the moral implications of land clearing in Queensland

treesLand clearing, including the felling of forest for timber, for urban growth, and especially for agriculture, has important implications for the sustainability of ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole. Clearing kills animals and destroys their habitat, is the main cause of salinity which threatens to render water undrinkable, degrade human structures and limit agricultural productivity. Land clearing also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and runoff from exposed soil threatens our waterways and in Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest World Heritage Area.

The significance of land clearing is not limited to ecological, political or economic questions, for when we allow others to destroy trees they are doing more than simply disposing of their private property, they are destroying something that should be the heritage of all beings on this planet. The implications transcend time and location. As such, the question of whether we should protect our trees goes beyond human needs and is, like all environmental issues, a moral question also.

Only a small proportion of Australia’s land mass is protected by National Park status (5.9%) The remainder is either state forest, aboriginal reserve, leasehold or freehold land, over 500 million hectares (approximately 75%) of which is used for agriculture. This is the highest proportion of land used for agriculture in any country in the world. Only a tiny fraction (4.6%) of this is under crops the remainder of agricultural land is used for livestock grazing. This land, not protected as national park or reserve, is still the home for abundant forms of life. As such, the imperative to preserve life should override other coniderations – not just the individuals that exist there, but ecological biodiversity for this continent and the world.

The State of the Forests Report 1998 (NRC) estimated Australia’s forested land at 20% of the continent in 1788, we have lost 36% of that vegetation to the present (ABS 2000). Queensland has the greatest area of tree cover in Australia. Yet only a tiny part of our forest is protected as National Park. While laws protect the flora and fauna in these limited areas, they are not the only areas in our state which are worthy of that protection, and all forms of vegetation are essential to the maintenance of local climate and habitat. The State Land cover and Trees Study indicated that approximately 400,000 hectares of native bushland a year was cleared in Queensland between 1997 and 1999, up 20% from the 1995-97 period. This gives Queensland the highest rate of clearing in the western world and is where almost 90% of land cleared in Australia. Although law has been enacted to protect leasehold land, this law has not been proclaimed and is not being enforced due to the intractability of state and federal governments over the issue of funding.

Economists will tell you that it has been necessary to destroy this forest because the market demands wood, land and food. I will attempt to show that not only is the economic argument for logging, clearing and food production erroneous, but also morally questionable. It is my intention to follow each strand in this web of moral responsibility leading from individuals to the whole system of modern capitalism.

The State of the Forests Report found that although the volume of wood consumed and exported Australia wide has increased, there has been no “commensurate increase in financial gain…” They are willing to concede that, given the lack of economic incentive:

The question of whether or not Australia’s overall use of its forests for wood products is ecologically sustainable is contentious, and at this point the answers remain uncertain.

In other words, the State of the Forests Report admits that there is less economic incentive to continue logging for wood, and that indeed it may be unsustainable to continue.

Logging of old growth forest always attracts attention from conservationists and has been the reason for many blockades. What timber-getters see as an economic resource, environmentalists see as a natural heritage, for in the preservation of old growth forests, we are preserving evolutionary history which cannot be repaired or replicated and which we have no right to destroy. This is at the heart of many environmental disputes and revolves around two world views which are often set up as being in opposition: anthropocentrism and biocentrism.

Roderick Nash, in The Rights of Nature 1989, elucidates two main views of human obligations to non-human life:

First, some people believe that it is right to protect and wrong to abuse nature…from the standpoint of human interest.  …But the more radical meaning…is that nature has intrinsic value and consequently possesses at least the right to exist. (Nash 1989:9).

The first, often termed anthropocentrism, or human-centred ethics; the latter is referred to variously as ecocentrism, biocentrism or deep ecology. Nash sees the latter as a more radical way of viewing nature as part of the evolution of ethics. He observes that “environmental ethics is revolutionary; it is arguably the most dramatic expansion of morality in the course of human thought” (Nash1989:7) He also observes that the idea, to most people, is still ‘incredible’. However, so too was the idea of freeing slaves, women’s equal rights and the rights of indigenous peoples. Every milestone in the evolution of ethics, in the words of John Stuart Mill, has been met with ‘ridicule, discussion, (and finally) adoption’ (Nash 1989:8) Paul Taylor also sees the acceptance of ‘life-centred’ rather than ‘human centred’ ethics as having the potential for a “profound reordering of our moral universe” (Taylor 1998:72)

Aldo Leopold’s inceptive work The Land Ethic 1949 outlines what he believes is a natural progression in ethics to recognise the land as part of the community: “all ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts” (Leopold 1999:88) This notion of the interdependence of individuals in the dynamic functioning of the ecosystem has been borne out by ecological science which has been the impetus for a new ethic for the environment that seeks to justify our obligation to preserve the environment beyond the needs of humans.

