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Bid to save the reef

Natalie Muller, Frankfurt am MainMay 28, 2014

A tourism operator from the Great Barrier Reef has come halfway around the world in a last-ditch attempt to save his business. He's hoping to convince European banks not to fund a coal terminal expansion on his doorstep.

Signage of a protest against the proposed coal port at Abbot Point, reading "Reef In Danger," at the Great Barrier Reef
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Tony Brown is a long way from home. Dressed in a navy blue suit, he's sitting in the breakfast room of his Frankfurt hotel, a boiled egg and Brötchen on his plate.

The last time Brown came to Germany, he was in his 20s and the Berlin Wall was still standing. Now a specific mission has brought him back. In a few hours he's planning to address more than 4,000 shareholders at Deutsche Bank's annual general meeting.

"I think our story is compelling, and I think it's important that the banks hear it," he tells DW.

For the past 11 years, the 51-year-old has worked as a tour boat operator in the town of Airlie Beach on Australia's tropical north-east coast. His company takes visitors on sailing trips to the paradisiacal Whitsunday Islands and world-famous Great Barrier Reef.

"There are pristine waters and it's a beautiful place to take people snorkeling and diving, because you can walk straight off a beach into the fringing reefs," he says.

But the expansion of a controversial coal port at Abbot Point, on the reef's doorstep, could put the health of the ecosystem - and Brown's livelihood - at risk.

The development would make Abbot Point the biggest coal terminal in the world, and involve dumping three million cubic meters of dredged sediment into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Tony Brown outside Deutsche Bank
Tony Brown: 'It's important the banks hear our story'Image: Market Forces

"That's enough spoil to build a five-meter high, one-meter wide wall from Hamburg to Munich," he says. "If this volume of spoil was dumped in the Black Forest, imagine the response from the people of Germany."

Taking on the banks

This is where the banks come in. Deutsche Bank was one of three lenders to help Indian conglomerate Adani Group refinance the lease on the 30-year-old coal port. Adani is now trying to raise billions more to expand the terminal.

In a final effort to stop the project, Brown bought shares in potential investors - including Societe Generale, Deutsche Bank and HSBC - and travelled to Europe to urge the banks to stay away.

Brown has just come from Paris, where the Societe Generale AGM didn't go quite as planned. He's disappointed, he reports, because the board wasn't interested in what he had to say.

"I'm not going to profess that I'm the oracle on this, but I certainly have looked into this deeply, and tried to understand what is going on here," he says. "Presenting that information is important. At least I'm putting some balance into the discussion."

Reef in trouble

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral structure in the world, home to 1,625 types of fish, and an abundance of other marine species, including turtles, whales, dolphins and dugongs.

Brown says he's already seen an increase in shipping traffic in the area, and he worries dredging could have an irrevocable effect on water quality and marine life.

"I'm a business person who's concerned about his business, and I have other operators out there who are concerned about their business and livelihood," he says. "Sea dumping is not best practice, and it needs to be changed if we have any hope of turning around the recovery of the Great Barrier Reef."

Coral in the Great Barrier Reef
There are 600 different types of coral and an abundance of marine life in the Great Barrier ReefImage: AP

The reef is already under threat from climate change and bleaching coral. UNESCO has also expressed concerns about increasing development along the coastline and is threatening to list the reef as World Heritage "in danger."

Last resort

After breakfast it's time to go. Brown is optimistic about the meeting, and he has some local support behind him. In the past few days more than 180,000 Germans have signed a petition calling on Deutsche Bank not to back the mega coal project.

Heffa Schücking, director of German NGO Urgewald, arrives to accompany Brown to the AGM. It's the one place, she says, "where they have to listen to you."

"If there's anyone out there who does care about this, this is the only way we can reach them. Our experience has been that sometimes at AGMs surprising decisions can be taken to move away from a project."

Making the case

The massive convention center hall at Messe Frankfurt is almost full. Several hours pass, and a string of shareholders speak, before Brown's name is finally called.

Tony Brown outside Deutsche Bank's AGM
Tony Brown bought shares so that he could attend Deutsche Bank's AGM in FrankfurtImage: DW/N. Muller

He's prepared a statement, but as it has to be in German, an interpreter is on hand to read a translation.

He tells shareholders how the Great Barrier Reef's tourism industry provides almost 60,000 jobs, and annually generates more than 6 billion dollars for the Australian economy.

He also tells them that more than 2 million people visit the reef each year - including 200,000 tourists from Germany.

But before Brown's speech is over, there's some good news. Jürgen Fitschen, one of the bank's co-chief executive officers, turns on his microphone and confirms that the company will not finance the development without an assurance that it would not damage the Great Barrier Reef.

"As there is clearly no consensus between the Australian government and UNESCO regarding the impacts of the Abbot Point expansion on the reef we will not consider financial applications of an expansion," Fitschen says.

Mission accomplished

Back at his hotel, hurriedly packing a suitcase (He has a plane to catch), Brown is pleased with how the day has gone. But he admits there will always be more investors who could step in to fund the coal port.

"We know the reef's in trouble and needs strong steps to be managed into the future, and Deutsche Bank made those strong steps today," he says.

Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure on Earth, spanning 2,300 kilometers (1,430 miles)Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Heffa Schücking isn't so sure. "As an organization which has over 10 years experience with watching Deutsche Bank, we do have to be careful and stay on our toes," she says. "We will monitor where Deutsche Bank sends its money. We don't want to see indirect financing going towards that harbor or anything else that would destroy the reef."

Next stop on the European tour: the HSBC AGM in London. Brown is hoping he'll have some more good news to take back to his colleagues who live and work on the reef.