Thursday, December 9, 2021

Dirty Deal in the Top End

 Written by: Duncan B. on 4 December 2021

A dirty deal has been cooked up between the Northern Territory Government and a company called Fortune Agribusiness. This company owns Singleton Station, a 294,000 hectare farm 120 km south of Tennant Creek in the NT.

Fortune wants to develop 3500 hectares of this land for intensive irrigated horticulture, growing fruit, vegetables and other crops. 70% of the produce would be exported to Asia, particularly China.  The NT Government has awarded Fortune the biggest ground water extraction licence in NT history. The licence means that for 30 years, Fortune will be able to extract 40,000 megalitres of water per year for free from an ancient aquifer in the arid interior of the NT.

Traditional owners and environmentalists in the Northern Territory protested about the deal but were unable to stop the NT Government granting the water licence to Fortune. Traditional owners said that the water needed to stay for the animals, trees, bush tucker and bush medicine. Environmentalists fear the project will cause irreversible environmental damage.

The traditional owners and environmentalists forced the Government to hold a review of the Fortune development but surprise!, surprise!, the development has been approved subject to certain conditions.

Opponents of the Fortune development are continuing the fight. The Arid Lands Environment Centre is raising funds for a possible judicial review.

The NT Government changed the rules regarding water extraction which prohibited damage by new developments to groundwater-dependent ecosystems, after Fortune complained that the rule would prevent them from going ahead with their plans. After negotiations with Fortune the Environment Department changed the rules so that 30% environment damage to ecosystems was OK!

Fortune Agribusiness is an Australian investment company but it has links to Ostar, a Chinese-language media company, based in Melbourne. Ostar runs a network of radio stations and newspapers. 

It was founded by Jiang Zhaoquing, (also known as Tommy Jiang), who migrated to Australia in 1991. Unfortunately, Ostar recently went bankrupt and is in liquidation, owing $560 million to creditors, including $55 million to the Tax Office. The effect of Ostar’s bankruptcy on Fortune’s plans is unknown at present.

While there are deals like the Fortune deal still happening, total Chinese investment in Australia has declined significantly recently. In 2020, Chinese investment in Australia was $2.5 billion, compared with $3.4 billion the previous year. Agriculture receives about 4% of this investment. Chinese investment in Australia peaked at $17.5 billion in 2008, falling to $15 billion in 2016. Reflecting this fall in overall Chinese investment in Australia, Chinese investment in Australian agriculture is also falling. 

Chinese companies are selling some of their properties in Australia, including the troubled Van Dairies in Tasmania, which has sold off some of its farms to Australian companies.  A lot of Chinese investment is going to agricultural projects in South America and Africa.

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