Save The Forests, Not The Talks


The collapse of Tasmania’s forest negotiations has left uncertainty looming over the state’s threatened native forests. The negotiations have been a long and drawn out process. The wholesale destruction of the forests here in Tasmania has been happening for many decades — and resolution was never going to be easy.

Industrial scale destruction of native forests is a failed model both environmentally and economically. Yet, in order to patch up the failure of the talks, there is a real risk that signatories may go back to the table and whip up an agreement to disguise the ongoing abuse of our native forests. The forest talks have involved more than two years of meetings and $130 million spent on the logging industry, but have failed to protect a single tree.

The forestry industry in Tasmania loses millions of taxpayers dollars annually — more than $1 billion of public funding since 1990 — but has failed to deliver to the Tasmanian economy. Deep in the remote forests there are giant scars, clearfells that stretch across hillsides and the lower reaches of ancient forested valleys; a patchwork of industrial destruction that amounted to a $27.6 million dollar loss last year.

The public discourse, since the collapse of the talks, has been focused on "saving" the talks, rather than the forests. Forest protection need not rely on an agreement. The government has a responsibility to act on the recommendations made by independent scientists to protect 568,772 hectares of forest.

The August Interim Agreement (IA), that foreshadows details of a final agreement, paints a worrying picture for the forests. The willingness of its signatories to agree to an ongoing and vibrant native forest industry is ringing alarm bells for forest campaigners. This is a long step away from the original Statement of Principles two years ago that gave hope for a sustainable future, based on a transition of commodity logging from native forests to plantations. The proposed designation of "Permanent Timber Production Zone" for forest areas outside of new reserves is a dead giveaway of the real intentions.

The formal protection of all high conservation value forests is critical. Yet even if those forests are protected, without a transition to plantation logging, the August agreement foreshadows that remaining areas of native forest will be subject to intensified logging pressures.

Such areas of native forest are important for wildlife, watershed and carbon sinks. This intensification may give fuel to outdated practices such as clear-felling, and be accompanied by a weakening of the Forest Practices Code at a time when it should be strengthened by a biodiversity upgrade. Such a deal may also placate an industry trying desperately to keep logging the bush, but it will do little to address the underlying conservation crisis in Tasmania’s forests.

To prop up the ongoing destruction, the Interim Agreement accepted and planned the promotion of native forest woodchip for export and domestic use, ignoring the decline in the market for woodchip export in Asia. Environmental Non-Government (ENGO) signatories, The Wilderness Society, Environment Tasmania and the Australian Conservation Foundation suddenly obscured their capitulation on woodchipping by adopting the industry parlance — they are just dealing with residues now, even if they are the bulk of logged material.

The current position of the global markets presents us with the opportunity to make long overdue changes to the industry. Instead the signatories have advocated for actively seeking new, unconventional markets, such as the dangerous appetite for burning native forests for electricity generation.

Moving workers from the logging of native forests into plantations in Tasmania need not be a sad story. There is gain for the planet and its people as the native forestry industry contracts, especially as an opportunity to address the global climate change crisis. Old and unlogged forests are significant carbon stores. Forgoing logging and burning them prevents massive emissions. Letting previously logged forests regrow without logging them again is a strategy for carbon sequestration with a multitude of interrelated benefits for biodiversity and water.

Instead of capitalising on the carbon value of native forests, the Interim Agreement’s signatories seem determined to hand over these resources to Malaysian company Ta Ann, with little or no return for the Tasmanian taxpayer. The company has already created international controversy with their "eco" products containing wood sourced from national and world heritage value Tasmanian forests.

Ta Ann has been calling for a resolution to the talks, seeking to gain environmental endorsement for their products. However, an agreement that allows the company continued access to wood from native forest destruction may not alleviate the concerns of the global market.

The absence of a transition to plantations leaves Tasmania’s native forests open to destruction for the benefit of companies like Ta Ann. In addition, even the forests that have been scientifically verified are not guaranteed protection. One environmental signatory, The Wilderness Society, have indicated they were willing to overturn policies opposing all forms of native forest logging during negotiations with the logging industry. 

The nature of the Tasmanian forests negotiations has led signatories, politicians, public commentators and other stakeholders to insist, throughout the entire process, that the environment groups should be making concessions on the areas proposed for protection in the interests of a resolution.

A return to talks at this stage will only amplify this pressure and run the risk of an agreement that will negate the fact that the native forest industry has failed, environmentally and economically. Finding "peace" seems to have become more important than finding a solution.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.