Australians love “the reef”, but few really know what these words stand for: the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (GBRWHA).

It was an artist and a poet (John Buust and Judith Wright) who first “saw” and fought for the entirety of the planet’s largest living coral reef, lagoon and coastal system.  That battle was fought and won forty years ago on the new principle of ecology, a remarkable achievement given the lack of scientific information of the day.

To Buust, Wright and Len Webb (the scientist who shared and supported their vision and campaigned with them), the whole was obvious. Perhaps it had been a good thing that the reductionist science beloved of today’s governments had not yet flourished, not to mention the pseudo-science that is now used to support obviously harmful activities by demanding proof of harm in the minute particular.

When it comes to aesthetic value the harm is generally all too obvious – at least to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.  Although we commonly separate “natural” from “aesthetic” value, the World Heritage Convention makes no such distinction: “… natural features … which are of outstanding universal value from the aesthetic or scientific point of view” (Article 2).

In a World Heritage area listed for its natural values, aesthetic value is described by the formal properties of the natural features and processes – colour, shape, pattern, complexity, size; pitch, timbre, rhythm, volume; sharp, smooth, rough; etc – hence it depends entirely on the integrity of the area.  Thus beauty has so often protected the natural world when nothing else could.

The formal descriptions of the GBRWHA by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and of the Hinchinbrook Region (Valentine, 1994) speak first of beauty. Both refer to size: UNESCO refers to the visibility from space of the pattern of the barrier reefs; Valentine refers to the Hinchinbrook Region’s great length of undeveloped shore line, implicitly acknowledging that much of the GBRWHA’s aesthetic value depends on its spectacular, undeveloped coastlines. It is not just about coral.  In the Hinchinbrook-Cardwell example, the natural or aesthetic value of the coastline included its gradation from the repeated dense patterns of the Hinchinbrook Channel mangroves to the lighter colours of the calophyllum trees screening the village of Cardwell curving all the way round Rockingham Bay and grading into the silver-greyish tones of coastal melaleucas to the distant but prominent Meunga Creek estuary and the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area coast.  One cannot stand in one spot at ground level and see it all, just as one cannot stand in one spot (other than in space) and view the extent of the coral reef system. World Heritage aesthetic value is not about capturing selected parts to make an attractive picture; it is about the integrity of natural features and processes.

The first kilometre-long and obvious interruption to the Hinchinbrook-Cardwell coastal vista was the loss of dense fringing mangroves to starkly inappropriate, exotic coconut trees marking that implant “Port Hinchinbrook”. Immediately below this line-up of gangly, out-of-place weeds, the cleared and constantly eroding foreshore is topped with obviously artificial and failing rock walls and blocky, unscreened suburban houses with their crumbling shore-side infrastructure.  This ugly interpolation in the longer vista also truncates by some kilometres the special visual beauty of the Hinchinbrook Channel itself.

The second insult to the undeveloped coastline was the recent rebuilding of the Bruce Highway at Cardwell; the determination of successive state governments to maintain a national highway on a frontal dune of a cyclone coast. “Land” was raised behind a new rock seawall to support a new, wider, Bruce Highway.  On the seafront where the ancient calophyllums had once been allowed to spawn youngsters for continued foreshore protection, people fought to keep any trees at all.  Despite a row of trees still standing there will be no more natural recruitment and no more foreshore. The remaining trees have been preserved as a row of isolates behind the new seawall.

How will UNESCO assess its future? Is this coast still a unique or rare example of such natural beauty that is worthy of World Heritage listing? Does it still contribute to the OUV of the GBRWHA? How much loss of value and integrity can a World Heritage area sustain before it drops off the World Heritage list altogether? Seawalls and concrete are becoming the norm along the Far North Queensland coast. Will one of these incremental losses of beauty be the last straw for a portion of the GBRWHA?

It is worth remembering that it was the outraged sensibilities of poets and artists who first sought the formal protection of the great ecosystem we know as the GBRWHA. Often overlooked in making submissions because proponents refer only to scenic amenity (a changeable local cultural value), aesthetic value is nevertheless obvious.  It is hard to argue that a squashed fly on the face of the Mona Lisa enhances the view. It is hard to argue that inshore corals smothered by dredge spoil are not a loss to the aesthetic value of that area.

Aesthetic value has not been systematically assessed for the GBRWHA as a whole. It may be true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; but for a World Heritage area listed for its natural value, the only beauty that counts is what is inherent in its natural features and processes; and it is always worth fighting for.

Pan 1 DSCN7986 cr2 sm ed Margaret Moorhouse

Margaret Moorhouse