By Tony Hastings
CAIRNS — The proposed construction of a 7.5km long cableway, from Caravonica to Kuranda, called Sky-Rail, is the first commercial development in a World Heritage listed area. The campaign to stop it must be won to prevent further similar proposals from destroying the rainforest.
Sean Purcell, coordinator of the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre (CAFNEC) told Green Left, "It is without a doubt the biggest campaign on an environmental issue in Queensland at the moment, and is poised to take that position nationally".
Issues raised by the plan include the private takeover of public land, destruction of World Heritage listed rainforest and white invasion of Aboriginal land.
The construction would include tower sites, access roads, tourist shops, an 80-seat cafeteria, non-sewered toilets for up to 600 people an hour — all in the national park.
There are several sacred sites immediately threatened by Sky-Rail, one of which has already been vandalised — after it was shown to the developer.
The Sky-Rail company is fully owned by the Chapman family, whose history dates back to the cedar loggers of the 1880s. In their promotions they proudly announce "this is the true pioneer family". A controversial development at Richter's Creek is also Chapman-sponsored.
The proposal has so far been approved by state and federal governments, with a development agreement already signed, and the licence agreement to be considered in the next month. There has been no environmental impact study and little consultation with the local community, who oppose the project. It is against the wishes of the Djabugay people, who are indigenous to the area.
Dr Ailo Keato, from the Rainforest Conservation Group, has suggested a push for an inquiry into the approval process.
A freedom of information inquiry by CAFNEC revealed that the Queensland Coordinator General's Office bypassed the Wet Tropics Management Authority (WTMA) and is pursuing approvals from the Wet Tropics Ministerial Council for Sky-Rail. This has meant that WTMA is unable to perform its role in protecting the area, and instead is told what decisions have been made and must then implement them.
In a letter to CAFNEC, then environment minister Ros Kelly stated, "A Commonwealth impact assessment of this project is not mandatory under Commonwealth law". But under the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act (1983), the minister must sign an agreement before the "unlawful acts" associated with Sky-Rail can be approved.
A local protest group, People Against Kuranda Sky-Rail (PAKS), now has more than 30 people at its weekly meetings, and has been trained by Non-violent Direct Action Australia in how to run a construction blockade. The developers will face a well-prepared force if they attempt the proposed construction in July.
Actions by PAKS have included a "Clean Up The Range Day", marches and rallies of up to 300 people in Cairns and Kuranda, a fundraising concert with local Djabugay band Mantaka that pulled around 500 people, and a mock hold-up of the Kuranda tourist train at scenic Barron Falls lookout, to illustrate that if Sky-Rail goes ahead the train service may stop, and also that the opposite scenic rim would be destroyed by one of Sky-Rail's stations.
Environment groups across Australia are taking up the campaign, and a national day of action is planned for Monday April 11. The Wilderness Society and Conservation Councils are helping the coordination, with other groups pledging support. Contact Sean Purcell at CAFNEC on (070) 321 746 for further details, or your local Wilderness Society office.
Concerned groups are also asked to fax the ministers' offices (Environment (06) 273 4130, Tourism (06) 273 4154) to express concern at the Commonwealth's support for this project.