoralists, and governments were refusing to use the full force of the law as a deterrent.
That’s the opinion of Peter Murray, the chief executive officer of the Yanunijarra Aboriginal Corporation in WA’s far north, following a finding by the WA Government that controversial pastoral company SAWA had engaged in unauthorised clearing of native vegetation to sink massive bores on Beefwood Station, near Fitzroy Crossing.
The WA Government only issued a written warning to the company, which is now in negotiations with Chinese interests to buy large landholdings across the country.
The soft finding also comes after hefty fines and even jail terms have been dished out to farmers around the country for illegally clearing native vegetation on their land.
In Queensland, a farmer was fined more than $300,000 last year after challenging a court penalty he was handed for illegally clearing native vegetation near the Gwydir Wetlands, while one farmer in WA spent months in prison refusing to back down from an illegal clearing charge.
Mr Murray, who is also chairman of the indigenous charitable trust KRED Enterprises, said that with an influx of foreign investors buying up Australian properties it was more important than ever for traditional owners to be a part of the process and consulted before land was cleared.
“The main issue is clearing land without consulting,” he said. “In my travels I’ve seen it a lot with a lot of other pastoralists and other native title groups. “
Mr Murray said he believed a cultural awareness program delivered by traditional owners would be a good way to introduce pastoralists and foreign owners to indigenous culture and to prevent problems before they arose.
In April, the Department of Environment Regulation in WA wrote to KRED over a complaint about the clearing of native vegetation for the construction of bores on Beefwood Park Station, near Fitzroy Crossing in the heart of the Kimberley.
The area that was the subject of the complaint was not a native title area.
“The investigation determined the clearing was not authorised and the landholder has been issued with a letter of warning regarding undertaking the clearing without the appropriate authorisations,” DER Environment Enforcement senior manager Alex Bite wrote.
Mr Bite would not comment further to the NIT this week, but the department said in a statement that the warning was issued to property owner, SAWA Pty Ltd.
“The matter was investigated and after taking into account the circumstances of the matter, including the impact and size of the clearing, the Department of Environment Regulation (DER) determined to issue a Formal Letter of Warning,” it said.
DER said it currently had two prosecutions against SAWA Pty Ltd before the law courts relating to an allegation of unauthorised clearing in Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing.
Across the whole of WA’s north-west, it had received a total of 12 complaints of unauthorised land clearing on different properties in the past 12 months.
Under section 51 C of WA’s Environmental Protection Act, a body corporate convicted of unauthorised clearing of native vegetation faces penalties of up to $500,000 and individuals, up to $250,000, plus an ongoing daily penalty of $100,000 for a body corporate and $50,000 for individuals.
In WA, the DER is responsible for administering the land clearing provisions of the Act and assessing applications for clearing permits.
Mr Murray said he wanted more information about what work had been going on at Beefwood Park.
“It’s been happening for a while and we feel we haven’t had that support from the State Government,” he said.
SAWA owner Nico Botha could not be contacted for comment.
Mr Botha is currently in the process of selling his four giant north-west cattle stations — Beefwood Park, Moola Bulla, Mt Amherst and Shamrock — to South Australian agriculture investment company, Agrify.
Agrify partner Dale Champion, in a written response to the NIT, said the sale was not yet settled and subject to Foreign Investment Review Board and WA government consent.
He said a reported price of $100 million was incorrect, but the terms of the deal were confidential.
Mr Champion said it was wrong to say the properties had been bought on behalf of Chinese interests.
“Agrify have established and are leading a new investment entity here in Australia,” he said. “It is presently supported by international investors only, but we have and will continue to explore the appetite of domestic institutional investors to become involved.
“Details of investors are strictly confidential.”
Earlier this month, in another massive multi-million dollar deal, it was reported that a Chinese company, Shanghai CRED, had bought Yakka Munga and Mt Elizabeth stations in the Kimberley through Australian operating arm Shanghai Zenith.
And would also own Mertondale, Riverina, Perrinvale, Clover Downs, Jeedamya, Melita and Kookynie stations in the Goldfields, subject to approval from the FIRB and WA Lands minister Terry Redman.
A spokesman for the federal Treasury said it could not comment on whether the FIRB had received an application for sale over the four SAWA properties.