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Issue #1603      July 24, 2013

Editorial

War “Games” blunder compounds Barrier Reef crisis

Over the weekend, two US warplanes dropped bombs in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The AV-8B Harriers were engaged in a live fire mission during the biennial Talisman Sabre joint US/Australian military exercises concentrated at the Shoalwater Bay Military Training Area in Queensland. The aircrafts’ mission was cancelled and they were low on fuel, so the decision was taken to jettison the bombs into the Park. There has been strong opposition to the massive military exercises since their inception in 2005 and one of the issues raised by local communities was the threat to the precious World Heritage area. State and federal governments dismissed their protests as alarmist. The bombing incident is a powerful reminder of the casual attitude of Australian governments to the Reef and the environment more generally. It underscores the huge cost Australians are paying for the US alliance and the system of corporate rule it enforces.

The US 7th Fleet moved quickly into damage control. “The selected jettison area was in a deep channel away from the reef to minimise the possibility of reef damage,” a statement said. The calming message won’t allay fears for the reef. The federal government’s own Reef Water Quality Protection Plan had been released in the days leading up to the military exercises and it conceded that the health of the Great Barrier Reef has slipped from “moderate” to “poor”. There has been a 50 percent decline in coral since 1985 and a 34 percent decline in inshore reefs since 2005. The average frequency of devastating crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks is now once every 15 years; it use to be once every 50 to 80 years.

In 2009, the federal and Queensland governments launched plans to reduce chemical-laden run-off from adjacent agricultural land. The campaign has met with modest success thanks to strong support from local farmers. Nevertheless, federal Environment Minister Mark Butler admits that “in spite of solid improvement, data tells us that poor water quality is continuing to have a detrimental effect on reef health.”

Waters are becoming more acidic. Fertiliser run-off still feeds the algae that brings on the crown-of-thorns outbreaks. Climate change, which Australian governments are pushing to the bottom of their lists of priorities, is causing more frequent and more damaging storms. Water temperatures are rising. The consequences for the reef have been disastrous.

The federal and Queensland governments are going to spend another $375 million on the run-off problem. The splash of dollars has not been lauded by environment experts. They note the governments have set back their own targets for nitrogen and other pollution in the original plan from 2013 until 2018. They suspect the newly announced government spending is simply an effort to prevent the natural icon being moved from the World Heritage list to the one of World Heritage Sites in Danger.

The shame for the governments would be richly deserved. They have encouraged the building of huge new ports nearby to deal with massive exports of coal and gas. They will look on as dredging is carried out to allow the passing of huge tankers through the area and they have very publicly stepped away from policies designed to tackle climate change. They allow the military to hold exercises involving tens of thousands of troops in the vicinity.

While governments deserve to be caned, the cost to the people of Australia (the majority of whom don’t approve of the pro-corporate agenda of alternating ALP and coalition governments on many issues) is incalculable. Only the most optimistic observers hold out hope for the Great Barrier Reef. The jobs of workers engaged in reef tours – generating an estimated $5 billion a year – will be gone. Most importantly, a priceless part of humanity’s natural heritage will have been destroyed; sacrificed on the altar of global capitalism.

Next article – Fight to win land rights

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