Wave of collaboration building for Great Barrier Reef

Rural Press Club president Trent Thorne, guest speaker Ruth Wade and Rural Press Club vice-president Neroli Roocke.
Rural Press Club president Trent Thorne, guest speaker Ruth Wade and Rural Press Club vice-president Neroli Roocke. Andrea Davy

THE issue of protecting the Great Barrier Reef is as widespread and sprawling as the ecosystem's 2600- kilometre area.

So far the debate has been complex, emotive and worldwide-headline-making material.

For farmers making their livelihood along the coast, the topic has been raw and personal.

Despite investment and rapid participation in Best Management Practice systems, many feel as though they have become the scapegoat for all the reef's problems.

With so much being done and said, why has this issue not been put to bed?

Enter new Reef Alliance chairwoman Ruth Wade.

For 35 years she has been a rural industry advocate, and now she is leading the charge in a revamped initiative that is pulling farmers, governments and even green groups together to work collectively on fixing the reef's issues.

Ms Wade addressed the Rural Press Club to share her thoughts on what needs to be done to save the reef, and why systems in the past seem to have failed.

"I will not accept that we can't have a healthy reef and thriving agricultural communities in reef catchments areas,” she said.

Ms Wade believes there needs to be a shift in the public perception of farmers.

"If all they ever hear is 'you are vandals, you are killing the reef' it's very difficult to get them to engage in a constructive way,” she said.

Sitting among the packed crowd at the Tattersall's Club luncheon was cane farmer and Innisfail Canegrowers chairman Joe Marano.

He summed up the feeling of blame cast on farmers in one word: "frustrating”.

For every $1 the government contributed to BMP programs, farmers' invested about $1.80, he said.

However, according to Ms Wade, shift among the farming community was also needed.

"Farmers don't have a good record of sharing data, so often their achievements are not visible outside of their own industry.

"Sharing of data is a sensitive and challenging issue for all of our industry.

"But industry must put in place systems to allow data to be shared and verified.

"We cannot ask governments, and the general public, to trust us if we do not produce the evidence.”

Ms Wade was a straight-shooter in her passionate presentation. Everyone, including governments, contributed to the reef's decline, she said.

"Many current industry practices that are now regarded as inappropriate or unacceptable have developed over time,” she said.

"They were encouraged, and supported, often by governments, because they produced higher yields and therefore earned export dollars for the country.

"I am old enough to have been around when government actively not only encouraged but legislated for land clearing and a number of things we now know have had massive long-term impacts. In fact, I was reflecting with someone before, in the early 1990s we used to regard nutrient run-off in the Fitzroy as 'feeding the reef'.”

After her presentation there was robust debate among guests, some questioning if greens groups, like WWF, would help promote the positive agricultural message.

But Ms Wade shrugged off the concern, saying a collective approach was the only way forward.

"I am a diver, I want to be able to dive on the beautiful reef but I also want to eat good food produced by us,” she said.

"It's simple - we need both.”

Topics:  farming great barrier reef rural press club

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