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What's not going on at Rio+20 - and why Aussie plonk is 'ecocider'

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Will animals like this Australian Spotted Quoll still be around for the next biodiversity conference? by SeanMcClean (Wikipedia Commons)

Although expectations for the latest U.N. environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro this week are being carefully damped down, likely the developed economies, such as the U.S., France and the U.K, will offer grand visions of how - in an ideal world - they would like to save the planet from one or other environmental threats. The fingers will be pointed at the usual culprits - Brazil and Indonesia for permitting deforestation to continue, India and China for industrializing - and Africa for just being poor. The conference will confirm, just as the first Rio Earth summit did 20 years ago, everyone's prejudices - and the real environmental culprits will walk away.

Take the case of Australia, for example. Always the 'good boy' at these conventions, and backed by impressive public ignorance of the true state of the land 'down under', Australia has managed to long be the world's worst environmental offender, responsible on its own for more than half of all the world's extinctions.

Australia is a crucial link in the world's biodiversity, a kind of vast 'sanctuary island' home to more than twice the number of species in the whole of Europe and North America combined.  Even now, in the remnants of Australia's  forests there are  more species than in the whole of Europe.  Yet only about 10% of the forests remain, and each year Australian farmers are clearing an area the size of Wales (that is, about 2000 square kilometers).

These crops are grown in areas cleared of native forest, often unsustainably, and at great cost to native animals. The first study of this cost, back in 2001 by researchers at the James Cook University in Queensland, estimated that each year Queensland alone destroys nearly half a million hectares of forest and kills:

20 000 koalas;

233 000 kangaroos and wallabies;

342 000 possums and gliders;

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30 000 bandicoots;

7500 echidnas.

Part of the clearing process involves death to the wildlife, but Australian practice is to systematically poison all animals once the trees have been cleared, using helicopters to drop baits into remote areas. Wildlife that flees to other areas  will either starve, fall victim to predators, or survive only at the expense of other fragile ecosystems.

When Captain Cook landed in Botany Bay in 1770 he was so amazed by the natural diversity that he christened the area 'Botany Bay'. But since the arrival of the colonists, an ecocide more rapid even than the destruction in the Amazon rainforest has been taking place. In total, 126 species of plants and animals are now extinct.

But then agriculture is a key market for Australia,  a vital component of the economy,  accounting for nearly half (45 per cent) of total retailing turnover in Australia. The Top Ten export destinations for Australian processed food and beverages in 1998-99 (the last year for which figures are available) show Japan and the United States as the biggest consumers, and the UK and New Zealand as the third and fourth largest markets.

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To remold its ancient land (actually, in large part a dried up sea) into something resembling a European farm, the European settlers had to be ruthless.

Already eighteen species of mammal have become extinct. That is not locally extinct, that is world-wide, gone forever. Another seventeen are expected to disappear soon.  These are unique and irreplaceable species like:

* the large carnivore the critically endangered spotted tailed Quoll, 

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Martin Cohen is a well-established author specializing in popular books in philosophy, social science and politics. His most recent projects include the UK edition of Philosophy for Dummies (Wiley June 2010); How to Live: Wise and not-so-wise (more...)

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