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A newly launched campaign has appealed for the Great Barrier Reef to be granted Australian citizenship.

The campaign, entitled Citizen Reef, seeks to protect the world’s largest living organism from future damage by ensuring it receives the rights to freedom from inhuman treatment, the highest standard of physical health, the right to maintain subsistence, and the right to life — just like any other Australian.

“Despite [the reef’s] massive contribution to Australia, she’s still denied the one basic right of every Australian citizen – the right to live,” LADbible, the news and entertainment publisher behind the campaign, wrote in the Change.org petition. 

The petition highlights the reef’s irreplaceable contribution to Australia.

The petition — addressed to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the ministers of environment, citizenship, and home affairs — states that the reef prevents tidal waves and tropical storms from washing away cities. The reef regulates carbon dioxide levels, keeps the air clean, and provides a nursery to over 10% of the planet’s fish. 

It also contributes $6.4 billion each year to Australia’s economy and supports 64,000 jobs. 

The campaign has been backed by an array of well-known Australian celebrities and influencers — including Olympic superstar Ian Thorpe, Stranger Things actor Dacre Montgomery, and television presenter Osher Günsberg. 

Güsberg told Australian news site Mumbrella that supporting the campaign was vital for all Australians.

"The Great Barrier Reef is our most popular Australian icon, yet we’re allowing her to starve. She deserves to be acknowledged for her contribution to Australia, but most importantly, she deserves to be protected from harm and granted the rights she needs to survive,” he stated.

While many are supportive, the petition has seen its fair share of criticism.

Chris Smith, an Australian talkback radio presenter, blasted the campaign, calling it “peak madness” and “loopy.” 

The Great Barrier Reef, declared a World Heritage Site in 1981, is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. 

In recent decades, the reef has been subjected to rising ocean temperatures, industrial and plastic pollution, and large amounts of pesticides due to polluted flood water. In 2016 and 2017, warming ocean waters — linked to human-induced climate change — caused massive coral bleaching.

“Climate change is by far the greatest threat to the health of the Great Barrier Reef,” Kate O'Callaghan, a representative at non-profit organization Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, told Global Citizen.

“But coral reefs are also resilient and can recover when the stress is removed, something we are starting to see here two years after the back-to-back bleaching events of 2016 and 2017,” O'Callaghan added. “The concern is that [Australia’s] current emissions trajectory will see these events becoming more frequent, reducing the reef's ability to recover from damage.”

The call for the reef’s citizenship isn’t the first time individuals have appealed for nature to have rights.

In 2017, the New Zealand government achieved a world first by granting the Whanganui River legal personhood. The river’s new status came about after centuries of negotiations from Whanganui tribes — who believe the river is an ancestor and possess a life force.

For O'Callaghan, the most vital thing is ultimately that we as a nation and global community deal with climate change.

“The Great Barrier Reef is still an incredibly vibrant ecosystem and to keep it that way it can’t be business as usual,” she told Global Citizen. “This means governments, communities, businesses, and individuals must be collaborating, innovating, and taking action towards achieving net zero emissions.”


Defend the Planet

This New Campaign Wants to Make the Great Barrier Reef an Australian Citizen

By Erica Sánchez  and  Madeleine Keck