Daintree: past, present and future

Kelvin Davies considers the past history of development in the Daintree Lowland Rainforest and how our response to present challenges might shape the future. 

The struggle to prevent development in the Daintree Lowland Rainforest is one of Australia’s longest running and unresolved conservation issues.

The protests known as the Daintree Blockade in 1983 and 1984 seemed to kick this off by bringing national and international attention to the importance of the Daintree Lowland Rainforest. However, this blockade was preceded two years earlier by the approval of a rural residential subdivision by Queensland’s then Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen and his National Party government. This created a legacy which we grapple with today.

At the time, the Douglas Shire Council opposed the subdivision saying it was too remote and too difficult to service. Regardless, the Bjelke-Petersen government approved the subdivision and imposed the development on the community.

During the 1980s, the developers constructed 50 km of roads to service 1,136 blocks of freehold land. With the subdivisions came expectations of services for a large community, yet times have changed and continue to do so.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature notes that within the broader wet tropics region, “the Daintree River to Cape Tribulation coast has a special status - it is the last surviving, essentially intact, tropical lowland rainforest in Australia. Significant stands of threatened lowland communities are now confined to this area.”

Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Russ Hinze "The Minister for Everything"

In 1988 an Australian Labor Government led by Bob Hawke used its powers to override Bjelke-Petersen and create an expanded Daintree National Park and the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area was declared. Being freehold land, the blocks in the Daintree subdivision were left out of the World Heritage Area.

Then, in 1989 the Labor Party came to power in Queensland and Joh’s era came to an end. It had lasted 19 years. The legacy it left in the Daintree is one that’s affected the lives of many people in the four decades since.

The creation of 1,136 blocks in the Daintree, the world’s oldest rainforest, would never be approved today and all three levels of government in Australia have taken steps to wind back the negative impacts of the subdivision. They have all invested in the buyback of land for conservation.

Other measures have also been taken to prevent development and settlement. In the 1990s the Queensland Government prevented the extension of the electricity grid into the Daintree. 

Douglas Shire Council, the local government authority responsible for development approvals in the Daintree, introduced a new planning scheme in 2006. This rezoned 330 properties to prevent their development for housing. The Douglas Shire Council also restricted the amount of land that can be cleared on each block. However, these measures do not prevent development on freehold land. Clearing of the rainforest for housing and settlement continues to this day, with and without the approval of the Council.

ABS Census data shows that between 2016 and 2021 the number of dwellings in the Daintree increased by over 24% and the population grew by 11.4%.

The Douglas Shire Council acknowledged in its planning scheme that the ‘rural residential style’ allotments north of the Daintree River posed a risk of significant detrimental impacts on the ecology and landscape character of the area. The Council notes as part of the planning scheme that further development would result in a greater resident population leading to pressure for an increased level of service and extension of infrastructure, which in turn would lead to more development pressure. The Council also warns that “such an outcome is contrary to the objectives of preserving the area’s natural environment, landscape character and relative isolation to maintain the area’s intrinsic attractiveness to tourists and residents.”

As of November 2021, the entire Lowland tropical rainforest of the Daintree was listed in the Endangered category of the threatened ecological communities list under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cwlth) (EPBC Act). This listing is reserved for ecological communities that the Commonwealth Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC) considers to have a high or greater chance of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future or earlier.

Conservation advice developed by the TSSC is based on the best available information regarding the conservation status and threats to an ecological community at the time of listing. The associated conservation advice for the listing of the Lowland tropical rainforest of the Daintree states “there should be no further clearance and damage to this ecological community because it has been greatly reduced in its extent and condition.” Unfortunately, clearing and damage to this ecological community continues to occur in the Daintree.

Small areas on the very wet lowlands, especially between the Daintree River and Cape Tribulation, harbour plant species which are extremely restricted and uncommon. Many areas of this ecosystem are considered refugial in nature and are local centers of endemism. Many representatives of primitive families of flowering plants are present, including the monotypic family Idiospermaceae. The ecosystem is the habitat for many threatened plant species”.

International Union for the Conservation of Nature. 

Buyback works

Australians strongly hold on to the position that freehold land entitles the owners to certain rights. For that reason, buyback is important to protecting the Daintree Lowland Rainforest from further development.

