Obtaining a World Heritage listing for a national asset is a source of great pride for any country. The Taj Mahal (1983), Borobudur (1991) and Uluru (2007) are examples where countries have obtained the much coveted UNESCO inscription. Australia is justifiably proud of its heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, but this week the United Nations is visiting the reef to see whether the listing is still justified.
In return for a heritage listing, host countries are obliged to ensure “that effective and active measures are taken for the protection, conservation and presentation of the cultural and natural heritage situated on its territory” (Article 5, Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage).
It’s a pretty straight-forward bargain.
Protecting the reef
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was listed in 1981 after a tumultuous political row. The Conservative government of Jo Bjelke-Petersen had its sights set on exploiting oil and gas reserves suspected to exist within the Great Barrier Reef region. The Federal Whitlam government opposed the plan.
Drilling the reef became a major political issue between the Whitlam and the Bjelke-Petersen governments. It led to the Federal Government moving an act of Parliament to create the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 1975.
The 1975 Act prohibits extracting minerals such as oil and gas within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. But the marine park was much more than a mechanism to prevent mining. Today it stands as one of the most successful examples of the multi-use management of marine resources.
Once the park was set up, listing followed. The Great Barrier Reef was listed on the basis of its “exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance”, and as an outstanding example “representing significant ongoing ecological and biological processes”. This assessment is clear to anyone who visits the world’s largest continuous reef system. Anyone would be awestruck by its supreme beauty, biodiversity and best-practice management.
At the ‘81 listing, the world applauded and Australia took bows as one of the more progressive nations in the area of natural resource management.
Not so heritage-worthy anymore?
You might be surprised to learn, however, that the June 2011 minutes of the World Heritage Committee “[n]otes with extreme concern the approval of Liquefied Natural Gas processing and port facilities on Curtis Island within the property”.
The Committee further requested “the Australian Government invite a reactive monitoring mission to visit the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage site”.
This concern is so serious that to UNESCO officials will be travelling to the Great Barrier Reef this week to inspect what could be a major infringement of Australia’s promise to “ensure that effective and active measures are taken for the protection, conservation and presentation of the cultural and natural heritage situated on its territory”.
So, what has happened recently to besmirch our international reputation as a country dedicated to preserving the World Heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef? Curiously, it involves the very same issue that underpinned why the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and World Heritage listing were created in the first place.
As world demand for coal, gas and other fuels has escalated, pressure to tap reserves of these substances in central Queensland has increased. What was not so valuable 10 years ago now represents a huge economic opportunity for Queensland and large resource companies such as Santos, Origin and BHP Billiton. One has only to look at the price of gas which has tripled in WA and doubled in Queensland over the past decade to understand why a gas rush now exists across Queensland.
This has led to massive infrastructure investments to extract, transport and ship gas to the world. Gladstone – as Australia’s fourth largest port – has undergone a dramatic transformation. Gladstone Harbour has been extensively dredged as processing plants and shipping have expanded rapidly.
The shipping and dredging are partly to deal with the output of gas liquefaction plants established on Curtis Island. These plants are huge and obtrusive (about the size of four football fields) and have been established within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage zone. The establishment of these plants and possible disturbances to water quality in the area lie at the heart of the UNESCO committee’s recent concerns.
Will we be delisted?
What happens next is extremely important. No doubt the UNESCO representatives will ask for an explanation for what seems to have been a transgression of Australia’s international obligations under the World Heritage treaty. The representatives may also want to know if there is a remedy to fix the damage done to this section of the Great Barrier Reef. Depending on the answers and explanations they get, the committee will make recommendations at the 36th session of the World Heritage Committee in Saint Petersburg, Russia in June-July 2012.
Delisting of the Great Barrier Reef is one option. This is likely to seriously tarnish Australia’s claim to environmental best practice.
But delisting is unlikely. Not to anticipate the response of the committee, but they are likely to ask the state and federal governments to take serious steps to mitigate the damage. They will probably ask that we pursue a course which is far more compatible with preserving the World Heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef into the future.
Amid the outcry over bloated barramundi and fishing companies going broke, the recent development of Gladstone Harbour raises the question: how sensible is it to pursue the short-term gains of Central Queensland’s gas resources over the long-term benefits of managing the Great Barrier Reef as an ecosystem deserving World Heritage listing? This – and the growing stress on the Great Barrier Reef from climate change – emphasise the irony that the Great Barrier Reef continues to be haunted by society’s addiction to fossil fuels – in 1975 and now today.
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg is Director, Global Change Institute at University of Queensland