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Australia sends mixed messages on iconic World Heritage areas

This week, experts will debate the future of two of Australia’s World Heritage areas, the Tasmanian Wilderness and the Great Barrier Reef, at a meeting in Doha, Qatar. The world will be watching, as it…

About 5% of the Tasmanian Wilderness could delisted as a World Heritage area, if an Australian government request wins international approval. Ta Ann Truths/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

This week, experts will debate the future of two of Australia’s World Heritage areas, the Tasmanian Wilderness and the Great Barrier Reef, at a meeting in Doha, Qatar.

The world will be watching, as it will be again later in the year when Australia hosts only the sixth-ever international congress on national parks.

From June 15 to 25, the United Nations' World Heritage Committee will meet to revise the global list of World Heritage properties. On the list is the Australian government’s request to delist 74,000 hectares recently added to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage area, on grounds that the area includes some “degraded” forests.

World Heritage sites currently listed “in danger”. UNESCO

Last month, a draft decision was released recommending that the World Heritage Committee leave the current boundaries unchanged, based on two reports by conservation bodies.

Also on the table this week is whether the Great Barrier Reef will be listed as “World Heritage in Danger” due to development on the Reef. However, a final decision is now not expected until next year.

Open for business – but what kind?

Australia signed the World Heritage Convention in August 1974, vowing to ensure “the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of its natural and cultural heritage” and undertook to do this “to the utmost of its resources”. If Australia now decides to renege on this commitment it would be a serious breach of its duties under the Convention.

We do not know how exactly how serious the Abbott Government is about these historic responsibilities, but the signs so far are not good.

In March this year at a timber industry dinner in Canberra, Prime Minister Tony Abbott spoke about the Tasmania’s World Heritage area and said that:

We have quite enough National Parks, we have quite enough locked up forests already. In fact, in an important respect, we have too much locked up forest.

The government is persisting with its attempt to delist some of the current Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage area against the recommendations of a Senate Committee, and the draft advice to the World Heritage Committee.

The approval of major port expansions on the Queensland coast is also sending the message that Australia is not serious about World Heritage.

The Great Barrier Reef was added to the World Heritage list in 1982, with the support of the federal and Queensland governments. Its future seemed secure — with an expansion of marine parks, and a ban on oil exploration.

If the reef is placed on the World Heritage in Danger list, it would not just be a serious blow to Australia’s international conservation status. It also has the potential to harm reef tourism, as Barbara Norman explains here, which is estimated to be worth A$6.4 billion a year and 64,000 jobs for Australia.

The federal government has also approved alpine grazing trials in Alpine National Park, long proposed for World Heritage nomination. The trials are in fact one of the reasons that this year’s World National Parks Congress will be hosted in Sydney, rather than the initially proposed host city of Melbourne.

Mixed messages

Meanwhile the federal government has committed itself to placing Royal National Park on Australia’s Tentative World Heritage List, an inventory of the areas a country considers to be worthy of world heritage nomination.

Royal National Park has been reserved as a formal national park since April 1879, which makes it the oldest in the world to be set aside for the purpose of a “national park”. Originally created as “lungs of the city” for a rapidly growing Sydney with similarly increasing health problems, Royal National Park acted as the seed for the spread of national parks and protected areas in Australia.

Australia currently has two other sites on its Tentative List — an extension to the Fraser Island World Heritage area, and to the Gondwanan Rainforests on the Queensland-New South Wales border.

Cape York Peninsula has been proposed as another site for World Heritage nomination, but has been held up for years by the failure of successive federal governments to win the support of the Queensland Government and some of the region’s Aboriginal groups.

In contrast, countries such as the USA and the UK have 13 sites each on the Tentative Lists.

Australia has 12 other sites that have been proposed for World Heritage nomination but which are not on its Tentative List, including The Kimberley and the Alps and Eucalypt Forests of South East Australia.

There is another obstacle in further developing Australia’s Tentative List. Since the abolition of the Standing Council on Environment and Water in December 2013, there is no Australian inter-governmental body with a responsibility for ministerial liaison and cooperation on World Heritage.

Australia on the global stage

In November, Australia will host the 2014 World National Parks Congress, organised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Australia’s past achievements, and the performance of the present Australian government, will be on display in Sydney for 3,000 delegates from 160 countries. In particular, attention will be on our World Heritage performance.

In 1962, US President John F. Kennedy wrote a letter to the delegates to the First World Conference on National Parks, declaring:

A letter from then US President John F. Kennedy to the First World Conference on National Parks The Internet Archive, CC BY

It is the course of wisdom to set aside an ample portion of our national resources as national parks and reserves, thus ensuring that future generations may know the majesty of the earth as we know it today.

Throughout history, much of the most productive human thought, many of our cultural concepts, have been shaped in the out-of-doors.

As rising population pressures tend to emphasise conversion of resources into commodities, we must be careful to safeguard adequate and representative examples of the natural environment, where people may reflect, study, and enjoy the benefits of the earth.

Kennedy recognised the value of land owned in common for long-term, non-resource use. This sits uncomfortably with the mindset of the present Australian government, which sees national parks as “locked up”.