Fragile seeds in indigenous biofuels scheme

By: Tony Koch, Jamie Walker

QUEENSLAND'S controversial Wild Rivers preservation law atop Cape York threatens to scuttle a breakthrough biofuel project that would free local indigenous communities from welfare dependency, proponents say.
The pilot scheme at Lockhart River, north of Cooktown, has been allowed to proceed by the state government because it is one of the few that were under way before the legislation was enacted.
International businessman Peter Holmes a Court, who spent this week travelling through peninsula communities at the invitation of Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson, said the application of the Wild Rivers Act was ``horrifically unjust and immoral'' .
``I confess this is the first time I have ever heard of this tree that bears seeds which, when processed, yield diesel fuel,'' Mr Homes a Court said after inspecting the biofuel project.
``This is precisely the type of industry that may be suited to this country and these people and the type of project we ought to be backing and trying. We are utilising trees that are native to Australia and which require the barest minimum of attention once they are in the ground to make the fuel that we burn to run these towns and our vehicles.
``But most sobering of all is the fact that we are standing in a freshly planted paddock which is 25m from the river and which has been farmed for 50 years. Under the Wild Rivers legislation, all future crops have to be planted a further 975m from the water.
``Any person with the barest knowledge of agriculture knows the rich soils are on the river flats -- not up the sides of rocky hills around here.''
The Lockhart River project is operated by Evergreen Fuels, a company run by engineer Rod Miller, his biochemist wife Michelle Lihou and their business partner, former local national parks ranger Clare Blackman. Mr Miller said producing biofuel from pongamia trees was not new as it had been done successfully in several countries including India.
His commitment to Cape York was backed by former Queensland premier Peter Beattie, who declared yesterday the peninsula was ideal for niche biofuel industries.
Fresh off the plane from Los Angeles, where he is Queensland's trade commissioner for the Americas, Mr Beattie praised another innovative operation to turn coconut husk into biofuel.
``It is clean energy, renewable, environmentally friendly ... that is exactly what they need,'' he said.
Mr Beattie, however, declined to buy into the Wild Rivers debate. ``I can't comment on contemporary political things,'' he insisted. ``That's a matter for the government.''
Before embarking on the venture at Lockhart River, Mr Miller ran a successful biofuel conversion business at Mossman on the Atherton Tableland, turning used fish and chip cooking oil into diesel fuel. He and Ms Blackman spent almost three years getting the co-operation of local traditional owners and navigating the maze of government regulations before launching the project.
``A special friend, local traditional owner Gabrielle Butcher, said to me that he had 21 grandchildren and he needed to find jobs for them,'' Mr Miller said. ``Each seed on these trees contains an average 42 per cent oil, and mature trees yield between 40kg and 250kg of seed a year, and they can bear for 50 years. We could not have got this off the ground at all without the full and enthusiastic co-operation of the local traditional owners who have supported us every inch of the way.
``There are so many aspects that provide employment -- the planting, the propogating of seedlings at our nursery, provision of bees to pollinate the plants, and of course the harvesting.
``We will be producing over 3000kg of seed per hectare, and we are now producing diesel fuel for 66c a litre including government charges. In full swing this plantation will provide 110 full-time jobs for local Lockhart River men and women.''
Mr Homes a Court said the Wild Rivers legislation was an obvious impediment to Aboriginal people achieving self-sufficiency.