Ord bid sparks concern

Claire TyrrellCountryman

Kimberley growers say a Chinese bid on the Ord Irrigation district was an expected outcome of the $311 million State Government project, but they are wary of a monoculture approach.

Ord-East Kimberley Expansion Project director Peter Stubbs this week responded to media reports of a Chinese conglomerate bidding on the entire 15,000 hectares on offer.

Mr Stubbs said he could not confirm or deny reports that Shanghai Zhongfu group, represented by former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, wanted to develop a major sugar industry and beef abattoir in the region.

Fourteen businesses, including local landholders, bid on the land but Mr Stubbs said there was nothing preventing a single-user from winning the bid.

Mr Stubbs said he was aware of concerns about the landscape being dominated by one industry, but he believed that could be avoided.

"There is a balance between trying to get critical mass and scale into some industries that have potential here, like sugar, cotton and rice," he said.

"They are three industries that need scale to make them commercially viable, but that doesn't mean you can't have both scale and diversity.

"We are trying to create an irrigation scheme that has both scale to allow broadacre industries to succeed and diversity."

The Australian reported Zhongfu, trading as Kimberley Agricultural Investments, proposed to build a $100 million sugar mill and a beef abattoir capable of processing 500,000 head of cattle a year.

The reported bid would create several jobs for local Aboriginal people, which was a major aim of the Royalties for Regions project.

Mr Stubbs could not put a date on when a wining bid would be announced, but said a decision would be made in "several months".

Kununurra grower David Menzel, who is also chairman of State Government-appointed Weaber Plains Task Group, welcomed Chinese interest in the area.

"Our reference group has been discussing this for the past year or two and we thought the most likely outcome would be something like this," he said.

"It would be fair to say we see it as a very positive sign if this sort of interest is shown in the project.

"We want the best outcome for the East Kimberley community and if we can get someone who is keen to invest, put in the infrastructure and develop an economic base for the community, we see it as a good thing."

He said there was a long history of foreign, particularly Chinese, investment in agriculture in the region.

Kimberley mango and vegetable grower Chris Robinson said he would be disappointed if the land was granted to a foreign company at the expense of local farmers.

"It was always going to attract corporate investors, but I would be disappointed if family farmers missed out on the land," he said.

Mr Robinson said he would be concerned if the entire 15,000ha went to one enterprise.

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