When deep ecologists speak of nature having ‘intrinsic worth’ they seek to find value in nature that is not attached to the needs of life forms. Inherent worth or intrinsic value judgements, are supposed to have no grounding in culture or fact. As such, the rights accrued to nature based on it’s intrinsic value are said to be inalienable. The ‘good’ or ‘end’ of an organisms life exists independently of our valuing it.

it is the good (well-being, welfare) of individual organisms considered as entities having inherent worth, that determines our moral relations with the Earth’s wild communities of life (Taylor 1998:73).

Taylor’s life-centred ethics seeks to expand the realm of moral consideration to include all life, using the notion of the inherent worth of life as their justification. Being alive, he says, involves having a ‘good of one’s own’. That good is the “full development of (one’s) biological powers”, through the realisation of the life-cycle. There is no need for a life form to have awareness of this end for it to exist.

I take it that trees, for example, have no knowledge or desires of feelings. Yet it is undoubtedly the case that trees can be harmed or benefited by our actions… we can help or hinder them in the realisation of their good (Taylor 1998:80).

The idea that trees and nature in general could have value outside of our use for it is already accepted by many people, especially in the green movement. The importance of wilderness to the Australian population was not more apparent than in the demand to prevent the construction of a dam on the Franklin River in Tasmania in the late eighties.

A study carried out by the Wilderness Society in 1996 found that most Australians value wilderness, only 12% thought economic growth was of greater importance. The study found that:

there was strong and widespread agreement…(that) ‘wilderness areas should be conserved for their own sake, not because people want to use them’ and ‘ we have a duty to future generations to conserve wilderness areas (McGuiness1999:2).

This result speaks of a conception, perhaps not conscious to many people, that the exist of wild life is something of greater value than can be measured by the economic system.

The interests of the forestry industry are often brought in to defend our use of forests, but these interests are being overstated, for despite the fact that they are responsible for killing the largest and oldest trees, it is clearing for cattle grazing that is the predominant cause of vegetation loss in Australia. The implications of this encompass the individual, government, corporations and the global market and are complex interrelations of cultural phenomenon and economics. However, rarely is the moral question raised. As agriculture is the main reason for clearing land of vegetation, I shall examine it in some depth.

The focus of the recent Vegetation Management Act 1999 (Qld) has been to control what individual farmers do on their privately owned property. Legislation already exists to protect leasehold property. Not surprisingly farmers did not respond well to the idea, with one grazier warning:

If that legislation goes through, what will happen is, I’ll tell you now, you will lose us as people, and the other thing that really worries me is that you’ll lose every tree, because we, all of a sudden, will be turned into bloody criminals, and I don’t care, I have to survive. (Earthbeat 2000).

The Queensland Farmers Federation (QFF) argues that they must be compensated if the government, as the representative of community concerns, wants to prevent them from doing what they wish with their own property (Position Paper 1999) They argue that they will be economically disadvantaged if they are prevented from clearing their property for pasture, because it will prevent them from increasing their productivity and decrease the dollar value of their land. But do the farmers have absolute rights over their property? And even if it were so, is it morally permissible?

In the case of land clearing, the anthropocentrist / biocentrist opposition has been sharply outlined, pitting greenies against farmers in a bitter fight. Yet there is a case, within the farmers own professed pride for and knowledge of the country, to bring the two sides closer together. Leopold sees the landowner as bound by obligations to the land that go beyond traditional property rights which have been “strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations” (1999:88) Leopold examines what the so-called ‘love’ that farmers profess for the land is, and finds it wanting:

…do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land…Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter down river. Certainly not the waters which we assume have not function except to turn turbines, float barges and carry sewage. Certainly not the animals of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species…(1999:88).

