Conservation campaigner Gregory Andrews has warned that Australia’s biodiversity is “the worst that has ever happened” and that the new Labor government will have to work hard to address the damage to the environment.
As an Aboriginal Australian from D’harawal Country, Andrews feels driven to care about his country’s land and biodiversity.
He was appointed Australia’s first Threatened Species Commissioner in 2014 and has served in this position for just over three years, focusing on mobilizing awareness and resources, and developing policies to combat extinction in Australia.
Since then, he has had a number of roles. He was Australia’s Ambassador and High Commissioner to nine countries in West Africa as of 2019. Then, at the end of 2021, he decided to return home and embrace life as a full-time father and environmental activist.
In the run-up to the May elections, Andrews called for action on environmental protection in Australia. He said the major political parties regard climate change and the environment as “soft issues” rather than focal points, but the situation is urgent.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, he discussed the state of Australia’s biodiversity and what the country’s trajectory might be in terms of conservation policy and climate.
The island: What native species are particularly vulnerable to extinction?
Andrews: I List of threatened species It has about 2500 species. But to give you an idea of how dangerous it is, Australia has 12 mammals that are even rarer than the giant pandas of China.
So we’re talking about things like Mala Hare Wallaby, and numbatFor example, we have already lost eight species of wallaby to extinction already, and another 16 species are in danger.
Australia’s biodiversity story is different from other parts of the world. Since we are a vast island continent, and have drifted from Gondwanaland over millions of years, the fauna and flora have evolved here quite uniquely.
We have 78 species of invasive vertebrates in Australia…and invasive plants. [They] They cause irreparable harm to our native wildlife.
For example, we are the only continent on Earth, other than Antarctica, where there are no cats. There are no indigenous cats in Australia. As a result, our native animals are what scientists call a “naive predator,” because they didn’t have to evolve to learn to live with cats, as all the small mammals and reptiles in Europe, Africa, the Americas and Asia did.
The island: What other factors have led Australia to the urgent situation it is in now?
Andrews: I think there are four main things going on. The first is that we are seeing direct effects of climate change in Australia and we are also going through a period of political denial of climate change as a problem. Climate change is a huge threat, and you know that bushfires caused by climate change two years ago wiped out nearly a third of Australian koalas.
The second is habitat degradation… We’ve already done degradation, deforestation and dramatically reduce our wildlife habitat for agriculture, agriculture and urban development. If we want to conserve our wildlife…we need to stop cutting down trees in native forests, and we have to stop clearing land. We can afford to do this because we are a big country and we are a rich country, and we have a lot of land that we can share with their native animals.
The third thing is that our institutions were not strong enough. Under the National Liberal Alliance in particular, there has been a lot of “green bleaching” [the process of conveying a false impression about how environmentally sound an organisation’s policies are] And the Threatened Species Commissioner, you could argue, is a case in point.
While I am proud of all that I have achieved as a commissioner, I was not an independent commissioner with the power to criticize the government…one of the main axes of the elections [in the lead-up to the election was] Existence of an independent anti-corruption body. Likewise, the Commissioner for Threatened Species must be independent, so that he can criticize government policy and its consequences…
And also the five-year state of the environment report, that report was completed in 2021, but the government sat on it all this year, and we still haven’t seen it… they didn’t want people to see how bad the situation really was. But if we have stronger institutions, that will have a mandatory time frame and … the report has to be released on specific dates.
Then the last point… we need more money [for conservation]…I know for example, Labor has promised A$224.5 million [$155m] Over a number of years of endangered species policies.
But actually Professor Hugh Busingham, Australia’s leading biodiversity conservationist, [has] I practiced… [that] With the right prioritization frameworks, A$200 million ($138 million) annually is enough to halt extinction in Australia. That’s less than the 2 per cent of the Australian government’s fossil fuel subsidy… 2 per cent of that would be enough to stop the extinction.
The island: In your opinion, will Labor make the necessary changes to address the damage done to the Australian environment?
Andrews: The business certainly has stronger political platforms, but it is not strong enough to prevent extinction and protect nature to the extent required.
This is a big step in the right direction, but one of the things that I’m excited about is the fact that we’re going to have independents in the Senate like David Pocock and in the House like Zoe Daniel and Zallie Stegal and Allegra Spender, so-called Teal Independents, who have very high standards for climate action, but also Preserving biodiversity.
So I expect that the combination of the Independent Progressives and the Greens and the need for Labor to negotiate with them will advance the protection of biodiversity in Australia.
The island: Much of what Labor has promised for the environment comes from funding, with hundreds of millions of Australian dollars being pledged for threatened species and the Great Barrier Reef. How does financing translate into environmental protection?
Andrews: Funding is really important, but it has been used as a “greenwash” by governments, especially by the previous government. When they are asked, for example, about a particular species, they will just say “Oh, we gave 50 million dollars to the koala.” …Finance alone will not solve the problem, we also need to deal with climate change and habitat degradation, and have stronger institutions.
For example, with koalas, we provide funding to plant more trees, but we cut down trees in the first place… It’s a missed opportunity because if we’re protecting the koala’s habitat, the funding will go to things like chlamydia — koalas actually get chlamydia, they go blind. …and sterilize — and we will also use the funding to educate communities about keeping their dogs ahead of customers when they are in the koala habitat, rather than using the funding to plant trees that have been felled elsewhere.
The island: You are a Dharwal man. How important is biodiversity and the environment to Indigenous Australians?
Andrews: The Australian aborigines have been here for 60,000 years. So Australia has what we call the oldest continuously practiced Aboriginal cultures in the world, and an integral part of that for us, like Aboriginal peoples all over the world, is the connection to the state (an Aboriginal term to describe the Australian land and environment) that’s really important.
Our land and our country is our life and we are part of it and we do not consider ourselves owners of land. We see ourselves as part of it and as guardians. We are integrated with nature.
The island: Given this connection to the land, how do Indigenous Australians participate in conservation efforts in Australia?
Andrews: Indigenous Australians own or manage about 11 percent of Australia’s area, which is a huge area… On a daily level, there are about 800 Aboriginal rangers.
These are lands, many of which are Aboriginal protected areas, so they have the same status as national parks in terms of responsibilities that Australia, through the United Nations, has committed to protecting. [them].
Many of the healthiest groups of the most endangered species are found on Indigenous lands. For example, blebbi, which is as rare as the giant panda in China, 80 percent of the world’s blebbi are actually on indigenous lands. So the indigenous people are there every day, they care about the country, it’s part of our culture, it’s part of our identity as an indigenous people.
For example, the Kiwirrkurra Aboriginal community in Western Australia…take care of 42,000 square kilometers (16,200 sq mi) of land, which is nearly twice the size of Kakadu National Park and larger than many countries in Europe. They really do it with the smell of a piece of cloth with a little bit of support from the Australian government through it Indigenous rangers programsand they have the healthiest group of belbis in the world – wild birds live and thrive in their country, thanks to their burning aborigines, as well as their efforts to hunt feral cats.
The island: How important is environmental conservation to the Australian community as a whole?
Andrews: I think the fact that Teal candidates and candidates like David Pocock have campaigned more aggressively on environmental issues and done a good job, is an example of how people care about the environment, and protecting the environment can win votes in democracies.
We have a kangaroo on the tail of our national airline Qantas, we name our rugby team the Wallabies, our soccer team is Socceroos, we have our animals on our money and on our coat of arms. Our animals and plants here really know us, and I think there is strong support from the community to save the species.
Our animals and plants are unique, found nowhere else on earth.
But in fact, on a more realistic, practical and economical level, our agriculture depends on the environment, our human security depends on the environment, and our health depends on the environment.