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Biodiversity: Birds of a feather…flock together!

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Nick G.

The preservation of biological diversity is a matter of extreme significance for the future of planet Earth.  As such, it must have the absolute commitment of socialists and other progressive people.

Biodiversity is the condition for the existence of life on Earth.  The connectedness of all things creates a chain reaction of loss when any one element is removed from the living environment.

In the past, this point was not sufficiently understood by Communists.  Mistakes were made in the development of socialism in those countries where the people had assumed state power.

A mechanical and one-sided view whereby Nature was to be “conquered” by the unleashing of the forces of production under socialism led to irreparable damage in some countries. The dialectics of the relationship between people and the environment was poorly understood.

It may surprise some to know that Stalin is getting belated recognition in bourgeois circles for his leadership in reafforestation, water conservancy and attempts to control climate warming (see Stephen Brain’s Song of the Forest: Russian Forestry and Stalinist Environmentalism, 1905-1953).

Marxist-Leninists have the ability to learn from their own mistakes and appreciate what Marx and Engels wrote about the dialectical unity between humanity and nature. Engels warned us not to “flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory, nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first."

Marx expressed the view that only in a classless communist society will the “humanization of nature” and the “naturalization of humans” come to their relative completion.

Birds -  and why we love them

For a great many people – especially those living in urban concentrations of population – the bird is the one point of daily contact with natural wildlife. A New Holland Honeyeater in a backyard bird bath, a Magpie glimpsed from the window of a train on the way to work -  birds connect us to Nature.

The use of canaries in underground coal mines to detect poisonous gases is known to most.  Today, birds play the same role for the planet as a whole.  The extinction or threatened extinction of a bird species is cause for immediate environmental concern.  The loss of a species could result in unchecked spread of weeds whose seeds are no longer eaten, and explosions in insect numbers once the prey of the birds.  Birds have a role to play in the pollination of a great many plants. The plants themselves support other life forms.  It is all related.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film notwithstanding, birds are regarded with affection and fascination.  Perhaps it is the freedom of most species to fly: something humans are still reliant on mechanical or other supports to achieve. Migratory birds are held in special awe: each year millions of them fly from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern and back again.  One tiny bird was tracked in 2008 flying 11,680 kilometres from Alaska to New Zealand in just nine days.  And some of us drive, rather than walk, to the local shop! (The energy requirement for this flight is equivalent to that of a human running at 70 kilometres an hour, continuously, for more than seven days.  Along the way, these birds burn up huge stores of fat—more than 50 percent of their body weight—that they gain before they set off, and they even shrink their digestive organs.)

It is no wonder then that so many Australians are protective of our birdlife. Nor is it any wonder that more often than not, birds and their human defenders face off against the forces of private profit and their allies in state and federal governments.

Bayswater Wetlands saved by community action

Take the case of the Bayswater wetlands in Western Australia. The local council spent over $3 million to rejuvenate the Eric Singleton Bird Sanctuary in 2015-16.  They put in nutrient stripping areas, planted 170,000 native plants, and were attracting wildlife back into the area.  The sanctuary would prevent almost 40 tonnes of sediment and rubbish, 1.3 tonnes of nitrogen and 200 kilograms of phosphorus from entering the Swan River each year. 

However, land abutting the sanctuary, which was privately owned, was approved for subdivisions involving 27 houses and 33 apartments by the WA Planning Commission in 2016.  On July 12, without warning, the developers moved in their bulldozers and started knocking down 100-year old stands of Melaleuca trees.

The residents gathered in protest, organised email petitions to the WA government and organised a rally outside the offices of the WA Planning Minister. On July 29, the Minister announced a temporary halt to the bulldozing.  A nine-month campaign against the developers followed, during which documents released under Freedom of Information showed planning approvals were issued and clearing begun based on half-complete environmental reports. 

Victory came in October 2017 when Bayswater Council purchased the disputed area of land, saying in a press release that they had removed “the threat posed by private development.”

Carnaby’s Black Cockatoo

Carnaby’s Black Cockatoo is not seen outside south-western Western Australia, although it has cousins interstate such as the Glossy Black Cockatoo and the Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo. Their numbers around Perth have more than halved in recent years and are declining at a rate of about ten percent per annum.

