Australia doesn’t ‘get’ the environmental challenges faced by Pacific Islanders



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Environmental threats in the Pacific Islands can be cultural as well as physical.
Christopher Johnson/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Steven Cork, Australian National University and Kate Auty, University of Melbourne

What actions are required to implement nature-based solutions to Oceania’s most pressing sustainability challenges? That’s the question addressed by the recently released Brisbane Declaration on ecosystem services and sustainability in Oceania.

Compiled following a forum earlier this year in Brisbane, featuring researchers, politicians and community leaders, the declaration suggests that Australia can help Pacific Island communities in a much wider range of ways than simply responding to disasters such as tropical cyclones.

Many of the insights offered at the forum were shocking, especially for Australians. Over the past few years, many articles, including several on The Conversation, have highlighted the losses of beaches, villages and whole islands in the region, including in the Solomons, Catarets, Takuu Atoll and Torres Strait, as sea level has risen. But the forum in Brisbane highlighted how little many Australians understand about the implications of these events.

Over the past decade, Australia has experienced a range of extreme weather events, including Tropical Cyclone Debbie, which hit Queensland in the very week that the forum was in progress. People who have been directly affected by these events can understand the deep emotional trauma that accompanies damage to life and property.

At the forum, people from several Pacific nations spoke personally about how the tragedy of sea-level rise is impacting life, culture and nature for Pacific Islanders.

One story, which has become the focus of the play Mama’s Bones, told of the deep emotional suffering that results when islanders are forced to move from the land that holds their ancestors’ remains.

The forum also featured a screening of the film There Once Was an Island, which documents people living on the remote Takuu Atoll as they attempt to deal with the impact of rising seas on their 600-strong island community. Released in 2011, it shows how Pacific Islanders are already struggling with the pressure to relocate, the perils of moving to new homes far away, and the potentially painful fragmentation of families and community that will result.

There Once Was an Island.

Their culture is demonstrably under threat, yet many of the people featured in the film said they receive little government or international help in facing these upheavals. Australia’s foreign aid budgets have since shrunk even further.

As Stella Miria-Robinson, representing the Pacific Islands Council of Queensland, reminded participants at the forum, the losses faced by Pacific Islanders are at least partly due to the emissions-intensive lifestyles enjoyed by people in developed countries.

Australia’s role

What can Australians do to help? Obviously, encouraging informed debate about aid and immigration policies is an important first step. As public policy researchers Susan Nicholls and Leanne Glenny have noted,
in relation to the 2003 Canberra bushfires, Australians understand so-called “hard hat” responses to crises (such as fixing the electricity, phones, water, roads and other infrastructure) much better than “soft hat” responses such as supporting the psychological recovery of those affected.

Similarly, participants in the Brisbane forum noted that Australian aid to Pacific nations is typically tied to hard-hat advice from consultants based in Australia. This means that soft-hat issues – like providing islanders with education and culturally appropriate psychological services – are under-supported.

The Brisbane Declaration calls on governments, aid agencies, academics and international development organisations to do better. Among a series of recommendations aimed at preserving Pacific Island communities and ecosystems, it calls for the agencies to “actively incorporate indigenous and local knowledge” in their plans.

At the heart of the recommendations is the need to establish mechanisms for ongoing conversations among Oceanic nations, to improve not only understanding of each others’ cultures but of people’s relationships with the environment. Key to these conversations is the development of a common language about the social and cultural, as well as economic, meaning of the natural environment to people, and the building of capacity among all nations to engage in productive dialogue (that is, both speaking and listening).

This capacity involves not only training in relevant skills, but also establishing relevant networks, collecting and sharing appropriate information, and acknowledging the importance of indigenous and local knowledge.

Apart from the recognition that Australians have some way to go to put themselves in the shoes of our Pacific neighbours, it is very clear that these neighbours, through the challenges they have already faced, have many valuable insights that can help Australia develop policies, governance arrangements and management approaches in our quest to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.


The ConversationThis article was co-written by Simone Maynard, Forum Coordinator and Ecosystem Services Thematic Group Lead, IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management.

Steven Cork, Adjunct Associate Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Kate Auty, Vice Chancellor’s Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan broken?


