Call for urgent action as Australia faces biodiversity crisis | Environment News

Conservationist Gregory Andrews has warned Australia’s biodiversity is “the worst it’s ever been” and the new Labor government will have to work hard to tackle the damage done to the environment.

As an Australian Aboriginal from the D’harawal Country, Andrews feels motivated to care about his country’s land and biodiversity.

He was appointed Australia’s first threatened species commissioner in 2014 and has been in the position for just over three years, focusing on raising awareness and resources, and developing policy against extinction in Australia.

Since then, he has had a number of roles. He has been Australia’s Ambassador and High Commissioner to 9 countries in West Africa since 2019. Then, at the end of 2021, he decided to return home and embrace life as a full-time father and conservationist. .

Before the election in May, Andrews called for action to protect the environment in Australia. The main political parties, he said, see climate change and the environment as a ‘soft issue’ rather than a focus, but the situation is urgent.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, he discussed the state of Australia’s biodiversity and the country’s trajectory in terms of climate and conservation policy.

Al Jazeera: Which native species are particularly vulnerable to extinction?

Andrews: Facts List of threatened species there are about 2,500 species on it. But just to give you a sense of how serious it is, Australia has 12 species of mammals rarer than even the Chinese Giant Panda.

Gregory Andrews poked a stick into a crevice in a rock while two Aboriginal women watched.
Gregory Andrews is proud to be an Indigenous and says Australia has much to learn from Aboriginal connections to land and nature

So we’re talking about things like Mala Hare Wallaby, Numbatfor example, and we’ve actually lost eight species of wallabies to extinction, and another 16 that are endangered.

The biodiversity story in Australia is different from other parts of the world. Because we are a large island continent, and we drifted from Gondwanaland over millions of years, the animals and plants here have evolved quite nicely.

We have 78 invasive vertebrates in Australia… and invasive plants. [They] are causing irreparable harm to our native wildlife.

For example, we are the only continent on Earth, other than Antarctica, where there are no cats. There are no native cats in Australia. So as a result of that, our native animals are what scientists call ‘naive predators’, because they didn’t have to evolve to learn to live with cats, like all small mammals and reptiles did in Europe, Africa and America and Asia.

Al Jazeera: What other factors have put Australia in its current predicament?

Andrews: I think four important things have been happening. The first is that we are seeing the direct effects of climate change in Australia, and we have also been through a period of political denial that climate change is a problem. Climate change is a big threat and you know it Forest fires caused by climate change two years ago wiped out almost a third of Australia Koala.

The second is habitat degradation… We have degraded, cut down forests and significantly reduced the habitat of our wildlife species for agriculture and urban development. If we want to keep our wildlife… we need to stop harvesting native forests, and we need to stop clearing the land. We can afford to do that because we are a big country and we are a rich country, and we have a lot of land that we can share with our native animals. surname.

The third thing is, our institutions are not really strong enough. Especially under the Liberal National coalition, there has been a lot of ‘green washout’ [the process of conveying a false impression about how environmentally sound an organisation’s policies are] and the Endangered Species Commissioner, you could argue, is an example of that.

While I am proud of everything I have achieved as a Commissioner, I am not an independent commissioner with the right to criticize the government… One of the big highlights of the election [in the lead-up to the election was] there is an independent anti-corruption committee. Similarly, the commissioner on threatened species needs to be independent, so they can really critique government policy and results…

A koala chewing eucalyptus leaves.
An examination of koala populations is underway with iconic animals facing threats from habitat destruction and climate change [File: Lukas Coch/EPA]

Also the 5 year State of the Environment Report, that report was completed in 2021, but the government has been sitting on it all year, we still haven’t seen it… They don’t want people to see the real situation. how bad. To be. But if we had stronger institutions, that would have a required timeframe and… the report would have to be released on the set dates.

Then the last point… we need more money [for conservation]… I know for example, the Labor Party promised AU$224.5 million [$155m] for years because of threatened species policies.

But actually Professor Hugh Possingham, Australia’s leading biodiversity conservation scientist, [has] work out… [that] With the right frameworks in place, AU$200 million ($138 million) a year is enough to prevent extinction in Australia. That’s less than 2 per cent of the fossil fuel subsidies that the Australian government is providing… 2 per cent of which would be enough to prevent extinction.

