Despite its social and legal significance, the whole debate about coal mining in Queensland and its impact on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park would possibly have been ignored in light of other current debates (such as budget deficit, increasing housing prices, immigration and employment), that seem to be of higher importance to the majority of Australia’s population, were it not for the effort and courage of some individuals and the on-going protests of mainly Greenpeace Australia-Pacific and other NGOs. What to me is so astonishing about this whole issue is the fact that all of the issues of concern listed above are actually very much related to one another and a change in values and a view for the whole picture could bring immediate solutions to all of them.
But let’s start at the beginning. Why did some activists of Greenpeace have to board a coal ship off the coast of Queensland to get some attention for the case? Why is it that, lately, civil disobedience seems to be the only way to get attention and protect our interests and the natural environment?
The answer will be better understood if you take the time to quickly review two older post I have written: the main problem is that environment protection in Australia is not as good as it could be, and worse, that the public does rarely have a voice in decision making. The reality is that whereas there is a legal framework to protect the natural environment and society from negative impacts of planned projects, its enforcement is rather slack. This has the consequence that a few individuals are exploiting valuable resources without considering society as a whole or paying for the damages they cause to the natural environment.
In the case of the Great Barrier Reef this deserves special attention due to the uniqueness and beauty of the reef and its surroundings, the associated value and the status of the area. In recognition for its value (not only for the Australian but the global community) the Great Barrier Reef was listed as a World Heritage Area in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1981. The list is part of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage Convention signed in 1972 and ratified by Australia in 1974.
What people might not be aware of is that the listing of the Great Barrier Reef in the World Heritage List is not only nice to have and a good marketing tool for local tourism, but it actually also binds members of the convention (in this case Australia as a member state) to protect the listed heritage. Article 4 of the convention states: “Each State Party to this Convention recognizes that the duty of ensuring the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage … It will do all it can to this end, to the utmost of its own resources and, where appropriate, with any international assistance and co-operation, in particular, financial, artistic, scientific and technical, which it may be able to obtain.”
Now I ask you, do the Australian and Queensland’s government really do the utmost possible to protect the Great Barrier Reef?
The opposite is true. The federal government and the government of Queensland completely ignore their duties. They willingly and consciously contribute to further degradation of the reef by tolerating on-going degradation and even considering further development of mining activities within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area: several projects are currently being assessed as can be learned from the website of the Department of Environment and Sustainability. All this in spite of major concerns from various sources.
What merits special attention by all Australians and not only NGOs, is the last report of the World Heritage Committee of the UNESCO on the state of conservation of world heritage properties. Various sources have commented on it and have come to the same conclusions as the World Heritage committee: the Australian government lacks commitment to protect the Great Barrier Reef, it supports further development of activities and facilities that are inconsistent with the aim to protect the area, necessary data is usually not available for the public to comment on and the public is not considered for decision making.
And while most of these findings focus on the physical protection and the local importance of the reef to start with, they do not yet encompass global implications and the social dimension of what is going on here: as a consequence of several international agreements, Australia also has duties of international concerns, not only national ones. It is one thing to destroy local resources, but it is another to challenge the integrity of world heritage sites and the interests of current societies and future generations as a whole.
The World Heritage Committee does actually consider to put the Great Barrier Reef on the List of World Heritage in Danger at its next session in the year 2014 “in the absence of a firm and demonstrable commitment” to protect the site.
If all that would not be enough as such, an absolute scandal has yet to be mentioned: it is the unjustifiable discrepancy between low benefits of the on-going and further planned coal mining activities for society (short-term employment for a very specific labour force only, taxes/royalties that are not even worth mentioning) and its overall costs: direct costs from mining are degradation of the environment in various forms, negative health impacts for the worker, economic loss (on possible alternatives or higher taxes/royalties) on local level as much as degradation of the environment, negative health and other social impacts for the societies in the countries of destiny where the coal is being burnt, in general. Additionally, as regards the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park it could mean the loss of status as a world heritage site or at least loss of functionality and attractiveness and associated benefits in the form of business opportunities such as fishing and tourism that bring long-term activities and a variety of job opportunities for a wide range of skills.
If one adds all the above up, they come easily to the conclusion that if the Australian and Queensland’s governments would eventually realise that what we need is not just nice reports, but a change in policies and values, a shift from exploiting and a “destruction mentality” to a focus on sustainability by means of investigating in and supporting of research, technology and renewable energy and the protection of goods and services provided through natural resources instead of destroying them. In addition, we need creation of competitiveness by fostering intelligent design and low-energy consumption instead of subsidizing inefficiency and creating dead-end jobs.
The result would be less environment degradation, better and long-term employment opportunities, less budget deficit and eventually smarter and cost-efficient infrastructure (housing and transport). In short the answer to most questions of concern. That is what sustainability is all about.
If this change doesn’t happen within reasonable time, and instead, the governments of Australia and Queensland prefer to follow a policy of degradation of natural resources and destruction of heritage of international interest, then the international community should actually not consider to move the Great Barrier Reef to the List of World Heritage in Danger, but to intervene in policy and practices in Australia. This as a consequence of the duty of the international community to protect world and natural heritage and the interests of current and future societies – as declared in various international agreements (e.g. Rio Declaration, UNESCO World Heritage Convention, Convention on Biological Diversity, and Ramsar Convention on Wetlands).
 In accordance with Article 6 of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage Convention 1972
 same as above plus the Rio Declaration 1992 which states the following:
Principle 1:“Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development” and that “They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.”
Principle 7: “States shall cooperate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem.”
Principle 8: “To achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of life for all people, States should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic policies.”
Principle 10: “Environmental issues are best handled with participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities”.