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Peace or PR in the Tasmanian forests?

After 30 years of a battle that has divided the Australian island, it seems there is finally some hope for those who want to see Tasmania’s ancient forests protected from rampant logging. But is it really more just a cynical PR move than any real attempt at corporate social responsibility? Lilia Letsch reports.

14 November 2010

There have been excited reports in most of the Australian mainland newspapers, stating that there was finally ‘peace in the forests’, that a whole swathe of unprotected forests would be placed under instant moratorium from logging, and that logging firm Gunns Ltd would no longer be logging native forests at all.

With a sigh of relief many mainlanders would be now disengaging from the southward gaze that has been judging the bitter struggle from a distance.

But can we really sit back and trust the word of a company like Gunns Ltd, which has done so little to gain trust or even social acceptability until this point?

Can we really believe that any logging corporation cares more about saving trees than their own profits?

Two years ago the Tasmanian logging industry commissioned a report into the economic sustainability of the industry. It showed that around 60% of logging contractors needed to exit for it to survive.

As Adam Burling from the Huon Valley Environment Centre (HVEC) stated, “The loggers knew that there would be no further government assistance unless there was broad community support for it. They want environment groups to help win that support. At the moment the price tag for a handout to industry is around $230 million.”

Gunns Ltd and industry lobby groups have been spending months in negotiations with conservation groups to try and nut out some kind of peace deal. But is it really more just a cynical PR move than any real attempt at corporate social responsibility?

The HVEC is a small grassroots organisation that engages in frontline forest activism. It has not been core to the talks between conservation and logging industry groups, but has been part of the reference group that receives briefings and provides involved parties with data from out in the forests where the logging still continues.

These forest activists see what is still happening on the ground, and so far there has been no end to the destruction of the ancient forests.

Despite the widely heralded announcement of an end to native forest logging in Tasmania, there seems to be still much to work through. And as negotiations continue, the trees continue to fall.

The widely publicised Statement of Principles – the agreement between conservation and logging groups – is just that, a set of principles. Call them guidelines.

“What has been signed is purely an agreed set of principles which are supposed to provide a framework for further talks and a restructuring of the logging industry. They on their own offer no protection of Tasmania's forests,” said Burling.

It seems reminiscent of international talks on global warming where meetings are made to set dates for future meetings in which frameworks are to be agreed upon through which a few principles can be established by which some kind of firm agreement might eventually be made…if no one scuttles talks completely in the mean time.

The most promising aspect of the Statement of Principles is talk of a logging moratorium.

“The agreement includes a principle that a moratorium will be implemented over a three month period.

'Priority' logging coupes defined by ENGOs will be placed in a moratorium after one month and all the remaining high conservation value logging coupes must be protected by the end of three months.

This will be a huge meaningful step to solving the forest crisis,” said Will Mooney, another activist from the HVEC.

That is if these principles are treated as anything more than guidelines, which is still yet to be proven.

And as Mooney points out, “There are interests trying to slow down or interfere with that process. It is misleading to say that native forest logging in Tassie has stopped. Logging will continue and, within the next few months, some crucial areas of high conservation value forest will be lost … the National Association of Forest Industries has publicly stated that the principles are just guidelines that can be changed.”

The ‘interests’ Mooney refers to include lobby groups like FIAT and elements in the TCA who have stated that they will not accept the current forest reserve agenda and believe ENGOs should be left out of the assessment process, and the results of their proposed ‘independent’ assessment would either reduce the reserve agenda or perhaps even protect nothing.

But it is not just some industry lobby groups that are unhappy with the current process.

One of the core demands from logging groups during the recent talks has been support for a pulp mill. There is only one pulp mill proposal in the works, and that is Gunns Ltd’s heavily contested Tamar Valley pulp mill plan.

Vocal anti-pulp mill activists are upset that a pulp mill has been accepted as a necessary evil by other conservation groups in the move from native forest to purely plantation based logging.

Anti-pulp mill activists have pointed out that there are many other factors in their demand for no pulp mill, including preservation of air quality and concerns over water consumption and marine life.

Some believe that the Statement of Principles is largely a cynical move by the industry to gain social license for Gunns’ planned pulp mill.

Another conservation group that has not been core to the talks, the Tasmanian Conservation Trust, is also concerned that forests on private land are being left out of the negotiations.

As stated in their response to the Statement of Principles “private forests contain the majority of unprotected threatened species habitat, threatened forest types and freshwater ecosystems. Nearly 40% of Tasmania’s unreserved forests are found on private land.”

There is obviously still a long series of processes to be carefully navigated before we will see an end to the issue that has divided Tasmania for so long.

It would be naive to sit back and believe that the struggle is over, just as it would be to accept the word of any giant resource corporation in relation to social and environmental responsibility.

The pressure that has been building up against native forest logging in Tasmania, and around the whole country, needs to be maintained for there to be any lasting positive outcomes from this process.