Ross M Thompson, University of Canberra

A recent expose by the ABC’s Four Corners has alleged significant illegal extraction of water from the Barwon-Darling river system, one of the major tributaries of the Murray River. The revelations have triggered widespread condemnation of irrigators, the New South Wales government and its officials, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Basin Plan itself.

If the allegations are true that billions of litres of water worth millions of dollars were illegally extracted, this would represent one of the largest thefts in Australian history. It would have social and economic consequences for communities along the entire length of the Murray-Darling river system, and for the river itself, after years of trying to restore its health.

Water is big business, big politics and a big player in our environment. Taxpayers have spent A$13 billion on water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin in the past decade, hundreds of millions of which have gone directly to state governments. Governments have an obligation to ensure that this money is well spent.

The revelations cast doubt on the states’ willingness to do this, and even on their commitment to the entire Murray-Darling Basin Plan. This commitment needs to be reaffirmed urgently.

Basic principles

To work out where to go from here, it helps to understand the principles on which the Basin Plan was conceived. At its foundation, Australian water reform is based on four pillars.

1. Environmental water and fair consumption

The initial driver of water reform in the late 1990s was a widespread recognition that too much water had been allocated from the Murray-Darling system, and that it had suffered ecological damage as a result.

State and Commonwealth governments made a bipartisan commitment to reset the balance between water consumption and environmental water, to help restore the basin’s health and also to ensure that water-dependent industries and communities can be strong and sustainable.

Key to this was the idea that water users along the river would have fair access to water. Upstream users could not take water to the detriment of people downstream. The Four Corners investigation casts doubt on the NSW’s commitment to this principle.

2. Water markets and buybacks

The creation of a water market under the Basin Plan had two purposes: to allow water to be purchased on behalf of the environment, and to allow water permits to be traded between irrigators depending on relative need.

This involved calculating how much water could be taken from the river while ensuring a healthy ecosystem (the Sustainable Diversion Limit). Based on these calculations, state governments developed a water recovery program, which aimed to recover 2,750 gigalitres of water per year from consumptive use, through a A$3 billion water entitlement buyback and a A$9 billion irrigation modernisation program.

This program hinged on the development of water accounting tools that could measure both water availability and consumption. Only through trust in this process can downstream users be confident that they are receiving their fair share.

3. States retain control of water

Control of water was a major stumbling block in negotiating the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, because of a clash between states’ water-management responsibilities and the Commonwealth’s obligations to the environment.

As a result, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority sits outside of both state and Commonwealth governments, and states have to draw up water management plans that are subject to approval by the authority.

The states are responsible for enforcing these plans and ensuring that allocations are not exceeded. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority cannot easily enforce action on the ground – a situation that generates potential for state-level political interference, as alleged by the Four Corners investigation.

4. Trust and transparency

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was built on a foundation of trust and transparency. The buyback scheme has transformed water into a tradeable commodity worth A$2 billion a year, a sizeable chunk of which is held by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office.

Water trading has also helped to make water use more flexible. In a dry year, farmers with annual crops (such as cotton) can choose not to plant and instead to sell their water to farmers such as horticulturists who must irrigate to keep their trees alive. This flexibility is valuable in Australia’s highly variable climate.

Yet it is also true that water trading has created some big winners. Those with pre-existing water rights have been able to capitalise on that asset and invest heavily in buying further water rights, an outcome highlighted in the Four Corners story.

More than A$20 million in research investment has been devoted to ensuring that the ecological benefits of water are optimised – most notably through the Environmental Water Knowledge and Research and Long Term Intervention Monitoring programs. What is not clear is whether water extractions and their policing have been subjected to a similar degree of review and rigour.

What next for the Murray-Darling Basin?

The public needs to be able to trust that all parties are working honestly and accountably. This is particularly true for the downstream partners, who are the most likely victims of management failures upstream. Without trust in the upstream states, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan will unravel.

State governments urgently need to reaffirm their commitment to the four pillars that underpin the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and to reassure the public that in retaining control of water they are operating in good faith.

Finally, rigour and transparency are needed in assessing the Basin Plan’s methods and environmental benefits, and the operation of the water market. The Productivity Commission’s review of national water policy, and its specific review of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan next year, will offer a clear opportunity to reassure everyone that the A$13 billion of public money that has gone into water reform in the past decade has been money well spent.

