Wednesday 26 February 2014

Nature needs us: 10 eco issues you need to know about - now

In the past few months, even while out of Australia, I've become increasingly alarmed at what has been happening to Australia's natural environment since the Abbott government came to power late last year.

Seen at the Sydney rally
to save the GBR
This is not political. This is about protecting Australia's precious places and species. Like many Australians, I've been noticing that many of the new government's policies are taking a heavy toll on the environment, taking Australia back to an age when economic gains (for a privileged few) come at any cost.

So I've decided to share a list I've been making in my head, and to summarise, briefly, the top 10 issues on the environmental table today.

Don't look away. Get informed. Start conversations. And remember the words of American anthropologist Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Only this time the thoughtful citizens are, I believe, in the majority.

1. Dredging, dumping and coal ports on the Great Barrier Reef
It's almost too insane to be true: The Abbott government recently approved industrial-scale dredging to create the world's largest coal export terminal at Abbot Point, to service an Indian-owned coal mine in western Queensland.

This is right on the doorstep of the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, threatening wildlife, increasing pressures on the already vulnerable reef, and increasing the risks of oil spills from a shipping superhighway through this iconic area that supports a $6 billion tourism industry.

The good news: Conditions imposed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority require further environmental assessments, so there's time to build public opposition and mount a legal challenge to this decision. Find out more at Fight for the Reef (an initiative of WWF-Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society).

Who doesn't love big trees?
(pic by
 2. Tasmania's World Heritage forests under threat - again
In June last year, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee added 170,000 hectares of "extraordinarily precious forest" (as former federal environment minister Tony Burke called it) to Tasmania's World Heritage Area, which was first listed in 1982.

Now the Abbott government wants to de-list 117 of the newly listed areas (74,000 hectares), which would allow logging in forests in the Upper Florentine, Styx and Weld Valleys, end the hard-won peace deal brokered between industry and conservationists last year, and open the way for other WH-listed areas such as Kakadu to have their boundaries changed to suit logging or mining interests.

Take action: Add your signature to the Australian Conservation Foundation's petition, which will go to the World Heritage Committee's next meeting in June.

3. Slowing action on climate change
The Abbott government has made no secret of the fact that it intends to repeal the former government's carbon tax (which was by no means radical: 33 other countries have a price on carbon pollution) in July this year. In its place, its Direct Action policy will reward top polluters for not emitting carbon and won't reduce Australia's emissions enough to avoid catastrophic climate change, according to a new report. (Abbott claims the carbon tax, which was due to morph into an emissions trading scheme in July 2015, has increased electricity prices. In fact network costs, i.e. poles and wires, account for most of those increases; the truth is that the big polluters don't like it.)

4. Is the government anti-science?
In what is increasingly looking like an anti-science attitude, the new government did not appoint a science minister (for the first time since the creation of the science portfolio in 1931); shut down the Climate Commission and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and is in the process of axing the Climate Change Authority; did not send a representative to UN climate summit in Warsaw last November; and has axed jobs at Australia's leading scientific institution, the CSIRO.

Just this month, the Abbott government also appointed climate change sceptic and former Caltex chairman Dick Warburton to review Australia's Renewable Energy Target (which is currently 20 per cent of our energy needs from renewable sources by 2020). Hmmm. All this when climate change keeps accelerating...

Turtles vote too (or wish they did)
5. Fishing in NSW marine sanctuaries
What's happening: The O'Farrell government plans to allow recreational fishing in NSW marine sanctuaries, which make up only four per cent of our coastline, despite overwhelming public support for those marine reserves, even from people who fish. This follows the government's introduction last year of a five-year moratorium on any new marine parks. Victoria is planning to do the same.

How to help: Support Save Our Marine Life and tell your local MP (using this online form) you're opposed to opening up marine reserves to recreational fishing, which can threaten some fish species more than commercial fishing.

6. Hunting begins in NSW national parks
Earlier this month, a three-year trial began allowing amateur shooters to hunt feral animals in 12 NSW national parks and 200 state forests, part of a deal struck between the NSW premier, Barry O'Farrell, and the Shooters and Fishers Party, to pass electricity privatisation legislation. If the trial is deemed successful, the government will decide whether to allow hunting in 75 other parks. If you think guns have no place in our protected places, check out No Hunting in National Parks.

Diving with bull sharks
(pic by Craig Murdoch)
7. Culling sharks in Western Australia
This one's a state issue with a federal twist. In response to six people being killed by sharks in WA in the past three years, federal environment minister Greg Hunt in January gave the WA government an exemption from federal laws that protect great white sharks. Despite widespread public opposition, the state government then started culling great whites, tiger and bull sharks longer than three metres and caught within one kilometre of the WA coast.

According to marine researchers, the cull is unlikely to reduce the number of attacks, puts divers at risk because the dead sharks are dumped at sea and affects the populations of shark species, many of which are endangered. To put things in perspective: 16 people were killed by sharks, worldwide, last year; 100 million sharks are killed every year by the shark-finning industry.

Let's keep the Kimberley like this
8. The Fitzroy River valley in the Kimberley
Just when you thought the Kimberley was safe from "big mining" ... The Fitzroy River, the largest river system in the Kimberley, and King Sound on the coast, are now in danger. A foreign-owned investment group is proposing a coal mine that will pollute waterways, destroy this iconic natural landscape and open the way for other mines, gas and oil projects throughout the Kimberley.

What to do: Public pressure (and economic reasons) stopped the James Price Point gas hub on the Kimberley coast from going ahead last year. Join The Wilderness Society in working to stop fossil fuel mining in the Kimberley.

