Land Use and Agriculture

Briefing Note Summary

To reduce the uncertainty facing investors in agricultural development, improved strategic land use planning and mechanisms for tenure resolution are required. To facilitate this process, it is proposed that Strategic Agricultural Development Areas be prioritised and established.

This approach would be complemented by the creation of an Office of the Coordinator General in Far North Queensland. The Office is required to coordinate more effective strategic regional land use planning and major development approvals, supported by increased State investment to process subsidiary tenure resolution efforts.

The Issue

Land issues in FNQ

A CSIRO and James Cook University (JCU) report into land tenure issues in northern Australia identified key actions required to ensure land tenure arrangements facilitate rather than hinder investment in the region.

The report identified that the majority of land in northern Australia is crown-owned (75.4%), two-thirds of which is pastoral leasehold. Another 18.5% is Indigenous land, and privately owned land accounts for 6.1%1. However, Indigenous land interests cover an estimated 94% of northern Australia and there are limited arrangements to support traditional owners in leading development opportunities within these various tenures.

In the state of Queensland, an estimated 65% of land is leasehold2, with term leases for grazing and agriculture the principal arrangement. High value agriculture is permitted by the Native Title Act (1993) on term leases subject to notices, which does not require an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) or consent.

In 1996 the Native Title Act confirmed existing freehold and perpetual leases extinguished native title, however it is the State’s view this can only be achieved if native title is extinguished either by agreement (ILUA) or order of the Court.

Many pastoral tenures therefore have quite restrictive requirements that need careful negotiation for development. Native title issues in particular are sensitive as the land holder cannot achieve more secure tenure unless native title is surrendered or extinguished. Many others are impacted by the Queensland Vegetation Management Act (1999)3, which was amended in 2018 to ban broad-scale clearing of remnant vegetation for agriculture.

The reduced certainty regarding land use is impacting both agricultural and environmental management investment, as many leaseholder and financial institutions require a more secure form of tenure to underpin the huge capital investment required for high-value agriculture.

Combined with land tenure uncertainty, an opportunity exists to streamline development approvals to improve agricultural investment in Tropical North Queensland (TNQ).


Strategic Land Use Planning

Productive agricultural land is an irreplaceable asset for current and future generations and must be effectively identified, managed, and preserved through improved land use planning and project assessment frameworks.

While land ownership in Australia is governed by common and statutory laws, in the context of northern Queensland a lack of strategic planning and land tenure complexities have frustrated new investment.

In a recent CRCNA report, Facilitating Quality Agricultural Development in Northern Queensland4, it has been recommended that to achieve investment and sustainable agricultural outcomes, significant effort is needed to address issues that arise from:

  • A lack of clearly articulated agricultural development priorities across northern Queensland;
  • Poor frameworks for integrated, collaborative planning at the catchment or sub-regional scale between governments, the private sector, and the community to progress agricultural development;
  • Fragmented and sometimes conflicting policy and process settings in project assessment and approvals that are unable to resolve tensions (and opportunities) concerning development, the environment, and Indigenous interests in northern Queensland landscapes; and
  • A limited focus on raising the capacity of agricultural development interests to develop and prosecute investment-ready proposals that can easily achieve their regulatory obligations.

Without resolution, further investment in agricultural development will continue to be hampered by inefficiencies, conflict, and uncertainty.

In Tropical North Queensland, efforts to reduce barriers to agricultural investment could be pursued in several different ways:

  1. All levels of government working together with industry, investors, and community interests to set targets for, and to prioritise agricultural development in northern Queensland;
  2. Streamlining development approvals and regulations at the federal, state, and local level through a single point-of-contact permanently based in the
  3. Making administrative and legislative improvements to land tenure legislation to reduce barriers to investment, taking into consideration the requirements of the Queensland Vegetation Management Act (1999); and
  4. Taking action to improve the effectiveness of land and resource planning to reduce conflict between potential investors and land holders.

Next Steps

Just as there are State Development Areas (SDAs) to promote economic development in Queensland, in order to reduce the uncertainty facing investors in agricultural development, it is proposed that a framework for prioritised Strategic Agricultural Development Areas be developed across TNQ. Similar in nature to a State Development Area, this would mean that in areas suitable for agricultural production, a single authority would coordinate decisions regarding:

  • Land use planning and approvals;
  • Vegetation management planning and approvals;
  • Native title negotiations;
  • Environmental impact studies and approvals (including EPBC Act);
  • Water allocations; and
  • Trunk infrastructure requirements.

The process would be managed through the creation of an Office of the Coordinator General in Far North Queensland, which would be tasked with coordinating strategic regional land use plans and major development approvals, supported by associated tenure resolution efforts

Our Recommendation

  • That the State Government reduces uncertainty regarding land use and land tenure issues by establishing a framework for Strategic Agricultural Development Areas in Queensland.
  • That the State Government establishes an Office of the Coordinator General in Far North Queensland based in Cairns to effectively coordinate strategic regional land use planning and major development approvals (including all three levels of government), supported by associated tenure resolution efforts.


CSIRO and James Cook University, Land Tenure in northern Australia: Opportunities and challenges for investment, June 2013

Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Planning for Australia’s Future Population, March 201

Queensland Vegetation Management Act (1999) https://www.

Dale, Allan Patrick & Marshall, Amber (2020) Facilitating Quality Agricultural Development in Northern Queensland: New Policy Directions. Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia (CRCNA), Australia.