The Path to Sustainable Development in North Australia

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Kakadu National Park in North Australia. Credit: Carl Neuschul

Much has changed over the past half century across the socio-cultural, ecologic-economic, and political landscapes of the northern quarter of Australia. At the start of the millennium, the vast, relatively unspoiled tropical savannas (covering a land area equivalent to Mexico) comprised one of the least densely populated, habitable regions of Planet Earth—with a population of only three percent of Australia’s 20 million or so people. Although the population has more than tripled recently, regional ecosystems are now in substantially better condition and many of the underlying socio-economic fundamentals are being addressed. Formerly administered under three separate, often competing political jurisdictions, declaration of the North Australia autonomous region was celebrated in 2050.


To appreciate the drivers and changes that have taken place, it is useful to return to the start of the 21st century and consider the regional socio-cultural, ecological, and economic conditions prevailing at the time. In 2015, the then Australian government released its political vision for northern development—a policy document which exemplified the standard business-as-usual view of the era, with its emphasis on big infrastructure developments including fossil-fuel extraction, dams, and other long cherished, but unfounded development dreams such as food bowls and extensive irrigable agriculture.1 Needless to say, this policy vision included no mention of climate change challenges and renewable energy opportunities, and only a passing reference to the potential for developing a diversified land-and-sea-sector ecosystem services economy. The outdated agricultural vision had already been critically and authoritatively dismissed by the 1960s.2


The Early 2000s Development Context


At the time of the 2011 census, the regional population comprised 750,000 people, over half of whom resided in major urban service centers, with the remainder scattered in small settlements and communities at densities typically less than 0.1 persons/km.3 Indigenous (aboriginal) people constituted about a fifth of the regional population and,typically, the majority in remote regions. The Indigenous population was increasing at over twice the rate as that of the non-Indigenous population. Remote Indigenous communities faced an array of significant social challenges and disadvantages, including: unacceptably high morbidity and mortality rates; limited educational opportunities (including support for bilingual programs) resulting in poor literacy and numeracy outcomes; high unemployment; inadequate housing and related infrastructure; and, very high levels of incarceration. Government attempts to address these issues were generally sincere, if haphazard—and despite the considerable allocation of resources there was no real understanding of the need to support significant tenure reforms and development of community based and culturally appropriate land-and-sea-sector enterprises.


Around the turn of the century, mining and off-shore fossil-fuel energy extraction industries were the major private contributors to the regional economy, but directly employed only a small proportion of the workforce. Tourism and hospitality industries- the second largest contributor- employed around nine percent of the workforce, and were based on internationally significant natural and cultural assets including the Great Barrier Reef, the Wet Tropics rainforests, Kakadu National Park, and the rugged Kimberley region and its wild coastline. Pastoral, agricultural, and fishing industries provided significant, if lesser, economic returns and employment opportunities. Publicly funded services, including health, education, defense, community safety and public administration sectors, provided employment for more than 30 percent of the regional workforce.4,5

Frequency of large fires (greater than ~4 km2) in Australia, 1988-2015. Recognition of the very high frequency of fires in North Australia savannas, and associated greenhouse gas emissions, prompted the development of a major new fire and carbon industry in the early 2000s. This was the first of a suite of ecosystem services industries which now supports diverse land management enterprises across the savannas. Indigenous interests are the largest player in this new market. Credit: Landgate, Government of Western Australia


By the early 2000s, it was well recognized, at least in scientific circles, that agricultural development had limited potential in North Australia—especially given that seasonal rainfall is highly variable especially in more inland regions, evaporation generally exceeds annual rainfall, and flat topography mitigates against water storage. One authoritative report estimated that the maximum potential for growth in irrigable land was likely a tripling of the area then under production, to a maximum of 60,000 ha.6 The potential for ‘mosaic irrigation,’ based on localized ground-water resources, was also considered to be very restricted. Assessments of mooted large (if shallow) regional irrigation projects noted that substantial non-redeemable public outlays in infrastructure would be required, and even if built, would have significant downstream impacts, especially in low rainfall years.7 Given the distance to southern Australian and Asian markets, it was noted that agricultural development might better focus on crops that do not require refrigeration, such as cotton, sugarcane, and sandalwood.8


In terms of primary land use, rangeland beef cattle pastoralism was undertaken over as much as 90 percent of the savannas, mostly on enormous property holdings leased by non-Indigenous interests from the state.9 By 2013, 19 percent of the tropical savannas region was owned (under freehold title) or managed by Indigenous people. An additional 22 percent had been successfully claimed as ‘native title’ under non-exclusive joint title arrangements with current landholders, and claims over a further 43 percent of the northern savannas were still to be determined.10 However, at the time such ‘native title’ arrangements did not afford economic property rights. In some regions Indigenous people also owned very substantial portions of the coastline.