The former mayor of the Douglas Shire for 17 years, Mike Berwick AO, has said, “buyback is the only effective conservation strategy to prevent urbanisation of the Daintree”.

The buyback of land in the subdivision by non-profit organisations began in 1992. This leadership was followed by the three levels of government who have all funded the buyback of land. That’s had its limitations as the last government-supported buyback was 15 years ago.

Non-profit organisations have remained committed to the buyback of land and have made steady progress over three decades purchasing more than 75 properties.

Today up to 200 undeveloped or unsettled freehold properties remain in the Daintree lowlands.

In the last three years two non-profit organisations have combined their efforts to purchase 24 properties. The Rainforest 4 Foundation has raised millions of dollars for buyback. Tens of thousands of supporters have demonstrated that Australians want the Daintree Rainforest protected from development and that they’ve been willing to contribute their own money. 

Once acquired, these properties are entered into a process for them to be protected in perpetuity under the Nature Conservation Act 1992 (NCA). This process allows for properties to be proposed for inclusion in the Daintree National Park (CYPAL). This in turn allows for joint management of national park land by Traditional Owners (represented by an indigenous corporation registered under the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006) and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. This program is the only formalised, non-Government program which purchases land for conservation to be owned and managed by Traditional Owners.

The Queensland Department of Environment and Science and other key stakeholders are fully supportive of this outcome. As the properties acquired under the 'Stronger Together' program are among the first to be considered for direct addition to the Daintree National Park (CYPAL) under the Cape York Peninsula’s Tenure Resolution Program, it is both a new and lengthy process that requires the cooperation of multiple stakeholders. We are currently working with the Queensland Government’s Department of Environment and Science, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service to develop a streamlined process for the transfer of properties into the CYPAL protected area estate. Over 250 properties that have been acquired within the original subdivision in the Daintree Lowlands by government agencies and not-for-profit organisations have already been added to the Daintree National Park (CYPAL).

Change can feel unwelcome. We understand that some people living in the Daintree may feel uncomfortable with the changes that come through our purchase of land for conservation and its return to the Traditional Owners to manage. We have added answers to the most frequently asked questions here.

The Limits to Growth

The past few centuries there has been one dominant process for improving human welfare. That’s based on growth. Bigger has simply been seen as better. We’ve known for many decades the natural world has limitations and there are costs to be paid for the domination of and subsumption of nature.

We strongly believe that the solutions to social issues in the Daintree Lowland Rainforest can’t be resolved by further development of land for housing. A solution based simply on growth is a solution with no end and this is not what the Australian community wants for the Daintree Rainforest. 

Legacy and Solutions

In the past four decades houses have been constructed in the localities of Forest Creek, Kimberley, Cow Bay, Diwan, Thornton Beach and Cape Tribulation. In the Daintree today there is a growing community with a population of 684 people (ABS Census data 2021). Businesses, mostly small and some larger, have developed in response to opportunities and they form the main part of the Daintree local community.

The Daintree Rainforest is an Australian conservation and tourism icon. Over decades the exceptional natural values and reputation of the Daintree have attracted millions of tourists. The Daintree Rainforest is important to the Australian and Queensland economy and it is essential to the local economy. Looking after the Daintree though further buyback of land helps safeguard this asset.

The Daintree economy is vulnerable to change, which we have to accept and adapt to. The 2008 global financial crisis hit hard as did COVID-19 travel restrictions.

The annual wet season is also a fact of life in the tropics, the Daintree lowlands have annual rainfall of 4.5m, with most falling between December and May. Visitation has a peak in the dry season and falls away significantly in the wet. This can make it difficult to live in the Daintree and for businesses to retain staff.

Other factors that influence the population levels in the Daintree including the increase in residential housing used as short-term rentals. AirDNA (https://www.airdna.co/) shows that there are over 90 short stay accommodation options in the Daintree lowlands, 76 of which are entire homes. This accounts to approximately 20% of the housing stock in some areas. As with many locations in Australia and around the world the rise in Airbnb's has impacted housing availability for residents.

