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Should the Great Barrier Reef be more like a corporation?

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It’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, stunningly beautiful and proudly one of a kind, yet many Australians feel that we are failing to protect the Great Barrier Reef.

That might be about to change. Efforts have begun to give the Great Barrier Reef is its own ‘legal personality’, with the Environmental Defenders’ Office of Nothern Queensland (EDO NQ) hoping to give the Reef stronger defences against environmental damage.

The move was sparked by a Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority decision to allow dredge spoil from the Abbot Point port expansion near Bowen in north Queensland to be dumped in the marine park.

If the plan succeeds, the Reef would be granted a status similar to that of a corporation and could take court action to protect itself.

Great Barrier Reef
A diver enjoys the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: AAP

Principal solicitor Fergus Power is urging people to sign a petition, to be put to Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

“Dear Mr Prime Minister, will you grant Australians an opportunity through a national referendum to actually have their say and be heard on the matter?” he said.

“Now if a large number of Australians sign that petition then that will be fairly persuasive with Government in terms of moving forward.”

According to Mr Power, it’s time we recognised that “certain natural systems are beyond human ownership”. Locations like the Reef are “worthy of protection for their own intrinsic value, including spiritual and cultural values,” he says.

The move comes after some contentious government decisions regarding the Reef, including approval by Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt of a proposal to dump dredge soil in the park area.

In addition, the ability of the community to challenge government environmental decisions was limited by cuts in federal government funding for all nine Environmental Defenders’ Offices in Australia in December last year.

This isn’t the first time the protection of the Reef has come into question. Back in June 2012 a UNESCO report threatened to list the site as “in danger” if protection efforts were not increased.

But while this is a positive step, Mr Power believes it is not the absolute solution.

“It is important to recognize that granting the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area legal personality does not give it absolute protection,” Power says.

“What it does do is give it a strengthened capacity to defend itself when placed in peril … Having a mechanism to appoint unimpeachably trustworthy international and Australian trustees to act on behalf of the World Heritage Area is central to the success of this model.”

The petition is available online at change.org.

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