The documentary is named after the nature refuge which is the proposed site of a 40Mtpa coal mine, but I think it focuses more generally on the growing impact of coal and gas mining on the environment and rural communities across Australia (I haven’t seen the film yet). There’s an impressive line-up of scientists featured in the film, including Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Rod Fensham and Guy Pearse – so I’m looking forward to seeing it tonight.
After the film I’ll be joining several people far more experienced than I for a panel discussion – I’ll be fielding questions from a conservation planning perspective. I’m likely to focus on issues I’ve raised previously in this piece, but I’ll summarise them here.
1. Nature refuges & other ‘multiple use’ protected areas are a key component of Australia’s National Reserve system
The Queensland Government aims to build the State’s protected area system from the current 12 million hectares (6.65% terrestrial area of Qld) to 20 million hectares (11.5%) by the year 2020. Nature refuges are going to form a big component of the protected area system by 2020 (about 30%).
There’s a couple of reasons for this. First of all, around 90% of Queensland is leasehold or freehold tenure – so there’s not a lot of land simply lying around, ready to be purchased and turned into a National Park. Conserving biodiversity is going to rely ever more on engaging with private landholders to manage their land at least partly for biodiversity – hence why nature refuges are similar protected areas are classified by the IUCN as category VI – which permits the sustainable use of natural resources alongside conservation.
The second reason is economics – securing voluntary conservation agreements with landholders is a lot cheaper than outright purchase of land (see Carwardine et al. 2008). This (hopefully) means more money is freed up that can be used for conservation, particularly since there are little to no additional management costs involved (compared to establishing and managing a National Park) – landholders agree to manage the land for biodiversity voluntarily, or else can apply for funding to assist.
2. …Yet they are not really ‘protected’
The main problem with all this is despite nature refuges being a ‘legally binding, secure instrument that survives subsequent changes of ownership and generations‘, current legislation permits mining and gas permits to be granted over nature refuges – hence the situation that Bimblebox is facing, along with about 100 other properties across Queensland.
There’s obviously a number of issues with this situation, but I think there’s a couple of key points to be made. First of all, Qld’s current protected area growth strategy relies heavily on nature refuges – and therefore the goodwill and trust of private landholders. I can’t really see why a landholder would see benefit in voluntarily committing to an agreement which requires them to manage their land sustainably, if there’s a likelihood that a mining or petroleum lease will be granted on their property (note that in Queensland, exploration leases are only prevented from being granted on National Parks). Secondly, and most obviously, how are we expected to grow the protected area system if those protected areas could be removed in the future?
3. Offsetting the protected area system
Ok, so we could go on all day about biodiversity offsets, but I’ll try to keep it short. I’m not one who is fundamentally opposed or for the use of offsets – I think the reality is that they have been in use as an environmental policy for a long time, and are becoming more widespread. The key I think is ensuring that offset policies do what they set out to do: produce either a no-net-loss or net-gain of biodiversity.
In fact much of the future growth in Qld’s protected area system is expected to be directly or indirectly provided by biodiversity offsets. This can occur through the purchase of land funded by financial contributions to EcoFund – Queensland’s government-owned offset broker, or otherwise through securing a biodiversity offset through a nature refuge agreement.
Yes, you read correctly: the legal mechanism being applied to ensure there is a no-net-loss of biodiversity through offsetting may be removed if a mining or petroleum lease is granted over the site. Not necessarily very secure or permanent. In fact, the Qld Offsets Policy includes guidelines about how to offset an offset (an offset an offset…). You could go on about various methodological issues to do with the (fairly complicated) current offsets policy, but I think this circular logic of permitting the removal of biodiversity through a promise to secure an offset that can then be removed in the future can only result in the ongoing loss of biodiversity.
More fundamentally, I think there’s a real risk that this lack of security afforded to nature refuges could result in protected areas being located in places where they are least likely to be in conflict with large scale mining or other incompatible land uses – effectively reversing the last 20 years of research into systematic conservation planning. On paper, there will certainly be growth in the protected area system, but there would still be a net loss of habitat going on across the entire landscape (see McDonald-Madden 2008).
If conservation is to be successful, protected areas and other conservation agreements need to be effective and secure. Pretty simple really.