A dead pig, some cassowaries and an unholy fight over the Daintree

A dead pig, some cassowaries and an unholy fight over the Daintree

08/19/2022

By Charlotte Grieve, Harriet Alexander and Jason South

Endangered cassowaries live in the rainforest.Credit:daintreerainforestfoundation.org

The pig was barely flyblown and not yet bloated when a landcare contractor found its carcass propped against the gate of a private property in the Daintree Rainforest on the afternoon of July 25. A clean Winchester bowie knife and a lilac watch lay on the ground nearby.

The property’s new owner, a Sydney-based academic, took it as a warning. Suzanne Plater had bought the land near the local school eight months earlier, outbidding several others, on the promise that she would later be fully refunded by charity Rainforest 4 that would “rewild it” – returning it to its natural state.

The pig was a protest, the latest salvo in a battle now raging between locals and environmental activists since a Mullumbimby-based charity, Rainforest 4, began buying properties in 2019 in the name of saving the Daintree from development.

Since then, the charity and its partner Halfcut have raised almost $3 million to buy 24 properties. Their long-term objective is to acquire 200 blocks. Their backers include major corporates Ben & Jerry’s, Macpac and Bank Australia, who claim the land in and around the towns of the Daintree region is at risk of “logging and bulldozing”.

There’s a battle brewing in the Daintree. Credit:Jason South

However, three years in, no land has yet been handed to the national park and the program has infuriated some in the local community. They say the charities are making overblown claims by likening a few individuals building houses to the razing of the Amazon rainforest. They say the towns in the Daintree are, like many regional centres, in the midst of a housing crisis fuelled by short-term rentals and city people seeking a tree change during COVID-19, and cannot afford more land to be locked up.

Analysis of land titles and council zoning data by The Age and Sydney Morning Herald reveals more than half the properties bought by the charities are already off limits to new development.

The Jabalbina Aboriginal Corporation supports the charity’s efforts to return the land, but some individual traditional owners feel the arrangement is harming them, as homelessness among the Kuku Yalanji people surges.

Daintree Rainforest local Dave Pinson with some of the rescue bats he is looking after.Credit:Jason South

And a coalition of local residents has now lodged an official complaint to the charities’ regulator, which they say is investigating the charities sharing allegedly misleading images and messages about the Daintree to raise donations.

“It’s disingenuous at best,” says resident David Pinson, who plants trees and rehabilitates bats in Cow Bay. These charities are not saving the forest, he says: “The Daintree has already been saved.”

As the world’s oldest rainforest deals with species extinction, rising temperatures and unprecedented fire risk, the clash is exposing the shortfalls of leaving complex environmental challenges to the private sector.

Locals are sharing Halfcut photos like this to the charities regulator, claiming they are misleading.Credit:Halfcut Facebook

And it raises questions about who gets to decide what is best for a community. In this case, neither side is backing down.

World heritage

A cable ferry is the only way across the Daintree river, where crocodiles lurk in the mangroves, and into the sprawling ancient rainforest. The air is warm but cooled by gentle sea breeze from the pristine coastline made deadly by crocs and stingers. As you plunge deeper into the forest, phone reception cuts out.

The local residents’ houses are barely visible from the roadside. They are tucked within the entanglement of thick green teeming with birds and reptiles. On this Friday night in tropical far north Queensland, more than 100 have emerged for a trivia night to fundraise for the local school.

The adults discuss the recent sighting of a tree kangaroo, which is found only in the Daintree, as light rain tames the crackling bonfire. Leading the trivia is the Floravillians, followed by the Wattleblossoms and Gonebatty.

Teacher Nichola Cox says enrolments at the local school have dropped from 90 to less than 20 in the past decade. Credit:Jason South

These events have become an increasingly popular and necessary community event to support the local school, which has seen student enrolments plummet.

Teacher Nichola Cox, who is MC’ing, says her workload has dropped from full-time to three days this year due to lack of funds. “It’s very sad,” says Cox. “Is it buybacks? Is it Airbnb? Probably all of the above.”

Inside the rainforest, it’s dark, sticky and wet. The ground is muddy and visitors navigate stinging plants, toxic insects and sharp vines. A butcher bird calls from a distance to warn of a nearby python. A glassy blue-green creek weaves through towering Fan Palms and thousand-year-old trees wrapped in vines. The area is filled with sacred Kuku Yalanji sites and hundreds of plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world.

The Daintree Rainforest was declared a World Heritage site by the Hawke government in 1988. This declaration outlawed commercial logging in the protected area and introduced strict conservation standards.It came after a stretch of lowland rainforest had been subdivided into 1100 freehold lots for development. Successive governments have since strategically bought blocks to return to the National Park and paid compensation to landholders who give up development rights.

The Daintree Rainforest is home to 700 plant species found nowhere else on the planet. Credit:Jason South

Since then, there has been a proliferation of charities pledging to continue land “buybacks”. James Cook University’s Professor Susan Laurance, who was involved in the government programs, says this is harder than it sounds.

