A recipe for balancing northern development with environmental protection

Posted in Multi-Media, News & Publications on 08/19/14

While environmentalist and industry views about Northern Australia’s development almost completely differ, it’s difficult to see how a fair balance can be struck. Conservationist and former Canadian Liberal Party candidate Harvey Locke has spent a lifetime researching how to weigh up the interests of industry and the environment, in the United States and Canada. He suggests development should focus on centers of high value industry, while making sure ecosystems remain healthy and linked.

> Watch this short interview with, Harvey Locke, strategic advisor to The WILD Foundation & Nature Needs Half

Harvey Locke interview

JANE BARDON, REPORTER: Harvey Locke welcome to 730.
JANE BARDON: You’re basically working on a very different vision for developing or managing northern Australia, what are the key things that you’re looking for in your vision?
HARVEY LOCKE, CANADIAN CONSERVATIONIST: Northern Australia is one of the great intact systems in the world. Doesn’t mean it’s in perfect shape but it’s in awfully good shape. And there are a few places like that, we have the Boreal Forest, the Ardakan, the Rocky Mountains in Northern Canada for example in a similar condition. And I’m interested in working with people who want to think about that as a spectacular opportunity in the 21st century to do things a little differently than we’ve done before.
JANE BARDON: Are you looking at basically almost a chain of reserves or are you thinking some of this preservation of the tropical savannah for example could include some low impact grazing systems et cetera, as well for the cattle industry?
HARVEY LOCKE, CANADIAN CONSERVATIONIST: The idea would be that you would have nature reserves, like Kakadu, but also a wide variety of other areas managed for nature. They could be tribal, cattle grazing when done with the health of aquatic systems in mind can actually be a benign and compatible resource. You can even have nodes of very intense agriculture that involves transformation of eco systems, nodes of high value, high return mines or gas fields. But you would want to manage it in a way that the presumption is keeping the tropical savannah intact at the level of process. Which means protecting an awful lot of it and then having these nodes of intense activity that don’t compromise that fundamental value.
JANE BARDON: So the Northern Territory Government and the Federal Government have really set their priorities as things like, first of all dealing with agriculture, their very keen to develop our water resources for example to get as much agriculture happening as possible to feed Asia et cetera. Would that be compatible with what you’re looking at?
HARVEY LOCKE, CANADIAN CONSERVATIONIST: A little bit but if the emphasis were to take all the rivers, dam them, convert them into irrigation systems and convert the tropical savannah to cultivation, it would be fundamentally incompatible with the kind of thing that I’m suggesting might be considered by northern Australia. To do a bit of that in certain places that doesn’t compromise the function of the system would be fine but I think there’s a question here of what development means. There’s a paradigm that we’ve used in the 19th and 20th century which is progress consists of converting stuff, making it functional and exploiting it, extracting it and exporting it. I believe that progress, in certain circumstance like here, consists of leaving the system intact, functioning and honouring what it actually is already and finding ways to live wisely in that setting.
JANE BARDON: The Territories about 90 per cent under application for gas fracking for oil and gas, are there lessons that have been learned in other areas of the world that we should really keep in mind to make sure that those activities don’t damage what we have here?
HARVEY LOCKE, CANADIAN CONSERVATIONIST: The best conservation science says you should protect at least half of a natural system in an inner connected way in order to keep it functioning. So that does not exclude opportunities if there’s a very high value gas field, as long as it doesn’t pollute and those things from being in that system. But if you went to 90 per cent build out of gas across the landscape you would in fact compromise those values and you would lose something very precious.
JANE BARDON: Both the Australian and Northern Territory governments really are saying there is an imperative to grow our economy, I mean particularly in the Northern Territory we’re very reliant on tax payer funds from all the rest of Australia to fund our services, how can we balance the need to protect the environment with the need to grow that economy?
HARVEY LOCKE, CANADIAN CONSERVATIONIST: Northern Australia like other frontier settings typically will get a cash infusion from the national treasury to keep services going and then some governments say that that proves we need to develop the economy up there and get the money out it, to not be a dependence place. I think that there’s a different kind of conversation that needs to be had in that context and that is from a national perspective northern Australia is the most intact system you’ve got, so keeping it intact is in the national interest. And having support for that is in the national interest. And I think at an even higher level there’s some confusion, generally speaking we tend to hear arguments like you need a healthy economy to have a healthy environment or the economy and society and the environment need to come together in some way and looking for the sweet spot of the intersection. I frankly think that’s wrong, the environment is a context for all human life, society is the context in which humans operate, but we’re really one species among many, and the economy is inside society and the economy is there to serve society and not the other way round. So when you have social goals you want the economy to serve your social goals. The economy is not the centre of the universe, society is the centre of human affairs and the environment is actually the context for all of us. And this is what we got wrong in the 19th and 20th century, this is why the climate is changing, this is why nitrogen balance in estuaries is going bad and this is why there’s a bite of the extinction crisis. In a place like northern Australia we can get it right.
JANE BARDON: Harvey Locke thanks very much.