Large-scale clearing for agriculture in the Western Australian Wheatbelt has removed or fragmented much of the bird's original breeding habitat, and ongoing clearing for urban development on the Swan Coastal Plain is greatly reducing the extent of its feeding habitat. The birds also suffer when old nesting hollows are removed, often for firewood. These hollows can take decades to form and, due to clearing, there is now considerable competition for the limited hollows that remain.

To adjust to the destruction of their traditional habitat, the Carnaby’s took to feeding in the Gnangara-Yanchep-Pinjar pine plantation, a commercial plantation of non-native species. In 2002, the WA government entered into a logging deal with Wesbeam, a manufacturer of Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL) used in flooring, joists, timber beams and other products.  The decision was made not to replace the logged plantation timber, partly to reduce the demand on water from the Gnangara Mound — which is located under the plantations — which provides approximately 30 per cent of Perth's drinking water each year.

A massive campaign developed to save the Black Cockatoos.  Petitions with 20,000 signatures were delivered to politicians; the World Wildlife Fund called for pine harvesting to be stopped until there is agreement on how to properly address habitat loss for Carnaby's cockatoos.  Appeals to federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenburg to intervene fell on deaf ears. At the time of writing, the campaign to save the Carnaby’s is ongoing.

Tassie’s Swift Parrots

The critically endangered Swift Parrot has two enemies: logging companies destroying their habitat, and introduced sugar gliders that get into their nests and eat their young. The latter are being controlled by the construction of 100 solar-panelled gated nest boxes to protect the parrots from hungry sugar gliders. Money for the boxes - $40,000 - was raised within hours of the release of a crowd-funding appeal.
Controlling logging is a more difficult matter as anyone familiar with Tasmanian politics can attest.

As part of the 2013 forestry peace deal a moratorium was placed on the logging of 356,000 hectares of native forest, including more than 12,000 hectares of Critically Endangered Swift Parrot habitat. The beneficiaries were to be the rebranded government-owned forestry company, Sustainable Timber Tasmania and a private company Reliance Forest Fibre. Sustainable Timber Tasmania commenced on 1 July 2017. A few months later it was announced that 29,000 hectares of hardwood forest plantations were to be sold for $60.7 million to Reliance Forest Fibre with a 99-year lease on the land.

Reliance Forest Fibre is a new enterprise owned by investment funds advised by Global Forest Partners (GFP) LP. Global Forest Partners is an international forest investment advisory firm with approximately 700,000 ha of timberland across the globe under management, valued at around $3.7 billion. It was only registered in July 2017, with ASIC documents showing its holding company Global Forest Partners LP has links offshore. The Greens revealed further that the parent company “is based in a tax haven in the Cayman Islands” – just the sort of people to be concerned about the survival of an obscure little parrot!

In March 2017, the Tasmanian government introduced legislation to reverse the moratorium agreed in the 2013 peace deal.  A huge outcry arose.  The voice of protest was loud and clear: Tasmanians did not want the Swift Parrot to become extinct on their watch. Eventually, on June 21, the Upper House rejected the legislation.  It was a victory, but it was immediately followed by the Sustainable Timber deal with Global Forest Partners, leading a Birdlife Australia spokesperson to declare that “While we’re pleased to see this bill defeated, the fight is far from over. To safeguard the future of Swifties, we must protect all remaining critical habitat, especially breeding habitat.”

Bristlebirds win a reprieve

The Eastern Bristlebird is Endangered in New South Wales, where it occurs in two disjunct populations: one inhabits the northern ranges and coast, with the other further south in the Illawarra and South Coast. An important part of its habitat is at Jervis Bay, a Commonwealth-administered Territory south of Sydney.

Bird-lovers were dismayed to discover early in 2017 that an 11-hectare patch of prime shrubby heathland adjacent to the Jervis Bay National Park was to be auctioned off in May. Forming part of the Jervis Bay Key Biodiversity Area, it had been estimated that the immediate area supports 10 per cent of the region’s population of Bristlebirds.

BirdLife Shoalhaven and community activists lobbied the NSW State Government for the land to be withdrawn from sale, recommending that it be incorporated into the adjacent national park—and they were successful. The government purchased the parcel of land to expand the national park, thus preserving an important piece of the jigsaw that is necessary to protect the declining population of Bristlebirds.

