The XRSA Political Strategy Circle has made the following submission to the Natural Resources Committee of the South Australian Parliament as part of their review of the Native Vegetation Act 1991.

We are in the middle of an ecological crisis due to climate change, habitat loss and the loss of biodiversity. Our course is currently set for mass species extinction and societal collapse. Our future looks bleak and our children are not safe. The Earth’s ecosystems are meeting dire tipping points and this will accelerate out of control if we do not act now. This is an emergency situation and action is urgent. As with the COVID-19 pandemic, our Government needs to act in accordance with what science is telling us (IPCC — Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Breakthrough).

The destruction of native vegetation and the extremely slow pace of revegetation compounds the climate crisis and the loss of habitat and biodiversity (Land is a Critical Resource, IPCC report says).

Far too much native vegetation has been lost under the existing governance regime established by the Native Vegetation Act 1991 (NVA). The NVA must be amended to halt the loss of native vegetation. The preservation of South Australia’s remaining native vegetation and the revegetation of vast swathes of South Australia will be critical planks in the fight to slow global warming and to slow the loss of habitat and therefore biodiversity, to fight the loss of topsoil which is critical to our ability to produce food, and to help to maintain our precious water supplies.

We make the following specific submissions.

The preamble to the NVA states that it is an Act to “provide incentives and assistance to landowners in relation to the preservation and enhancement of native vegetation; to control the clearance of native vegetation”. (See also the stated objects of the Act (s 6).) However, significant parts of the Act and the way in which the Act has been, and continues to be, applied, facilitate the past and ongoing clearance of native vegetation. This is indicated by language and intention throughout the Act including the following:

  • The clearance of vegetation facilitated by s 27 which allows the Native Vegetation Council (NVC) to permit the clearance of native vegetation in numerous circumstances;
  • The extent of clearing permitted by regulation (s 27(1)(b)(ii) and the Native Vegetation Regulations 2017). The Regulations allow clearing in a wide range of circumstances not required to be debated by Parliament by virtue of being regulations. The Regulations should not be used for the purpose of undermining the stated objects of the Act;
  • The seemingly unfettered power of the Chief Officer of the SA Country Fire Service and the Chief Officer of the SA Metropolitan Fire Service to authorise removal of vegetation for the purposes of cold burns and of protecting the life, health or safety of any person from a serious risk of bushfire (s 27(1)(c), (4a) and (4b)). Accountabilities should be put in place in relation to these wide powers. In addition, the knowledge and input of Aboriginal people skilled in cultural burning should be a requisite part of this process in order to avoid the unnecessary loss of vegetation under these powers (Australian Story – How Indigenous fire management practices could protect bushland, 2021 Australian Peoples’ Tribunal). A review of the Fire and Emergency Services Act 2005 should be undertaken in conjunction with a review of the NVA in relation to fire control and cultural burning;
  • The composition of the NVC, which does not reflect the seriousness of the ecological emergency we find ourselves in. To reflect the reality of the situation, the membership of the NVC should be weighted towards members who understand the extent of the emergency and who have the courage to make decisions which reflect that reality. Membership of the NVC should include scientists versed in climate change, habitat loss, migration and dispersal corridors and requirements, flora and fauna native to South Australia and the significance of native vegetation in mitigating global warming. Membership should also include Aboriginal persons versed in cultural management of native vegetation and representatives of bodies such as Trees for Life which are actively engaged in the preservation of native vegetation and the re-greening of the State;
  • The NVC is not sufficiently empowered by its functions, stated in s 14 of the NVA. The functions need to be rewritten to reflect the climate and ecological emergency we are in. The weak functions of the NVA such as keeping the condition of native vegetation under review, advising the Minister in relation to preservation, re-establishment and research with respect to native vegetation, keeping the principles of clearance and re- establishment of native vegetation under review and encouraging research into the preservation and re- establishment of native vegetation should be strongly supplemented by real functions and powers to actually ensure the preservation and re-establishment of native vegetation, including its natural capacities to disperse and shift distributions of its component species in the face of the climate crisis;
  • The offence provisions in the NVA fail to reflect the seriousness of removal of native vegetation. For example, s 26 offences of clearing vegetation contrary to Part 5 of the Act attract a maximum $100,000 fine or an expiation fee of $750. The expiation fees in the NVA should be abolished as they are farcical and in no way reflect the seriousness of vegetation clearance. Furthermore, the maximum penalties should be significantly greater in the case of companies, commensurate with the amounts reportedly proposed by BHP in relation to damage to Aboriginal heritage sites. It is reported that BHP submitted to the South Australian Aboriginal Lands Parliamentary Standing Committee that the current maximum $50,000 fine under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 should be increased to as high as $10 million (InDaily – BHP urges huge fines for damaging Aboriginal heritage). In addition, anyone fined under the Act should be publicly named each year in order to allow better public scrutiny of offences which threaten our very survival;
  • In allowing the clearance of native vegetation to be “offset” by actions producing a so-called “environmental benefit”, the Act fails to recognise the inherent value of existing vegetation and the complex biological systems of fauna and flora which have built up over time. In failing to recognise these values, the Act effectively uses an accounting trick, pretending that existing native vegetation can be effectively offset in this way. The emergency nature of the situation requires all possible protection as well as a massive restoration and temporal redistribution program as climate change increasingly takes effect. The idea of “offset” falsely implies it would be enough to just retain what we have, which, in any event, is not what offsetting actually achieves.

We submit that the clearance of native vegetation should be significantly curtailed and that revegetation of South Australia should be stepped up to ameliorate the dire loss of vegetation which is contributing to the climate crisis, the loss of habitat and the biodiversity crisis. The need to curtail the clearance of native vegetation is even more the case in relation to exploration licences to search for fossil fuel reserves and in relation to land clearance for the purpose of fossil fuel mining. The use of fossil fuels must be phased out forthwith and should be replaced by renewables in order to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025. Net zero by 2050 is too late if we are to have any chance of limiting global warming to acceptable levels.

Extinction Rebellion South Australia urges the Natural Resources Committee of the South Australian Parliament to take this opportunity to instigate a comprehensive overhaul of the Native Vegetation Act 1991 so that it reflects the dire circumstances faced by the planet and all its species, before it is too late.

Submission of Extinction Rebellion South Australia

Cover image by Peter Barnes