Reef Aid

Transforming marginal cane land into biodiverse wetlands

In the Wet Tropics of northern Queensland, Greening Australia and the Mulgrave Landcare and Catchment Group are working alongside award-winning landholder Lenny Parisi to transform retired sugarcane crops into vital wetland and biodiversity systems for the area.

Photos courtesy Damon Telfer, Stuart Frost, Mulgrave Landcare, Birdlife Australia

The project aims to bring some natural balance back to 8 hectares of non-profitable cane land adjacent to Fig Tree Lagoon, providing much-needed habitat for local species and removing excess nitrogen and sediment from the water before it flows into the Mulgrave River and out to the Great Barrier Reef.

The Challenge

In late 2016, third generation sugarcane farmer Lenny Parisi knew that parts of his property were too waterlogged and overrun with weeds to be used for future cropping. High levels of sediment and nutrient run-off were also impacting water quality and species in the region.

Much of this land just south of Cairns is of significant environmental value. The creeks running through the farm to the Mulgrave River, are bordered by World Heritage listed rainforest and flow into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon. High concentrations of nutrients in run-off fuel Crown of Thorns Starfish outbreaks – known for destroying the magnificent coral of our Reef, while high levels of sediment kill the seagrass meadows that Dugongs and Sea Turtles feed on.

So, after a chance encounter with a Mulgrave Landcare committee member in the supermarket, Parisi partnered with Greening Australia and MLCG to use his retired cropland for something greater.

The Solution

With funding and support from the Australian Government’s Reef Trust, AccorHotels and Sukin, 8 hectares of low-lying land adjacent to Fig Tree Lagoon are now being re-vegetated and restored as an evolving biodiversity hotspot and wetland treatment system.

To date, over 14,000 trees have been planted by Greening Australia and Mulgrave Landcare volunteers along 6 km of waterways on Parisi’s land, complementing the existing 7,000 trees planted from previous projects. Seven hectares have also been transformed into a constructed water quality treatment train and artificial wetland, improving the quality of water running into both the Fig Tree Lagoon and then the Great Barrier Reef lagoon.

In addition to improving water quality, this revegetation work will sequester carbon and also provide vital habitat for species like the endangered Cassowary, the unique Cairns Rainbowfish, the Smooth Crayfish, and a variety of vulnerable and near-threatened plants.

This is not the first time Parisi has offered his land to help in environmental work. In 2016, he helped initiate Sugar Research Australia’s Cane to Creek project, which gave researchers access to water quality data from a variety of sites around his farm and neighbouring farmers.

For his ongoing advocacy of this work and commitment to upholding better land practices, Lenny Parisi has now been awarded a number of accolades, including the major Reef Champion Award, the prestigious Prince of Wales Environmental Leadership Reef Sustainability Award, and Greening Australia’s Chris Jones Environmental Stewardship Award in 2019.

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Construction of the shallow wetland area was completed in October 2019, with 2,500 native trees and 2,550 sedges planted to complement the 7,000 trees previously established on the site. Water quality monitoring is in place to determine how much nitrogen and phosphorous is being prevented by the wetland from flowing from the surrounding sugarcane catchment area to the Fig Tree Lagoon.

An outstanding increase in bird life is also being monitored by experts at BirdLife Australia – a promising sign that the habitat is being used for its intended purpose. The number of wetland species has quadrupled since the filtration system was constructed – from large flocks of ducks as predicted, to unexpected migratory birds from the Northern Hemisphere and local species like Jabiru and Jacana utilising the space. Many new species are making their home in the riparian plantings too, from mistletoe birds to brown honeyeaters and more.

The Fig Tree Lagoon project is serving as a catalyst for new environmental projects in the surrounding lower Mulgrave catchment, attracting interest from neighbouring farmers, NRM groups, governments and the media about how non-profitable areas of farmlands could be used to improve biodiversity and water quality across the region. The project shows that cane farming can go hand-in-hand with improved Reef water quality and habitat for wildlife.

This project is funded by the Australian Government’s Reef Trust, supported by AccorHotels and Sukin, and delivered as part of our Reef Aid program in partnership with the Mulgrave Landcare and Catchment Group.

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