“National parks don’t want any bit of forest,” she says. “There’s the dream of what you want to achieve, and the reality of what you can achieve.”

Former mayor Michael Berwick says buybacks are “the only effective conservation strategy” because “urbanisation of the Daintree is the biggest threat to tourism” and not all schemes should be lumped together.

Local scepticism towards charity buybacks is rife after the director of a group called Australian Rainforest Foundation, Roger Phillips, was sentenced to jail in 2018 for misusing grant money to pay his company’s bills and buy himself a car.

Kelvin Davies, who worked alongside Phillips before he committed crimes, is now heading Rainforest 4 – the latest foundation promising to save the Daintree. It has partnered with Halfcut, founded by professional campaigner Jimmy Stanton-Cooke, which has seen donations more than tripling to $1.8 million, and wages increasing six-fold to $579,361 over the past financial year.

Stanton-Cooke, also known as Jimmy Halfcut, has an unforgettable face. It’s clean-shaven on the right side and thickly bearded on the left, his peaceful protest against the logging of half the world’s rainforests.

Halfcut partnered with a harbourside cocktail bar in June to create Daintree Sydney in Circular Quay, which donates half its proceeds towards rewilding the world’s rainforests. The venture is run from the sandstone basement of a colonial-era building, with a repurposed timber bar top, upcycled wicker shelves and QR codes on every table for those who wish to donate. The menu features gumnut negroni, quandong daiquiri and macadamia colada.

The walls of Daintree Sydney are designed by local artist Felix Saw (a new panel will be coloured every time $100,000 is raised).Credit:Dean Sewell

Stanton-Cooke does not understand the criticism of the buyback program. “We are working together for an important cause – to buy back these pristine rainforests,” he says. “If a conservative council gets in and they have pressure from the community to push development harder, the reality is there’s no way to safeguard these lots.”

‘I felt violated’

The campaign uses social media to publish photographs of trees that have been cleared for houses. It’s a simple way of driving donations. But after locals complained charity volunteers were entering properties without permission, Davies last month introduced a policy against trespassing.

It was too late for new residents Karen and Merv McGill.

The McGills were regular holidaymakers in the Daintree who bought a block to call home in 2018 for $180,000. Adjusting to off-grid life, Karen volunteered with tree planting groups and studied the local wildlife. She proudly holds up her iPhone, which has a photograph she took of a Boyd’s Forest Dragon as its background.

Then one day, it all turned sour.

An unknown person entered their property and took photos of their part-built house next to a pile of dead trees. In a post uploaded to Rainforest 4’s Facebook page, the charity blamed “housing development” for deforestation.

McGill says the trees photographed had either naturally fallen during a cyclone or had been infested with “wait-a-while” vine, a destructive weed. The couple say they have since planted more trees than they removed and see cassowaries at their property daily.

Karen and Merv McGill have put up trespassing signs after a post by Rainforest 4 of their property went viral.Credit:Jason South

But the Facebook post, which claimed the site had threatened the cassowaries, went viral. In since-deleted posts, Karen was called a “c—” and accused of destroying the rainforest.

“I felt violated,” she says, as her eyes flicker with sadness. “It made me feel like I don’t want to be here.”

Rainforest 4’s Davies said the McGills experience was “regrettable”, but added, “I haven’t heard from them personally”.

“If they approach me, I will discuss it with them and if there’s a need to, I’ll acknowledge and apologise.”

A 1500-year-old palm forest in the Daintree.Credit:Jason South

‘We’re conservationists’

One afternoon last week, a small group of locals went to the town’s sports hall to discuss what they see as a concerted effort by Rainforest 4 to depopulate the area. The sunlight has exposed the dense tropical mountain backdrop, and kookaburras laugh in the afternoon light to the sound of cracked beer tins.

A petition was passed around and a show of hands confirmed support to form an association – made up of scientists, conservationists, tourist operators and traditional owners – to formally oppose Rainforest 4’s approach to buybacks.

Local conservationist David Pinson takes the floor, waving a 12-page legal letter he had received earlier in the day from Rainforest 4, threatening to take defamation action against him if he keeps posting about the charity on Facebook.

“Litigation is the tool of the cowardly,” he says. “But if I end up in prison, please send cake.”

Pinson’s leading argument is that most locals live in harsh conditions with no mains power or running water because they care about protecting the environment. They feel they have been “demonised” by the charity which doctors images of bulldozers clearing rainforest to mislead donors, while deleting “valid questions” about their work online.

Local Connie Pinson holds a photo of the same road from 1970s to illustrate the impact of tree planting by the local community. This is not an image being shared by the charities.Credit:Jason South

‘Always a catch’

At least four of the properties purchased by Rainforest 4 have been transferred to the Jabalbina Aboriginal Corporation while they’re being assessed by the National Park. Jabalbina chief executive Michelle Friday says the Daintree is the oldest rainforest in the world, home to the oldest culture in the world, and her long game is growing Indigenous tourism by maintaining good relations with all stakeholders. The deal gives traditional owners the opportunity to safeguard cultural heritage, and they welcome anything that protects the rainforest.

