Albanese government fails to monitor deforestation, leaving it to citizen scientists to uncover potentially illegal clearing

The work of citizen scientists has laid bare the staggering lack of federal government monitoring of deforestation in Australia, after six instances of potentially unlawful land clearing were uncovered in the last four months through a volunteer monitoring program.

Timelapse of land clearing near Koumala.
Courtesy of Watch on Nature / Wilderness Society

This lack of robust oversight makes enforcement of Australia’s already weak environmental protection laws nearly impossible without the help of volunteer citizen scientists—prompting environment groups to call for a national monitoring system.

Since December 2023, the Wilderness Society and Queensland Conservation Council have referred six instances of potentially illegal deforestation to the federal government for assessment. In each case, habitat for listed threatened and endangered species, including the koala, northern quoll and greater glider, was bulldozed with no assessment undertaken, or approvals granted. These potential breaches were identified by citizen scientists, using satellite images accessible through the Wilderness Society's Watch on Nature platform.

One such citizen scientist, Pia Cunningham, said, "I was completely floored when I found out the government doesn't have its own system for monitoring deforestation. These are activities that are supposed to be regulated by the national environment law, but if people like me weren't watching, these potential breaches would never even be noticed."

The Wilderness Society and Queensland Conservation Council are calling for a national land and tree monitoring program accompanied by an early detection system, akin to the Statewide Landcover and Trees Study (SLATS) undertaken yearly by the Queensland government. This will not only protect Australia's unique ecosystems but also ensure the integrity and enforceability of Australia’s nature laws.

Hannah Schuch, Campaigns Manager for the Wilderness Society Queensland, said

This alarming gap in Australia’s environment protection arsenal must be urgently addressed. This lack of oversight cannot be carried over into the new laws promised by the Albanese government, or we will be left with laws that are as unenforceable as the ones we have now. Australia is globally-recognised as a deforestation hotspot, monitoring the unlawful destruction of forests should not be left to citizens to do themselves.

Strong nature laws mean very little without the means to monitor and enforce them. Almost two years into the Albanese government's term, Australians expect the government to do its job, which is to protect the wildlife that we pride ourselves on, not to allow the ongoing destruction of vital habitat for threatened species.

Natalie Frost, Nature Campaigner, Queensland Conservation Council, said that for too long koalas and other threatened species have paid the ultimate price for the sheer lack of enforcement of nature laws.

Time and time again koalas have lost their homes due to woeful nature laws. Recently, there has been public outrage from footage showing the bulldozing of trees with koalas in them at Kangaroo Island. Our investigation has proven that incidences like this are happening all the time, however cameras aren’t always there to capture the bulldozing. Fortunately, citizen scientists are working hard behind the scenes to capture evidence of deforestation through satellite imagery.

The Albanese government must uphold their commitment of no new extinctions and protect iconic species like the koala. The only way to achieve this is to stop the bulldozers in their tracks by tough enforcement of our national environment law.

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