SYDNEY — A state government in Australia has approved a huge tourism development near the Great Barrier Reef, a move that has angered Australian environmentalists. Supporters say the new plan is just what the region’s cyclone-battered economy needs. Conservationists, however, say the scheme will damage delicate ecosystems and set a bad example for other countries in the region.
The plan is to build tourist resorts, residential areas, shops and a golf course on a cattle farm that borders a pristine rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef near the Queensland town of Innisfail.
Environmentalists insist that the Ella Bay project would be a disaster for wildlife, especially cassowaries, which are very large flightless birds, and sea turtles.
Conservationist Russell Constable says other vulnerable animals would also be at risk from the coastal development.
“The bay is used by snubfin dolphins and Indo-Pacific dolphins. They're both threatened species. They're species that rely on shallow water habitat. If I'm going to spend a million dollars on a house at this place, the first thing I'm going to be asking is where do I park my boat and, you know, where do I run my jet-ski around and that,” said Constable.
The Queensland state government has attached strict environmental conditions to the development, which officials insist will protect the rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef - one of Australia’s greatest natural attractions. It snakes for more than 2,000 kilometers down the country’s northeast coast and is home to a wondrous array of corals and other spectacular marine flora and fauna. Environmentalists say the reef, which is the only living thing visible from space, is increasingly threatened by coastal development, including vast coal ports, as well as climate change and pollution.
Speaking out in defense
However, the president of the Innisfail Chamber of Commerce, Jake Robertson, says the Ella Bay development would boost a region still recovering from a recent series of devastating tropical storms.
“The project will also, crucially for us, create jobs after cyclones Larry and Yasi. We've seen a decline in population in this area. There have been hundreds of people leaving the shire over the last two censuses. We live in paradise here, we all know that, but we've got to have things for people to do,” said Robertson
While the plan has been ratified by state officials in Queensland, it still needs to be approved by Australia’s federal government.
Ministers will have to weigh environmental concerns against the need to promote economic development. Like many other countries, including Indonesia to the north, Australia must grapple with the conflicting demands of ecosystems that are increasingly threatened by development and the requirement to create jobs and build wealth.
A recent study found that 70 percent of Indonesia’s coral reefs have been damaged by a range of factors, including the use of explosives by fishermen, waste from mining and the bleaching of coral caused by climate change.
Logging has also damaged valuable wilderness areas in the South Pacific, including Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
Australia has one of the world’s worst rates of mammal extinction, and conservationists insist that the nation’s rush to exploit its natural resources has irreparably damaged the environment.