By Jemilah Hallinan, EDO NSW Outreach Director, and Millicent McCreath, Practical Legal Trainee

Over the past year, the status of two of Australia’s most iconic World Heritage Areas has come under attack from actions by the Federal Government.

In January 2014, the Government announced that it was seeking a ‘minor boundary modification’ of the Tasmanian Wilderness to reduce the forest’s size by 74,000 hectares.

On 10 December last year the Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, approved two major projects that are likely to have a significant effect on the world heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). The Minister approved an application to dredge and dump dredge spoil for the construction of the Abbot Point Terminal near Bowen and an application for the development of the Curtis Island LNG facility on Curtis Island near Gladstone.

The Australian community may be forgiven for assuming that properties on the prestigious World Heritage List are protected from major developments such as those proposed for the GBR. It is also reasonable to assume that once a property is listed, the host nation will adopt all reasonable measures to try to ensure the protection will endure in perpetuity. In fact, listing a property on the World Heritage list far from guarantees its ongoing conservation.

 The World Heritage List

The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage(World Heritage Convention) was adopted by the UNESCO General Conference in 1972 and Australia became one of the first countries to sign up. The Convention establishes the World Heritage List with items listed due to their value to the world at large – that is, outstanding universal value.

The Federal Department of Environment website states

The World Heritage Convention aims to promote cooperation among nations to protect heritage around the world that is of such outstanding universal value that its conservation is important for current and future generations.

It is intended that, unlike the seven wonders of the ancient world, properties on the World Heritage List will be conserved for all time.

In order to be included on the World Heritage List, national governments nominate items or areas which meet at least one of ten criteria, relating to either natural or cultural attributes. Both the Great Barrier Reef and the Tasmanian Wilderness meet several of the criteria.

 Australia’s obligations

Each country is responsible for conserving its world heritage listed properties. Australia’s obligations under The World Heritage Convention are enacted under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (the EPBC Act).

Under the EPBC Act, it is an offence to take an action which has or is likely to have a significant impact on the world heritage values of a listed property without the approval of the federal Environment Minister.

Threats to the Tasmanian Wilderness

The Government’s decision to apply to the World Heritage Committee (WHC) to have a part of the Tasmanian Wilderness excised was officially motivated in order to remove from the site areas that it considers “detract from the overall outstanding universal value of the property and diminish its overall integrity”.

The delisting of a World Heritage area is highly unusual. In fact, delisting has only occurred on two occasions – namely, the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman and Dresden, Germany. What is also highly unusual is that the government itself is seeking the delisting and that the timber industry and conservation groups oppose the move.

It is also clear that the Convention contemplates the fact that World Heritage sites, or parts thereof, may not be in good condition, and may need rehabilitation. In such cases, parties to the convention are supposed “to take the appropriate legal, scientific, technical, administrative and financial measures necessary for the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and rehabilitation of this heritage”.

The 74,000 hectares targeted by the Federal Government in its submission to the WHC were a part of the area added to the Tasmanian Wilderness in June 2013. Therefore, just six months after the WHC voted to include the extra area on the basis of its outstanding universal value, the Australian Government is seeking to have part of the same area removed.

Threats to the Great Barrier Reef

Each year the World Heritage Committee meets to assesses the conservation status of items on the World Heritage List. At its June 2013 meeting, the WHC noted with concern the Australian Government’s slow progress in implementing requests by the WHC to take action to protect the GBR, and stated that without substantial progress, the WHC would consider listing the Reef on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Items on the List of World Heritage in Danger include those threatened by war and natural disasters, and are most often located in developing or underdeveloped nations.

 The future for Australia’s World Heritage sites

In June 2014, the fate of two of Australia’s most iconic World Heritage sites will be determined by the WHC. The Committee may decide to place the Great Barrier Reef on the List of World Heritage in Danger, and is also likely to decide whether or not to accept the Government’s application to reduce the size of the Tasmanian Wilderness.

Although the WHC lacks any enforcement or coercive powers, the decisions that it makes, such as to place an item on the List of World Heritage in Danger, have the ability to cause national governments international embarrassment.

The listing of the Tasmanian Wilderness and the Great Barrier Reef has greatly increased tourism, and this is threatened if Australia acts to compromise the status of World Heritage listing. This risk is arguably greater in respect of the GBR, as tourists may hesitate to travel to the Great Barrier Reef if its placement on the In Danger list leads to the perception that its natural values are now degraded.

World Heritage listing is intended to protect sites of outstanding universal value for the benefit of all people for all time. In this regard, the Australian Government’s proposals regarding the GBR and the Tasmanian Wilderness clearly compromise these protections and risk Australia’s reputation before the international community.

UNESCO dismissed the Australian Government’s proposal to remove 74,000 hectares from the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area on 23 June 2014, with no member country speaking in favour of the ‘minor boundary adjustment’. The Australian Network of Environmental Defender’s Offices made a submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry into Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area recommending that the proposal to remove the area of old growth forest from the World Heritage Area be immediately withdrawn. Read the submission on the Parliament’s website.