9. Coal seam gas full-steam ahead in NSW
The mining of coal seam gas was recently shown to have poisoned water supplies near the Pilliga Forest in western NSW. The aquifer has 20 times the safe levels of uranium as well as elevated levels of arsenic, lead, aluminium, nickel, barium and boron. Mining company Santos was fined a paltry $1500; two days later the NSW government signed an agreement with Santos to fast-track mining in the Pillaga area. What the? Sign GetUp's petition here and learn more at Stop Pillaga Coal Seam Gas.

Minke whale seen in north Qld
likely to also swim in Antarctica
10. Government monitoring whaling in the Southern Ocean by air
The federal government broke a pre-election promise in December by sending a plane instead of a purpose-built Customs vessel to monitor Japanese whaling operations in the Southern Ocean.  Under Australian law, a Customs vessel would have to turn back a Japanese vessel suspected of illegal whaling (planes can do nothing but observe). Sea Shepherd, currently halfway through its 10th season in the Southern Ocean, has called this "a waste of taxpayers' money".

A positive footnote: Most of these issues are still in the process of being allowed/developed/formalised - so there's still time to let those "in charge" know what we, the voters, think.

For more information about any of these issues, and to find out how to help, see the Australian Conservation FoundationWWFGreenpeace and The Wilderness Society and Sea Shepherd websites.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Koh Laoliang - Is this Thailand's last paradise?

Hello! Sorry for the radio silence. I’ve been offline for much of the past few weeks while in transit, promoting Adventures on Earth, exploring parts of Thailand I never knew existed... 

Getting vertical with Kaud,
my King Climbers instructor
The highlight of my two months in Thailand (and Laos) was without a doubt the three weeks I spent in Railay, in Thailand's Krabi province, doing a 3-day climbing course with King Climbers then climbing until my fingertips started getting ragged from the sharp limestone. The highlight within this highlight, though, was a three-day trip to what could be Thailand’s last island paradise: Koh Laoliang (Laoliang Island).

You’ve probably never heard of Laoliang. I hadn’t, until a climber friend recommended it to me. It's The Beach, he'd said - minus the hand-drawn map, the suicidal Scot and the despotic Tilda Swinton. And it restored my faith in Thailand’s natural environment when I was beginning to suspect that its “perfect beaches” existed only on Photoshopped tourist brochures…

Beach beauty, Laoliang 
Laoliang is that rare thing in Thailand: a gorgeous beach that isn’t overrun with tourists, longtail boats and shacks selling fruit shakes and fried rice. 

It’s a small island national park in Trang province, within Koh Petra Marine Park in the Andaman Sea. You can stay there only during Thailand’s high season, November-April, in one of the 20 tents facing the aquamarine sea. And just getting there is an adventure.

If there are a few of you, Laoliang Island "Resort" will arrange a minibus and boat to get you there from Krabi or Trang. If you’re travelling alone, as I was, the journey there is a bit more involved. 

It started with a longtail boat ride from Railay to Krabi town, where an American guy, Richard (hmm, same name as Leo DiCaprio’s character in The Beach), picked me up – on his motorbike – and gave me a lift to Krabi bus station (it was decent of him to let me use his only helmet). There I boarded a double-decker public bus for Trang, where I was met by a ponytailed guy called Pon, who drove me and two Swiss climbers - in a ute this time - to Hat Samran, where we got into another longtail, for the one-hour trip 20 km offshore to what was starting to feel like a fabled island.

Tent heaven
As we stepped ashore on Laoliang, I could hardly believe my eyes: clear, blue-green water, a dazzlingly white sand beach bookended by high limestone walls, eagles soaring overhead, a thatched open-air dining "room" and a row of green and yellow tents. Sublimely simple.

The tents were perfectly comfortable, with two rooms: a bedroom with two single beds on the floor, made up with sheets and blankets, and a roomy vestibule with fan and light (the generator comes on at about 4pm every day).

Rope ladder starting a climb
Two kinds of people come to Laoliang: non-climbers (mostly couples and families with young, free-range children) and climbers, drawn by the relatively new sport climbing routes you can step onto right off the beach - or from a rope ladder. I climbed a bit with the Swiss couple, Marc and Catherine, and Norwegians Ingrid and Christoffer, but mostly enjoyed hanging out on the beach watching them dancing up the walls.

The best part of Laoliang is the peacefulness. I had to remind myself I was still in Thailand. There were no longtails speeding past day and night. There's no wifi or mobile reception. You can walk everywhere barefoot. The sun is your alarm clock, rising at a civilised hour - just before 7am when I was there. There is a small bar with a bamboo platform and cushions, that plays music at night, but never loud enough to disturb anyone in the tents. Otherwise people play guitar, sing and talk. 

Norwegian climbers
Ingrid and Chris
It’s the perfect place to do yoga on the beach and have a swim before breakfast. After breakfast, you can go snorkelling (there's a small but healthy reef just offshore and plenty of marine life), rent a kayak, go deep-water soloing (climbing low sea cliffs without ropes and falling safely into deep water) or just lie in a hammock with a book. Afternoons are for climbing – when the east-facing walls are in the shade (it’s too hot to climb in full sun). After dinner, look up for the nightly star-show.

It's not for everyone. It's a little pricey, for a tent in Thailand: 1500 baht (about $50) pp per night, including all meals. The dining area seems to have been cobbled together from materials that might or might not have washed ashore. The cold-water showers have almost no water pressure. And except for breakfast, the food is pretty basic and unappetising.

Message in a rock? A natural
anchor found on the beach
But if you like life simple, not five-star, so that nature, not what's on the menu, is the main event, this is your kind of place. Sure, there's a generator and drinking water and all supplies must come from the mainland. But in a country where "eco" is almost a dirty (or at least misunderstood) word, Laoliang is a great success story. May it stay just as it is, for a long time yet.