The Victorian Agriculture Minister believes it is “entirely appropriate” that the Goongerah Environment Centre is facing the threat of prosecution for exposing what the Environment Minister admits as “extremely poor” logging practices by her own government.
Goongerah Environment Centre, which was last week shortlisted for a United Nations Habitat Restoration and Biodiversity award, was notified by the Agriculture Minister’s department that it was under investigation earlier this month.
Members of the East Gippsland group, also known as GECO, entered an area where timber was being harvested by VicForests, a government logging corporation.
The environmentalists believed VicForests had illegally cleared protected rainforest, although a subsequent internal Environment Department investigation was unable to conclusively determine whether there had been a breach because the ‘evidence’ had been clear-felled.
The department’s investigation, triggered by a GECO report presented to the Environment Minister, noted “significant concerns” and found that “VicForests retains a degree of culpability” for the potentially illegal clear-felling of at least 22 large rainforest canopy trees.
“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 investigation found.
The Environment Minister Lisa Neville said VicForests’ “extremely poor practice” left her “very disturbed”. She has ordered additional spot-checks.
“There was extremely poor practice and it was probably a fine line about whether this was a breach or not,” she said.
The loss-making government corporation, which is still under investigation over a fourth allegation made by GECO, responded by agreeing to improve its practices.
And then the government went after the whistleblowers.
A spokesperson for the department investigating GECO said members who accessed the site could face a range of consequences, ranging from “providing advice and direction” to “charging and prosecuting”. The investigation is now in its third week.
Agriculture Minister Jaala Pulford told Parliament yesterday she believes it’s “entirely appropriate” that members of the community environment centre could face prosecution.
“It is my expectation and the government’s expectation that VicForests operates in a way that is consistent with world’s best practice, and it is my belief that it does,” Pulford said.
“In response to the specific question about an investigation underway [into GECO], what I would say is that permission from VicForests can be sought by members of the public to enter timber harvesting safety zones,” she said.
Ed Hill, one of GECO’s experienced field ecologists who accessed the site, previously told New Matilda he was “very surprised to hear the minister officially suggest that [GECO] could’ve applied for permission to enter the Timber harvesting Safety Zone”.
“There’s no way they would allow our organisation to enter these sites for any reason at all or give us permission,” Hill said.
“We would not even attempt to ask them for that because there’s no way they’d give it to us,” he said.
Pulford, however, defended the regulations preventing the public from entering ‘Timber Harvesting Safety Zones’ which she described as “an important protection”.
“This is heavy and dangerous work, and the protection of people who work in the timber industry, and indeed the protection of people who do not like the timber industry, is important,” she said.
Hill questioned whether the investigation into GECO was really about safety, suggesting “the department don’t like us because we do the work they should be doing”.
VicForests have a scarred track record, he said, and the department is complicit and “wilfully assist VicForests to operate under a veil of secrecy”.
A number of allegations have been made against VicForests in recent years, but none have developed into full-scale prosecutions. Hill suspects VicForests' alleged poor track-record is “really a land grab”.
“They want to get these rainforest species, these wet forest species, out of the way to create a hot fire in the area which will burn everything out of the way and create an ash bed which they’ll drop a couple of species of eucalyptus forest in,” he said.
“The really good habitat for the threatened species is in the way, and the rainforest is in the way; VicForests wants to clear it out, basically to create their tree farms.”
It’s a proposition that has found some political support from the Greens member who questioned Pulford over the investigation, Samantha Dunn.
“There have been many, many complaints about VicForests over the years and breaches over the years, but very, very few prosecutions in all of that,” Dunn said.
“We’ve got a report from the environment department that is pretty damning of VicForests, and talks about them having ‘partial culpability’ in all of that,” she said.
“You’ve got a group of community members who are really doing the work for VicForests, and now the gall of facing a prosecution for that. It’s a pretty outrageous move.”
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