Australia's shame: World Heritage sites in peril

The world is struggling to protect its most crucial natural areas.  Poorer countries are faring the worst, but even a wealthy nation like Australia isn't doing very well.

Iconic species in trouble... the white lemuroid possum, found only in the Queensland Wet Tropics, was driven to the edge of extinction by a 2005 heat wave  (photo (c) Jonathan Munro)

Iconic species in trouble... the white lemuroid possum, found only in the Queensland Wet Tropics, was driven to the edge of extinction by a 2005 heat wave (photo (c) Jonathan Munro)

In total, 156 sites on the World Heritage List are recognized for their outstanding biodiversity values -- they protect parts of 31 of the world's 35 biodiversity hotspots, and a portion of all of its high-biodiversity wilderness areas.

But the first World Heritage Outlook Report -- released last week at the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia -- found that many of these sites are struggling.  Nearly a tenth (8%) are in critical condition, and nearly a third (29%) of 'significant concern'.

Unfortunately for global biodiversity, many of the critical sites are tropical forests.  These include Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo -- home to the iconic mountain gorilla -- and the Tropical Rainforests Heritage of Sumatra, Indonesia, the last place on Earth where orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos still coexist.

Also in critical condition is Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a key refuge for bonobos, the smaller and remarkably placid cousins of chimpanzees.

Developing nations face many governance, economic, and social disadvantages that are creating profound challenges for nature conservation.

But even in wealthy, stable Australia, the picture is not good.  For example, the World Heritage Committee has repeatedly threatened to declare the Great Barrier Reef a World Heritage Site in Danger.

And the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area is in the 'significant concern' category.  The site -- renowned for its unique biodiversity and cultural values -- faces a battery of threats, including its extreme vulnerability to climate change, scores of invasive species, growing threats from infrastructure and urbanization, and other perils.

Remarkably, research published last year in the leading journal Science rated the Queensland Wet Tropics the second most irreplaceable World Heritage site globally for its outstanding biodiversity values. 

There be dragons... a Boyd's forest dragon, another unique denizen of the Queensland Wet Tropics  (photo (c) Martin Cohen)

There be dragons... a Boyd's forest dragon, another unique denizen of the Queensland Wet Tropics (photo (c) Martin Cohen)

Notably, World Heritage magazine recently identified the Queensland Wet Tropics site as one of six 'Best Practice' examples globally.  So why is the site now perceived to be in so much danger?

In short, politics.  Both the federal government in Australia and the state government of Queensland are not considered conservation-friendly.  As a result, the Wet Tropics Management Authority, which is responsible for managing and protecting the Queensland rainforests, has been paralyzed.

The board currently has no budget, and only two of its six required non-Executive Board Members.  The federal and Queensland governments have decided not to make any new Board appointments until a Queensland government “review” of World Heritage management.

The news gets worse.  The federal government is now proposing to greatly weaken environmental impact assessments in Queensland.  One shudders to think about the potential implications.

If the Australian and Queensland governments continue down this path, one of the world's most important natural areas could face even greater perils. 

It’s time for the Australian and international communities to demand action from Australia's political leaders.  It's simply shameful to play political football with a site of such outstanding natural and cultural values -- a site that increasingly appears to be in imminent danger.

 

Making the next ten years count for protected areas

On the eve of the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia, ALERT member James Watson tells us about a hugely important paper he and colleagues published this week in the world-leading journal Nature.

Ten years have passed since the last IUCN global conference on protected areas.  During this time we've seen tens of thousands of new protected areas established on land and in the sea. 

Unfortunately, at the same time, protected-area support has fallen off dramatically, with an estimated 80% of such sites now being ineffectively managed.

Needs a home: Mountain gorillas now survive in just a few protected areas in East Africa  (photo (c) Liana Joseph)

Needs a home: Mountain gorillas now survive in just a few protected areas in East Africa (photo (c) Liana Joseph)

It’s a massive shame.  When well administered, protected areas get results.  There is abundant evidence that protected areas, when well managed, protect threatened species and often store large quantities of carbon while delivering key ecosystem services, such as clean water and buffering against extreme weather.

Nevertheless, we show today in a paper in Nature that, while many nations talk the talk on protected-area creation, they often fail to walk the walk when it comes to ensuring these areas have adequate resources and oversight.

Poor financing of many protected areas is a core problem, but thornier challenges include the opening of parks to resource extraction and the loss of their special 'inviolate' status.  In our paper we document many cases where Ministries responsible for mining or logging issued leases on areas already designated as “protected.”