Toondah Harbour: Labor’s gift to the Walker Corporation

Toondah Harbour in Queensland’s Moreton Bay, just north of Brisbane, is an area protected under the internationally recognised Ramsar Convention to protect wetlands. It is the feeding ground for a number of wading birds including the critically endangered Far Eastern Curlew and the Great Knot. The Ramsar Agreement, signed by Australia, prohibits the reclamation of any part of a Ramsar site unless for “urgent national interests” (clause 2.5 Ramsar Agreement).

The proposal to dredge and "reclaim" protected wetlands for a high-rise development and private marina by Australia’s largest private, diversified property development company, the Walker Corporation, began under the Newman Government. Labor was expected to dump the proposal, but instead expanded the number of proposed units from 800 to 3,600. 

The Walker Corporation has been a major donor to both Liberal and Labor over many years.  That’s how business gets done when you are big and powerful.  Last year, Walker gave $200,000 to the federal Liberal Party and $23,000 in three separate instalments to the Queensland Labor Party. Walker Group/Corp paid ZERO income tax over the last three corporate tax years on total earnings over $1 billion, including $477 million last year. It also has a poor environmental history, with a number of offences committed.

The Labor backflip has astounded traditional Labor supporters. Callen Sorensen – Karklis, a Quandamooka Noonucle salt water person, a loyal union member and Labor Party activist, wrote to Premier Anna Palaszczuk on 21 October 2017, saying “Sadly I resigned from the party this October because I believe until the QLD branch of the party works out its moral compass on issues like Adani and Toondah I cannot remain active as a member.”  This is not an isolated view amongst Labor rank-and-file.

Defending the area’s birdlife, community activists are united in the belief that publicly-owned foreshore land and protected Moreton Bay wetlands should not be handed over to a property developer to generate private profit.

Adani – enemy of our birds

The Queensland Labor and federal Coalition governments are also lining up behind the proposed Adani coalmine. As if there were not reason enough to oppose this project, the mine will destroy habitat crucial to the survival of the Endangered Southern Black-throated Finch.

In a damning report submitted to Federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg on July 14, 2017, the Black-throated Finch Recovery Team—charged with safeguarding this Endangered species—describes a fundamentally flawed offset plan that will have grave consequences for the future of this bird.

“Adani’s Carmichael mine will destroy a large part of the best remaining habitat for the Black-throated Finch, in an area that is home to a significant proportion of the largest known population,” said Dr Tony Grice, Chair of the Black-throated Finch Recovery Team.

“Losing this rich habitat would be a major blow to the chances of this bird surviving.”

There continues to be an ongoing campaign to save this finch.

Helena and Aurora Ranges battle

Another area where bird enthusiasts and mining interests have been in conflict is the Helena and Aurora Ranges to the west of Perth.  Volunteer-led bird surveys of the area have revealed that 111 species of birds occur there, making it the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the Great Western Woodlands, an unbroken stretch of woodland much larger than England. The ranges are remnants of a landscape dating back more than 2.6 billion years, making them one of the most ancient landforms on earth.

In September 2017, the Australian Geographic magazine noted that “In recent years the Helena Aurora Range has also been the target of mining companies hoping to extract iron ore from the region. So far, the EPA has blocked all proposed mining projects.”

Jenita Enevoldsen, WA State Director of The Wilderness Society said that “This is the second time the EPA has recommended against these two proposed mines, within two years. With around 40 years of scientific recommendations for permanent protection and 1,500 community submissions rejecting the proposed mines, the future protection of the range needs to be secured.”

A victorious outcome was reached last December when the State government announced that it would uphold the EPA’s recommendations.  BirdLife Australia said it was “delighted by the announcement that the ancient landscape, home to unique biodiversity, will be protected from mining and that investigations are underway to recognise the magnificent natural values by declaring the area a Class A Nature Reserve…. This outcome is the result of the sustained work over many years by many people, including Traditional Owners, scientists and naturalists, current and former members of Parliament, local residents, artists, and conservation and recreation groups.”

