Friday, July 06, 2007

Tree revolt

Australian farmers are chopping down thousands of trees every day in a dramatic protest against laws intended to curb the country's fast-rising greenhouse gas emissions. Fed up with government restrictions on the use of their land, farmers began a civil disobedience campaign by cutting down one tree on each property, with a threat to increase the rate of felling each day until the dispute is resolved. By the end of this week more than 128,000 trees could be lost in a single day.

The farmers claim that the nation's vegetation management laws, under which the clearing of trees has been made an offence, are leaving farmers bankrupt or rendering their farms marginal because trees are taking over open grasslands. But the Government says that the strict land-clearing laws are necessary to preserve forests to soak up carbon dioxide. Without legislation, the Government claims, vast areas would be cleared to increase acreage of arable land.

Australia has the highest per-capita greenhouse gas emissions and has refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, claiming that the climate change pact favours Europe and puts other countries at a disadvantage.

Alistair McRoberts, a farmer in Cobar, New South Wales, who has joined the protest, said: "How would you feel if the Government regulated to turn the third and fourth bedrooms . . . into accommodation for homeless people, and they didn't pay you any compensation for doing so? "You still pay the mortgage, you still pay the rent, but that's just bad luck. We are being hoodwinked to the highest order by the Government and we need to talk about it."

Brad Bellinger, the chairman of the Australian Beef Association, said that he supported the campaign. On Monday he cut down two trees at his property in New South Wales. He said that, as the fell rate increased, farmers would turn to mechanisation to keep the protest up. "It's a matter of complete desperation," Mr Bellinger said. "By Day 10 we will need bulldozers." Steve Trueman, a Queensland agricultural marketer, who has helped to form a loose coalition of farming groups to take part in the protest, said that desperate farmers who had campaigned for five years to have the land-clearing laws changed were behind the tree-felling campaign. "We are losing tens of thousands of hectares of formerly productive land [because of] these laws," he said.

He added that one large western Queensland property of 56,000 hectares (138,000 acres) was now overrun by hop bush, a tree-like weed that is protected by law. The property once supported up to 15,000 merino sheep but now has only six head of cattle.

Illegal land clearing has been an acute problem in the large states of New South Wales and Queensland. A WWF study in New South Wales estimated that in the seven years to 2005, 80 million reptiles and 13 million birds had been wiped out because of loss of habitat. About 340,000 hectares of land were cleared in Australia in 2005.

Mr Trueman said that farmers would end their tree-felling only when the environment ministers of each state agreed to meet them and discuss the issues behind the protests. "Farmers don't want to be taking this action," he said. "Farmers need trees on their properties as wind breaks and for soil conservation." He said that if land-clearing laws were not relaxed, there would be consequences for urban dwellers in Australia. "If we don't get better outcomes for farmers Australia will face food shortages in future. It won't be because of climate change. It will be because of land-clearing laws."

John Howard, the Prime Minister, has called for a "New Kyoto" that will not harm the country's oil, coal and gas exports and bring in developing nations, such as India and China. Australia was part of the original negotiations that set targets for developed nations, but the Government later decided not to ratify the pact. New figures yesterday showed that the country was almost certain to exceed its greenhouse emissions target of 108 per cent of 1990 levels by 2012 set under Kyoto. The latest figures show that transport emissions have risen by 4 per cent in the year to May, already pushing national greenhouse gas emissions to 107.9 per cent of 1990 levels.


Herbal toxicity a threat

HERBAL remedies could cause liver failure in some people so severe they needed a transplant to survive, a leading gastro-enterologist warned yesterday. University of Queensland liver disease professor Darrell Crawford warned about the potential dangers of the over-the-counter remedies at the launch of the Australian Liver Foundation in Brisbane yesterday. He said the most common cause of herbal hepatitis was black cohosh, a herbal preparation used to treat menopausal symptoms. But he also warned about the dangers of valerian, sometimes taken to treat insomnia, and skullcap.

"I don't think there's a lot of awareness that herbal and complementary therapies can cause liver failure," Professor Crawford said. "They can be bought over the counter, non-scripted in most chemist shops or outlets."

One of the aims of the new foundation will be to increase community awareness about liver disease, which affects about two million Australians. Professor Crawford's warning comes only weeks after the death of a 62-year-old woman of Rosewood, west of Brisbane, from liver toxicity after drinking goji juice. The woman, who was taking medication for type 2 diabetes and arthritis, died after drinking about a litre of the juice in just over a month. Tests of the goji juice and from a liver biopsy are continuing to determine whether the juice may have been responsible.

Professor Crawford, the incoming president of the Gastroenterological Society of Australia, urged people who recommended natural products as alternative treatments to be aware of the potential adverse side-effects. He said herbal hepatitis could occur in people without evidence of pre-existing liver disease.

Queensland Health last week cracked down on two companies which distribute goji juice for illegally describing the product as a treatment for cancer and other diseases. The companies were directed to remove the claims from their promotional material because of breaches of the Food Standards Code. Professor Crawford said he was also concerned about the increase in the number of Australians, including children, with liver diseases directly linked to obesity.


Nature's coral cull

So it's not global warming after all?

SCIENTISTS have discovered that corals can be wiped out by nothing more sinister than an extremely low tide coinciding with a clear, sunny day. It means Mother Nature herself can prompt coral bleaching and dieback - a natural disaster. In a paper published in the Marine Biology journal, Ken Anthony and Ailsa Kerswell, of James Cook University and the University of Queensland, said severe "sun-dry tides" rarely occurred because they depended on the alignment of many natural extremes. These included a combination of sun, moon and chance weather and could leave coral colonies bleached and devastated.

"Really low tides, where the local sea level gets to its extreme low for the year, can occur at different times of the day," Dr Anthony said. "In years where this occurs during the middle of the day when the sunlight is at its most intense and the reefs are almost fully exposed, there is a real risk of severe coral stress and death in the shallow reef zone." Such an event occurred in September 2005 when Dr Anthony and Dr Kerswell were taking JCU students on a field trip to Orpheus Island, east of Ingham in north Queensland. Their observations led them to investigate mysterious coral deaths on the island - the extent of which had not been recorded on the Great Barrier Reef.

"At first we thought it was a major outbreak of disease," Dr Kerswell said. Having established that it was not disease, the pair looked through records of tidal patterns over the previous eight years and analysed the risk of corals being out of the water and exposed to the sun. They found that in September 2005 the Reef suffered from an extremely low tide during the daytime. Dr Anthony said such an event might have been nature's way of culling corals that were taking over.


State government slack on doctor standards

The New South Wales Government has been accused of being slow to act on a plan to tighten national scrutiny of foreign doctors. The Australian Doctors Trained Overseas Association says it has developed a national agreement, including a set of standards, to assess the clinical abilities of all foreign doctors. But the association says that the other states are unwilling to sign off on the new agreement, because NSW Health is dragging its feet.

The association's president, Andrew Schwartz, says he believes that NSW does not want to join the agreement because it will interfere with its ability to recruit doctors. "The NSW public health system recruits most of its doctors from overseas and rates them as occupational trainees and they are actually not not doing any trainee work," he said. "They are just doing ordinary service work." "Because of the wording of what they are called, they avoid that assessment process that everybody else has to go through by the NSW Medical Board."


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