Having been a forest activist for 18 years, and attempted negotiations with loggers many times over the years, Burling seems appropriately cautious:

“These sorts of processes occur with many social movements as public support forces change to the status quo. Governments and corporations' role is to minimise the effectiveness of social movements,” he says.

"Movements need to stick to their policy goals and not be co-opted into accepting less. In this case, Tasmania's forests have been devastated for decades, the environment movement has been the subject of legal cases and violence by loggers. The time for compromise on native forests and their wildlife has passed.

“The industry is in an economic crisis of its own making and needs public support; it should only receive this if they have a short term exit strategy from native forest logging.”

For more information check out the Australian Conservation Foundation news updates on the agreement. Support the Huon Valley Environment Centre and Still Wild Still Threatened in their (unpaid) work on the ground to keep the logging industry accountable to their promises.

Lilia Letsch is associate editor at The Scavenger.



0 #10 Mike Bolan 2010-11-21 23:41
Interesting article.

The outcomes of these ‘secret talks’ appear to be entirely in favour of forestry at the expense of the public.

As a result, TWS presents the symptoms of an organisation that has been co-opted by the people they have been fighting. There are far too many very serious but unanswered questions.

As part of the process, TWS set up an organisation called ‘Our Common Ground’ which spent over $600,000 on a pro-plantation TV campaign. Why would TWS do that? And where did the money come from?

Why were the negotiations secret given that they were about how Tasmanian land, forests and water were to be used?

Who paid for the 5 months worth of secret talks?

Where did TWS get the authority to negotiate public subsidies and other favours for an industry that has caused so much pain for so many?

What prevents the industry just carrying on as usual while enjoying extra favours and subsidies paid for by the rest of us?

It appears that in exchange for ‘saving’ the forest industry, the public gets nothing whatsoever, unless you count keeping forests that the public already owns.

From a management perspective TWS purpose is reported by them as…
“The Wilderness Society (TWS) is a national, community-based , environmental advocacy organisation whose purpose is to protect, promote and restore wilderness and natural processes across Australia for the survival and ongoing evolution of life on Earth.”

Environment Tasmania website states…“Tasmani an Forests Statement of Principles” sets the state’s timber industry on a new path to economic opportunities through plantation-base d forestry, protecting timber worker’s jobs and native forests.”

How does TWS justify spending donor’s money to save an industry as part of its purpose?

Where does TWS get the authority to ‘approve’ such a massive land and water use as pulp wood plantations, particularly given the many adverse impacts reported by communities?

How can environmental organisations approve a pulp mill of any type, anywhere without the participation of affected communities?

Far too many unanswered questions.
0 #9 sophie 2010-11-18 22:17
update from the forest floor:
0 #8 Anne 2010-11-17 04:49
Actually Walter, Gunns don't yet have all the necessary permits. The Federal Government has still to sign off on three marine related permits. And the social licence you are so disparaging about is also actually a significant requirement in relation to FSC accreditation. FSC will not be awarded without it. And FSC is now something Gunns need to aquire rather badly if they are to keep their customers. Gunns have completely ignored and/or dismissed community concerns about their brutal forestry practices until recently. And they have also completely dismissed and/or ignored community concerns about the proposed pulp mill. So far as going to court over any issues that might arise, that's out of the question in respect of the pulp mill. The Pulp Mill Assessment Act that Gunns' lawyers stitched up with a compliant state government saw to that. Section 11 of this iniquitous piece of legislation provides no recourse whatsoever, for anyone, in respect of ANY negative impacts from the mill. Gunns will never receive a social licence for their abhorrent pulp mill. Civilisation doesn't come into it.
0 #7 Walter 2010-11-16 14:11
What does it mean "social license"?
Is it the right of small fanatic groups to decide in the name of the whole society ignoring the rule of law?
No way. Civilization means rule of law. And under the rule of law that is the guarantee for all of us, Gunns got all the legal permits to build a pulp mill.
This “social license” company is no sense. If somebody dislikes the new mill, go to court and ask a judge for permit cancellation.
0 #6 Anne 2010-11-16 04:38
Lilia, I have to disagree with you about this 'social licence' that is currently so dear - and so necessary - to Gunns' future. The fragile outcomes from roundtable discussions IN NO WAY have delivered Gunns a social licence to build a pulp mill. These talks were between industry representatives and ENGOs. Not the community. And certainly not the community where Gunns hope to build their despised proposed pulp mill. I should know. I live there. The roundtable discussions were about the forestry industry in Tasmania. They were not about a (or the) pulp mill. Yes, Gunns require a 'social licence' to obtain the desired FSC certification, but it is not something they can receive easily - or quickly. And it will take far, far more than this current roundtable conversation. It will also take a great deal longer. Longer than Gunns can afford to wait probably. And they have only themselves to blame.
0 #5 Adam Burling 2010-11-15 19:29
Shane's hyperbole does not match the facts, nor what the loggers are saying that he supports.

