Australia: selling out or saving Great Barrier Reef?

Dec 16, 2015, 12:15 PM EST
Great Barrier Reef - Hardy Reef, Whitsundays, Australia.
Source: Tanya Puntti/flickr

Australia is looking for corporate and philanthropic sponsorships to help protect the Great Barrier Reef, but one is forced to wonder where is the line between pragmatism and crass marketing? On Tuesday the government published a pamphlet called Partnerships for the Reef, which encourages private investment into conservation projects. In return, it states "All Reef Trust investments will be recognised in branding of project materials, ranging from online publications and reports to social media activities and reef events."

The Reef Trust, established in 2014, claims to operate with “the highest levels of accountability and transparency.” According to the pamphlet, “Stringent financial controls, project management and reporting requirements are in place to ensure all funds are delivered in an ethical, equitable and effective manner. The delivery of all investment is supported by scientific rigour, with projects reviewed and endorsed by a panel of independent experts.” In fact, several specific projects up for sponsorship are detailed with their expected environmental benefits and approximate funding needs over a set timeframe.

These are undoubtedly worthy causes, but some are worried that mining or agricultural companies might try to whitewash their own pollution of the reef by sponsoring a project and hyping it up. According to AFP, the Australian Greens political party condemned the sponsorship idea, with Senator Larissa Waters asking: "What's next, naming rights, like for football stadiums?” She added, “While private donations for reef protection are welcome they shouldn't be in exchange for advertising rights and they must be on top of adequate public funding, not in place of it.” Potentially letting coal companies sponsor the Great Barrier Reef "would be like letting tobacco companies sponsor hospitals," she stated.

But even though government investment in the Reef is projected to be more than $2 billion over the next decade, the reef still needs much more funding—particularly as climate change intensifies the pressures on it. An interim report released on Monday by the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce found that “Despite significant investment and goodwill from the government and all partners, accelerated uptake of improved land management practices is needed. We need to take stronger action and we need to do it now.” The taskforce's targets are to reduce nitrogen run-off by up to 80% and reduce total suspended sediment run-off by up to 50% in key catchments such as the Wet Tropics and Burdekin by 2025. According to the report, the funding needed for the reef is well beyond the approximately $200 million already committed by the Queensland Government and $215 million by the federal government.

The 6 ready-to-go investment opportunities specified in Partnerships for the Reef are smaller-scale, ranging from about $700,000 to $5 million. These aren't game-changers, but some could be scaled up if proven successful, or provide a model that could be replicated in similar ecosystems elsewhere along the reef. And the Reef Trust is open to additional ideas as well, to be evaluated on the same scientific and economic criteria. The bottom line is that corporate social responsibility (along with the positive publicity it nets) is something that should be encouraged, particularly if public funding is inadequate. Purists may disagree, but as long as the results aren’t so brazen as "BHP Billiton presents: the Great Barrier Reef," this is a good supplementary option overall.