The ConversationOnly then will the fragile trust that underlies the water reform process be maintained and built.

Ross M Thompson, Chair of Water Science and Director, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Around the world, environmental laws are under attack in all sorts of ways



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In Montana and Idaho, endangered gray wolves are no longer safe outside national parks.
Ronnie Howard/Shutterstock.com

Bill Laurance, James Cook University

As President Donald Trump mulls over whether to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, it is hard to imagine that he’s listening to the experts. US climate researchers are being so stifled, ignored or blackballed that France has now offered sanctuary to these misunderstood souls.

One might prefer to think of Trump as an outlier in an otherwise environmentally sane world. But alarmingly, there’s just too much evidence to the contrary.

A recent analysis, led by Guillaume Chapron of Sweden’s Agricultural University, reveals a rising tide of assaults on environmental safeguards worldwide. If nothing else, it illustrates the sheer range and creativity of tactics used by those who seek to profit at the expense of nature.

The assaults on environmental protections are so diverse that Chapron and his colleagues had to devise a new “taxonomy” to categorise them all. They have even set up a public database to track these efforts, giving us a laundry list of environmental rollbacks from around the world.


Nick Kim / http://www.lab-initio.com

One might perhaps hope that species staring extinction in the face would be afforded special protection. Not in the western US states of Idaho and Montana, where endangered gray wolves have been taken off the endangered species list, meaning they can be shot if they stray outside designated wilderness or management areas.

In Western Australia, an endangered species can be legally driven to extinction if the state’s environment minister orders it and parliament approves.

Think diverse ecosystems are important? In Canada, not so much. There, native fish species with no economic, recreational or indigenous value don’t get any legal protection from harm.

And in France – a crucial flyway for Eurasian and African birds – killing migratory birds is technically illegal. But migrating birds could be shot out of the sky anyway because the environment minister ordered a delay in the law’s enforcement.

In South Africa, the environment minister formerly had authority to limit environmental damage and oversee ecological restoration at the nation’s many mining sites. But that power has now been handed over to the mining minister, raising fears of conflict between industry and environmental interests.

In Brazil, the famous Forest Code that has helped to reduce deforestation rates in the Amazon has been seriously watered down. Safeguards for forests along waterways and on hillsides have been weakened, and landowners who illegally fell forests no longer need to replant them.

In the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius, endangered species are protected by law, unless it is deemed to be in the “national interest” not to do so. Although an endangered species, the endemic Mauritius flying fox was annoying commercial fruit farmers, so the government has allowed more than 40,000 flying foxes to be culled.

And in Indonesia, it’s illegal to carry out destructive open-pit mining in protected forest areas. But aggressive mining firms are forcing the government to let them break the law anyway, or else face spending public money on legal battles.

Shoot the messengers

Campaigners should also beware. Under new legislation proposed in the UK, conservation groups that lose lawsuits will be hit with heavy financial penalties.

In many parts of the world, those who criticise environmentally destructive corporations are getting hit with so-called “strategic lawsuits against public participation”, or SLAPP suits.

In Peru, for instance, a corporation that was mowing down native rainforest to grow “sustainable” cacao for chocolate routinely used lawsuits and legal threats to intimidate critics.

That’s before we’ve even discussed climate change, which you might not be allowed to do in the US anyway. Proposed legislation would prohibit the government from considering climate change as a threat to any species. No wonder researchers want to move overseas.


Nick Kim / http://www.lab-initio.com

As the above examples show, essential environmental safeguards are being conveniently downsized, diminished, ignored or swept under the carpet all over the world.

Viewed in isolation, each of these actions might be rationalised or defended – a small compromise made in the name of progress, jobs or the economy. But in a natural world threatened with “death by a thousand cuts”, no single wound can be judged in isolation.

Without our hard-won environmental protections, we would all already be breathing polluted air, drinking befouled water, and living in a world with much less wildlife.


The ConversationThis article is an edited version of a blog post that originally appeared here.

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why we need environmental accounts alongside national accounts


Michael Vardon, Australian National University and Peter Burnett, Australian National University

The Federal Budget has been delivered and Australians are headed for the polls. In this series, Reform Revisited, we ask writers for innovative ways to tackle our reform agenda.

