Indiscriminate Economic Activity Threatens Future of the Great Barrier Reef

Posted on June 15, 2012 in Environment

By Vanessa Picker:

The Australian Government has been slammed by a UN environmental team sent by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) for mismanagement of the Great Barrier Reef. In their findings, the UN team has expressed ‘extreme’ concern over existing and future industrial and mining initiatives, which are significantly threatening the Great Barrier Reef’s World Heritage Status. The extent of the imminent threat is exemplified as the Reef could be listed as a world heritage site ‘in danger’ as early as next February, in the absence of substantial progress.

In the most recent report, the World Heritage Committee noted that future industrialization developments should be halted until an extensive assessment of the reef’s overall health has been completed. The report emphasised that, “this unprecedented scale of development affecting or potentially affecting the property poses serious concerns over its long-term conservation”. Most significantly, the report warned against permitting new port and infrastructure development in the state of Queensland until an adequate assessment has been undertaken.

Although the Australian government has previously adopted some high- quality practices, there has been a continuous decline of many parts of the Reef. This is largely because the North Eastern state of Queensland, where the reef is located, is one of the fastest developing regions, thus industrial development is widespread. Coal mining operations are being undertaken onshore, which has prompted criticism from many critics in recent years. This criticism was particularly strong earlier in 2010, when a Chinese coal carrier slammed into part of the reef, causing significant damage.

In addition to strong criticism from the UN, Greenpeace recently noted that the Reef is under threat primarily from ‘reckless industrialisation’. 35 development applications have been submitted, each seeking approval within the next 18 months. Each of these could further undermine the protection of the Reef. This significantly detracts from the image of Australia in relation to the management of rich heritages.

Despite this, Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer, two leading industrialists in the Australian mining industry are continuing with plans to industrialise the reef. This could have widespread implications, ultimately affecting Australia’s reputation and also the tourism industry, as the popularity of the Reef may decline. Currently, tourism is a major contributor to the economy of Queensland. Evidently, the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area is a major tourism attraction. The sustainability of the tourism industry depends largely on the quality of the experience for visitors, which would ultimately decline if the Reef cannot be maintained.

Recent polls released by have also shown that 79% of Australians are currently concerned about the expansion of mining initiatives along the Reef’s recognised heritage area. This suggests that the majority of Australians are calling for an immediate halt to developments around the reef.

In the absence of significant progress, the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef formation, will be listed as a world heritage site ‘under danger’. Thus, significant action needs to be undertaken immediately. Key recommendations from UNESCO include the limitation of future port infrastructure plans, to ‘existing and long established’ ports in the region, and the establishment of clear, legal targets for the maintenance of the reef’s condition.