Days before Rio+20 is set to commence, the Australian government made a move demonstrating that its commitment to sustainable development is more than just talk. The Australian government announced that it will establish the world’s biggest protected marine park saving 3.1 million square kilometers – roughly the size of India – from possible exploitation and degradation.
"This is the largest network of marine reserves anywhere in the world," said Environment Minister Tony Burke. "What we've done is effectively create a national parks estate in the ocean.”
The protected waters encompass Australia’s famed Great Barrier Reef, a World Heritage Site that serves as the natural habitat of tens of thousands of species (including many threatened and endangered ones). Climate change, over fishing, and shipping accidents all pose significant risks to this fragile ecosystem; risks that the Australian government hopes to have alleviated with Thursday’s announcement.
“Australia has made a major advance in marine conservation that is both nationally and globally significant,” declared Dermot O’Gorman, the CEO of World Wildlife Fund-Australia, which lobbied for this legislation. “Coming on the eve of the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development, this is an inspiring outcome for other countries to follow.”
A trademark of Australia and a sign of its unique natural beauty, the reef is also a tremendous asset; it brings in about $1 billion in tourism each year. The expansion of these marine parks will protect not only the animal and plant species of the reef – it will also protect a major source of income for the Australian people.
This new strategy represents a compromise between Australia’s environmental activists and business interests, which have long disputed just how much of Australia’s water should remain protected. While some, like Mr. O’Gorman, support Australia’s new initiative, others on both sides have criticized it.
Australian senator and Green party member Rachel Siewart accused the boundary lines of being drawn not by Mr. Burke’s Environment Ministry, but by big oil, while Dean Logan, the chief executive of the Australian Marine Alliance, called the move “devastating” and claimed that it would exact a heavy toll on seaside communities that rely on fishing.
Despite these reservations, Mr. Burke, and Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s government, remain confident that this plan will benefit Australia in the long. Coming as it does as a precursor to Rio+20, the move could prove a good sign that this conference may, as the UN desires, be one about action rather than mere talk.