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The Coral Battleground, by Judith Wright.

June 2, 2014

The Coral Battleground, by Judith Wright.   Spinifex, 2014. First published, 1977.


The new edition of an inspiring account of the battle in the 1960s and 1970s to save the Great Barrier Reef from commercial degradation, written by a leader of the movement.

In 1963 the Great Barrier Reef was encountering increased threats from those wanting to use its resources for private profit. Miners wanted to take lime from the reefs to use as fertilizer, and oil companies were staking out sites to drill wells. Ordinary citizens recognized the danger and organized to fight it. Among them was Judith Wright, a poet committed to the conservation of natural beauty and resources. Another was John Brust, an artist who lived near the reef. At the time, concepts like conservation and ecology were little known or understood in Australia. In 1975, using a wide variety of activities, the group finally achieved recognition of the area as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The national government of Australia accepted responsibility for its protection. There were still fights to be won, but the groundwork had been laid for its defense. It was later named as a UN global heritage site.

Soon after the establishment of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Judith Wright wrote her account of the 12-year struggle by conservationists to achieve recognition and protection of the region. She had been president of the Wildlife Protection Society of Queensland and was in the middle of the struggles. Although she was a poet, she holds her lyricism in check in this book, writing a clear, factual account explaining what her group and their allies did on behalf of the reef. With no records from those who sought expanded commercial development, she does not try to present their side of the story. She never demonizes them, however, but records their public statements, statements that were often full of errors and were ridiculous even 50 years ago.

As Wright states, the battle to preserve the reef was as complex as the reef’s own ecosystem. It was a battle that was fought on many fronts. Political and legal realities were complicated and always shifting. When the fight began, the legal status of the reef was undecided. Did it “belong” to Queensland or to Australia or perhaps was it in international waters? This uncertainty played into the on-going struggle among Australians about states’ rights and federal control. The issue was heightened because the Premier of Queensland was deeply invested in the commercial use of the reef. He had leased the region to oil companies and was eager for them to start drilling. His province stood to gain financially if the reef was opened to drilling. The Australian Prime Minister was more sympathetic to conserving the area, but his hold on leadership was shaky. The Parliamentary form of government allowed several political parties to try to use the issue of the reef to their advantage.

Another fight centered on how little scientific information about the reef existed. Although research had been done on its particular aspects, no one understood how its various parts interacted. Ecology itself was a new concept even among scientists. One frequent proposal was that the reef be split into separate sections, some of which would be preserved while oil drilling would be allowed in others. Wright and her allies understood how destructive such a practice would be for the whole reef. Part of their struggle was to stop drilling at least until massive research could be conducted into the relationship of the reef’s various elements.

With so little understood about the reef, scientists were sharply divided about the wisdom of allowing its commercial development. Scientific groups were unwilling to take a stand against development, and individual scientists could always be found to say that commercial use could not been proven to harm the reef. Geologists were particularly eager for drilling to reveal the underground structure of the area. Many of the scientists with the most knowledge about the marine ecology were not Australians and were expensive to bring in to testify about the dangers of development.

Wright tells the story of the struggles to preserve the integrity of the reef with surprising drama. I was quickly caught up in the story and its various twists and turns. Her narrative is an important example of what it is actually like to engage in conservation struggles and of their David-and-Goliath nature. She and her allies engaged in wide-ranging projects to support their cause. They found supporters in the press and educated Australians about the risks to the Reef. They organized petition drives and polls which revealed to politicians the strong public support that existed for the preservation of Reef. They reached out globally, gathering information and support from ecological experts with experience about the affect of oil spills. With enthusiasm and energy, they sought out new allies among politicians and scientists, even gaining the support of labor unions that promised to strike if drilling proceeded. Anyone considering fighting for the environment can learn from their crusade.

When Wright wrote the original edition of this book, she was still unsure about how much good the establishment of a Marine Park would do. When the book was re-issued in 1996, she was pleased and a little surprised to see that the protection of the reef had been so successful. Repeatedly, however, she stressed that conservation battles are never completely won.

In offering a new edition of The Coral Battleground, publishers Susan Hawthorne and Renate Klein explain the relevance of Wright’s book for our world today. Along with Margaret Thorsborne, they note current threats to the reef, such as the establishment of super ports along the Queensland coast, increased ship traffic over the reef, and runoff from mainland agriculture and industry. And, of course, the Reef suffers from changes in the sea that accompany climate change. I wish they had written even more about the current dangers which are so often global, not simply Australian.

Some of the themes that Wright traces are even more important today than they were in the 1970s. Wright and her allies used the spill at San Barbara on the American coast as evidence of the dangers of drilling. Many spills later, the oil companies are still making the very same assurances that accidents, spills and blowouts are unthinkable as they seek to open new drilling in the Arctic Sea. When the Deepwater well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, BP used the same detergent, Corexit, which they proposed to use on the reef. Again it has proven to be dangerous and destructive. And they still get away with their lies.  All over the globe, governments are increasingly controlled by big industries that care more about profit than people and the destruction of irreplaceable resources. We cannot solve ecological problems solely as local issues. We need to organize and gain the political power to make the wise choices that our global survival on this planet require.

In The Coral Battleground, Judith Wright tells us how her supporters changed the political equation over the Barrier Reef. We all need to read her book and take action.  The new edition deserves an international readership which Wright never expected. As an American I would have liked some guidance in understanding what Australian readers probably already know. A few footnotes explaining Australian governance would have helped, and I craved a good map of the Great Barrier Reef. But the omission of this assistance is not reason to skip over this book. Spinifex Press is to be congratulated for reissuing The Coral Battleground. This is a book with continuing importance today.


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