Decades of effort to conserve the Daintree Lowland Rainforest are being undermined by a small but impactful number of property owners and the failure of the Douglas Shire Council to enforce its own By-laws.
Rainforest being cleared at Diwan in the Daintree Rainforest.
Douglas Shire Council’s planning scheme sets out very specific conditions under which landowners can ‘develop’ their properties. They also must apply to Council before any clearing takes place.
Unfortunately, some landowners are proving time and time again that they are not appropriate custodians of this ancient rainforest ecosystem which is a living relic of evolutionary processes which span more than 120 million years.
Our conservation team has observed first-hand the impacts of clearing on at least six properties across the Daintree Lowland Rainforest.
Over the past year, we’ve engaged ecologists to survey properties in the same localities as this clearing has occurred. In some instances, our surveys took place right next door to those being cleared.
At each of those properties we surveyed, ecologists found plants and animals as well as vegetation communities listed as threatened in both the Queensland Nature Conservation Act and the Australian Government’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
Each of the properties we’ve surveyed provides essential habitat for the endangered Cassowary. On top of that, new plant species continue to be discovered across the Daintree lowlands.
Douglas Shire Council over many years has developed planning instruments to ensure the conservation values of the Daintree lowlands are protected.
Owners of some freehold properties are destroying and degrading the rainforest. This land is of equal conservation value to neighbouring Daintree National Park and Wet tropics World Heritage Area. There are mechanisms in place to protect conservation values. Unfortunately, Douglas Shire Council is not enforcing its own By-laws. Until it does so, there are no disincentives for illegal clearing.
The following examples have been observed:
Property 1, Forest Creek
The owner purchased the block and obtained a permit from Douglas Shire Council to clear 700 sqm of land. They then cleared more than 900 sqm. This is huge increase on the permitted area. This destroys habitat for Cassowaries and Bennett’s Tree-kangaroos which are sighted on the property by our team.
A local conservation group complained to Council about the excessive clearing on this block but were told it was “generally in accordance with the approval” and that “Council’s consideration of this investigation is completed.” And that’s despite the area cleared being nearly 30% larger than what was approved.
Property 2, Cow Bay
The landowner cleared vegetation in excess of their development approval through cutting down trees and using fire to clear the understory. It is assumed the owner sought to improve property value by clearing vegetation. The property has since been sold.
Property 3, Cow Bay
This property is in the Douglas Shire Conservation Zone. It had its development rights removed by the Douglas Shire Council in 2008 so it cannot legally be developed. It was sold to the current owners in 2012 without development rights, yet Douglas Shire Council has not prevented its development. This property has been settled without a development application and occupation certificate and therefore the owner has no entitlement to clear vegetation. There has been an illegal settlement on the block for some years as well as dogs that are unregistered with Council. In 2020 the owner cleared additional rainforest on the property.
Property 4, Forest Creek
After purchasing the block, the owner illegally cleared vegetation, killing known Threatened species of plants. They then began an unapproved occupation without management of greywater or blackwater. They also started a bushfire that burnt part of the lot and several other adjoining properties including one purchased for conservation by Rainforest 4 Foundation. The property adjoins the Daintree National Park and World Heritage Area. The owner has since put the property on the market for three times the purchase price.
Property 5, Diwan
The current owner has had this property for many years and has a development right to clear 700 sqm, however, he continues to clear the vegetation in excess of the development consent. This property is currently on the market and has likely prompted the owner to clear more vegetation to show ‘improvements’.
Property 6, Forest Creek
The property, located in the Forest Creek area of the Daintree Lowland Rainforest has constructed a long driveway (see photos below) cut into the rainforest leading to a house site. It’s clearing for which we can find no Development Application filed with Douglas Shire Council. This property’s northern boundary abuts Daintree National Park, so we know the cleared vegetation was habitat for the endangered Southern Cassowary. The clearing has caused an unbelievable amount of erosion, turning the freshly-cleared driveway into a river of silt, which has flowed all the way down to the road causing a traffic hazard.
Douglas Shire Council already has By-laws in place to regulate these actions and to protect the Daintree from illegal land clearing. These By-laws are not currently being enforced.
It’s possible that failure to enforce these By-laws could result in breaches of both the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act as well as the Queensland Nature Conservation Act.
Unchecked development could also put the region’s World Heritage status in danger. UNESCO, the Agency which manages World Heritage listings says that those dangers can be either proven imminent threats or potential threats, “when a property is faced with threats which could have negative effects on its World Heritage values.”
In 2019, Douglas Shire also became the world’s first eco-certified destination, meeting 80 out of 100 criteria aligned with the certification. While enforcement of By-laws has little impact on its ecotourism certification, public perception around Council’s commitment to conservation certainly impacts the region’s eco-tourism offering. Nobody wants to visit a World Heritage listed rainforest that is fragmented and scarred by inappropriate and illegal land clearing.
But the bottom line is that Douglas Shire Council must enforce its own By-laws to incentivise landowners to be good custodians of this ancient landscape and ensure the Daintree’s conservation values are protected forever.
While we wait for that to happen, we’re buying back land in the Daintree to ensure it’s protected forever.