14 August 2015
The Kimberley, future Asian food bowl – is it sustainable?
The Kimberley, future Asian food bowl – is it sustainable?

(A summary of Colin Kennard's 11 August presentation compiled by GCI's Dr Jane O'Sullivan)

The Kimberley, future Asian food bowl – is it sustainable?

Colin Kennard combined his own experiences of the Kimberley as a ‘grey nomad’ with a wide range of sources of information and commentary, placing current ambitious claims of development potential in perspective against past initiatives and their limited success. Agriculture is currently a relatively minor contributor to the regional economy, behind tourism and less than a third of the value of mining. There is no doubt that Asian markets for food are expanding, but whether the Kimberley is positioned to take advantage of this is questionable.

Challenges of isolation, weather, transport, labour and biosecurity were discussed. The soils of the region are generally infertile, shallow and sandy or gravelly. Very low stocking rates (2-8 cattle per square kilometre) mean very large, very isolated stations, difficult and costly to provision. Virtually all the cattle are shipped live to Indonesia – meat works in the region have closed. Transport of produce out of the area is challenged by sparse, rough roads and very high tide heights complicating shipping. While these are surmountable engineering problems, the low productivity of the area may not justify the cost. Climate change may increase cyclone damage to port facilities, and rain/flood damage to road infrastructure, further escalating the cost of marketing the region’s produce.

Nevertheless, the 2015 Federal Budget has allocated considerable amounts for port and road infrastructure in the region. This adds to some $415 million allocated between 2009 and 2012 by the WA and Federal governments for the Ord East Kimberley Development Package. An amusing excerpt from the political satire “Utopia” portrayed the irrepressible political popularity of northern development, in defiance of evidence.

Past attempts at irrigated cropping have been hampered by pest and disease problems. A number of biosecurity threats challenge current and future enterprises – from Bovine Johne’s Disease (BJD) to cane toads and various invasive weeds.

Recruiting labour is also seen as a challenge for new enterprises, but I wonder of it is more a case that the productivity does not justify the remuneration needed for people to live in such logistically-challenged areas. Cattle stations in the region were developed using indigenous labour under exploitative conditions. Beginning with the Wave Hill strike in 1966, aboriginal people have eventually won equal pay, but this resulted in widespread loss of employment and indigenous people being forced off stations where they lived, and which were their traditional lands. (Various land rights legislation since the Whitlam government has recognised indigenous tenure over considerable areas of land – about 15% of WA – but relatively few of the 327 parcels of land are in direct aboriginal management.) The labour challenge remains one of capacity-building among the indigenous population.

Colin questioned whether expanding and intensifying beef production was compatible with containing climate change. He mentioned current research at UQ Gatton on the possibility of modifying the microbiology of bovine digestion, to be more similar to that of kangaroos which emit little methane.

Claims have been made that irrigating the Fitzroy River basin could double WA’s grain crop. However, the failure of the Camballin Irrigation Scheme on the Fitzroy, which was abandoned in 1983 due to repeated flood damage, should be salutary. The Ord River scheme has also had a string of failures, most notably cotton and rice, and now only produces sandalwood and chia seed, as well as vegetables largely for local consumption. The current scheme covers 14,000 ha, but areas identified for development under Stage 2 include some 33,000 ha. A Chinese venture is looking to produce sugar cane for biofuel.

Some measures with potential were discussed, such as ‘upside-down weirs’ to increase recharge of groundwater during the wet season, and greater development of the tourist industry. However, none seem to point toward a major bonanza in the Kimberley.

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