The buyback of land for conservation has overwhelming support throughout Australia, in Queensland, and from people living in the Daintree itself. However, some people living in the Daintree have very real and reasonable concerns for social and economic issues in their community. As these concerns have their origins in the approval of the subdivision by the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government, we see government also has a responsibility for resolving these issues.

Support for local health services, the primary school, sports club, men’s shed, and the social wellbeing of the community as well as the development and maintenance of a safe, resilient, and sustainable community needs the involvement of government.

As environmental non-profit organisations we are restricted on the focus of our activities and how we invest the donations given to us. The community of the Daintree lowlands needs the assistance of government. It can’t be left to small non-profit organisations to solve social problems in this community. 

Mostly what’s needed is a plan. It can’t just be a plan that prevents further development in the Daintree, although that is urgently needed. A plan is needed that brings together all stakeholders - Kuku Yalanji Traditional Owners and owners of the Daintree National Park, the Douglas Shire Council, Queensland Government and the Queensland Parks & Wildlife Service, Australian Government, multiple non-profit and community organisations, business and tourism operators, and Daintree residents.

Kuku Yalanji

Leading the way is the Jabalbina Yalanji Aboriginal Corporation. Through their own initiative and with the support of the Queensland Government Jabalbina is now a significant regional employer.  

In September 2021 the Queensland Government handed over the title of four national parks comprising more than 160,000 hectares of land to the Kuku Yalanji people. The Daintree National Park (CYPAL) is now owned by the Kuku Yalanji people and jointly managed by Jabalbina Rangers in partnership with Queensland Parks & Wildlife Service. 

A new tourism and cultural hub planned for Cape Tribulation is also being supported by the Queensland Government. 

We know visitors to the Daintree are looking for genuine Cultural experiences as well as opportunities to participate in hands-on conservation. In April 2022, Rainforest 4 Foundation and HalfCut supported Jabalbina to test a new Cultural tourism offering. This is helping to grow a low-impact, high-yield tourism model that also aims to see Traditional Owners living and working on Country. 

Non-profit organisations involved in conservation and restoration are fast becoming one of the largest creators of jobs in the Daintree lowlands. We are working alongside Jabalbina Yalanji Aboriginal Corporation to create opportunities that will bring Kuku Yalanji people back on to Country while also revitalising the community.

Change is the only constant in life. But change is often difficult to accept. Change that comes as a surprise is especially unwelcome. The Rainforest 4 Foundation and HalfCut have a responsibility to demonstrate leadership and that requires us to improve our communications so as to prevent surprises. The absence of planning and infrastructure for the community was absent when the Daintree was first subdivided. This shouldn’t determine its future. Within the limitations of our two non-profit organisations, we are committed to supporting the community in the Daintree lowlands in identifying and planning for change.

The Rainforest 4 Foundation is an Australian Company Limited by Guarantee (the legal structure of an Australian non-profit organisation) and is registered with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (the Australian company regulator). We are also registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (the Australian charity regulator).

We've prepared some additional answers to frequently asked questions about development and our buyback of land in the Daintree Rainforest for conservation. 

Kelvin Davies

Founder, Rainforest 4 Foundation

P.S. If you have any questions about the purchase and protection of land in the Daintree Lowland Rainforest please email me at [email protected]. You can also call me during business hours at 0437 423 119.

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  • Greg Hurst
    commented 2022-08-29 13:01:15 +1000
    A great briefing. Cuts out hyperbole and provides a clear and measured statement. Hopefully all sides can work on the main game of saving and nurturing the Daintree while supporting a local community in harmony with its special and necessarily restricted location. Buybacks are not targeting established residences or businesses, but will limit unnecessary expansion. Good. This can only make the existing homes and businesses more valuable. The property trend of tree changer retirees and short stay rentals are not going to increase enrolments at the school. Kuku Yalangi living and working on country will. Younger enterprising locals living and working in the Daintree will. All stakeholders working together to maximise sensitive ecotourism without unnecessary development will be a win-win. Congrats to Rainforest4, HalfCut and every local who “can see the forest for the trees”. May there be more light and less heat.
  • Michael O'Dea
    followed this page 2022-08-27 09:37:14 +1000
  • Kelvin Davies
    published this page in Latest News 2022-08-24 11:42:42 +1000