Conservation groups call for urgent UN probe into Turnbull Govt’s failure to protect Great Barrier Reef from deforestation

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A Giant Sea Turtle in the Great Barrier Reef (Image Credit: Supplied).

FOUR major environmental organisations have written to the United Nations calling for an urgent investigation into the Turnbull Government’s failure to protect the Great Barrier Reef from deforestation, as the UNESCO World Heritage Committee’s annual meeting starts in Bahrain.

About 36,600 hectares of old-growth forest have been earmarked to be bulldozed in Reef catchments under questionable “high value agriculture” permits brought in by the previous Queensland Liberal National Party Government with minimal oversight from the Federal Government.[i] This includes the controversial Kingvale property proposal to clear almost 2000ha of pristine forest on Cape York.

Clearing 36,600ha is the equivalent of bulldozing almost half the area of Bahrain.

The Queensland Government closed this loophole with its new land clearing laws in May but the approvals cannot be called back, making the Federal Government the final decision maker as to whether the clearing goes ahead.

The letter to UNESCO notes that 158,000ha was cleared in Great Barrier Reef catchments in 2015-16 alone but in that time only one clearing proposal was referred for the Commonwealth Government to assess under federal environmental laws. In total, to date, there have been only five referrals for clearing in Great Barrier Reef catchments with two approved this year, and the Federal Environment Department is recommending approving a third (Kingvale).

The letter also highlights that Turnbull government MPs have opposed measures to control deforestation in Great Barrier Reef catchments, including Federal Resources Minister Matt Canavan speaking out against the Queensland Government’s new vegetation management laws.

The letter, signed by the Wilderness Society, WWF-Australia, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Australian Marine Conservation Society, states:

The Australian Government has acknowledged that it has the power and responsibility to control deforestation in Reef catchments. The Australian Government, however, is failing to use the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to prevent land clearing in the catchments of the Great Barrier Reef.

For example, one analysis by WWF-Australia has found 7,658 locations in Queensland where clearing had occurred or was planned in which the landowner should (or probably should) have sought approval (at the initial stage, called a ‘referral’ under the EPBC Act), yet in 99% of cases no steps have been taken by the Australian Government. Over half of that clearing was in Great Barrier Reef catchments…In 2015-16 alone 158,000 hectares of native vegetation was cleared in Great Barrier Reef catchments.

The Australian and Queensland governments avoided the Great Barrier Reef being placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage “In Danger” list because of commitments made, including controlling deforestation in Reef catchments. The Queensland Government has implemented some land clearing controls with its new vegetation management legislation, but the Australian Government is doing little to hold up its end of the bargain to control deforestation.

Wilderness Society National Director Lyndon Schneiders said: “The Turnbull Government claims it’s working hard to save the Great Barrier Reef but it’s taking little action on the biggest threats to the Reef – climate change and deforestation – and deforestation adds to climate change. Both deforestation rates and greenhouse gas emissions have climbed under the Turnbull-Abbott Government. Furthermore, Turnbull Government MPs are actively campaigning against taking real action to tackle both these threats. Clearing 36,600ha is like wiping out half of Bahrain, where the World Heritage Committee is meeting.”

WWF-Australia Chief Executive Dermot O’Gorman said: “The science says the Reef won’t be around for our children unless the federal government delivers on its UNESCO commitments and takes much stronger action on climate change.”

AMCS Great Barrier Reef Campaign Director Imogen Zethoven said: “Australia’s promise to strengthen laws to protect bushland in Reef catchments was one of the key pledges that convinced the World Heritage Committee not to place the Reef on the ‘In Danger’ list in 2015. While Queensland recently passed stronger laws, the Federal government has so far failed to use national environmental law to stop large-scale tree clearing in the Reef catchment to help fulfil this critical promise to the international community.”

Australian Conservation Foundation Chief Executive Kelly O’Shanassy, said: “It makes no sense for the Australian Government to be approving tree clearing and creating more pollution in sensitive Great Barrier Reef catchments while it is investing $500 million to fix the problems.”

“Allowing this clearing to go ahead is not consistent with the promises the Australian Government has made to the international community to protect and restore the Great Barrier Reef. We need new national environment laws that would actually stop this kind of damaging clearing and help Australia keep our commitments to protect the reef for all people on this planet.”

The previous Newman LNP Queensland Government gutted land-clearing laws and introduced permits to clear large areas for questionable “high value agriculture”, including the 36,600ha still to be exercised in Reef catchments, according to analysis of government clearing approvals and the Queensland Government’s Statewide Landcover and Trees Study satellite data. That’s the equivalent of 160 Sydney CBDs or about 26,000 football fields

Deforestation accelerates runoff of sedimentation and nutrients into the Great Barrier Reef’s waters. It can block light and smother corals, promote algal growth at the expense of coral, and exacerbate outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, which are killing the Reef.

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