With the investigation into the Goongerah Environment Centre now in its third week, it looks increasingly as though the Victorian government is shooting an inconvenient green messenger.
The community environment centre, known as GECO for short, received a letter on the seventh of this month inviting them to be interviewed over “offences allegedly committed on 5th April 2015”.
It came as a surprise, because the group freely admits to the ‘offences’. In early April, members of GECO entered a forestry zone which they rightly suspected had harboured patches of rainforest, a rare and important vegetation community in the normally mixed species wet eucalypt forests of East Gippsland.
The Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources which is now investigating them, presumably knew that they’d entered the site. Ed Hill and two other GECO surveyors had prepared a report to the Environment Minister a month earlier outlining their concerns that the government logging corporation VicForests had illegally harvested rainforest.
An internal Environment Department investigation into the allegations detailed by GECO, which last week was shortlisted for a UN environment award, failed to clearly determine whether VicForests had breached environmental laws. It did, however, “note significant concerns about the conduct of the harvesting operation in this area”.
“That there was no obvious reason or rationale identified (in discussion with VicForests) for the contractor to push over the established (non-merchantable) rainforest canopy trees,” the report said.
It found “that VicForests retains a degree of culpability for this outcome as it did not provide any direction to its harvesting contractor in the Forest Coupe Plan about excluding harvesting in the area of interest”.
“The unwarranted destruction of these trees is not considered to be consistent with ‘best practice’…and will likely contribute to a negative environmental impact”.
The environment minister, Lisa Neville, was more scathing. “I was very disturbed about what had occurred,” Neville told Win News.
“We saw a number of rainforest canopies pushed over, we saw huge disturbance in the area of this rainforest patch. There was extremely poor practice and it was probably a fine line about whether this was a breach or not.”
And yet, the Goongerah Environment Centre could face prosecution for exposing the “extremely poor” and potentially illegal practices.
It’s difficult to tell whether there was a breach of the law because the ‘evidence’ – “a total of 22 large rainforest canopy trees” according to the internal report, or “37 mature rainforest canopy trees” if you believe GECO’s report – had been destroyed.
VicForests have agreed to improve their practices, but it’s all the more difficult to tell what the true state of the forest before harvesting was because the document you might expect would shed most light, “VicForest’s Pre-harvest Field Identification of Rainforest Form”, has been blacked out in the copy of the department’s internal report provided to GECO.
But what is most difficult to comprehend is why the government has spent three weeks now investigating GECO for blowing the whistle on VicForest’s “extremely poor practice”.
Neville, who’s ordered more spot checks be done off the back of the revelations, will not respond to questions about the investigation. Whether, for example, she thinks GECO should be prosecuted.
Instead, her media advisor informed New Matilda we should ask the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources about the investigation (EDJTR). The Agriculture Minister Jaala Pulford is ultimately responsible for that department, which is responsible for making sure the public stay out of public forests when they’re being harvested.
Pulford referred us back to the EDJTR. Like Neville, the minister did not answer questions about whether she thought GECO members should be investigated or prosecuted, and if not, whether she would call off the threatened prosecution.
Last week, a spokesperson for the department told New Matilda “Forestry Compliance Officers do have discretion when it comes to determining appropriate compliance action”.
A “range” of options, in fact; “from providing advice and direction, to providing verbal and official warnings, to issuing Infringement Notices to charging and prosecuting”.
So, presumably, would ministers.
Ed Hill, one of the GECO members who conducted the survey of the logged rainforest, wrote to both ministers mid-way through this month, after he received his ‘invitation’ to be interviewed over his “offences allegedly committed”.
He told New Matilda that this is just one in a string of indiscretions by the government logging corporation, and that in the interests of restoring the public’s faith in the Environment Department’s ability to regulate VicForests the government needs to publicly withdraw the threat.
New Matilda understands a third allegation made by GECO, but not investigated in the original report, is now being looked into by an independent body.
Ironically, the newly elected Labor government which campaigned substantially on its green credentials, recently initiated a scheme whereby the public could “purchase and loan additional survey equipment to complement the surveys in targeted areas planned for harvest”.
That sounds a lot like the racquet the government has raised in response to the report produced by GECO’s field ecologists, but nothing is so loud as the ministers’ silence.
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