The QFF question the right of governments to tell “landholders who thought they held title to the trees on their land.” how they may dispose of their property (QFF Position Paper 1999). However no such right to absolute ownership exists in either morally or in law. In Berry’s sense, the natural world does not belong to us as individuals, but is inherited from the past and borrowed from the future. This is a view common to indigenous people’s also, who may view the land as theirs in the sense that it is like a part of the body and the body of their ancestors, which one would protect and not harm: “we say, everything is our body… Our shadows follow you around, my people…shadows of your ancestors” (Daisy Utemorrah) Biocentric thought reflects this in the notion of interconnectedness, in that the whole and the parts are equally valuable and cannot exist independently. Even in a purely anthropocentric world-view common sense dictates that the long term preservation of nature for non-use values (recreation, biodiversity) and agricultural ones, means that total rights to private ownership are untenable. Additionally, the government regularly instructs us about how we may build our dwellings and what we may do in them, and the state still retains the rights to mine minerals under the surface of ‘freehold’ land, so no such total legal rights exist either. Indeed, we do not have total legal rights to do with our own bodies what we like, for laws prohibit what substances we can put into them, and with whom can share them.

In the short term, farmers want to increase the productivity of their farms in order to meet financial commitments and remain viable, and to preserve a lifestyle they value. They should have every right to a life free of suffering from the impediments of debt and the ability to feed, clothe and shelter themselves, and an increase in pasture may increase their ability to stock more cattle in the short term and hence make more money. But they are still at the mercy of the vagaries of the market, and an increase in stock may not result in an increase in economic gain because recent trends show a decrease over all in meat consumption and export. (ABS 2000) So even claims to short term economic gain are not necessarily justified.

The QFF say that “primary producers need long-term certainty as a basis for investing in their land.” Yet their current clearing practices will not achieve this goal because there are even more serious implications in the long term. Salinity is a problem in many other states, it takes a long period of time to manifest, sometimes as long as 100 years, and is often irreparable. It renders the soil unable to support native vegetation or agriculture and transcends boundaries of property, potentially and unavoidably affecting areas that are now protected like national parks. The primary cause of salinisation is vegetation loss. The disastrous possibility of irreversible damage being done to agricultural land and waterways in Queensland was not realised until recent scientific surveys were carried out by the CSIRO in Queensland:

Scientists and experts were so stunned by the potential political impact of their findings on dryland salinity, they went back and re-checked the numbers to make sure they were correct. They were. (Barclay 1999).

Salinisation is not an idle threat, it will happen if deforestation continues unabated. This should be of serious concern to both farmers and government for it will have serious economic implications in the least.

Wendell Berry, farmer and ecophilosopher, outlines what he perceives to be the moral obligations of farmers to good ‘stewardship’ of the land based on the Christian notion of gratefulness to God and duty to charitable behaviour towards one’s neighbours. Despite their basis in Christianity, these are socially useful notions, for good behaviour towards one another is the basis for a properly functioning civilised society.

Berry sees the land as a ‘gift’ given by God and “borrowed from the unborn” for our use and responsibility to the land transcends temporal and spatial boundaries:

the land…is an ‘inheritance’; the community is understood to exist not just in space, but also in time. One lives in the neighbourhood , not just of those who live ‘next door’ but of the dead who have bequeathed the land to the living, and the unborn to whom the living will in turn bequeath it… (Berry 1993:491).

This sits well with the notion of ‘intergenerational equity’ that arises in issues of responsibility for the cost of land rehabilitation. Land owners claim that governments should help them to repair the damage because they see the actions of past generations of governments and farmers as the cause. Land degradation attributable to agriculture and pastoralism is often a slow process and present actions are just as responsible for future damage as past ones are for the farmers’ present woes.

Berry then extends his understanding of Christian charity to include not only immediate obligations to human beings alive now and in the future in the anthropocentric sense, but to animals and the land. He justifies this by appealing to the idea of interconnectedness, that charity for one species must equal charity for all because charity, “once begun…cannot stop until it includes all Creation, for all creatures are parts of the whole upon which each is dependent” This idea of the extensiveness of charity creates a practical obligation to action for:

How can you love your neighbour if you don’t know how to keep your filth out of his (sic) water supply and your poison out of his air? How can you be a neighbour without applying principle – without bringing virtue to practical issues?