Even at the time, it was well recognized that pastoral enterprises in many parts of the north were neither economically viable nor sustainable given a variety of factors: the prevalence of low fertility soils; seasonal access restrictions; limited infrastructure, high labor, input and capital costs; and, distant and volatile markets.11 Financial assessments of the industry invariably did not account for substantial long-term ecosystem costs associated with pastoral management impacts on soil erosion, water quality, biodiversity values, and greenhouse gas emissions. At that time, much of the industry could be considered as a rural lifestyle choice bolstered by subsidies and hopes of ever-increasing real estate values.


Building on a substantive 2009 report which identified the relatively unmodified North Australian savannas as a biomass and biodiversity resource of global significance,12 in following years, opportunities associated with ‘carbon farming’ began to change the way in which the northern savannas were economically perceived and managed. Initially focusing on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from annually extensive savanna fires, carbon and biomass management in savanna systems developed rapidly over the following decade to provide substantial employment and diversified enterprise opportunities for regional land managers, especially for Indigenous communities and interests.13


Transitional Drivers


In the years and decades following, a number of regional policy and global realities struck home to transform the way business and community development initiatives are undertaken in the north. Principal among these have been:


  • Lessons learned from unsustainable development experience in southern Australian landscapes (now essentially an over-exploited agricultural wasteland) and industrialized societies elsewhere.
  • Stark recognition of the realities of climate change, resulting in: significant increases in the number of very hot (greater than 370C) days annually and associated effects on increased fire intensity and evaporation from precious water storage infrastructure; higher sea-surface temperatures resulting in intensified cyclones and a range of biodiversity impacts including catastrophic impacts on the Great Barrier Reef; and, coastal inundation and loss of significant wetland resources including in Kakadu National Park.
  • Recognition of very substantial economic opportunities to be derived from renewable energy sources, especially the potential for supplying all of South-East Asia’s energy needs principally from innovative solar, but also tidal sources—in effect, these nation-building infrastructure projects have more than offset the critical down-turn in energy demand from the fossil-fuel sector.14,15
  • Recognition that many mining exploration and infrastructure developments in northern Australia have, on cessation of activities, left long-lasting legacy rehabilitation issues not covered by adequate environmental bonds. This has resulted in the application of much stiffer regulatory frameworks, including realistic offset requirements over appropriate timeframes for all development activities. Stringent offset requirements have been applied also to fossil-fuel extraction activities, including in on-shore and off-shore environments. Collectively, these measures have resulted in North Australia being regarded as an international leader in applying mining best-practice.
  • Recognition of the strategic importance of valued relationships with near neighbors in eastern Indonesia, Timor-Leste, and Papua New Guinea—including membership of the collaborative Arafura Alliance which serves to promote and regulate sustainable regional marine resource management.
  • Recognition that just and equitable land tenure policy reform (especially the granting of joint property rights for those with non-exclusive native title and rights to water allocations), and associated support for the development of Indigenous land and sea sector enterprises, has helped overcome the seemingly entrenched failure, misery, and expense of past Indigenous rural community development policies.
  • Acceptance that development of innovative carbon, biodiversity, and associated ecosystem services markets provide for diversified and sustainable land-and-sea-sector enterprise opportunities which complement, or in many situations can replace, other more ‘traditional’ agricultural and pastoral activities. A key challenge for Indigenous involvement in this industry has been the development of robust governance arrangements which meet both Indigenous community cultural needs (e.g. communal title involving various land holding groups), as well as interfacing effectively with standard business regulatory requirements and other non-Indigenous enterprise arrangements.


