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forest agreement

Tasmanian Forests Statement of Principles

Tim Dobson, Socialist Alliance
02.12.2010 2:13 am

Since its inception in 2001, the Socialist Alliance has been actively involved in campaigns to protect high conservation native forests from being logged and we support an end to the forestry conflict in Tasmania. However, the Socialist Alliance cannot support the Tasmanian Forests Statement of Principles, despite the principles including a clause to 'Immediately protect, maintain and enhance High Conservation Value Forests', because we believe that the final outcome will create or intensify a whole set of new problems, such as a new biomass industry, the expansion of unsustainable plantations and the very real possibility of a corporate bailout using $1.2 - $2 billion of public money.

The Process

We believe the process to be flawed from the beginning because of the secret and exclusive nature of the talks. The talks disenfranchised other environmental groups, community groups and individuals whose views about the future of the timber industry diverged from those of the three conservation groups 'at the table'. There was no real mechanism for the public to have any say about what should be in the principles, so the views of the three conservation groups de facto became the opinion of all those who wish to see an environmentally sustainable timber industry. One of the Principles is to 'Engage and involve the broader Tasmanian Community in the development and implementation of a durable solution to the Tasmanian forest conflict', and the participating environment groups have since engaged in a series of public forums to discuss the principles. At these they promoting the idea of an as-yet unspecified public consultation process to craft the details of the way forward. But the agreement has already been signed off, thereby closing off opportunities for people to have any input into the guiding principles upon which the details will be based.

This is unfortunate and this is what led to a lot of the political problems with the principles. Those who had views contrary to the three conservation groups were excluded.

The Timber Industry and the State Government rely on secrecy; they have always sought as little scrutiny as possible. They are opposed to openness and transparency because that would make it easier for them to be held accountable.

Our power lies in our openness, transparency and solidarity with each other. If we seek to play by their rules they will use that to their advantage and, whatever the intention of those involved, the industry will seek to benefit as much as much as they can from it financially.

This can already be seen in:

- Gunns claiming compensation for ending native forest logging;

- Gunns' claim of a social licence for their Tamar Valley Pulp Mill;

- NAFI (National Association of Forest Industries) forging ahead with its push to burn native forests for power generation;

- The statement by Terry Edwards, Chief Executive of the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania that 'From our point of view, the whole purpose of the agreement in accommodating [the environmentalists] demands to not harvest high-conservation forests was to get their consent for export woodchips continuing to be sent overseas without rancour and potentially even with their support;' (2/11/10 The Mercury)

- The fact that Terry Edwards has stated it will take 30 years to make a transition out of native forest logging.

All this would indicate that the talks are a tactical way for the timber industry to take advantage of environmental groups as a way to increase their profits.

We are also concerned that the talks take the heat off the government in implementing legislation to help bring about an environmentally sustainable timber industry. For instance, The Age reported that the head of the CFMEU forestry division, Michael O'Connor, warned the Brumby government against legislating a ban on logging in Melbourne's water catchments, and said they wanted similar 'peace talks' with conservationists in Victoria.

The conclusion seems quite clear - those involved in the timber industry do not want binding legislation; they want non binding principles which were described as 'guide-posts' by Allan Hansard from the National Association of Forest Industries. Guide-posts are much easier to break than legislation, which is why the forestry industry has agreed to a moratorium on logging high-conservation native forests but has not agreed to a time-frame on ending native-forest logging.

We also think that it is worth pointing out that the organization involved in the negotiations who is meant to be on the side of workers, the leadership of the Forestry Division of the CFMEU, has a poor track record of sticking up for workers. Many would say that Michael O'Connor was instrumental in Howard getting re-elected in 2004 (notorious for his anti-worker laws). Instead of fighting against job losses in the industry, it seems like whenever a sawmill is closed or more timber workers' contracts are suspended, the CFMEU's default response is 'that's why we need a pulp mill'. Anna Krein's book Into the Woods - the battle for Tasmania's forests quotes a union official saying that in 2005, Gunns provided $600,000 to bail the union out. Their ability to be an independent voice for workers' interests is highly questionable.

