Reef and rainforest: the Mission Beach conference and project

Our co-director Iain McCalman reflects on his recent on his Mission Beach experience

Image by Christian Haugen

A few months ago I was approached for help from a group of community environmentalists and eco-minded tourist businesses at Mission Beach, a Reef community south of Cairns on the Cassowary Coast that had been devastated by two successive cyclones only four year apart.

They asked me to join a community reclamation project called ‘Turning the Tide’, that involved, among other things, building a new environmental interpretation centre. They told me that they wanted to rebuild their community around a story I had told in my book, The Reef — A Passionate History.

The story describes 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 to their twin listing as World Heritage Nature Reserves in the early 1980s.

They had not until now realised the extent to which their beautiful, if battered, coastal and rainforest 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 me for a good deal of the last few months and will extend far into the future. I would like to describe briefly how a community environmental conference-cum-workshop that we held just a few days ago at Mission Beach has produced some unexpected possibilities. A small group of history colleagues from the University of Sydney and Stanford University were the only academics involved, though I also contributed to its funding through an ARC Linkage grant.

Most of the attendees, however, 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.

Our immediate purpose was practical and local: to formalise with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service 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. This 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 the world largest concentration of increasingly endangered cassowaries. The house overlooks the coastal beaches and fringing coral reefs of the Family group of Islands, one of which, Dunk Island, was the home of Australia’s pioneering nature writer, conservationist and tropical Romantic, Ted Banfield.

Ninney Rise, 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 throughout the 1960s to 80s. This campaign eventually resulted in the successful listing of the Reef and Northern Rainforest areas as World Heritage Nature Reserves.

The house had been endowed long ago to the sympathetic Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, who, under their splendid head, James Newman, maintained it and the surrounding gardens, even while coming under intense pressure to sell it as an ‘uneconomic asset’. Encouraged, the Friends of Ninney Rise then produced a powerful case for obtaining Queensland heritage listing for the building and its environs.

Our conference at Ninney Rise thus opened with James Newman formally handing over a contract to the Mission Beach community, thus passing this priceless piece of Australian heritage back to those who plan to transform it into a community 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 our 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 huge amounts of silt into the Reef lagoon. Adam had just quietly resigned from the Authority after decades of service in order to begin a new career as a reef ecology consultant.

The other key attendant was the distinguished forest manager and scientist, Peter Hitchcock AM, fresh from success at Dohar, where his submission to UNESCO had exposed the duplicity of the government’s application to have 740,000 hectares of tall eucalyptus forest withdrawn from the Tasmanian Forest World Heritage Reserve and opened up to logging.

In late 1989 Peter had produced a forest mapping survey and a blueprint that had led to the original defining and listing of the Tropical Rainforests of Northern Queensland, which he had subsequently managed for seven years. Now, he too was outraged at the state and federal government’s recent erosions of environmental protections of the World Heritage Listed Great Barrier Reef.

During our workshop sessions Adam and Peter volunteered to put their scientific and social knowledge and their years of lobbying and drafting expertise at our disposal, pro bono, in order to draft a submission to extend the boundaries of both the Reef and Rainforest World Heritage Reserves.

We will request that these two World Heritage Listed areas 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 Hitchcock, a legendary figure at the UNESCO World Heritage Council, is quietly confident that we will succeed.

If we do succeed, it would deliver a significant environmental message to the Federal and Queensland state governments and greatly weaken their chances of unravelling and exploiting two of the most beautiful and ecologically important natural reserves in the world.

I suppose the message I’d like to convey here is obvious. If we want as academics to influence vital social policy we have to be ready to take our ideas outside the specialist enclaves of academe. We have to embrace working with communities, organisations, businesses and experts outside our local fields and our usual comfort zones.

We are not simply helpless and despised humanists, blown by the gastric winds of toxic governments, we are moral and cultural agents and expert researchers and communicators, who in collaboration with allies in non-university organisations, can achieve increments of public good.

Iain McCalman a Research Professor of History at the University of Sydney, and Co-Director of the Sydney Environment Institute, has established a national and international reputation as an historian of science, culture and the environment whose work has influenced university scholars and students, government policy makers and broad general publics around the world. In addition to his considerable achievements as an undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate teacher he has published fourteen scholarly books with leading academic and trade presses, and dozens of peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. In 2007 Iain was awarded the Officer of the Order of Australia for Services to History and the Humanities. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, and the Australian Academy of the Humanities.