Queensland’s Wild Rivers legislation was put together without enough scientific consultation, according to a leading authority on tropical river systems.
Governments are crying out for more detailed science on tropical rivers, but the scientific community has not been able to give them what they need, says Stuart Bunn, the director of the Australian Rivers Institute (ARI) at Griffith University.
This meant the Government’s decision to lock up the Lockhart, Stewart and Archer rivers on Cape York earlier this month was made without the appropriate level of scientific consultation, he said.
“To date that sort of input has not been part of the process as far as I can see,” professor Bunn told the ABC.
“We’ve had some discussions with them about our interests in having some input into that process but up until now the process of selecting catchments and the whole development of the legislation has not been one that’s really required or incorporated a lot of that.”
The Government declared the three Wild Rivers on April 3, meaning development in their catchment areas will be heavily managed to preserve their high conservation value.
The decision has produced stark divisions between a range of Indigenous and environmental groups.
The plan was welcomed by Wik Projects Ltd., the Aurukun Uniting Church, Indigenous leader Murundoo Yanner and the Wilderness Society.
But Noel Pearson angrily left his position with the Cape York Institute to fight the Government over the issue, accusing Premier Anna Bligh of robbing Indigenous people of their economic rights.
Mr Pearson accused the Government of “sleazy” political deals with the Greens to get the declarations through and said there had not been enough discussion with Indigenous people.
The Government denied this, saying there was an extensive consultation process. There is now another discussion process underway, with a proposal to gazette the Wenlock River basin on Cape York.
Professor Bunn’s comments throw some doubt over claims by the Government of extensive consultation, although he is at pains to point out that the fault lies as much with the science community as with the Government.
“There’s not a lot of science being done, so pulling a lot of the information together and getting it into a form that’s useful is one challenge and the second one is we’ve (the scientific community) not been really proactive in the past at taking what little information we have and getting it into the policy area,” he said.
“They’re (governments) willing to take whatever science advice we can give them right now. The reality is decisions are being made right now and whatever information we have is stuff that we have to get in there and make sure that policies that are developed are based on the best information.”
The anger coming from Noel Pearson and others over a perceived lack of consultation shows how important it is to engage Cape York communities in the river conservation process, Professor Bunn said.
“A high priority is to identify what are the assets and values that people hold very dearly and how are they distributed across the north, and use that information to help guide where are laces that are of high conservation significance or cultural significance,” he said.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to lock up every catchment and turn them into places where no-one’s allowed to go because that’s not a good form of management either.
“Whatever process we use to protect them, if we don’t engage the communities that are living there and the ones that are going to be affected by this, then they won’t be managed properly into the future.”