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Farming's final frontier is often regarded as Northern Australia - a field of irrigated dreams just waiting for the right people and the right projects to unleash its full potential.Some are cautious about triggering an unsustainable land and water grab that tramples over the natural and cultural significance of some of the world's largest unspoilt tropical savannah country.
The ABC's rural and regional reporter Pete Lewis headed to Queensland's Gulf, where one single project has brought both sides of this agricultural development debate into sharp focus.
Keith De Lacy, representing private consortium, Integrated Food and Energy Developments (I-FED) stated ‘We believe that this is groundbreaking. This is going to change the way agriculture is carried out in Australia. For the last 50 years we've been talking about developing the north, the food bowl of Asia. We've had white papers and green papers. We've found a way of actually doing it. And the great thing about it, it's absolutely sustainable.’
He is talking about the grand plan to harness the power of this river in Queensland's Gulf Country for irrigated agriculture on an unprecedented scale. The science provided by CSIRO spent two years and $10 million looking into the land, the water and the climate in the Flinders and Gilbert river catchments and they're not quite so bullish.
Over the course of the next year, authorities both state and federal will assess the arguments for and against agricultural developments in northern Australia. Whether to opt for the CSIRO's more precautionary approach to opening up more irrigated projects or a complete game changer that might not just change the course of mighty rivers up here, but how the water in them is allocated.
I-FED is factoring in 65,000 hectares of irrigated crops, mostly sugarcane, fed by two large off-river dams. That justifies investment in a sugar mill, whose by-products in turn would be used to both generate electricity and ethanol to power the mill, as well as stock-feed for beef cattle that will also be processed onsite. First they'll need to raise $15 million to get the project to the next stage, and undertake the environmental impact and detailed engineering assessments, before pitching for a half a million megalitres in water entitlements and tree-clearing permits. To say nothing about winning over all the locals.
From the Australian seafood industry perspective the proposed development is seen as not only threatening its future in the Gulf of Carpentaria but believes the project has the capacity to "destroy" the area's Banana Prawn fishery. Additionally important Barramundi and Spanish Mackerel stocks could be affected.
The Federal Government is said to be supportive of the project, saying it will be an important step towards turning northern Australia into a new food bowl. The Queensland Government says the proposal is subject to an environmental impact statement and the potential environmental social and economic impacts of the proposal will be rigorously examined.
Environmentalists have said "What IFED is after is two or three times the amount of land that the CSIRO says is available, and what IFED is after is two or three times the amount of water that CSIRO says is available?"