When US president Barack Obama brought up the Great Barrier Reef in an address to students at Brisbane University, many Australians felt as though their government had been called onto the carpet and scolded. The rest of the world, it appeared, was more concerned than Australian citizens about the Australian government’s laid-back attitude towards the ongoing destruction of the reef.
While government officials looked the other way, half of the coral has disappeared from along the length of the Great Barrier Reef. Additionally, vast areas of the reef’s coral have suffered serious degradation. It is not surprising that the area’s unique level of biodiversity is being threatened by the damage as well.
Although Australians naturally feel possessive about the reef, the rest of the globe recognizes it as an important piece of the planet’s ecosystem. There is strong feeling around the world that preserving the reef is a global responsibility. This view has led the World Heritage Committee to consider adding the reef to its endangered list.
It seems that the WHC has found a way to get the attention of the Australian government. If the reef is declared endangered, the effect on the country’s tourism industry could be devastating. In fact, the ordinarily slow-moving federal environment minister, Greg Hunt, secretly raced to Europe to make a last-minute plea against the WHC’s ballot initiative.
Hunt’s promises of legal responsibility may have convinced some UNESCO ambassadors that declaring the reef endangered is unnecessary. However, Australian conservationists remain unconvinced, especially since the government has since approved more of the same kind of major projects that caused the damage to the reef.
Conservationists accuse the Australian government of downplaying the new projects when it made its conservation report to the World Heritage Committee. They also say the government overstated its conservation efforts.
The WHC came to similar conclusions, issuing a dismal report on Australia’s spotty preservation record. However, it agreed to delay the vote on endangerment pending the preparation of a new report detailing the Australian government’s compliance with its obligations to the WHC.
Amid the backlash following Obama’s tongue-lashing, the environment department began pressing Queensland to pay the cost of redirecting dredging waste that was originally approved for dumping in the Great Barrier Reef marine park.
The reef has been called Australia’s greatest asset, but preserving it seems to have taken a back seat to development. Unfortunately, damage to the reef will seriously erode its beauty as well as its ecological value. As the reef loses its star power, tourism is expected to suffer, and the Mesoamerican barrier reef in Belize is already poised to take over as the most awe-inspiring reef in the world.
Although the Australian government has been willing to sacrifice the reef in exchange for lucrative mining projects and reduced-cost infrastructure projects, the cost of lost tourism would be a crippling blow to the country’s economy. Perhaps the economic dangers will spur the government into action in a way that the ecological ones have not.