Abbott’s Booby under threat

Meanwhile mining interests are threatening two birds on Christmas Island.  Abbott’s Booby is thought to be one of the most ancient seabirds. Its ancestors lived among dinosaurs over 60 million years ago! Abbott's Boobies can travel up to 400 kilometres to surrounding feeding grounds, but always return home to Christmas Island to breed in the rainforest canopy. The Christmas Island Frigatebird is well-known for its extraordinary wingspan and ornamental red throat which males inflate and drum to entice females to breed. Like the Abbott’s Booby, Christmas Island Frigatebirds depend on the rainforest canopy to nest and raise their young.

Clearing of forests for phosphate mining threatens both birds. The ecosystem cannot recover from phosphate mining.  After the rainforest is cleared, the soil is dug up and exported, leaving vast barren scars in the landscape. Over 25% of the island has already been cleared for mining activities. To make matters worse, mining facilitates the spread of invasive species into the remaining pristine rainforest.
At the time of writing this remains an ongoing campaign issue.

International cooperation essential for migratory birds’ survival.

The millions of migratory birds that make Australia and New Zealand home for part of each year cannot survive unless the nations through which they migrate cooperate to preserve habitat areas.  Various coastal regions in Australia are now under protection.  A number of wetlands are Ramsar-protected.  The Coorong in South Australia is one such area.  However, the Coorong is dependent on water flows from the Murray-Darling river system and no amount of Ramsar-accreditation will save it if corporate water theft continues in the upper reaches of the rivers.

A good example of community cooperation is the Adelaide International Bird Sanctuary National Park encompassing the coastal lands of the Adelaide Plains.  Over 3 years more than 30,000 people have been consulted about, and have contributed to, a management plan for the sanctuary.  Leadership has come from the traditional owners, the Kaurna, who have given the sanctuary the name Winaityinaityi Pangkara (pronounced Wee-nay-chi-nay-chi pan-ker-a) that in Kaurna means 'country belonging to all birds'.

Many of the birds coming to the sanctuary are from Siberia, Korea and China.  Aggressive development in Eastern Asia – reclamation of coastal tidal flats in particular – has dramatically reduced bird numbers.  Around 70% of the intertidal mudflats in this region have disappeared and much of the remaining 30% is under threat. If the current trajectory continues, the Yellow Sea will become a global epicentre for extinction.

In January 2018, the Chinese government, responding to international and domestic concerns for the future of migratory birds, announced the following four measures:

First, the government plans to “nationalise reclaimed land with no structures built on it and will halt reclamation projects that have yet to be opened and are against national policies.”

Second, all structures built on illegally reclaimed land and that have “seriously damaged the marine environment” will be demolished.

Third, “the central government will stop approving property development plans based on land reclamation and will prohibit all reclamation activities unless they pertain to national key infrastructure, public welfare or national defence”.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly in terms of the future of China’s east coast, “local authorities will no longer have the power to approve reclamation projects”.

The Australian Government is aware of its obligations, but puts the interests of investors and corporations above all else.  It had had planned to redirect 70 gigalitres of water — water that had been earmarked for environmental flows to maintain the health of the river system — and make it available to irrigators in New South Wales and Queensland instead. This would have dramatically reduced the habitat quality of the Macquarie Marshes for waterbirds, including the Endangered Australasian Bittern.  Intense lobbying of Senators saw a disallowance motion passed that blocked the Government’s threat to birdlife in and around the Marshes.

Twitchers R Us

Once the butt of jokes in English comedy, the avid birdwatcher or “twitcher” is no longer the eccentric oddball, but a conscious defender of the natural environment. Certainly, leading birdwatching organisations such as BirdLife Australia command enormous support and have vast volunteer armies ready to organise against property developers and mining giants.  However, they are not firmly embedded in the working class and tend to favour parliamentary forms of redress for their grievances.

Communists should not be indifferent to bird and other wildlife protection.  We must show that we are serious about protecting biological diversity against the exploitation and destruction of profit-motivated harmful practices. We should try to raise the consciousness of those fighting for biological diversity to a consciously anti-capitalist and pro-socialist level.

We highly recommend Stefan Engel’s excellent book Catastrophe Alert! What is to be done against the willful destruction of the unity of humanity and nature? (reviewed here ) for its refreshingly new Marxist-Leninist approach to environmental policy and practice.


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