Additionally, one must examine the assumptions upon which meat farming itself rests. If farmers do not, legally, have the right to dispose of their living or non-living ‘property’ as they see fit, this constitutes a moral duty not to destroy something that cannot be owned, or conversely is owned by everyone – the trees and vegetation – as part of world heritage. A prohibition on tree clearing is a duty to others, human and non-human, a duty to preserve what has value outside of economics. If we do not have the rights to clear on moral grounds because the trees are not ours to own, a case can easily be made to extend this prohibition to the property rights they attach to the sentient beings they exploit for money.

Clearing for grazing pasture is the primary cause of tree loss, in addition to problems of overstocking and erosion caused by the impaction of hard-hoofed animals on the delicate soil structure of marginal arid lands. These effects are well know, but despite this farmers continue to clear while the financial return from meat-growing drops, yet the demand for meat products is rising yearly. In 1999 Australia produced over 3 million tonnes of meat, with approximately 26 million cattle nation-wide, 10.4 million of them in Queensland. (ABS 2000) The total livestock to humans ratio is approximately 8:1.

Western culture has promulgated an ideal of affluence that is not sustainable on many levels, but the one of increased meat consumption is well established in Australia, and is becoming widely accepted in less developed countries as a sign of success, yet leading to ‘diseases of affluence’ like coronary disease. Additionally, the mainstream media and powerful economic interests like the NFF and the Meat Marketing Board, continue to push the line that meat is essential for human health. Australians ate an average of 104.9kg of meat in 1997, compared to the world average 36.1 in the same year. (ABS 200 and World Watch Institute 1998) However, cardiovascular disease is still the main cause of deaths in this country (41%) and is strongly associated with dietary habits. This has moral implications because it “results in a considerable burden, in terms of illness, disability and economic costs” (ABS 2000) on the rest of society, which in Berry’s view is uncharitable in the least: “How can you love your neighbour…if you cannot look after yourself and become a burden?” (Berry 1993:492) It also calls into question the ideal of respect for life that many of us would be happy to apply to human beings, but neglect to extend to animals.

So consumers, by their continued reliance on meat products as the mainstay of their diets, are providing the additional impetus for unsustainable and immoral agricultural practices.

The Queensland state government introduced the Vegetation Management Act in late 1999. Despite its’ good intentions, it has had deleterious effects in that ‘panic’ clearing has ensued and the Act is not being enforced due to political quibbling over funding. Both the federal and state governments have become entrenched in their no compromise positions, while the destruction of Queensland vegetation continues unabated. The difference, over who should pay the $100 million compensation to the states’ farmers, is petty and immoral in view of the bigger picture.

Additionally the state government intends to spend $185 million dollars on revamping a football stadium and other public works with more political popularity. This hypocrisy has not gone unnoticed by Queensland environmentalists who see the outcome as immoral, unnecessary and indirect contradiction of the commitment to the environment of both governments. Drew Hutton, of the Queensland Greens

was also bitterly critical of the Federal Government accusing Environment Minister, Senator Robert Hill, of hypocrisy in refusing to offer Commonwealth money to a project that is with all his government’s stated goals on reducing greenhouse gases, maintaining bio-diversity and rehabilitating the Murray-Darling Basin. “Peter Beattie can spend hundreds of millions on dollars on an anti-environmental project like the Inner City Bypass but cannot find money to compensate farmers so that the massive land clearing in Queensland can be reduced”, Mr Hutton said (QG media release 2000) .
Conservation pressure groups including the Queensland Conservation Council (an umbrella group for 50 “grass-roots” local groups) have been urging the state government to implement land-clearing restrictions on private land. The Community Biodiversity Network identify the potent effect present and past clearing will have on biodiversity:

Land clearing is having a devastating effect on millions of birds, reptiles and other animals, who are killed immediately or die from starvation or injury soon after their habitats are destroyed. The fragmentation of native vegetation into patches of remnant bush also makes survival unviable for many species…. Over time these unviable species (sometimes called the ‘living dead’) gradually die out in the cleared area. This long time lag (or extinction debt) means it takes decades or even centuries before the full impacts of current clearing becomes apparent. (CBN: 11 July 2000).