The Problems

Numerous problems with the principles have already been discussed by other groups such as TAP Into a Better Tasmania, the Tasmania Conservation Trust, the Environment Association and many individuals. We echo a lot of their concerns but there a few, in particular, that we are really concerned about:

- Support of a pulp mill

It is already clear that Gunns are using this agreement as proof of a social licence for their pulp mill in the Tamar Valley. While we recognise the conservation groups involved are still opposed to that pulp mill, as it stands, it is also true that the conservation groups left the door open for Gunns to claim that social licence, by signing up to principles which support 'a pulp mill'. The only (and very weak) proviso in the Principle is that 'there will need to be stakeholder consultation and engagement with the proponent, ENGOs and the community'.

The participating environment groups have a good policy on a pulp mill - they say that better, more job-rich downstream processing options exist and we don't need another pulp mill, but if there was to be one, it should meet minimum requirements such as passing a rigorous independent assessment, be in an appropriate location and of an appropriate scale etc (see their policy detail which can be downloaded from They clearly rule out the proposed Tamar Valley Pulp Mill. They say they are committed to arguing for such policy when it comes to fleshing out the detail of this Principle, and may back out of the agreement if the timber industry insists on an unsuitable pulp mill. But it is hard to see how common ground will be found on this issue, with only one pulp mill proposal currently on the table, and with the two groups pushing for such vastly different things when it comes to turning this Principle into a plan.

We could never support the Gunns pulp mill in the Tamar Valley, due to the corrupt nature with which is was approved. The permits for the mill must be revoked by the state and federal governments. We acknowledge that there have been serious social and environmental issues concerned with pulp mills in general, wherever they have been built and therefore we believe that all other pulp mill proposals should be subjected to a Tasmania wide referenda. This is a much more accurate way to determine the social licence for any pulp mill and will allow everyone to have a say about whether we want a pulp mill or not.

- The promotion of plantations as the solution

The agreement calls to 'Support sustainable and socially acceptable plantations including agreed reforms and new agro-forestry outcomes, including pursuing certification'. However, nowhere in the document is it spelt out what is meant by sustainable. Forestry Tasmania already claim that current logging is 'sustainable'. Sustainability to the timber industry is about what level of wood supply will sustain the highest profits. There is already clear evidence about the damaging impact the plantation industry in Tasmania has on people and the environment. The possible leaking of toxins into water supply from selectively-bred plantations raises questions, according to Dr Alison Bleaney, about the possibility of a link into an apparently high rate of cancer in the St Helens region. Residents who live nearby to plantations have been up in arms about the use of pesticides and herbicides and the Deputy Mayor of Meander, Bob Loone, is not alone in arguing that his valley has been losing millions of dollars and lots of jobs each year because 15,000 hectares have been lost from farmland to plantations.

Water supplies will dwindle if plantations are expanded rapidly. Plantation monocultures are not forests in any real sense of the word; they are green deserts. The Planning Principle agrees on the development of an integrated-catchment management program, but will this have any teeth in the face of a promise to industry to provide a guaranteed supply of timber?

Widespread monoculture plantations sprayed with chemicals are not sustainable, nor are they in the public interest, but nowhere in the agreement is this mentioned or discussed. It is hard to believe that an actual environmentally sustainable plantation industry will emerge out of the principles because the principles do nothing at all to combat the mad push by the timber industry to cut down as many trees as possible for woodchips. Instead, the agreement guarantees that all existing wood-supply contracts are upheld and the first Principle guarantees a minimum amount of wood supply for industry but does not set a limit. The Tasmanian woodchip industry, as it stands, is completely unsustainable and unless the nature of the industry is changed it will remain so. Terry Edwards, however, has made it clear, that the talks were about expanding woodchip supply, not decreasing it.

- Public Subsidies

The figures that have been spoken about to fund the agreement have been $1.2 billion to $2 billion. This money will be funded out of the public pocket and yet will the public be allowed any control over how this money is spent? We believe that the timber industry will use the talks to take billions of dollars from the public to bail out their debts instead of using it for a long-lasting industry restructure.

Public money should only be used for:

- A transition program for any workers who lose or who have lost their jobs to move them into new employment. This could include the government re-opening rural sawmills and initiating other downstream processing government-and-community partnerships or collectives which guarantee workers' jobs in the long-term.

