Living soils provide us with the basis for growth of life, which in turn gives us the air, water, food, clothes and shelter. Healthy soils provide ecosystem services through supporting plant growth, regulating hydrologic cycle and cycling nutrients. All soils underlie different types of vegetation - from rainforest to tall Tetrodona woodlands.
Cape York soils include 113 soil types identified by the Cape York Peninsula Land Use Strategy, but only a handful of these (19) are potentially useful types for agriculture. The agriculturally productive soils are relatively small in area and generally around Cooktown, the Lakeland area and further north around Weipa and the Wenlock catchment. Much of the other soil types are suitable for grazing, generally in central Cape York.
The value of soils is mainly mentioned by those who rely on agriculture for their livelihood. There is little mention of soil quality by those who do not directly rely on the quality of the land for a living. However, healthy soils provide the basis for habitats and protect the aquatic and marine areas that we value. Keeping soils clean from chemicals and in place are goals of programs protecting waterholes, rivers and the Great Barrier Reef.
There has been a 130+ year history of grazing, mining and agriculture activity on Cape York, in relatively small areas. Much of the remaining soils are marginally suitable for grazing and agriculture. Nevertheless, new roads are being developed and an active minerals industry is still exploring, developing and constructing mines across the Peninsula. These industries are causing more and more erosion, sedimentation and compaction. In response to this, there is a current push to shift toward more economically and environmentally sustainable practices in agriculture and infrastructure development.
What are the key issues?
Cape York has many fragile soils. While the area of agriculture is small and the grazing rates across Cape York are low, the combination of grazing, agriculture, mining, fires and road development has a substantial impact. These activities threaten the health of living soils through erosion, weakening the soil structure, increased salinity, acidity and contamination. The combined effects damage the long-term productivity of the grazing and agricultural land and the ecosystems, particularly the rivers, waterholes, wetlands and Great Barrier Reef. Managing this requires giving the best knowledge and skills to the industries and supporting the local workforce and managers to improve their practices.
Aspirational Program Goals
- Improved soil quality and reduced erosion leading to healthier ecosystems, increased biodiversity and more productive lands.
- Better coordination across programs for collaborative responses to programs targeting healthy Cape York soils.
- Far-reaching understanding of the fragility of Cape York soils and how to implement best practices that protect natural systems, while maintaining livelihoods.
- Living soils that retain water, erode less and support biodiversity.