High-tech forest protest launched high in Tasmania’s treetops

January 8, 2012
Miranda Gibson in The Observer Tree.
Forest activist Miranda Gibson in The Observer Tree, equipped with a solar panel, computer, camera and internet access

This is a story of broken promises from the Australian and Tasmanian governments, private companies profiting from the destruction of the environment with taxpayer-funded subsidies, threatened species under threat despite being “wholly protected,” one woman sitting in a tree to stand up for the forests and a local and international community who are standing behind her in the fight to save an irreplaceable ecosystem.

Almost two years ago the forest round table talks began, bringing together groups that were once seen as opponents in the long running battle over the forests in Tasmania.

Environment groups sat down with unions and industry representatives to negotiate a future for Tasmania that would be good for the environment, communities and workers. It brought a new hope for the Tasmanian community that a solution could be possible, after generations of conflict and division over the issue.

It all began when the forestry industry seemed to be in a state of crisis. The international community no longer wanted to buy woodchips from Tasmania’s old growth. Yet, the industry here was so stuck in its ways that it needed to change fast. What was needed was a transition out of native forest logging.

Finally, the negotiations brought about an agreement. In August 2011, the state and federal governments put together the recommendations of the round table and signed the Tasmanian Forest Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA). It promised an “immediate conservation agreement” would be placed over 430,000 hectares of forest.

Four months later, not a single hectare of forest was protected. Logging machinery moved into controversial old growth forest at the base of Mount Mueller in the state’s southwest. This area should have been protected under the conservation agreement.

Grassroots forest group Still Wild Still Threatened responded with a new, high tech edge to the traditional forest action; placing a platform at the top of a tree and equipping it with solar panel, computer, camera and internet access.

The project, known as “The Observer Tree”, has picked up momentum with more than 12,000 views on the website by early January. It has begun to generate media coverage not only in Tasmania but internationally.

My name is Miranda Gibson and right now I’m sitting 60 metres above the ground in The Observer Tree.

I have been up here for three weeks now and have vowed to remain on the tree-top platform until the area of forest receives the protection that was promised by the state and federal governments in August last year.

From this treetop perch I have been updating an online blog daily, giving talks at community forums over the internet, speaking to the public at market stalls through Skype and taking part in press conferences via phone link-up.

Still Wild Still Threatened have monitored the forests of Mount Mueller for the past six months, finding evidence of endangered species including Tasmanian Devils, spotted tail quolls and white goshawks.

The group set up hidden remote sensor cameras in the forest, as a non-invasive form of monitoring. The cameras have captured footage of several healthy Tasmanian Devils.

On December 12, the day before logging began in the area, a devil was seen on camera carrying food in its mouth. Colette Harmsen, a veterinarian with a special interest in Tasmanian wildlife, who has worked with devils for the past five years, said this indicates that the devil is a mother taking food to pups in the den.

She said: “Unfortunately forestry operations are exempt from endangered species legislation set out in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999). This means that despite the Tasmanian devil being listed as endangered in the EPBC Act and the Tasmanian Threatened Species Protection Act (1995) so that it is now considered wholly protected, logging is still occurring in areas where devils are denning. There is no doubt that infant devils die in dens, as they are buried during logging operations.”

The question remains — why would the government so blatantly break an agreement it signed? The answer lies in a Malaysian company, Ta Ann, which is part of the network of companies under the control of the wealthy Taib family.

The company has a contract for 265,000 cubic metres of wood a year from Tasmania, which is turned into veneer to be sold around the world.

This contract is one of the major blocks to forest protection in Tasmania. Managing director of Forestry Tasmania Bob Gordon has claimed that coupes within the 430,000 hectares earmarked for protection should be logged because the wood was “critical to the supply of logs to Ta Ann”.

Around the globe Ta Ann have brought about environmental devastation and human rights abuses. Yet the Tasmanian government provides millions of dollars in subsidies — taxpayers money — to the company and gives them access to our precious native forests. The wood is sold to the company at rock bottom prices, making it cheaper for it to log here than in its home country of Malaysia.

Ta Ann has been targetted around the world in a campaign against its destructive practices. A positive outcome of the campaign was the recent announcement by British company International Plywood, which said it has suspended its timber contract with Ta Ann. The contract will not resume unless Ta Ann changes its environmentally destructive practices.

This announcement is encouraging and shows the concern of the global community for protecting the last remaining areas of old growth forest around the world.

“The London ban on this company’s products will spread,” said Greens Senator Bob Brown. “The Sarawak logging industry is now under inquiry in Malaysia for corruption.”

Further pressure needs to be put on Ta Ann to bring about the protection that Tasmania’s forests so desperately need and to implement the IGA. The international community has now turned its attention to the Japanese companies that are purchasing Ta Ann’s products, with the aim of convincing them to follow International Plywood’s lead and withdraw their contracts.

The other company turning a profit at the expense of Tasmania’s forests is furniture company Harvey Norman. Timber from native forests in Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia is being shipped to China to be made into furniture and then shipped back to be sold in Harvey Norman stores across the country.

Since a report was released in July providing evidence of this chain of custody, there has been strong community opposition to the company. In October, people all around the world protested the company in a global day of action, including a huge banner drop on the Sydney Opera House.

This generated extensive media coverage about the connection between Harvey Norman and forest destruction. The campaign continues to put pressure on the company to stop sourcing timber from native forests in Australia and elsewhere around the globe.

I hope that my constant vigil in the treetops, bringing the forests to the world and exposing the truth behind the government’s lies, is beginning to gather momentum and inspires more people all around the world to stand up and take action to save our precious native forest ecosystems.

Please get behind The Observer Tree.

[For more details visit The Observer Tree website.]

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