Australia talks the talk but will it walk the walk for conservation?

Australia's environment minister, Greg Hunt, has a tough gig. 

Hope or just politics?  Will Australia help to save imperiled rainforests in the Asia-Pacific?   (photo by William Laurance)

Hope or just politics?  Will Australia help to save imperiled rainforests in the Asia-Pacific?  (photo by William Laurance)

Hunt seems legitimately interested in advancing nature conservation but his boss, the conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott, clearly is not.  Abbott's government has the worst environmental record of any Australian government in living memory

That leaves Hunt in a difficult spot.  Few doubt that if he were to push conservation too strongly -- or fail to support Abbott's pro-coal, pro-mining, no-new-parks, anti-renewable-energy policies -- he'd soon be gone.

In such a setting, where domestic policy is so clearly being driven by a growth-first agenda, what is an environment minister to do?  One 'safe' strategy is to focus not on matters at home, but on those abroad.

That is precisely what Hunt did this week in Sydney with his "Asia-Pacific Rainforest Summit" -- a forum that proclaimed it will help Australia's tropical neighbors to protect their imperiled forests.

After interviewing Hunt, ALERT director Bill Laurance just wrote this lively critique of the event

It's worth a quick read to see how nature conservation -- and politics -- are playing out in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region.

 

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's campaign to defend Papua New Guinea's rainforests

Today, ALERT is launching a press release to highlight a serious peril to the rainforests and indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea

Not happy about land-grabs  (photo by William Laurance)

Not happy about land-grabs (photo by William Laurance)

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a South Pacific nation with one of the world's largest surviving tracts of tropical forest.  And it is among the most culturally diverse regions on Earth, with more than 800 distinctive tribes, each with their own unique language.

But in recent decades the forests of PNG have come under assault from predatory logging, land-clearing, and mining.

Some of the worst offenses are known as 'Special Agricultural and Business Leases' (SABLs).  SABLs span a vast expanse of PNG -- more than 5 million hectares -- over 11% of its entire land area.

The SABLs are notorious not only for their serious environmental impacts, but also because they are seen as corporate land-grabs that are robbing indigenous groups from their traditional land rights. 

Most of these leases are for 99 years in duration -- an eternity for an indigenous group that relies on its forest and traditional lands for survival.

The PNG government initially set up the SABLs as a way to encourage large-scale development, such as oil palm plantations.  But many of the SABLs have been snapped up by foreign logging corporations that are using them to dodge PNG's forestry laws -- to log the rainforests illegally.

In response, there has been an outcry in PNG, especially from indigenous groups.  This eventually forced the government to launch a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the SABLs.

The Commission found so many problems, abuses, and outright illegalities that it recommended the government cancel or phase out most of the SABLs.

But the PNG government has so far failed to do so -- at least for the biggest and most damaging SABLs.  Why?  There is a distinctive whiff of something not right here.

ALERT's press release, on the eve of the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia next month, underscores a critical peril to one of the world's most biologically and culturally diverse regions.