Reef and Rainforest. Mission Beach Conference & Project

Thursday 3 - Saturday 5 July 2014

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Mission Beach


The building a new environmental interpretation centre.

Earlier this year Professor Iain McCalman was approached for help from a group of community environmentalists and eco-minded tourist businesses from Mission Beach. Mission Beach is a Reef community south of Cairns on the Cassowary Coast that had been devastated by two successive cyclones only four year apart.

They asked him to join a community reclamation project called ‘Turning the Tide’, that involved, among other things, building a new environmental interpretation centre.  The environmentalists wanted to rebuild their community around a story from Professor McCalman’s book , The Reef — A Passionate History.

The story described about how a local bohemian painter John Busst, in cohort with poet Judith Wright and forester Len Webb, had engendered a popular campaign to protect the Reef and Rainforest in the 1970s, which led ultimately led to their twin listing as World Heritage Nature Reserves in the early 1980s.

Many Mission Beach locals had not until now realized the extent to which their beautiful, if battered, coastal and rain forest town had been the source of the Great Barrier Reef’s most inspiring modern story. This story could, they hoped, become a source of inspiration and renewal in the aftermath of their twin catastrophes.

Thus began a relationship, collaboration and a friendship that has engaged and inspired Professor McCalman for a good deal of the last few months and will extend far into the future.

Recently, a community environmental conference-cum-workshop was held at Mission Beach and it has produced some promising and unexpected possibilities.

A small group of Professor McCalman’s history colleagues from the University of Sydney and Stanford University were the only academics involved, though the conference was partly funded through an ARC Linkage grant.  Most of the attendees were ordinary citizens or active conservationists from the local community: some indigenous, some European; some in business, some retirees; some young, some elderly.  Some were amateur scientists and ecologists, some artists, craftspeople, journalists, lawyers, business people and environmental administrators and  consultants.

The immediate purpose of the conference was practical and local: to formalize with the Queensland Wildlife Department the rescue of a lovely house at Bingil Bay in Mission Beach, from the fate of being privately sold at the instigation of the state government.

The house in question was Ninny Rise, the first cyclone proof-house in Australia, hand built in the early 1950s by the late artist and conservationist John Busst. An eight bedroom and eight bathroom bungalow with extensive grounds and a separate caretaker’s residence, it has been vacant for years and cried out to adapted for potential researcher, student and artistic use, particularly because it stands on the edge of the Wet Tropics Rainforest Heritage Area within the region containing world largest concentration of endangered cassowaries.

Ninny Rise overlooks the coastal beaches and fringing coral reefs of the Family group of Islands, one of which, Dunk, was the home of Australia’s pioneering writer, conservationist and tropical Thoreau, Ted Banfield. Uniquely this house was also the headquarters of twin conservationist campaigns, led by Busst and his colleagues, poet Judith Wright and forester, Len Webb, to save the Barrier Reef and Northern Tropical Forests from unconstrained development and resource extraction during the 1960s to 80s and to establish their successful listing as World Heritage Nature Reserves.

It had been endowed long ago to the sympathetic Queensland Wildlife  Authority, who had come under intense pressure from the state government to sell it to one of several privately wealthy individuals who coveted its prime position overlooking a sublime view of rainforest and reef. The local community had written a heritage submission, which had given the Wildlife authority a justification for obtaining heritage listing for the building and its environs.

The conference thus opened with a formal handing over of a contract passing this priceless piece of Australian heritage back to the community of Mission Beach to use as a Reef and Rainforest environmental research and arts centre.  It was a moving moment in the midst of so many recent bad times for these redoubtable Reef people.

Something still more significant may also come out of this modest conference.  Fortuitously, two people with significant policy expertise had heard about it and asked to attend. One was Adam Smith, a longtime head of the administration of the Government-appointed Great Britain Marine Park Authority, which is responsible for recommending the staggering recent decision to expand the coal ports by dredging and dumping silt into the Reef lagoon.

Adam had just quietly resigned from the Authority after decades of service in frustration at the government’s policies in order to begin a new career as a reef ecology consultant.

The other was the distinguished forest expert and scientist, Peter Hiscock AM, fresh from Dohar where his submission to UNESCO in support of preserving the tall eucalyptus forests of Tasmania in its World Heritage Park had ensured that the government’s application to have 740,000 hectares of ancient tall eucalyptus forest logged had been dismissed with contempt. In late 1989 Peter had also, when Manager of the Wet Tropics produced a forest mapping survey and a blueprint that had led to the original defining and listing of the World Heritage Northern Queensland Tropical Rainforests Reserve in that year.

Now, he too was outraged at the state and federal government’s recent erosions of environmental protections of the Reef and Rainforest.  During the workshop sessions Adam and Peter volunteered to use their scientific and social knowledge and their years of lobbying and drafting expertise pro bono, in order to draft a submission to extend the boundaries of both the Reef and Rainforest World Heritage Reserves.

The request will be that these two World Heritage reserves be extended and converged to take in Ninny Rise, its beautiful surrounds, and its priceless tangible and intangible historical heritage value as the original site and headquarters of both the Reef and Rainforest conservation campaigns of the 1970s and 80s. Peter Hiscock, who is a legendary figure at the UNESCO World Heritage Authority and knows its leaders and processes like the back of his hand, is quietly confident that the request will succeed.

If this move is successful, it will deliver a significant message to the Federal and Queensland state governments and greatly weaken their chances of unravelling two of the most important natural reserves in Australia and the world.

Professor McCalman believes the project is an example of the fact that to influence policy academics have to be ready to take their ideas outside the specialist enclaves of academe.  By working with communities, organizations, businesses and experts outside their fields and comfort zones, academics and humanists can act as moral and cultural agents. By working and collaborating with allies in non-university organizations, academics can achieve increments of public good.