Poison and hate mail amid the coconut palms of Queensland

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 August, 2006, 12:00am

They are a symbol of Australia's tropical north, their rustling fronds framing picture postcard views of white sandy beaches and the azure waters of the Coral Sea.

But the northeastern state of Queensland's coconut palms are under a two-pronged attack from councils who fear they will drop their bulky fruit on the heads of unsuspecting passers-by and conservationists who say the trees are crowding out native rainforest.

So passionate is the clash that one environmental group has taken the law into its own hands, poisoning the trees in a covert campaign of sabotage.

'The whole bloody coastline is infested,' said environmental biologist Hugh Spencer, who has received hate mail for leading the charge against coconut palms. He also heads the Australian Tropical Research Foundation. 'It's a cancer. If they're left to their own devices, you end up with a monoculture. But if you tell people they're a weed, they go berserk.'

Marching down the beach at Cape Tribulation, in northern Queensland, Dr Spencer passes the bikini-clad backpackers sunning themselves on towels. He heads for a thick grove of Cocos nucifera (coconut palm), crashes into the tinder dry leaf litter and points out a tiny hole in the base of a particularly tall specimen.

'We put poison in there. It's entirely illegal, I might add. We do it on days when the weather is bad and there's no one on the beach,' said Dr Spencer.

Coconut palms are just one of hundreds of species of introduced plants that have thrived in Australia since the 1788 beginning of European settlement.

Millions of dollars are spent each year trying to eradicate, or at least control, the exotics. But coconut palms are now considered an irreplaceable part of Queensland's tropical ambience by many locals and visitors.

'When the council chopped down 100 palm trees at a local beach, people were outraged,' said Barry O'Brien, of the community group Preserve Our Palms. 'We have other dangerous things up here such as crocodiles and snakes and stinging jellyfish, but no one is suggesting we kill them all.'

Attempting to reconcile the pro-and anti-coconut camps are local authorities such as Douglas Shire Council, which administers a swathe of idyllic coastline north of Cairns. Increasing litigiousness in Australia means that councils are terrified they will be sued by anyone injured by falling nuts.

While dozens of trees overhanging footpaths or playgrounds have been chopped down, the remainder are subjected to a twice-yearly 'denutting', when workers shin up the palms to remove the nuts.

'A fully grown nut weighs a couple of kilos and if it falls on you from 30 metres, it'll do a lot of damage,' said Bob Jago, the council's environmental officer. But eradicating the palms altogether was not an option. 'If you suggested removing them, you'd get lynched,' he said.