Governments have a clear moral obligation to do more than just window-dressing with policy. In neglecting to deal with state clearing, individual landholders and governments are also neglecting their obligations to the rest of the world.

Australia as a nation has duties to the rest of the world. We have treaty obligations to protect areas listed under the World Heritage Convention, and the legal power under s51 of the constitution to do so. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority recognised that fertiliser and sediment runoff attributable to bad land management upstream, can bury coral, reduce light to sea grass and plankton, increase nutrient levels and hence kill marine life. They identify improving land use practices, including reducing cattle stocks, reducing clearing rates, and reducing fertiliser usage as the most important factors in protecting the present and future heritage value of the reef.

In addition, clearing by contributing to the greenhouse problem, is contributing to increased levels of what is euphemistically called ‘coral-bleaching’ ( coral death). The changes in weather patterns associated with global warming will have a global impact including rising sea-levels, changes in rainfall patterns, increased incidence of tropical diseases, and the movement of homeless ‘environmental refugees’.

This issue, like many environmental issues, cannot be simplified into one of cost. Deeply felt human values are part of this decision making process, so deeply felt that they often put interest groups at loggerheads. The values of a diverse range of interest groups make it difficult to resolve this issue either in a political or a moral sense. Yet there are obviously deep contradictions in our society when most people value nature and can see the long term interest of preserving it, yet are acting within a system that is detrimental to it. The ideological background to exploitative land use lies in the anthropocentric idea that human beings and their interests are the only things worthy of moral concern and all else is a resource for humans, and the supremacy of private property as ensconced in law and accepted as a right under law. This ideology is a serious impediment to the protection of the environment.


Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australia Now – A Statistical Profile “Environment: Sustainable management of Australia’s land, forest and woodland resources” visited Sept 2000,

Australian Bureau of Statistics, 4315.0 Apparent Consumption of Foodstuffs, 1997- “Summary of Findings: Meat and Meat Products” visited Sept 2000!OpenDocument&Highlight=0,consumption

Barclay, P The Starvation of Sustenance Radio National’s “Background Briefing” Programme, Sunday 27/06/1999 transcript at ABC online

Berry, W 1993 “The Gift of Good Land” Ch10 in Environmental Ethics: Divergence and Convergence, Amstrad and Botzol (eds), McGraw Hill

Brown, LR, Renner, M and Flavin, C Vital Signs 1998, Worldwatch Institute, WW Norton & Co: NY

Community Biodiversity Network Media Release, Queensland Farmers’ Federation Position on Native Vegetation Management Reforms, 1 December 1999

Davis, J Wanna, J Warhurst, J and Weller, P 1988 Public Policy in Australia, Allen and Unwin: Sydney

Department of Natural Resources, Vegetation Facts at

Earthbeat 2000 Queensland Landclearing Debate aired on Radio National 19/2/2000

Information Please Environmental Almanac 1994

Lecci, K 2000 Queensland Land clearing- governments sit still while the bush keeps coming down 23 June 2000 at Community Biodiversity Network,

Leopold, A 1949 The Land Ethic, in Zimmerman, M (ed) Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights ot Radical Ecology, 2nd ed., Prentice Hall 1998

McGuiness, J March 1999 “Updating Wilderness in Australia”, The Wilderness Society Newsletter, TWS

National Reserve System Protected Areas “Queensland” visited Sept. 2000 at

Queensland Greens Media Release Beattie’s Right: He Will Need To ‘Spin’ On Environment Wednesday 12 July, 2000

State of the Environment Report Australia 1996 “Backgrounder: Land Resources” at visited October 1st, 2000

Taylor, P “The Ethics of Respect for Nature” in in Zimmerman (ed) Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights ot Radical Ecology, 2nd ed., Prentice Hall 1998
Utemorrah, D 1989 “The Cry of our Ancestors” in North of the 26th, Weller (ed) Reeve Books

Zethoven, I December, 1999 Campaign Watch: Land Clearing, at



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