On 31 January 2014, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) approved a permit for the North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation to dredge around 3 million cubic metres of seabed and dump the dredge material within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to accommodate the expansion of the Abbot Point coal port from two berths to six. According to the GBRMPA, the expansion will ‘provide an extra annual capacity of 120 million tonnes of coal.’
If this seems at all environmentally suspect, that’s because it is. According to The Guardian, two recently-approved coal mines whose loads are intended to pass through Abbot Point will ‘add emissions equivalent to six times the annual carbon footprint of the UK.’
But aside from the fact that the mining, transportation, and burning of coal coalesce to form one of the world’s biggest contributors to climate change, there’s the issue of the dredging dumping itself. Despite the GBRMPA’s conclusions that ‘there exist potential flow-on impacts to corals and seagrasses from a decline in water quality’ [caused by the disposal of dredge material], and ‘there is limited information available to accurately predict the potential impacts of the proposed activity on fish,’ they approved the permit for the work to occur.
Though the GBRMPA’s questionably named Statement of Reasons reassures that any negative effects on the reef could be mitigated by ‘management plans and environmental site supervision,’ one need look no further than the GBRMPA’s board of directors for the motivation for their actions, with two of the five board members having connections to the coal industry.
It is no wonder then that they continue to advocate for dredging and dumping in the reef despite a draft decision released on 1 May by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation calling into question the Great Barrier Reef’s continued eligibility as a UNESCO World Heritage site. In the draft decision, UNESCO ‘not[ed] with concern the recent approvals for coastal developments in the absence of a completed Strategic Assessment and resulting Long-Term Plan for Sustainable Development,’ and ‘regrets the State Party’s approval for dumping three million cubic metres of dredge material inside the [reef] prior to having undertaken a comprehensive assessment of alternative and potentially less impacting development and disposal options. This of particular concern given evidence suggesting that the inshore reefs in the southern two-thirds of the property are not recovering from disturbances over the past few decades.’
The Great Barrier Reef has lost over half of its coral since 1985. Human impact from agricultural run-off to industrial build-up to climate change is damaging the reef more quickly than it can heal itself. Its currently tenuous existence hangs in the balance, dependent on human action.
That’s why the famously activist ice cream company Ben and Jerry’s decided to take a stand. Teaming up with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Australia, a team from Ben and Jerry’s Australia spent the month of April driving a Ben and Jerry’s van up Australia’s east coast giving away ice cream and ‘raising awareness of how the reef is at serious risk from intensive dredging, mega ports, and shipping highways.’ Such conscious and caring social action by a big company was both refreshing and encouraging.
However, that’s not exactly how the Queensland government saw it. Queensland’s Minister for the Environment and Heritage Protection Andrew Powell has called Ben and Jerry’s ‘Scoop Ice Cream, Not the Reef‘ tour ‘misleading’ and has called for a boycott of the company. In what seemed to be an effort to highlight Ben and Jerry’s true colours, Powell made sure to invoke their parent company Unilever, saying, ‘This company, part of a big multinational, Unilever, signed up to a campaign being propagated by WWF that suggests that it is ports and shipping that are having the major impact on the Great Barrier Reef. None of the scientific data supports that.’ According to Dredging News Online, he also, seemingly without irony, said, ‘These alarmist claims are doing nothing but muddying the waters around the real threats to the Great Barrier Reef.’
Towing the party line was Premier of Queensland Campbell Newman, who echoed, ‘You’ve got this company that is known as Ben and Jerry’s – it is like a boutique ice cream brand, they are actually owned by Unilever, a huge multinational company – and Ben and Jerry’s are running around saying that the Great Barrier Reef is at threat because of the Abbot Point development.’
There are three problems with the Queensland government’s tactic:
1. Earlier this year, 233 scientists signed a letter to the GBRMPA stating that ‘the best available science makes it very clear that expansion of the port at Abbot Point will have detrimental effects on the Great Barrier Reef.’
2. Ben and Jerry’s have a long history of supporting social action, from supporting marriage equality to opposing drilling in the Arctic. They are not fair weather activists, nor are they motivated by anything other than a genuine desire to speak out for what they believe in.
3. Unilever is on a similar, albeit more recent, mission to be a leader in sustainable, ethical practices. With goals of sourcing 100% of their raw materials from sustainable sources and halving the environmental impact of their products by 2020, UK sustainable development organisation Forum for the Future says, ‘If Unilever hits its targets, then it will have done more than any other company ever to shift the world economy to a more sustainable footing.’
The reality is, Australia is one of the world’s largest coal exporters, and the businesses of mining and shipping coal are integral to the Australian economy. For further proof that the bottom line really is, well, the bottom line, the GBRMPA’s Statement of Reasons granting permission for dredging and dumping in the reef made clear that the final settlement needed to include ‘details on how any lost income to the fishing and tourism industries (both short-term and long-term) that can be attributed to environmental impacts from disposal activities will be compensated.’
Unfortunately, if the Great Barrier Reef faces further damage from the Port Abbot expansion, a payoff won’t bring it back.