Conservationist Gregory Andrews has warned Australia’s biodiversity is the “worst it’s ever been” and that the new Labor government will have to work hard to address the damage done to the environment.
As an Aboriginal Australian from D’harawal Country, Andrews feels driven to care for his country’s land and biodiversity.
He was appointed Australia’s first threatened species commissioner in 2014 and worked in the position for just more than three years, focusing on mobilising awareness and resources, and developing policies to fight 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 from 2019. Then, at the end of 2021, he decided to return home and embrace life as a full-time father and conservationist.
In the lead-up to the May election, Andrews called for action on environmental protection in Australia. The main political parties saw climate change and the environment as ‘soft issues’ rather than focal points, he said, 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 may be in terms of conservation and climate policy.
Al Jazeera: Which native species are particularly vulnerable to extinction?
Andrews: The threatened species list has about 2,500 species on it. But to give you a feel for how serious it is, Australia has 12 mammals rarer than China’s Giant Panda.
So we’re talking about things like the Mala Hare Wallaby, the Numbat, for example, and we’ve actually lost eight species of wallaby to extinction already, and 16 more are at risk.
The biodiversity story in Australia is different to other parts of the world. Because we’re a vast island continent, and we drifted up from Gondwanaland over millions of years, the animals and plants here evolved quite uniquely.
We have 78 vertebrate invasive species in Australia… and the invasive plants. [They] are causing irreparable harm to our native wildlife.
As an example, we’re the only continent on Earth, other than Antarctica, where there are no cats. There are no native cats in Australia. So as a result of that, our native animals are what the scientists call ‘predator naive’, because they didn’t have to evolve to learn to live with cats, like all of the small mammals and reptiles did in Europe, Africa, and the Americas and Asia.
Al Jazeera: What other factors have led Australia to the urgent situation it is in now?
Andrews: I think four key things have been happening. The first is that we’re seeing direct impacts of climate change in Australia, and we’ve also been undergoing a period of political denial of climate change as a problem. Climate change is a huge threat, and you know the bushfires caused by climate change two years ago wiped out nearly a third of Australia’s koalas.
The second is habitat degradation… We’ve already degraded, deforested and reduced the habitat of our wildlife significantly for farming and agriculture and urban development. If we want to keep our wildlife… we need to stop logging native forests, and we need to stop land clearing. We can afford to do that because we’re a big country and we’re a wealthy country, and we’ve got plenty of land that we can share with their native animals.
The third thing is, our institutions haven’t really been strong enough. Particularly under the Liberal National coalition, there was a lot of ‘greenwashing’ [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 an example of that.
While I’m proud of everything I achieved as the Commissioner, I wasn’t an independent commissioner with the power to criticise the government… One of the key election touchstones [in the lead-up to the election was] having an independent commission against corruption. Similarly, the threatened species commissioner needs to be independent, so she or he can actually critique government policy and outcomes…
Also the five-yearly State of the Environment Report, that report was finalised in 2021, but the government sat on it right throughout this year, we still haven’t seen it… They didn’t want people to see how bad the situation really is. But if we had stronger institutions, that would have a mandatory timeframe and… the report would have to be released on set dates.
Then the final point… we need more money [for conservation]… I know for example, the Labor Party has promised 224.5 million Australian dollars [$155m] over a number of years for its threatened species policies.
But actually Professor Hugh Possingham, who’s Australia’s leading biodiversity conservation scientist, [has] worked out… [that] with the right prioritisation frameworks, 200 million Australian dollars ($138m) a year is enough to stop extinction in Australia. That’s less than 2 percent of the fossil fuel subsidies that the government of Australia is providing… 2 percent of that would be enough to stop extinction.
Al Jazeera: In your opinion, will Labor make the changes needed to address the damage that the Australian environment has suffered?
Andrews: Labor definitely has stronger policy platforms, but not strong enough to prevent extinction and protect nature to the extent that’s needed.
So this is a major step in the right direction, but one of the things that excites me is the fact that we’ll have independents in the Senate like David Pocock and in the Lower House like Zoe Daniel and Zali Steggall and Allegra Spender, the so-called Teal Independents, and they have quite high standards for climate action, but also biodiversity conservation.
So I expect that combination of the progressive independents and the Greens and the need for Labor to negotiate with them will strengthen Australia’s biodiversity protection.
Al Jazeera: A lot of what Labor has promised with regard to the environment is led with funding, with hundreds of millions of Australian dollars pledged to threatened species and the Great Barrier Reef. How does funding translate to environmental protection?
Andrews: Funding is really important, but it’s been used as a ‘greenwashing’ exercise by governments, and particularly by the former government. Whenever they were asked, for example, about a particular species, they would just say “Oh, we’ve provided $50 million for koalas.” … Funding alone won’t fix the problem, we also need to deal with climate change and habitat degradation, and have stronger institutions.
For example, with koalas, we’re providing funding to plant more trees, but we’re chopping down the trees in the first place… it’s a wasted opportunity because if we were protecting the koalas habitat, the funding would go into things like chlamydia – koalas actually get chlamydia, and go blind… and sterile – and we would also be using the funding to educate communities about keeping their dogs on leads when they’re in koala habitat, rather than using the funding to plant trees that have been chopped down somewhere else.
Al Jazeera: You are a D’harawal man. What is the significance of biodiversity and the environment to Indigenous Australians?
Andrews: Indigenous Australians have been here for 60,000 years. So Australia has what we call the oldest continually-practised Indigenous cultures in the world, and an integral part of that is that for us, like Indigenous peoples all over the world, connection to Country (an Indigenous term to describe the Australian land and environment) is really important.
Our land and our Country, is our life and we’re part of it, and we don’t see ourselves as owners of land. We see ourselves as part of it and as custodians. We’re integrated with nature.
Al Jazeera: Given this connection to the land, how are Indigenous Australians involved in conservation efforts in Australia?
Andrews: Aboriginal Australians own or manage about 11 percent of the area of Australia, which is a huge area… On a day-to-day level, there are about 800 Indigenous rangers.
These lands, many of them are Indigenous Protected Areas, so they have the same status as national parks in terms of the responsibilities that Australia has committed to, through the United Nations, to protect [them].
Many of the healthiest populations of our most endangered species are on Aboriginal land. For example, bilbies, which are almost as rare as China’s Giant Panda, 80 percent of the world’s bilbies are actually on Aboriginal land. So Aboriginal people are out there every day, caring for Country, and it’s part of our culture, it’s part of who we are as Aboriginal people.
As an example, Kiwirrkurra Aboriginal community out in Western Australia… They look after 42,000 square kilometres (16,200 square miles) of land, which is roughly twice the size of Kakadu National Park and bigger than many countries in Europe. They’re really doing it on the smell of an oil rag with a bit of support from the Australian government through Indigenous ranger programs, and they have the healthiest population of bilbies in the world – wild bilbies are surviving and thriving on their Country, thanks to their Indigenous burning, and also their efforts hunting feral cats.
Al Jazeera: How important is environmental conservation to Australian society as a whole?
Andrews: I think the fact that the Teal candidates and candidates like David Pocock campaigned more strongly on environmental issues and did so well, is an example of how people do 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, and we named our rugby team the Wallabies, our soccer team the Socceroos, we have our animals on our money and on our coat of arms. Our animals and plants here really define us, and I think that there’s really strong community support for saving species.
Our animals and plants are unique, they’re found nowhere else on earth.
But actually, on a much more pragmatic, practical and economic level, our agriculture depends on the environment, and our human security depends on the environment, and our health depends on the environment.