While the conservation movement have been very effective at exposing the lies of an industry which claimed to be sustainable while logging endangered species habitat and world heritage quality forests, the loggers have only themselves to blame for facing financial ruin. According to logger's own figures, 60% of contractors are operating financially unsustainably. The only reason they have kept going this long is due to the hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies they have gotten over the past decade.

This logger's welfare has propped up an industry which 80% of Australians wants to end. It has always claimed the sky will fall if the chainsaws stopped. It won't.
0 #4 Lilia Letsch 2010-11-14 23:36
CORRECTION: Gunns Ltd. were not directly involved in the talks that have resulted in the Statement of Principles. Many apologies for that inaccuracy. That said, it could easily be argued that Gunns Ltd have been very involved indirectly in the talks, through front groups such as the Tasmanian branch of Timber Communities Australia, which has been heavily funded by Gunns over the years. The fact that measures to ensure a pulp mill (Gunns pulp mill?) in the Statement of Principles is also a strong indication of Gunns indirect involvement in the talks. I would argue that more than any other logging group involved in the forestry debate in Tasmania, Gunns Ltd has the most to win from this process. As many have pointed out, the process gives Gunns the social licence to build their pulp mill and remain a powerful force in Tasmania, even if it is mainly as a plantation based logging company.
0 #3 Anne 2010-11-14 03:38
A cynical and self-serving exercise on the part of Gunns? Most certainly. This is a company that is steadily being brought to its knees over its stubborn, pig-headed and bizarre pursuit of a pulp mill. A project that was conceived in extremely dubious circumstances, and one whose architects quite obviously expected to foist on an unsuspecting public without a murmur of dissent. How wrong they were. Gunns' latest decision to exit native forest logging has been made without a shred of real enthusiasm or desire for the idea, any more than their decision to cease the use of 1080 poison was made out of a genuine philosophical belief that poisoning native wildlife is the wrong thing to do. Gunns is desperate to achieve the social licence so necessary for FSC certification - accreditation that is increasingly being sought by its major customers. And frankly Gunns haven't a price of ever gaining this social licence. This is a company that is despised the length and breadth of Tasmania - and most probably throughout Australia. Their appalling, destructive, thuggish forest practices are reviled. Their pulp mill project will never be acceptable. Certainly the community will never allow it to be built in the Tamar Valley, but it is completely inappropriate for any location anywhere. So far as restructuring forestry goes, this should have happened decades ago, and the current agreement is only one very small step towards one day achieving this. But Gunns were not part of the round table discussions, and had no place at the table, so there is a bit of inaccurate reporting on the part of the journalist there.
0 #2 salamander 2010-11-14 01:45
The forestry industry has relied on subsidies for so long, it is no longer capable of responding to the market: therefore the economic crisis certainly has it's origin with the industry and their constant demand for handouts, like a youngster who constantly demands succour beyond the age at which food should be supplied on demand.

Yes the people who will be out of a job deserve assistance - but so did the people who lost their jobs when Blundstones closed. Did they get it? No. Nor do most other industries that fail.

It should be noted that millions have been given to the industry to restructure in the past, but Forestry Tasmania chose to squander it on expansion of the destruction, encouraging contractors and small businesses to buy more machinery and get further into debt. As FT have made a loss every year for the last 5 years, literally giving our forests away to the lowest bidder, their mismanagement of the industry has to have had an impact. And the fire sale goes on, with logs still being sold to China for a pittance.

However it would be good if for a change facts could be reported truthfully - Gunns had no part in the recently signed forest agreement, they took no part in the talks. Naturally they had some influence, particularly in cancelling their membership of FIAT when that group tried to scuttle the agreement over biomass. But "Gunns Ltd and industry lobby groups have been spending months in negotiations with conservation groups" is NOT TRUE.
0 #1 Shane Weatherall 2010-11-13 23:17
I think that Adam Burling is completely incorrect in his statement that "The industry is in an economic crisis of its own making" and it is disengeneous of him to make such a statement.

Rightly or wrongly, the conservation movement has been extremely effective in reducing the area of native forest available for harvest in Tasmania, and indeed to the world class productive native forest forest practices codes that governs it today. To state otherwise would be silly.

The movement has also been very effective in international lobbying of customers and potential customers and financial insitutions such as the ANZ.

As such, the current market impact is largely the result of the GFC but primarily the actions of the conservation movement - they have been very succesful.

Unfortunately, for a period of time, the outcome of this is going to be massive social upheavel and dispair across most of Tasmania. I would not be exaggerating is I said that it is likely that up to 5,000 additional people will be out of work before christmas, that there will be whole towns where house values will decrease by up to 80% or more, crime will increase and there will no doubt be a rash or suicides.

More people will lose their livelihoods after christmas. The numbers I am talking about may not seem like much, but you need to remember that Tassie's population is only half a million, and something like 40% of poeple are already on some sort of benefit.

The closing of most forestry roads will also affect industries such as bee keepers, fire wood collectors and tourism.

Do the people affected deserve some assistance?

Do I really need to answer that?

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