“Our people have occupied this area for a long time before European settlement. We want some connection back. We’re trying to work through that. But it’s a long process, it’s hard and it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Jabalbina Aboriginal Corporation Michelle Friday with Rainforest4 founder Kelvin Davies.Credit:Jason South

But some traditional owners criticise their land council. They say they want Yalanji people living back on country, and see transferring development-approved land to national parks as a move in the wrong direction. Elder Bennett Walker says his people have not seen any benefits.

“They use us to do all the smokings and welcomes, and everything there – but that’s about all we’re good for,” he says. Walker says his father, who grew up on a mission in the Daintree, was denied the option to buy property because he was Aboriginal. “And to this day, he told us on his deathbed in hospital, please one day the family, when another land comes up for sale, try buy it back.”

Another elder Harold Tayley, known as “Mooks”, says the rainforest is sacred and spiritual and he wants to see it protected, but he also wants more traditional owners living across the river, and transferring land to national park makes this impossible.

“We want to go back on country to teach our younger ones, and more or less get them off the street,” he says. “But we’re not allowed to build.”

Is the Daintree at risk?

Davies whizzes around the rainforest in a ute, taking us on a tour of destruction in the lowland rainforest. He points out dodgy deals of the past which saw land cleared for tea plantations and cattle stations.

Davies says housing development is the number one threat to the rainforest – a “microcosm” of what’s occurring in the Amazon, where thousands of square kilometres are cleared each year for mining, palm oil and cattle grazing.

The local Douglas Shire Council insists less than five properties are approved each year for development, each with a maximum of 700 square metres allowed for clearing. But, says Davies, locals breach council guidelines and bring dogs and cars. He brands those who criticise his work as “climate deniers” and “pro-development”.

“I think they might feel fearful because in an ideal world, this subdivision wouldn’t have been put here,” he says.

This is a position disputed by local scientists, who claim the benefits of the “low impact” community outweigh the negatives. JCU Professor Stephen Williams says the permanent community manages tourism, which is “really important” for boosting funding for conservation. Like the Great Barrier Reef, tourism brings “political recognition and pull”.

“In the greater scheme of things, if you said to me, ‘Is clearing a few trees in the Daintree going to send species extinct in world tropics world heritage area?’ Well, no,” professor Williams says. “The greatest risk, by far and away, is climate change.”

Rising temperatures have pushed possum species into higher altitudes, he says, driving a 60 per cent reduction in population sizes. The bushfire risk is also on the rise due to unprecedented heat waves, something previously thought impossible.

“Suddenly, rainforests are burning,” Professor Williams says. “If rainforest burns, it doesn’t always come back.”

These are the practical issues park rangers are monitoring. They have limited time and resources, says acting senior ranger Dave Leyden, and absorbing extra lots is not a top priority.

“Deforestation up here?” he says. “It ain’t going to happen.”

Rangers in Mossman Gorge say deforestation is not a risk for the Daintree.Credit:Jason South

Leyden spends his days overseeing a team that manages invasive weeds, pigs, fire and endangered species. Quickly glancing at the map of properties purchased by Rainforest 4, he says a number do not look suitable for national parks.

“I don’t make the decision, but why would you buy that?” he says. “If they were all along the edges, that’s what you need. But if in time they get the whole thing, that might be the benefit. It just depends on what’s for sale.”

Last September, 160,213 hectares of country stretching from Mossman to Cooktown was formally handed back to the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people for management. Indigenous rangers Bridget Lawton and Thaddrius Minniecome say they’re teaching new ways of managing fire.

“Where in a western world, we have things by a calendar. But working with the Yalanji, the season changes, you see it in the plants and animals, and that’s when you do things,” says Lawton. “It’s really good to see.”

As for Suzanne Plater, the recipient of the dead pig, she says locals are suspicious because she paid $305,000 for the land near the school on the proviso Rainforest 4 would fundraise $404,500 and pay her back. As part of her arrangement with the conservation groups, she will be able to build a low-impact structure on the block and occupy it for 10 years before transferring the title to the Jabalbina.

“People said I was making a $100,000 profit – or someone was – and I kept telling them that wasn’t the case, but nobody cared,” she says.

Plater says she will be refunded the amount she paid, with the conservation groups spending the difference on clearing the site of dumped rubbish and cars, weeding, mulching, planting thousands of trees, killing pigs and paying for two Jabalbina rangers to erect a fence.

Meanwhile, Plater has resolved to stick the skull of the pig on her fence to attract more funds for the conservation groups. She also wrote a ditty on her fundraising page to accompany the tale: “One little piggy was dumped at the gate…” it began.

So far she has raised $3466.

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