Little did I realise when Yvonne Cunningham sent out her urgent call to arms to stop logging at Downey Creek that I would spend the next ten years of my life in singular, intensive and sometimes traumatic dedication to protecting the rainforest of my birthplace. My heart responded to an awful sense of loss for the last of the cathedral forests in one of the world’s most beautiful and diverse places where reefs and rainforests uniquely meet.
In 1981 Peter Raven, internationally celebrated scientist and Director of the Missouri Botanic Gardens, opened my mind to the immense global significance of these rainforests and the impact of tropical deforestation and logging on all earth’s biodiversity. Australia was a centre of survival for some of the most remarkable evolutionary radiations and ancient relict lineages of plants and animals, giving unparalleled insights into the drivers of life on earth. The loss of such a heritage was unthinkable, as was the extinction of the ‘megaflora’ as I came to call it.
Keith Scott, my husband, and I had for the previous decade become increasingly worried as a series of international reports – such as those by Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, Norman Myers and the Club of Rome – highlighted the global biodiversity crisis threatening to match all past episodes of mega-extinction. We organised two very successful Symposium on Survival events at the University of Queensland to increase awareness but it was now time to commit personally. Continuing a career in biochemistry, fascinating as it was to study life at the molecular level, was like ‘fiddling while Rome burned!’
But where to start? So many people over the ensuing years shone like beacons, lighting and pointing the way. David Allworth from the Australian Conservation Foundation, who was spearheading their Rescue the Rainforests campaign, strongly encouraged us to start our own organisation. In 1982 the Australian Rainforest Conservation Society (ARCS) was born and there was no looking back. John Sinclair, famous for saving Fraser Island, was an early mentor. The lack of real progress in the early years was initially troubling. Year after year I used to say, ‘Well, we still haven’t saved a single tree!’ The conservation movement is especially prone to burnout. High hopes and energy soon dissipate without quick success. Would I too have succumbed had I known at the outset it was a ten year journey? I have learnt that persistence and passion are key hallmarks of success. I remember asking Peter Stanton for advice. He was Regional Director of the National Parks and Wildlife Service at the time and an iconic figure who had already achieved more than most for Queensland’s biodiversity. I never forgot his words: ‘Opportunities for change come rarely. You have to recognise the windows, then run like the wind, for a second chance will be a long time coming, if ever’. It was as though the Delphic Oracle had spoken! Thereafter we put everything we could into the campaign for however long it took.
The spirit of the World Heritage Convention is one of cooperation – to do one’s utmost to ensure areas of outstanding universal value are not lost. Despite such noble goals, managing change is challenging and one can always do better. But so many from all walks of life did work together. Conservation groups united. Great scientists like Len Webb, Geoff Tracey, Jiro Kikkawa, John Winter, Mike Hopkins, Joe Connell, Peter Raven, Norman Myers and many more gave rigorous advice unstintingly.
Putting together the original report to the Australian Heritage Commission and then the final World Heritage nomination was extremely rewarding for ARCS. With each analysis and written page our amazement at this extraordinary place increased. James Thorsell (IUCN) rated the Wet Tropics in the top ten wonders of the natural world. To be in Brazilia for the final inscription by the World Heritage Committee was a privilege, especially to accompany Gough Whitlam, who originally ratified Australia’s early membership of the Convention, and Graham Richardson whose bravery and determination as Federal Environment Minister was pivotal.
For the seven years that I was a Director on the Board of the Wet Tropics Management Authority I never failed to feel profound relief and hope as I looked out over the forests from the aeroplane window when travelling to meetings. At last the forests were free to heal. Future generations could again be inspired by what ours had lost – that sense of grandeur, rarity and antiquity – and regain the humility of knowing we are but one small part of the miracle of life.
Dr Aila Keto
Aila co-authored the 1984 report on the conservation values of the tropical rainforests of north Queensland that led to the listing of the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area. She co-authored the nomination with Dr Keith Scott and is recognised for her expertise in World Heritage matters. She led the national campaign for protection and listing of the Area.
Margaret is a professional artist who has lived in the Cairns region for 20 years. For 13 years she was director of programs and lecturer in Visual Arts at James Cook University, Cairns. Her work most often addresses issues of concern to the community and has been shown in many exhibitions (www.margaretgenever.com). As the president of Kuranda Conservation Community Nursery she is deeply engaged with actions which aim to preserve the cassowary and its habitat.
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