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Sustainability in the Tropics: Whole-Community Approach

Posted in Movements by Kate Archdeacon on May 7th, 2010

Source: Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF)

From Green Home Community Profile: Cairns

If you had to nominate the most beautiful place in Australia it would be hard to go past the lush rainforests and coral reefs of far north Queensland. But the very natural icons that make this place so special also make it vulnerable, and in response to this threat, organisations and individuals throughout the local community have banded together to do their bit to reduce their environmental footprint and limit the impacts of climate change.

As Sarah Hoyal, the coordinator of the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre (CAFNEC) explains, “The impacts of climate change on our World Heritage rainforests and the Great Barrier Reef will be extreme, and the local community realises how important it is to act. Whether it’s residents who don’t want to see our unique ecosystems harmed or local businesses concerned about the economic impact this will have, we’re all moving in the same direction.”

As for where this action needs to take place, the answer is simple: everywhere.

“When you’re in a regional area you can’t afford to draw artificial distinctions between individual behaviour at home, communities protecting their local environments, planning decisions by local councils and overall government policy,” says Sarah. “They’re all part of the bigger picture.”

Fortunately, action at all levels is exactly what’s happening in tropical north Queensland.

The area is blessed with inspired individuals and organisations who are taking concrete action to reduce their impact and that of their region. Here’s a taste of the exciting stuff that’s happening up north:

At the individual level, residents of Cairns and other tropical towns are showing more and more interest in sustainability.

“A few years ago the only people interested in sustainable products were real deep-green environmentalists,” says Daryl Douglass of the Cairns branch of the Alternative Technology Association (ATA), “but now the idea is mainstream”. Daryl says it is ordinary people who are building houses, renovating old ones or just buying products like light bulbs who are now seeking out advice on the best and most sustainable way to go about it.

To support these individuals, local organisations have become involved in initiatives like the Low Carbon Diet, a program which gives households a 30 day challenge to cut their energy use. The program originates from the state government but locals have taken it a step further, by going beyond individual actions and proposing collective projects like a community garden, and by taking it to low income households and providing them with locally relevant information that can help them take action

Local businesses are getting involved too.

The Tropical Green Building Network is made up of retailers, manufacturers, architects, builders and tradespeople who see new and exciting business opportunities in the area of sustainable construction. Together they provide a resource for the community who can address local issues.

In 2008, Cairns residents wishing to install rainwater tanks ran up against new regulations designed to prevent the tanks blowing away during a cyclone (a tropical issue if ever there was one). Tanks designed for less extreme climates didn’t fit the bill, but the Tropical Green Building Network was able to work with local manufacturers to ensure that their products were cyclone-worthy and residents were once again able to install them.

And what about the really big picture?

Just to prove that Queenslanders don’t shirk from a challenge, Sustainable TNQ, a collaboration of over 15 groups representing all levels of government, business and the community has the modest aim of making Cairns the most sustainable region in Australia. The network is working hard to ensure that businesses and groups throughout the region (including its own members) embed sustainability at the very heart of what they do. This is through simple things like ideas sharing and more complex ones like hosting training and conferences for small businesses who would not have the capacity to do so on their own.

That’s a pretty broad perspective, but there’s an even bigger one the region is now eying off. According to Nicky Swan of Advance Cairns, who facilitates Sustainable TNQ, “Cairns is in a unique position where we can develop sustainable technologies and ideas for a tropical climate, and then take them out to developing countries. We are already starting to do this in Papua New Guinea, and with billions of people living in the tropics this can have a massive impact on helping them live more sustainably.”

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