The North Australia Autonomous Region. By mid-century the great majority of the land area will be managed for a diversified ecosystem services economy focusing on carbon, freshwater supplies, biodiversity, and ecotourism. Cattle production, the dominant land use in the early 2000s, will be conducted on localized high fertility grasslands and open-woodlands (with less than 10 percent canopy cover). Marine resources will be co-managed sustainably with regional neighbors. Credit: Dr. Andrew Edwards

An integral component for guiding the above development process has been the undertaking of ongoing formal scenario planning activities to inform regional stakeholders.16 This process, established regionally in 2016, has engaged participants from across the community, sectoral, and political spectra to assess plausible outcomes of different development options and develop a shared vision of desired goals.17 In fact, this has been a critical activity for ensuring that development goals have reflected the aspirations of the wider North Australian community rather than those typically imposed by narrow sectoral or political interests.




Much has been achieved in North Australia over the past half century. The jurisdiction operates as an integrated community-focused regional economy, as well as providing a successful and sustainable powerhouse supporting international energy needs and the national economy. In recognition of this, North Australia is Australia’s only declared autonomous region which allows for the enacting of independent regional solutions—the granting of joint property rights to Indigenous native title holders being a case in point.


A number of key initiatives have been implemented. First of these has been substantial national investment in the development of the renewable energy sector. To date, this has incurred investment of AUS$400 billion, somewhat less than earlier projections,18 but largely utilizing subsidies that formerly were available to the fossil-fuel sector. Currently, solar energy is now being piped to Indonesia from the Lake Argyle solar site; plans are underway to soon supply all of South-East Asia. Related regional activities have involved transitioning all major community centers, as well as remote Indigenous community ‘outstations,’ from former fossil-fuel dependence to complete reliance on localized renewable grids.


Second has been the phenomenal rise of the ecosystem services sector which now dwarfs economic returns from combined pastoral and agricultural sectors, and provides the underlying basis for exponential growth in the Asian ecotourism market. Markets for enhancing carbon and biodiversity values are now fully operative over all savanna regions which are either marginal or unsuitable for other agricultural activities. Such markets have also prompted efforts to manage pernicious ecological pests (e.g. cane toads, cats, Gamba grass), especially through the application of appropriately funded biological control programs. The beef cattle pastoral industry is now concentrated on productive grassland regions occupying just 20 percent of the northern savannas, and focuses on supplying a quality, ecologically-accredited product to the high end of national and export markets. Increased fencing now restricts cattle from using and damaging waterways and ecologically precious perennial water sources. Rather than see enterprise profitably diminished, these combined activities support a thriving and diversified sustainable regional landscape economy.


A third transformation has been the major development of Indigenous enterprise interests in the regional economy—now on par with that of Maori in Aotearoa. This has been assisted by a number of policy initiatives including changes to title rights, which have allowed for the raising of capital in the same manner as that available to non-Indigenous investors, the rise of the ecosystem services economy, and fostering a raft of other natural resource and community development enterprises. The process has been assisted in recent years by strategic public investment in developing the operational and governance capabilities of land and sea management ranger groups and community enterprises. Earlier this century, public investment in Indigenous land and sea management, although far-sighted for the time, provided limited funding to contracted communities for a few ranger salaries and operational activities.


Public investment has also supported the development of Indigenous Protected Areas which are formally included as part of the conservation estate—by 2020, Indigenous lands already comprised over 50 percent of the national reserve system. Recognition of the greater environmental, social, health, educational, community, and associated economic benefits finally convinced government authorities to refocus and substantially increase investment. Today, as an outcome of that investment and allied development of broader ecosystem services opportunities and the ecotourism industry, nearly all protected areas in North Australia, including World Heritage properties, are run and managed sustainably by Indigenous land-owning groups.


Burning the savannas under controlled conditions for cultural, biodiversity, and greenhouse gas emissions reduction outcomes—these and related land management activities now support major regional ecosystem services industries. Credit: Darwin Centre for Bushfire Research

The above developments have had major flow-on effects to many other aspects of regional society. An important beneficiary has been the tertiary education sector, including the fostering of regional partnerships with institutions in neighboring countries. North Australia is home to major regional universities with internationally recognized expertise in an array of related development disciplines, including renewable energy technology and engineering, ecological economics, tropical health, resource management, and cultural and international development studies. The education industry is a vital and prosperous sector supporting ongoing sustainable development. In an increasingly volatile and uncertain world, it is widely acknowledged that education, innovation, and adaptation are keys to the future.




The vision presented here owes much to the contributions of many colleagues and friends, particularly those involved in a current project addressing sustainable development options for northern Australia.



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