Can the forest peace talks save Tassie’s forests?

October 15, 2010
The Blue Tier forest in North East of Tasmania (pictured) has been logged since this photo was taken. Conservation groups hope t

Beginning in April, so-called peace talks have taken place between some conservation groups and timber industry stakeholders about the future of the Tasmanian timber industry. Both sides have painted the talks as a once in a lifetime opportunity to “end the forest wars”.

Environment Tasmania (ET) director Phill Pullinger told the May 13 Australian: “We've had 30 years of worsening trench warfare in Tassie over forests and now is the time and the opportunity to essentially solve the forest conflict — and solve it properly.”

Forest Industries Association of Tasmania chief executive Terry Edwards told the Australian: "We are better placed than we ever have been to produce a final outcome.”

The conservationist side at the talks are represented by ET, The Wilderness Society (TWS) and the Australian Conservation Foundation, while on the timber industry side are the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania (FIAT), the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union and Timber Communities Australia.

Why are groups that have been on the opposite side of the barricades so long now willing to negotiate? The Tasmanian timber industry is going through a severe financial crisis, and demand for woodchips has plummeted. Some within the industry are saying this is their worst ever crisis.

Hundreds of jobs have already been lost and part of the reason that demand has fallen so sharply is that buyers only want wood products that have Forest Stewardship Council certification, a major aspect of which is the “social licence”, which requires community approval of their activities.

It is hoped that the agreement, by having the approval of conservation groups would be the first step to this social licence.

But others believe the talks are about more than just receiving a social licence. Bob McMahon, a member of TAP Into a Better Tasmania (formerly Tasmanians Against the Pulp Mill), wrote on the Tasmanian Times website on October 9: “The secret roundtable was always … about developing, from the industry perspective, a mechanism for the transference of public money into the hands of the favoured few in the industry. It is a classic case of disaster capitalism at work.”

TAP said: “A full independent risk assessment with community input is essential and must include the costs and impacts of all plantations on the Tasmanian people, public subsidies and the ability of the government to fund basic essential services.”

Despite the secretive nature of the talks, details of the negotiations have been leaked. The October 8 Mercury said that the key parts of the deal would be: “Acknowledgement that more high conservation forests such as the Tarkine, Styx, Florentine and Weld will be exempt from logging. A return pledge by environmentalists to end all forest protests. Agreement that some areas of native forest regrowth can be part of a sustainable forestry industry, driven by high value sawlog production.”

The October 10 Sunday Tasmanian said: “But the preliminary deal includes acknowledgement by environmentalists that a pulp mill ‘in principle’ is a future part of a new-look forestry industry based on plantation-only timber.”

However, in-principle agreements look to be on shaky grounds. The Sunday Tasmanian said FIAT had insisted on two new conditions at the 11th hour that will “insist all existing wood-supply agreements covering access to publicly owned native forests managed by Forestry Tasmania by timber companies and contractors be honoured, and that the use of forest and sawmill waste residues or ‘biomass’, previously called woodchips, be allowed to produce renewable energy”.

Both conditions are hugely controversial. Forestry Tasmania signed a deal with Gunns in 2008 to supply timber sourced from native forests for 20 years. Environmental groups, including TWS have campaigned strongly against wood-fired power stations, particularly in Tasmania’s Huon Valley, which, according to Will Mooney from the Huon Valley Environment Centre, would release up to 500,000 tonnes of carbon a year.

The other contentious issue is around support for a pulp mill. TWS and ET oppose the proposed Tamar Valley Pulp Mill, but McMahon said he believes the agreement could still be used to justify it.

He wrote on the Tasmanian Times website: “The test will come when the industry claims a social license for a pulp mill in Tasmania, to which they already have an ‘in principle’ agreement (as trade off for some, as yet unspecified, forest protection) from the ENGO’s. While TWS might say ‘we didn’t mean the Tamar Valley pulp mill’ the industry will selectively quote them in public and call them suckers in private and in public too perhaps.”

Even if such principles for a forestry industry are agreed upon, the details are to be worked out in the next round of talks. The question should also be asked: what laws will be put in place to ensure the timber industry lives up to their side of the deal?

While there is real hope that the “end is nigh” for the forestry wars, people have seen enough broken promises and lies from the corporate timber industry to be suspicious as to whether this leopard has changed it spots.

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