June 28, 2012

Reserving opinion

Deeply suspicious as I was about the motives of the Australian government when it announced the creation of a 3.1 million square kilometer protected marine reserve- the largest in the world, the size of India and covering a third of Australian waters - I am slowly veering to the position that the plan is, in spite of being an excellent example of crony capitalism combined with cynical and bleary logic, overall not such A Bad Thing after all.  

True, the timing of the announcement caused even my thinning eyebrows to rise. Just last month, a somewhat vituperative UN report had said that the Great Barrier Reef's UN World Heritage listing could be restated as "at risk" unless the reef was protected from the oil, gas and mining boom in Australia. The marine reserve announcement was therefore cleverly timed, stuck between the UN condemnation and the upcoming Rio summit where 130 world leaders would meet to discuss sustainable development. 

That Rio summit has now come and almost gone, leaving behind, in the words of one commentator, "the shattered remains of a slew of proposals that never got off the ground". Unsurprising, because, as Political Director of Greenpeace comments, "Governments, overall, are in the business of delaying and doing nothing."

Unsurprising, too, that the Australian marine reserve proposal drew sharp and immediate criticism. Shallow and transparent, it was said. Will be 'devastating' to local fishing communities since it restricts commercial fishing. The Australian Marine Alliance said the plan would mean a loss of $4.35bn and 36,000 jobs. (Eighty percent of the area will be open to fishing, though, and fishing communities are being promised a financial package). Another criticism harder to refute is that oil and gas exploration is being allowed near protected areas, and that 'no-go zones' seem to have been planned keeping the oil industry's interests uppermost in mind. The World Heritage Ningaloo Reef is a case in point, with the massive gas hub planned at nearby James Price Point. 

So yes, environmentalists' claims- in the words of the Guardian- that the Australian government has "deliberately created "holes" in the marine reserve network to appease the mining industry, which is pushing for a huge increase in shipping through the Great Barrier Reef to accommodate the boom in mineral exports to overseas markets, predominately China and India"- are justified. So are the apprehensions of WWF Australia, which says that areas rich in biodiversity have not been protected- like the Rowley Shoals- for the usual suspicious reasons. No doubt the oil and gas lobbyists worked overtime with the Australian government. 

All that is true. But here's the thing; see where we are coming from. Humanity has dumped nuclear and chemical waste into the oceans. Despite futile international summits, we continue to decimate nature everywhere today in pursuit of its mineral and other resources. (The Rio summit's Oceans Rescue Plan will probably go the way of other such commitments). Look at what corruption in the mining and oil exploration has done to Indian waters and shores. In Australia, coral cover has halved in the last fifty years because of bleaching and chemical run-off. Across the world, corruption equals politically sanctioned encroachment of reserves equals destruction equals junkets and seminars and sustainability summits in Rio.

The Australian proposal should be seen in this context. At a time when the rest of the world is doing precious little to slow down- leave alone reverse- our headlong dash to destruction, the Australians have increased the number of protected marine areas from 27 to 60; as I said before, the reserve will cover a third of that country's waters, including the diverse Coral Sea. All said and done, the new initiative means greater protection to Australian waters. And, while Australian environment Minister Tony Burke's statement- that he wanted the reserves to set a global benchmark for environmental protection and ensuring food security- may be taken with a dollop of salt, I have to agree with what he said later- "We have an incredible opportunity to turn the tide on protection of the oceans and Australia can lead the world in marine protection." 

So, is the Australian announcement a good start or is it just another sleight of mouth? Only time will tell, I guess. The thing is, we will probably run out of that precious commodity long before we run out of oil or ore.


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