welcomes Distinguished Professor Bill Laurance from JCU Centre for Tropical Environmental Sustainability Science (TESS)

Australia has a history of quite extensive land use.

But particularly when we’re talking about the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, this is an area that has been substantially protected, and I think it’s important to emphasise just how critical, and how unique this area is.

“On the Australian continent, we’re talking about 1,000th of Australia’s continental land area. 

A major analysis which looked at the biogeographic and the biological uniqueness and irreplaceability of different ecosystems on the planet – this was over 173,000 different protected areas on the planet – ranked the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area as the 6th most critical and irreplaceable.

Of World Heritage Areas, it was the 2nd most critical and irreplaceable.  I think this gives you global perspective on what we’re talking about here.

Anybody, from anywhere on the planet, looking around would say this is absolutely critical biological and environmental real estate.

You would not want to risk it – from an International, from a global perspective – for lots of different reasons.”

It is a tremendously complex web of interactions and really is the highest, most gloriously developed example of co-evolution, and evolutionary complexity, that we see pretty much on the planet.

The forests here are very restricted in area. They’re already under a lot of pressure. Naturally small. Naturally fragmented.

We know there’s been a legacy of very extensive land use.

For instance, about 70% of the lowland forests have been destroyed. A lot of the upland forests on the Atherton Tablelands and Windsor Tableland have also been cleared and fragmented.

Many kinds of pressures here in terms of edge effects, climate change, exotic pathogens.

One of the interesting things is this KUR-World, and the company will hold it, is privately held.

And one of the things that we’ve had quite a lot of experience around the world working with Chinese corporations: Public / Private Partnerships, Private Corporations and other types of entities.

When you’re dealing with a private corporation.  When you don’t have stockholders. You don’t have boards of directors.  Basically you’re dealing with the whims of an individual.

I think that was interesting and consistent with some of Steve’s comments – about a lack of certainty about what exactly is being planned and this whole situation seems to be pretty soft.

It’s very clear that the main base of investment is going to be coming out of Southern China, particularly the Hong Kong area.

This is an area in China is a massive investor right now in different parts of the world.  Massive foreign investor. In developing countries, and of course in places like Australia.

It’s also clear that some of those projects are then going to be sold off.  So there’s no plan basically for a single title holder or corporation to hold that.  The idea is basically to sell it to maximise the profit.

Ken Lee spends a limited amount of time in Melbourne and lives in Hong Kong.

From my understanding, I think his business entrepreneurial attitude and approach is probably going to be much more typical of the Chinese investor than probably an investor you might see operating perhaps as an Australian. Now, I can’t be certain of that – that’s based on a certain amount of personal experience.

China has been instrumentally involved in investments, especially around large-scale mining investments, bulk mining investments that would involve massive increases in transportation infrastructure – more than 53,000 km of new roads, highways and also associated energy and transportation water infrastructure with those projects.

Typically what would happen is there would be a so-called an anchoring project which might be a large iron mine, or a coal mine, or copper mine.  Then there would be a large corridor – a road or railway or both often times – connecting that then to a port which would then be exporting that to China.

KUR-World… I want to provide some general perspectives on this.

Again, one of the obvious things is being, this is by any measure, one of the most biologically critical areas of the planet.  It’s renowned for having all these rare, endemic species.

These are things that can occur in a very, very tiny part of the world.

[pictured] These are some of the species that have been documented to be restricted or rare or localised endemics that occur within this general area, within the [KUR-World] project area.

Notably, the Northern Bettong and Tropical Bettong is not there will but this project will be smack in the middle of the two known populations: one in the Lamb Range and one on the Windsor Tableland and this will be in fact putting additional pressures.  If there were any gene flow, if there were any movement, if there were any connectivity between those two relic populations of this Critically Endangered Australian native species this development would be almost certainly slamming the door on that kind of demographic and genetic movement.

Landscape context.  Bio-geographic context is critical. What we’re in right here is really one of the critical bottlenecks. It’s really the critical bottleneck – the so called Black Mountain Bio-Geographic Corridor and it’s the narrowest choke point for the Wet Tropics.

What you generally don’t want in these bottlenecks is you don’t want to elevate land use pressures.  You don’t want to choke these bottlenecks even further by additional kinds of development pressures.

Big development projects, almost as a generality, not always, but almost always as a generality it’s the secondary effects, it’s the knock on effects of the transportation infrastructure, and the water infrastructure, and the energy infrastructure, and the land use change pressures and everything else going on, the migration is actually more important than the project itself.

Another general principle, we see this lots of places, for instance in the Asia Pacific Region, what you’ll typically see is large corporations and then they will have a whole set of subsidiaries. There might be some kind of land claim where they’re allowed to claim up to 2000 ha but what they’ll do is branch off into all these subsidiaries and then they’ll have Joe and Bob and Joe’s uncle, Bob’s brother.  And then what they’ll do is put in all these claims and treat these as though they are all separate entities. It also becomes very, very hard to track the money and track the compliance.  So this is a very common phenomenon.

And what’s clearly going to be happening with this project, this KUR-World, is that it’s going to be designed to sold off to multiple landowners and there will be land speculation happening.  But there may also be this subsidiary effect happening as well. So, it’s going to be difficult for the people that are trying to manage the environmental impact to handle these types of shared cases. It’s more difficult than if you’re dealing with a single landowner.

Almost everywhere you look in the world, the so called Strategic and Environmental Assessments and Social Assessments almost never capture what’s really going to happen. Because these projects drag with them migration, and economic changes, and land speculation, and other land use changes, and a whole suite of things.  And they are just not able to be captured within the Terms of Reference of Environmental Impact Assessment.  Even when they try.  Nobody has really been able to do that.  Don’t believe it.  If they tell you they’ve done an EIA and it’s all going to be ok.

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William Laurance is a Distinguished Research Professor at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, and holds an Australian Laureate Fellowship, one of Australia’s highest scientific awards. He also holds the Prince Bernhard Chair in International Nature Conservation at Utrecht University, Netherlands.

Laurance received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley in 1989. His research focuses on the impacts of intensive land-uses, such as habitat fragmentation, logging, hunting and wildfires, on tropical forests and their biodiversity. He is also interested in protected areas, climatic change, the impacts of roads and other infrastructure on biodiversity, and conservation policy. His research over the past 35 years spans the tropical world, including the Amazon, Africa and Asia-Pacific regions. To date he has published eight books and over 400 scientific and popular articles.

A leading voice for conservation, Laurance believes that scientists must actively engage policy makers and the general public, as well as other scientists. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and former president of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation.

Laurance has received many scientific honors including the BBVA Frontiers in Ecology and Conservation Biology Award, a Distinguished Service Award from the Society for Conservation Biology, and the Heineken Environment Prize. He is also founder and director of ALERT—the Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers & Thinkers, a group that advocates for environmental sustainability.

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