The two-year negotiations between loggers and environmentalists, which many hoped would end the conflict over Tasmania’s forests, collapsed on October 27.
The Wilderness Society, a key negotiator in the talks, blamed the collapse on the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania (FIAT), which represents logging companies such as Malaysian logging firm Ta Ann and, previously, Gunns Ltd.
FIAT opposed a reduction in its wood supply. An independent review found that more than 500,000 hectares of forest that has been earmarked for logging has important, unique qualities that mean it should be added to world heritage reserves. However, the timber industry says this would mean it would not have access to enough wood to fill its present contracts.
To break this deadlock, a solution was proposed in which “one third of the remaining native forest logging companies in the industry agreed to be bought out by the Tasmanian and federal governments to free up the wood supplies needed to protect our forests”.
The Wilderness Society said FIAT then “dug their heels in” and “demanded that all of the wood supply sold back to the taxpayer be given back to the remaining sawmills, rather than used to protect forests”.
FIAT has rightly been criticised for not compromising. The timber industry is at the point of collapse as woodchip prices worldwide have dropped. Over the past few years many Tasmanian sawmills have been forced to close, and the once-powerful logging company Gunns went into administration on September 24.
Environmentalists see a chance to reform the industry and protect World Heritage value forests permanently.
The logging industry, however, never accepted any need to reform. The big companies saw the talks as a way of furthering their own goals — securing approval for projects such as the Bell Bay pulp mill or destructive practices such as clearfell logging.
Since the demise of Gunns, Ta Ann has become the largest user of timber from Tasmania’s forests. The company promotes its products as eco-friendly, but environmentalists say the business has “staked its future on continued access to timber from native forests and has actively lobbied to stall an industry-wide transition to plantation harvesting”.
These players want no real changes to the industry and to keep their profits and political power intact. They are angling for peace to come not through a change in their destructive practices, but through an agreement that acts as a smokescreen, allowing them to claim a social licence and convince the environment groups to withdraw their blockades and protests.
If this type of agreement were reached, it would be a step backwards for forest protection and would give new power to the logging industry at a time when they are vulnerable. Peace on such terms would not be real, and could not last long.
The state and federal governments have supported the industry’s stance throughout the negotiations.
As part of the collapsed deal, the federal government was to give $276 million to the industry as a workers assistance package. About $130 million has already been handed over the past two years, even though not one hectare of forest has been protected. This money does not have to be repaid.
Grassroots conservation groups have been very critical of the peace talks. A treetop protest by Miranda Gibson — a member of the group Still Wild, Still Threatened — has kept worldwide attention on the continued logging of Tasmania's forests. Ten months ago, Gibson climbed to the top of a 90-metre-high tree and vowed to remain there until the forest was protected.
From her platform in the tree she wrote on her blog that she was disappointed that the peace agreement failed, but said: “The question is, can we accept this at any cost? What if that cost of protecting some areas is the intensification of logging in areas outside the reserves? A durability clause that takes away the community’s right to speak out against logging practises? An entrenchment of native forest destruction? Burning native forests for electricity generations? And giving a green tick of approval to an industry that continues clear felling of native forests? Because that is exactly how this deal appears to be shaping up.”
Gibson told Green Left Weekly she thought it was “likely” that the big environment groups were prepared to sign a bad deal, against the wishes of most groups active in the conservation movement.
Lyndon Schneiders, national campaign director of The Wilderness Society, wrote in the October 31 Sydney Morning Herald: “I was prepared to argue for the overturning of the Wilderness Society's policies opposing all forms of native forest logging, I was prepared to withdraw support for long-standing claims for protection of some much-loved and treasured forests.”
These closed-door negotiations did not allow the public and the grassroots movement to take part in decisions about the future of Tasmania’s forests.
The tactics of the big environment groups are undermining grassroots campaigns. Earlier this year, Still Wild, Still Threatened wrote to customers of Ta Ann and asked them not to buy products sourced from Tasmania. Worried that this would hurt the peace talks, The Wilderness Society and the Australian Conservation Foundation wrote to these same buyers and asked them to make no changes to their contracts.
Still Wild, Still Threatened is campaigning for an immediate end to native forest logging in Tasmania, and to transition the industry into existing plantations. Gibson said: “The industry cannot ignore the reality of the global marketplace. Either they make the transition or they collapse.”
Even though the peace talks have failed, Gibson has vowed to remain in her tree-sit indefinitely. She admits this is a daunting prospect because “there’s no end in sight”. She said she was determined to make sure the half a million hectares of forest recommended for protection are saved. “We expect the government to protect these forests. The government has a responsibility to act on that, regardless of the talks.”