From Maple Street Co-op News, Dec 2003/Jan 2004 edition
Published by Maple Street Co-op, 37 Maple Street, Maleny, tel 5494 2088
Maleny's Economy and Ecology at Stake
by Rod Castle
There is one clichéd statement that encapsulates the resignation to powerlessness and can ease one's conscience for a steady flow of apathy and inaction: that is, 'You can't stop progress'. It's usually used at the end of a conversation to allow both parties to give a sigh, smile and return to pre-programmed amnesiac living. It has been difficult hearing this statement in Maleny lately.
Since late October there has been enlivened debate over the 'approved' development by Cornerstone Properties Ltd of a Woolworths supermarket next to the banks of the Obi Obi Creek, on and behind the Boxsells cattle yard site. This debate has opened up people's definitions of what progress is, many opting for sustainable development as opposed to the type of regressive development patterns that can jeopardise or even destroy the beauty, integrity and economic security of a small community town like Maleny.
This year has seen two supermarket proposals put to Caloundra City Council. The Myrtle Street site now has 'in principle' approval for a residential unit development, and the Boxsells site next to and behind the Maleny 'Heart of the Hinterland' Hotel has been given full approval for a Woolworths supermarket. The Retain Maleny's Character group and the Community Precinct Task Force both recommended that this site be 'resumed by Council', but the idea was not taken up.
A court case ensued in the Queensland Planning and Environment Court between the Council and Cornerstone, after the developers rejected approval conditions imposed by Council. The conditions included issues to be addressed on potential traffic problems, parking and buffer zones. Cornerstone and its lawyers won and the conditions were lifted.
The dissent against this development has come from a wide variety of people. Graeme Newton, a Maleny resident for more than 50 years and a banana farmer who consigns to the Maple Street Co-op, suggests we need a Woolworths supermarket "like we need a hole in the head".
Graeme's criticisms are echoed by a representative of the nation's largest citrus grower/packer, who states that Australians are eating poorer-tasting fruit, treated with increasing amounts of chemicals, because of Woolworths' stringent 'quality' specifications. "Woolworths just wants more and more plastic fruit," said Steve Twomey, domestic sales manager for Vitor Marketing in Renmark, SA. "They only care that it looks shiny and beautiful." He said that the response from growers wanting to sell to Woolworths, which buys a quarter of all Australia's fruit and vegetables, has been to increase their use of pesticides and fungicides to reduce blemishes.1
Amid continuing allegations that the two supermarket superpowers (Woolworths and Coles) are squeezing both smaller rivals and producers on the price of fruit and vegetables, there is growing concern about the power they have over the cultivation, distribution and sale of food.
"The two big retailers are exerting incredible influence down the food supply chain," said a Sydney University economic geographer, Dr Bill Pritchard. "Corporate strategy these days is all about controlling systems without owning them, and that's certainly what Woolworths and Coles are doing with the supply of food."2
A 2002 report prepared for the Productivity Commission by the consultants Retailworks said the number of independent fruit and vegetable retailers plunged by 56 per cent between 1992 and 1999, from 3,670 to 1,611.
Similar findings came out of survey figures to 1999, compiled by the Queensland Retail Traders & Shopkeepers Association. They showed that for every job created in large supermarket chains, 1.7 jobs were lost in local, independently owned shops. The negative impact of major supermarket chains was acknowledged by the ACCC in its submission to the Retail Inquiry of 1999. In 2003, the ACCC announced that the major supermarkets are detrimental to having a healthy local economy.
Platypus supporters on the march
At the heart of the dissent over the Woolworths development has been a diverse group of concerned locals dubbed the 'Platypus People'. A resident platypus, living in the Obi Obi next to the proposed development, was captured on video by local herb grower Jon Woodlands. He and partner Jan Duffield have been tenants on the site of the proposed development (up until early December), and are just two of the many people not wanting the Woolworths supermarket to proceed.
As an aside, Jon has been supplying organically grown herbs to Maple Street Co-op for a year and a half. The plants have proven popular with locals as well as tourists. His 60 to 70 varieties of herbs are sold for $2.50 and include many rare and interesting plants such as brahmi, night-scented jasmine, white tarragon, Vietnamese mint and patchouli. Jon began to get interested in herbs when he started cultivating organically grown vegetables at age 15 and was looking for companion plants for his vegetables. Since then, Jon has kept his passion for growing plants, and he spent time teaching his skills and knowledge to others at the Tenterfield TAFE from 1989 to 1993. He was also involved with the local landcare group in Tenterfield, NSW, and worked for Greening Australia.
Jon has supplied other outlets on the Coast with his herbs in recent times and can be seen at the Yandina markets on a Saturday. He says he "loves the ecology" of his (now former) backyard, where he has been able to see the platypuses, turtles, eels, water dragons and other wildlife and live amongst the mature native bunya pine, kauri pine, silky oak and black bean trees - all of which are expected to be removed if the development goes ahead.
Jon is one of the spokespersons for the Platypus Group and says he has been amazed and overwhelmed by the amount of support from a wide demographic of concerned residents from Maleny as well as the coast.
The Platypus Group organised a rally at Tesch Park on 25 October to raise awareness and share information on issues surrounding the Woolworths development. Three hundred people attended the colourful rally, which had musicians and speakers - including local platypus researcher Les Hall, who talked about the sensitive nature of the platypus, and local bookshop owner Stephen Lang, who spoke passionately on a few points including the negative effects on small businesses from a Woolworths situated away from the direct centre of town.
Since then, the Platypus Group has received some far-ranging publicity and its actions have taken the group to different Woolworths supermarkets on the coast, to the Department of Natural Resources, and to the office of Caloundra City Council Mayor, Don Aldous.
In The Range News (21 November 2003), Cornerstone Properties selectively quoted information from the Australian Platypus Conservancy's (APC) website (http://www.platypus.asn.au), suggesting that "Any development with creek frontage of less than one hundred metres is said to have little or no impact on the platypus habitat". This was clarified by the Conservancy a week later in TRN (28 November): "Unfortunately, this information has been taken out of context and wrongly interpreted." The APC guidelines continue to note that even relatively low-impact developments, such as walking paths and bike tracks, should ideally be located at least 30 metres from the bank of a waterway.
This has not been the first time the platypuses in the Obi Obi have received attention. A 'Save the Platypus' campaign, instigated over 10 years ago, stopped a cement batching plant from being built on the banks of the Obi Obi near what is now the MENA Centre. Platypus caps, badges and T-shirts were given out back then, but it took a three-year ordeal and court case for the FABS (Find Another Batching Site) Group and the Maleny community to win and for the batching plant development to be stopped.
Raising our community conscience
The Retain Maleny's Character website (http://www.malenycharacter.org) states: "Over the past two decades, Maleny has been developing an economic development strategy based on community initiatives and community self-reliance. This strategy is now recognised nationally and internationally, and Maleny has become a role model for other communities interested in sustainable development."
Contrary to some of the graffiti on the roads into town, I believe that Maleny does not need to be 'saved' but left alone to continue developing its cooperative cultural awareness and building a healthy social ecology.
1. Matt Wade and Michael Bradley, "Woolies: the worm in that plastic fruit", The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 July 2002
2. Matt Wade, "Green Giants are Gobbling Up the Little Growers", SMH, 8 July 2002
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