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A NEW railway across the top of Australia linking Kununurra in the remote east Kimberley region with Darwin is under consideration.
Federal Minister for Regional Australia Simon Crean backed the need for a new rail line connecting to Darwin's port to realise the food bowl potential of northern Australia.
Northern Territory Chief Minister Terry Mills said he had discussed with Mr Crean whether the federal government would pay for a new northern rail corridor to Darwin, as part of joint talks on the expansion of the Ord irrigation scheme across the border from the east Kimberley into the NT.
But Mr Crean said he hoped private enterprise would fund any new rail link, as corporations such as Chinese property development company Shanghai Zhongfu prepare to turn remote bush country into vast irrigated sugar cane plains with a $700 million investment.
The West Australian and federal governments have contributed $515m of taxpayer funds preparing irrigation channels, roads and social infrastructure for the local Aboriginal community in Kununurra, before handing the land to the Chinese newcomer to develop.
Ten days ago Mr Mills announced further expansion of irrigated farming into the NT had become a project of state significance and would attract fast-tracking attention.
Mr Crean said Darwin's port would come into play as the main export gateway for any food, cotton or biofuels grown in the new Ord food bowl project, irrigated with water from Lake Argyle near Kununurra, to be shipped to nearby Asian markets.
"If the opportunity opens up for Ord stage 3 (expansion in the NT) and you can get critical (food production) mass, then the question is how to export the product," Mr Crean said.
"Whether it is sugar or other crops grown on the expansion, then the port of Darwin becomes a very real prospect because there's a limit to what can go through Wyndham (port) near Kununurra. Darwin has got the big investment in port infrastructure and, given the amount of investment in the Ord from the private sector, we would be looking to encourage them (to use Darwin)."
Mr Crean said state and federal government were also ready to move on changing land tenure across the NT and Queensland, affecting development in the far north. Issues to be explored include changing the strict restrictions on NT pastoral leases to permit cropping and irrigated farming. Currently, only cattle and grazing use is allowed on the crown land leases.
Mr Crean said a new expert advisory panel would also investigate if the leasehold status of most land in the NT and northern Queensland was deterring big-scale investment from international funds and corporations, because of concerns it was not as secure a title as freehold tenure.
The right of private companies to own irrigation water rights, or even channel and canal infrastructure, will also be probed.
"The challenge for northern Australia . . . is to diversify its economic base and play to its traditional strengths," Mr Crean said.
A recent study by CSIRO showed that, as well as irrigated diversified agriculture, opportunities for carbon farming in the savannah lands of northern Australia could contribute $1 billion to the northern economy.
But a downside of carbon farming, according to the report, was that a large share of the potential carbon trading dollars available would only be accessed by reducing cattle numbers, since cattle emit large amounts of methane gas.
This article first appeared on www.theaustralian.com.au
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