In April the Australian Government pledged AUS$500 million dollars (US $380 million) to save the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Even for such a vast wonder of the world, that sounded like a serious commitment to saving easily the largest reef system on the planet. Unfortunately, the allocation process raises doubts about how well the money will be spent.
It's hard to overstate the GBR's importance. Coral reefs contain 32 percent of the world's known marine biodiversity. The GBR is not only much larger than any other reef system, but belongs to a nation wealthy enough to be able to invest in preserving it, against the many threats devastating reefs worldwide. Few other reefs share this privilege.
If the GBR can't survive, it is hard to imagine which reefs will. On the other hand, if the GBR is saved, it could become a seedbank from which many other coral reefs can be restored, making the announcement global news. Since then, however, details have emerged that cast the funding in a less happy light.
Two weeks after the announcement, independent investigative journalist Michael West noted only 11 percent ($56 million) of the money would go to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the body charged with the protection of the reef since 1975.
The other $444 million has been designated for the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, although apparently no agreement has been signed. The Foundation has an annual budget of $8-10 million and six full-time and five part-time staff, probably not adequate to manage so much money.
When West asked about its origins he was told it was founded by four businessmen who did not want to be named. The Foundation's “Chairman's Panel” lists a wide range of companies, including many of the largest polluters in Australia, and indeed the world – ie those who are have done the most to put reefs into crisis.
Some of these, such as Qantas, are probably genuinely concerned about saving the reef, for tourism if nothing else. Some leading research institutions are also included. Other companies listed, however, include those that have led the charge against action on climate change, and indeed on other environmental issues, sabotaging attempts to save the reef at every turn.
Still, arguably the Foundation's ideas to save the GBR should be judged on their merits. Except, it's not clear what those are. Under grilling at the Senate Estimates Committee, it emerged the money was granted without a tender process or any evidence the foundation would spend it wisely. Plans are reportedly vague beyond controlling crown-of-thorns starfish and improving water quality. The Queensland Government was not consulted before the decision was made.
The Foundation was reported in parliament as describing getting the money “like winning lotto.”