If the nations of the world continue to follow a business-as-usual approach, the broad targets set under the vital Convention on Biological Diversity won't be achieved.

A fundamental step-change is needed to align government policies so that Ministries dealing with development, resource extraction, and agriculture don't undermine those concerned with environment and conservation.

At the same time, there's an urgent need to invest in protected areas to ensure their vital goals are achieved, and to identify new protected areas critical to nature conservation -- areas that can be established and maintained with care and imagination.

Achieving these goals on our increasingly crowded planet will not be easy.  A nation's progress should be measured not merely by the amount of land it protects, but also by the ecological connectivity of its protected lands and their capacity to sustain biodiversity while producing long-term social and economic benefits.

It's a massive challenge, but failure is not an option.  We must succeed -- for the future of nature and for our future as well.

 

ALERT launches campaign to save imperiled Thai forest

ALERT is helping to spearhead an international campaign to oppose the Thailand government’s plan to dramatically enlarge a roadway through one of its most important natural areas. 

Big roads mean big impacts on wildlife  (photo © WWF-Malaysia/Lau Ching Fong)

Big roads mean big impacts on wildlife (photo © WWF-Malaysia/Lau Ching Fong)

A press release from ALERT is being distributed today to over 800 media outlets worldwide.

A two-lane road, called Highway 304, cuts through the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai (DPKY) Forest Complex, a World Heritage Site in central Thailand renowned for its outstanding biodiversity.  Now the Thai government wants to enlarge it into a much larger, four-lane highway.

From an environmental perspective, this project is truly dangerous.

The DPKY area is a hotspot for nature — the largest tract of surviving forest in central Thailand and a globally famous tourist destination.  It sustains a wealth of wildlife including Asian elephants, Gaur, Dhole, Leopards, several species of hornbills and gibbons, and over 2,500 plant species.

ALERT scientists fear that a greatly enlarged highway will fragment the park’s wildlife populations, increase road kill of animals from fast-moving vehicles, and make it easier for illegal loggers and poachers to invade the park.

Unfortunately, plans to enlarge the highway were fast-tracked by the current Thai government, and there was minimal opportunity for expert opinion or public comment

Opposition to the road project has been led by a Thai environmental group known as the Stop Global Warming Association -- but that group and Thai conservationists direly need international publicity and support.

The United Nations could declare the area a World Heritage Site in Danger if the government doesn’t show a stronger commitment to protecting this globally unique ecosystem.

Many believe the plan to expand Highway 304 should never have been proposed in the first place.  Enlarging the highway could irreparably damage one of Thailand’s most vital ecosystems — and that would be a global tragedy.

Scientists slam Australia for being, well, stupid

Our apologies to the many millions of Australians who did not vote for the Tony Abbott government.  For those that did, one of the world's top scientific organizations has a nuanced message for you:

You are idiots.

Don't blame me -- I didn't vote for him!

Don't blame me -- I didn't vote for him!

Mind you, the organization -- the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, which is meeting in Cairns, Queensland this week -- did not actually say that. 

What they said was that they had a great number of issues and concerns with the Abbott government's approach to climate change, national parks, World Heritage sites, illegal-logging legislation, endangered species, and renewable-energy initiatives

But what they really meant was this: If you voted for the Tony Abbott government and care a whit for the environment, you need to have your head examined.

The ATBC is the world's largest scientific organization devoted to the study and conservation of tropical ecosystems and biodiversity.  Several ALERT members, including Priya Davidar, Pierre-Michel Forget, Tom Lovejoy, and Bill Laurance, are former presidents of the Association.

The Cairns conference has delegates from 55 nations, many from developing countries.  Most of those delegates found it incredible that a relatively wealthy nation like Australia could justify so many anti-environmental actions by blaming its economy -- which in fact is quite robust.

Yesterday Senator Christine Milne, the leader of the Australian Green Party, gave a keynote talk at the conference.  She castigated the Abbott government's environmental stance -- and received a standing ovation.

Virtually everyone agrees: The Tony Abbott government is sending an appalling message to the world, especially to developing nations that are often making far bigger commitments to nature conservation with far less national wealth.

The 'environmental group' that's anti-environmental

George Orwell would have appreciated the Australian Environment Foundation.  That's because Orwell was a master of doublespeak--where words don't really mean what they say.

These guys make perfect sense to me...

These guys make perfect sense to me...

The AEF is not pro-environment.  In fact, it's arguably anti-environment, at least by any recognizable definition of that term.

