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What is world heritage worth?

29 Feb 2012

Greenpeace’s John Hepburn explains how the Great Barrier Reef’s listing has meant nothing when it comes to our thirst for resources.

We have 18 sites on it. The Sydney Opera House is up there. So is Fraser Island and, of course, the Great Barrier Reef. But what does world heritage listing mean on a practical level? And what can UNESCO, the body which oversees the listing, do if a site is considered under threat?

These are the questions facing Australia today in relation to the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s best-known and most extensive coral reef. When it received world heritage listing in 1981, it was with an immense source of pride.

Yet in the 21st century, the mining boom is threatening its very existence. When the Federal Government approved three liquid natural gas plants in the region last year, it did not even seek approval from UNESCO, the guardians of World Heritage.

That action earned our government a stinging rebuke from the UN. Read the Four Corners story on it here.

“The Great Barrier Reef is a unique and precious environment that brings over $5 billion a year into Queensland,” says Greenpeace campaigner John Hepburn. “But instead of protecting it for future generations, Australian politicians are allowing it to be turned into a conveyor belt for coal.”

Greenpeace is due to release its own report on the reef this week (Thursday March 1) showing:

  • – Six times more coal ships through the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area
  • – Coal port capacity increased six-fold along the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area
  • – The world’s largest coal port proposed for Abbot Point
  • – Volume to be dredged from in and around the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area equivalent to 67 Melbourne Cricket Grounds.

With unprecedented levels of industrialisation occurring due to gas mining and transport, the reef and its marine life are threatened like never before. Next month, UNESCO inspectors are spending two weeks visiting the site to assess its health.

At the same time and under pressure from UNESCO, the federal and Queensland governments announced an 18-month ‘strategic assessment’ of the reef – expected to be the most comprehensive ever carried out in Australia.

Yet it appears this comprehensive assessment will not stop approvals for more operations to go ahead.

“The strategic assessment is the first opportunity to take an overall look at the impact of mining on the Great Barrier Reef,” said Hepburn. “But as it stands, the government is set to approve the world’s largest coal port at Abbot Point before the assessment has delivered its conclusions.

“Greenpeace is calling on the Federal and State authorities to suspend approvals for major new infrastructure during the assessment period,” said Hepburn. “If approvals continue, there is a very real chance that by the time the real risks are understood, irreversible damage will have already been done to this fragile eco-system.

And what if the UN comes back with a finding that the Barrier Reef is indeed deemed “in danger”? In that case, it will join a dishonourable group of countries damaged by war and poverty. But is a national embarrassment for the country enough to stop the mining boom? Greenpeace thinks not.