It has been touted as a way to combat climate change on a vast scale, but for one small south-west Queensland community carbon farming is irreparably changing its foundations.
- Carbon farming allows people to earn money by storing carbon in trees while it grows
- Corporations are buying large tracts of land and “locking it up” for carbon
- Paroo Shire locals say it is destroying their communities in the name of saving the planet
About 1,500 people live within the Paroo Shire’s 47,000 square kilometres, historically known for its sheep, wool, and beef production.
It is extremely productive country that has been battling a decade-long drought.
In the past eight years however, the landscape of the Paroo Shire has been changing for reasons other than the big dry.
“You go west of our place here and head to Quilpie, it’s 170 kilometres and no one lives there,” grazier Peter Lucas said.
“There is not one person that lives there, and it’s all locked up for carbon.”
‘Final nail in the coffin’
Peter Lucas has lived at his Wyandra property Cliffdale his whole life.
He has seen it through years of drought, but it is carbon farming that has brought about bigger change.
“These corporates run nothing, and they run it on the smell of an oily rag,” he said.
“There’s no fuel getting sent to those properties. The mail runs are getting shut down. Electricity gets turned off in so many of them.
“These bush communities are struggling as it is without another nail in the coffin.”
Mr Lucas said the burden of a dwindling population was having other flow-on effects.
“You’ve only got to go and have a look. Half the shops are shut,” he said.
Corporatisation of landscape
There are 47 carbon farms in the Paroo Shire and Paniri Ventures owns eight of them.
Paniri director Gary Wyatt disagreed that carbon projects ran nothing, highlighting the property Glendilla — where a couple of hundred head of cattle can graze freely among the regenerating mulga.
Generally, however, livestock and carbon farming do not mix.
Gary Wyatt said the landscapes of the south-west were a great fit for carbon farming projects.
“Mulga is really well suited to carbon projects,” he said.
“Part of that is it’s a fodder crop, it can be used to graze livestock, especially cattle.”
But Mr Lucas believes carbon projects do not do enough to maintain infrastructure like fences or water points.
“To try and get any fencing done … is a struggle,” Mr Lucas said.
Mr Lucas said pest management was also a huge problem as the shire battles carbon companies to participate in the local wild dog control program.
“We struggle and argue with them the whole time to get them to actually be part of those programs,” he said.
Gary Wyatt disagreed.
“We think we’ve been able to do that pretty successfully,” Mr Wyatt said.
“In fact, in our opinion, there’s fewer wild dogs across our properties now than when we took them over.”
Community losing out on profits
More than $40 million had been earned through carbon farming in the Paroo Shire by the end of 2020.
Over the next decade, $230 million is expected to be paid out to Emission Reduction Funds (ERFs), or carbon farms.
Yet Mr Lucas said very little of that would be spent in the shire.
“The problem we have in the Paroo Shire is we have corporates that come in … and purchase full properties and shut them down completely,” he said.
“The only money that stays is the rates.”
Paroo Shire mayor Suzette Beresford acknowledged the community missed out on a lot of the profits.
“We’re not opposed to resident graziers placing some of their property in for carbon farming,” she said.
“It’s just the impact that these whole properties being committed to carbon has on the shire.
“It’s had an impact on local businesses and, of course, it impacts the schools, businesses that support properties like the farm suppliers, fuel suppliers, groceries. All of that.”
In the eight years that carbon farming has been in the Paroo Shire the population has seen a dramatic decline.
Cr Beresford said close to 400 people had left the shire since 2012.
“It’s predominantly the carbon, I would think,” she said.
Sheep and cattle grazier Jesse Moody, who lives at Yarmouth Station north-east of Cunnamulla, has farewelled many families.
Eighty per cent of Yarmouth is closed off for carbon storage, but he and his father still run livestock.
“Looking in from the outside, it’s not putting much into the local economy,” he said.
“So, it’s pretty daunting.”
‘Something to blame’
Tom King is the manager of Glendilla and seven other Paniri properties.
Like Peter Lucas, Mr King has been in the area his entire life, but said people were leaving long before the arrival of carbon farming.
“Before Paniri bought these places there were a lot [of properties] that had no families on them,” he said.
“We’ve got families on them places now … so I don’t know whether it has taken families away from town at all.
“They’ve got to find something to blame, so they’re blaming carbon.
Does carbon have a future in the Paroo Shire?
Jesse Moody and his family diversified into carbon farming to secure an income during the drought.
But they are not advocates for the process and they probably would not do it again if they had their time over.
“It hasn’t been in our best interest,” Mr Moody said.
On the flip side, Peter Lucas said he was not opposed to considering it for himself in the future, despite his opposition to locking up whole properties.
“We did look into it when it first came out,” he said.
“Down the track, if we have country outside the fence, we would look at locking some of that up. It just depends how much we’d have to reduce the stocking rate.”
For more on this story, tune into Landline this Sunday at 12:30 on ABC TV or iview.