By James Woodford
Earlier this year a friend of mine, Stuart Cohen, was invited as a volunteer for the International Union for Conservation of Nature to travel to Africa and then make his way, with rangers from the Uganda Wildlife Authority, to Mount Elgon National Park.
For the armed team that accompanied Stuart, the presence of a lone foreign filmmaker in their national park was a hugely important event and a source of great pride.
Making it even more significant they knew that Stuart was much more than a filmmaker. He was an emissary, to a gathering of park managers from around the world that will meet this week in Sydney, for their story – a daily struggle to protect an astonishing place.On Friday, the film Reaching the Peak will be launched at the World Parks Congress and we should all be chastened by the message that it conveys. It is a critical time for both land and marine parks in Australia.
We have a prime minister who is on the record as saying: “We have quite enough national parks. We have quite enough locked up forests already. In fact, in an important respect, we have too much locked up forest.”
The Abbott government has also launched a review of the marine reserve networks in Commonwealth waters and continues to allow the death by a thousand cuts of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
In NSW, the state government has granted a moratorium, allowing a noisy minority of recreational anglers the right to fish in marine sanctuaries without being prosecuted. Even the state’s treasurer, Andrew Constance, is a foe of the marine park in his electorate – the Batemans Marine Park. In South Australia, a plan to forever ban marine sanctuaries was only just narrowly defeated on the floor of that state’s parliament. And the list goes on.
Yes, Stuart’s film talks about the problems facing park managers in desperately poor countries the world over – poaching of wildlife, murder of rangers and tourists, encroachment by neighbouring villagers seeking timber for fuel and plots for their crops, the increasing tempo of climate change, and chronic under-resourcing.
But the real story from the film is one of a disadvantaged nation and people who treasure a special place and somehow strive to keep it intact. The opening line of the film comes from a young handsome ranger, Stephen Nyadru, who accompanied Stuart for the entire journey. He looks into the camera and says with his lilting accent and a passion that is utterly heartfelt: “I love this park. I really love this park.”
The team drove Stuart across their poverty-stricken, over-populated nation to the edges of Mount Elgon, the largest volcanic caldera on Earth, and then they walked to the 4,300 metre high summit, in the mist, above the rainforests on the flanks of the mountain.
Stuart, whose regular job is with the NSW office of the environment and heritage, was awed by what the Ugandan people and rangers were achieving with meagre scraps of funding, and saw the will of even the poorest of the park’s neighbours to ensure the park survived.
He came away with a message that he hopes will be delivered by his film, to all those at this week’s Congress: wealth blinds us to the natural treasures belonging to a country like Australia.
If you live in a place where you can’t feed your family if it doesn’t rain, then the behaviour of the sky and the cleanliness of the water flowing from steams exiting a national park is a matter of life and death.
We of the privileged nations are buffered from our environment by technology and money: our food is collected from supermarkets and stored in fridges, and our national parks and marine sanctuaries are seen as a luxury that we can slowly destroy through poor decisions. But as Reaching the Peak demonstrates, not all peoples are so lucky.