Al Jazeera: In your opinion, has Labor made the necessary changes to address the damage to the Australian environment?

Andrews: Labor certainly has stronger policy bases, but not strong enough to prevent extinctions and protect nature to the extent necessary.

So this is an important step in the right direction, but one of the things that excites me is the fact that we’re going to have independents in the Senate like David Pocock and in the House like Zoe Daniel, Zali Steggall and Allegra Spender, known as the Teal Independents, and they have fairly high standards for climate action, as well as biodiversity conservation.

Therefore, I would expect that the combination of progressive independence and the Greens and needs Labor to negotiate with them will strengthen Australia’s protection of biodiversity.

Al Jazeera: Much of what Labor has promised on the environment is led by funding, with hundreds of millions of Australian dollars pledged to threatened species and Great Barrier Reef. How does funding turn to environmental protection?

Andrews: The capital is really important, but it has been used by governments, and especially the former government, as a ‘clean-up’ operation. For instance, whenever they were asked about a particular species, they would just say, “Oh, we gave the koalas $50 million.” … Funding alone will not solve the problem, we also need to deal with climate change and habitat degradation and have stronger institutions.

A baby echidna, called a fussy baby.
A baby echidna, called a fussy baby. Andrews said saving Australia’s threatened species requires a multi-pronged approach that includes environmental initiatives such as habitat protection as well as a better understanding of what wildlife needs. [File: Bianca de March/EPA]

With koalas, for example, we’re providing funding to plant more trees, but we cut the trees in the first place… that’s a wasted opportunity because if we protect the bear’s habitat pocket, funding will go to things like chlamydia – koalas actually get chlamydia, and go blind… and infertile – and we’ll also use the funding to educate the community about keeping their guide dogs when they are in koala habitat, instead of using the funds to plant trees that have been cut down somewhere else.

Al Jazeera: You are a D’harawal man. What does biodiversity and the environment mean for Indigenous Australians?

Andrews: Indigenous Australians have been here for 60,000 years. So Australia has what we call the oldest continuously practiced Indigenous culture in the world, and an integral part of that is for us, like the Indigenous peoples of the world. around the world, having a connection to the Country (an Indigenous term to describe Australia’s land and environment) is really important.

Our Land and Country, is our life and we are a part of it, and we do not consider ourselves the owners of the land. We consider ourselves part of it and custodians. We are in harmony with nature.

Al Jazeera: Given this connection to the land, how are Indigenous Australians involved in conservation efforts in Australia?

Andrews: Aboriginal Australians own or manage about 11 per cent of Australia’s landmass, which is a large area… On a daily basis, there are around 800 Indigenous rangers.

These lands, many of them Indigenous Protected Areas, give them the same status as national parks in terms of the responsibility Australia has committed, through the United Nations, to protect. [them].

Many of the healthiest populations of our most endangered species are on Aboriginal land. For example, twin fish, almost as rare as the Chinese Giant Panda, 80% of the world’s twins are actually on Aboriginal land. So the Aboriginal people are there every day, caring for the Country, and it’s part of our culture, it’s part of us as Aboriginal people.

For example, the Kiwirrkurra Aboriginal community in Western Australia… They oversee a landmass of 42,000 square kilometers (16,200 square miles), almost twice the size of Kakadu National Park and larger than many countries in Europe. They are actually doing it on the smell of oil rags with a little support from the Australian government through Indigenous ranger programsand they have the healthiest group of barramundi in the world – the wild grouper has survived and thrived in their Country, thanks to their native burning, and also their efforts to hunt feral cats .

Al Jazeera: How important is environmental conservation to Australian society as a whole?

Andrews: I think the fact that the Teal candidates and candidates like David Pocock have campaigned more vigorously on environmental issues and have done so well, is an example of how people care about the environmentand environmental protection can win votes in democracies.

We have a kangaroo on the tail of the national airline Qantas, and we name our rugby team the Wallabies, our soccer team the Socceroos, we have our animals on our money and on our badges. Our animals and plants here really define us and I think there’s really strong community support to save the species.

Our animals and plants are unique, they cannot be found anywhere else on earth.

But in fact, on a much more pragmatic, practical and economic level, our agriculture depends on the environment, and our human security depends on the environment, and our health. depends on the environment.

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