Charles Dickens’ character Oliver Twist is perhaps best known as the boy who wanted more. Of course, he got none. Instead, his efforts prompted Mr Bumble, the parish beadle (official) to offer a princely £5 to anyone who would take the boy off his hands.

The environment is something of a modern Oliver Twist in the budget workhouse. There’s certainly no more porridge on offer – indeed significantly less counting the changes to renewable energy funding announced on 23 March. Last Tuesday’s federal budget contained no new policy and no new money, only some savings and the allocation of funds already set aside for environmental purposes. And, Mr Bumble-like, the Government remains committed to its “one-stop shop” policy of transferring environmental approval powers to “willing jurisdictions”, to use the terminology of the Department of Environment.

But how much budget porridge is needed for a hungry environment? And what does the environment do that deserves porridge anyway? The budget might at least be expected to consider the environment’s contribution to the economy (for example, through agriculture) if not in relation to the broader goal of maintaining the environment for its inherent value, as articulated by Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s budget media release.

The budget continues to support some worthy initiatives, such as the management and protection of the Great Barrier Reef through the Reef 2050 Plan. But, overall, we do not know if the budget funding will deliver the desired results across the environment, to maintain the functions that support our economy and lifestyle. Compare this the comprehensive information and accounting systems in place to measure the performance and contribution of different industries (agriculture, manufacturing, retail trade and education) in the economy.

The deficiency could be remedied by making better use of data – both scientific and economic. The economic part of the budget is well served with information and forecasts of economic conditions, but the environmental part is not, despite the increasing availability of environmental information, not only from established sources such as the five-yearly State of the Environment Report, rainfall and temperature outlooks from the Bureau of Meteorology, but from new sources, such as the recently released Australia’s Environment in 2015 which is the latest example of distilling the increasingly large amount information available from remote sensing technology.

None of this is factored into the Budget in the way that economic indicators such as unemployment or economic growth rates are, so the impacts and risks of the changing environment on the economy are ignored.

These days, the problem is more one of data organisation rather than data availability. The obscurely-titled System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA) attempts to do for the environment what the System of National Accounts has done for the general economy: systematically and regularly present data in a way that reveals what is going on, and to some extent, why.

The ABS already uses SEEA to produce accounts, although these are as yet very basic. If Treasury used information from a comprehensive set of environmental accounts alongside its existing information in developing the Budget, the economic and environmental justifications for environmental spending would be much clearer. More fundamentally, we would have a much better sense of whether we were on the path to sustainability, and if not, where additional investment could have most impact.

Oliver Twist was of course fiction. But in penning his novel Dickens had a real-world target: the British Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which ushered in a primitive work-for-the-dole scheme in the form of parish workhouses. While the immediate problem in the story might have been Oliver’s empty bowl, the underlying problem in the real world was that with the industrial revolution, the parish system on which British society had operated for centuries was breaking down rapidly as rural workers migrated en masse to the newly-industrialised cities. Forcing the indigent into workhouses was a budget fix, when what was really needed was a new welfare system.

The approaches taken in managing Australia’s environment, including through the Budget, are as obsolete as the Poor Law was in Dickensian Britain. We don’t know how much environmental investment is needed, or where best to place it. But just as the Turnbull government has a 10-year economic plan for reducing company tax, and is making a 40-year investment in submarines, we need a long-term plan for environmental investment. Until we have a comprehensive set of environmental accounts linked to existing economic information, such a plan will lack foundation and our modern Oliver Twist will have no option beyond the poorhouse plea: “Please, sir, I want some more.”

Read more in the series here.

The Conversation

Michael Vardon, Visiting Fellow at the Fenner School, Australian National University and Peter Burnett, PhD Candidate, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Amazon in Crisis


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the Amazon rainforest and the environmental destruction going on in that region. The article contains a good number of photos.

For more visit:
http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/blog/forests/pictures-silent-crisis-amazon-20140507

Rats: Disaster for Islands


The link below is to an article that reports on the problem of rats for many islands around the world and the environmental disasters they bring to islands.

For more visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2013/jul/04/rats-islands-wildlife-south-georgia

Sea Shepherd Founder: Paul Watson


The link below is to a recent report concerning the Founder and President of environmental group Sea Shepherd Conservation, who has fled to escape criminal proceedings.

For more visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/aug/31/paul-watson-sea-avoid-arrest