We have won before

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Feature Story - 13 March, 2013
In 2011, thirty years after the event, Queensland state cabinet documents were released that showed the then-Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, was totally opposed to the World Heritage declaration of the Great Barrier Reef. Why? Because his government wanted to mine the Reef for oil.
July 21, 1999 Gladstone, Australia — Greenpeace this morning continued its campaign of action to stop the greenhouse vandalism of the Great Barrier Reef by once again stopping operation of the Stuart Oil Shale plant near Gladstone, Queensland. © Greenpeace 1999 Gladstone, Australia: Greenpeace this morning continued its campaign of action to stop the greenhouse vandalism of the Great Barrier Reef by once again stopping operation of the Stuart Oil Shale plant near Gladstone, Queensland.

It seems impossible, but in 1980 the Queensland government argued the Reef should be kept off the World Heritage register so oil companies could drill in it without having to worry about damaging it.

Fortunately for all of us, some young scientists had begun documenting the Reef in 1967 so they knew what was at stake. As one of those scientists told the ABC last year:

“We put what little money we had to going out every weekend and getting into reefs, learning about them and doing fish surveys looking at corals and molluscs and providing a baseline sort of study for what those areas were like.”

While it was the scientists that provided the hard data, it was the community that provided the power and the passion  - and did so in a time that made community organising a lot more difficult than it is today.

As Dr. Adam Smith from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said last year: “We can't imagine how individuals had to deal with mining companies and Governments that were focussed on development …”

For Dr. Eddie Hegerl, a scientist and an activist, the campaign came with huge demands: “We were always seemed to be on the edge of exhaustion for years you know it really went on and it was intensive. We went up and down the coast giving lectures to every community organisation and service club and political party that would listen to us.”

That will sound very familiar to hundreds of folk across Australia who have again spent the last few years fighting to protect the Reef from industrialisation.

But this is not just a story of David versus Goliath, a story where communities fight to protect the places they love. This is a story about winning.October 09, 2002 Brisbane, Australia — "Shale oil one day, climate change the next" was the message on a banner unfurled dramatically from the landmark Story Bridge this morning by Greenpeace activists. Environment, tourism and fishing groups have joined forces to call on the Queensland Government to reject the proposed expansion of the controversial Stuart Shale Oil Project near Gladstone. The State Government is expected to make a decision in the near future on whether the expansion proceeds or not.                   © Greenpeace 2002 Brisbane, Australia — Shale oil one day, climate change the next; was the message on a banner unfurled dramatically from the landmark Story Bridge this morning by Greenpeace activists.

Because the community cared, because those young scientists worked with such generosity and determination, the Great Barrier Reef was finally declared a World Heritage area in 1981, something most Australians are rightly proud of.

But the Reef’s future is not secure. It is facing a complex bundle of threats, not the least of which are coastal development for export coal, and the insidious damage inflicted by warming seas and ocean acidification.

Last year, Brenda Harvey, one of the activists that fought so hard to protect the Reef over 40 years ago said: “I feel that there's just so much more we have to do and we're all getting too old to do it."

We cannot let the hard work and courage of those great Australians be in vain. Once again the Reef is in danger and once again it is the Australian people who need to step up and protect this place that we all love so much. We have won before; we will do so again, together.

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