- Public infrastructure and jobs programmes for communities who have suffered big job losses in the timber industry.

- A fully funded landscape conservation, restoration and integrated-catchment management program

- A significant boost to funding for public sector jobs in reserve management and nature conservation in the state.

At the same time as the 'peace talks' are occurring, Forestry Tasmania (a Government Business Enterprise) has admitted that it is in negotiations with Gunns to buy the woodchips that are piling up at Triabunna (because they are unprofitable to sell), and take over the rest of its native forest woodchipping business: 'Mr Gordon also said Forestry Tasmania now planned to take over Gunns Limited's role to become the state's largest exporter of woodchips'. Forestry Tasmania is in talks with sawmillers and 'other interested parties' to form a consortium to export all woodchips produced in the state's public native forests. The deal also would be likely to see the Forestry Tasmania consortium take over Gunns' Triabunna woodchip export facility, as rumoured several weeks ago. 'If we don't do it, the sawmills will go broke - the waste, the woodchips, both in the forests and at the sawmills, has got to go somewhere,' Mr Gordon said.' (From The Mercury 21/10/10).

This is just the latest example of how the state government has been ever-ready to channel taxpayers' money into the big timber corporations' accounts. Carrie LaFrenz said in the 21/7/2010 Australian Financial Review that Gunns' net debt was $661 million dollars. This looming bail-out fits with the example being provided by industrialized governments across the world in dealing with the global financial crisis - privatize the wealth, socialize the debt.

No money should be given to Gunns or other timber companies who have already taken enough from our state. Public money should be used for the public good.

- Burning plantations for power supply

We believe this principle is contrary to moving to the Zero Emissions economy that we need if we are to deal with climate change. It is also a serious public health risk.

The American Lung Association, in a June 24, 2009 letter to the US House of Representatives said biomass burning had the potential to 'generate significant increases in emissions of nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and sulphur dioxide and have severe impacts on the health of children, older adults, and people with lung diseases'.

A comprehensive study by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences released in June, found that, within accepted emissions reporting timeframes, burning wood for electricity would actually be as bad and, in some cases, worse than burning fossil fuels. This is because the efficiency and per-unit energy content of wood is far lower than most fossil fuels. Carbon emissions from a single wood-fired power station in Tasmania could be as high as 500,000 tonnes per year (quoted by the Huon Valley Environment Centre as information sourced from Forestry Tasmania's Southwood Power Station Development Proposal and Environmental Management Plan).

NAFI have already claimed they are continuing to lobby for the burning of native forests. The compromise of burning plantations is hardly the best solution, when the technology already exists to move towards to a zero-emissions economy in ten years. While the environment movement in general is opposed to any wood-fired power, it will leave it up to the smaller groups, who are not official signatories to the agreement, to campaign against it.

The Solution

We have not got all the answers on what a solution will be but there are some underlying principles which we believe will lead us to a more holistic solution.

- Forestry decisions should based on public interest, not private profit. We have a state government who see their role as trying to use public resources to maximise private profit and we reject that. Decisions about forests and about all natural resources should be made according to what is in the public good.

- Extension of democracy - The current government claims that their decisions are in the 'public good', so how do we determine this? By ensuring the public decides on issues that will affect them. Representative democracy has shown itself to be hollow and too open to corruption. Giving more power to people is the way to combat corporate influence and ensure a better management of natural resources.

- Instead of hyping up the possible gains to be made from negotiations with timber industry representatives, (when in reality, not a lot of common ground has been established), environmental groups could be better off building the strength of their base and mobilizing public support behind key action demands. After all, governments, both state and federal, will be providing most of the funding for any restructure and will be the ones to call the shots when it comes down to questions of detail (such as approving what type of pulp mill if any, which of our forests are sold off or protected, how power can be generated). Traditionally they have made decisions in the interests of big business, unless grassroots mass mobilizations and sustained far-reaching campaigns have pressured them to do otherwise.

Now, more than ever, we need the ENGOs to take the lead in organizing and demonstrating community support for:

Despite being given a seat at the negotiating table, and despite having some excellent ideas on how to restructure the industry, it is very likely that the participating environment organizations will be left behind on the tarmac if the Forest Principles do take flight, especially if the key force of people power is missing from the process.

Republished with permission

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