The AEF opposes lots of things--wind farms, many mainstream efforts to combat climate change, and what it labels "green thuggery".  And it likes the Tony Abbott government's efforts to carve out 74,000 hectares of Tasmania's World Heritage forests for industrial logging.

In fact, the AEF likes Abbott's anti-World Heritage efforts so much that it's written to all of the members of the 21-nation World Heritage Committee, stridently urging them to back it.

The AEF was established in 2005 by the libertarian Institute of Public Affairs, which has received funding from a number of major oil, mining, and industrial corporations and is closely affiliated with Australia's Liberal Party--"Liberal" in this case being another term that would make Orwell proud.

And one shouldn't be surprised to learn that Alan Oxley is closely associated with the AEF.  Oxley is the industrial lobbyist and former Australian trade ambassador who's become notorious for opposing a wide range of environmental initiatives both in Australia and internationally.

Three years ago, ALERT director Bill Laurance debated Oxley at Australian National University, and that day did not go well for Mr Oxley.  Laurance and others have tried repeatedly to have a video of the debate posted on Youtube, but Oxley evidently bullied ANU and so the university declined to release it.

However, Laurance did summarize his comments about Oxley in a talk at Stanford University--which you can see here.

As the debate about Tasmania's World Heritage forests heats up, the AEF is finding itself back in the headlines.  If George Orwell were still alive, he'd surely enjoy their pronouncements--for entertainment purposes only.

 

IUCN slams plan to de-list Tasmanian forests

The Tony Abbott government's scheme to carve out 74,000 hectares of Tasmania's World Heritage forest for industrial logging is looking increasingly battered.

Lots of criticisms of the Abbott government plan...

Lots of criticisms of the Abbott government plan...

First there was the revelation that the government's proposal was prepared without consulting outside experts at all.  This is tantamount to building a brick house without mortar--the whole edifice is likely to be exceedingly weak.

On top of that, a trainload of prominent Australians and Aussie organizations have lined up in opposition to the proposal, and it got a giant thumbs-down from the Australian Senate.

And now the IUCN--the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the world's largest coalition of conservation organizations--has flatly denounced the Abbott plan.

The IUCN's report to the World Heritage Committee--which will consider the government's bid in Doha, Qatar next month--is unreservedly critical of the scheme.

The report labeled the government plan "clearly inappropriate" and said it provided "relatively scant information" to support its case. 

Among other criticisms, it said de-listing the forests would "impact negatively on the outstanding universal value of the property".

Nothing is certain, but many believe the IUCN's detailed report--by so resoundingly slamming the Abbott government's scheme--could heavily influence the World Heritage Committee's decision.

 

Aussies fight attack on Tasmanian World Heritage

Australians are getting fighting mad about the Tony Abbott government's scheme to carve out 74,000 hectares of World Heritage forest in Tasmania for industrial logging. 

Easy to understand why it's a World Heritage Area...

Easy to understand why it's a World Heritage Area...

Many groups are lining up to fight the government's effort, which will be decided by the World Heritage Committee in Doha, Qatar next month.  For instance, see here, here, here, and here.

A particularly impressive submission to the Committee has been assembled by a team that includes Peter Hitchcock, the former director of the Wet Tropics Management Authority in Australia.  The submission has been formally endorsed by ALERT director Bill Laurance and other leading scientists.

If the Abbott government is successful, it would be only the second time ever that a natural World Heritage area has been de-listed from World Heritage.

Many believe this would be a major blow to nature conservation in Australia and would send a terrible signal to the rest of the world. 

If a relatively wealthy nation like Australia--and one that will soon host the World Parks Congress--won't protect its most important natural environments, how can we possibly expect much commitment to nature conservation from poorer nations? 

The World Heritage forests of Tasmania are truly amazing, but there's even more at stake here.

World park body slams Australian PM over 'no more parks' vow

ALERT's press release last week criticizing Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's ill-advised 'no more parks' pledge (see blog below) has been followed today by a major blast from the world's leading park body, the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA).

Now I see the PM's logic...

Now I see the PM's logic...

In an open letter, 114 Australian members of the WCPA decried the PM's stance and Australia's resulting loss of international leadership in nature protection.

The letter follows Abbott's widely publicized speech to a timber industry dinner last week when he vowed not to "lock up" any more forests in national parks.

The Abbott government also plans to remove World Heritage protection for 74,000 hectares of Tasmanian wilderness.

As detailed in blogs below, these latest steps follow a series of highly dubious actions that will weaken park and environmental protections in Australia.