Woodchipping licences up for decision


By Zanny Begg

Before the last sitting of federal parliament this year, 10 woodchipping licences come up for renewal. These licences threaten 764 areas of high conservation value, including 485 areas of old growth forest and 11 wilderness areas. Since white invasion of Australia, 43% of its forest coverage has been cleared. Only 5% of wilderness areas remain. The environmental movement is saying enough is enough; it's time that the export woodchipping industry is stopped.

Licences to log for the export woodchip market are granted by the federal minister for resources, David Beddall. The state governments are then charged with administering the licences. Licences are granted in principle for periods of up to 15 years but are subject to review on an annual basis. Each year the guillotine stands above Australia's old growth forests as the conservation movement waits for the verdict on woodchipping licences.

The pressure on the government this year has been strong, with conservation groups across Australia uniting in a common campaign against the export woodchipping industry. The Forest Embassy in Canberra attracted 2000 people to an anti-woodchipping festival. The WA forest blockade has been mobilising hundreds of people, and forest protests have been held around Australia.

Kevin Parker, spokesperson for the Wilderness Society, says that the many voices of the conservation movement have grown to a "roar" that the government will ignore "at its own peril". He believes that the conservation movement has "intellectually and morally" won the high ground and that "woodchipping must be stopped".

But stopping the export woodchipping industry is easier said than done. Sid Walker, executive officer of the NSW Nature Conservation Council, would like to believe that the government will listen to environmentalists but fears that the licences will be renewed over the next few weeks. "There is no indication", he told Green Left Weekly, "that the government will terminate any of the licenses".

The conservation movement is arguing that the timber industry needs to be restructured. According to official figures, the industry has an annual turn over of $10 billion and contributes 1% to the GDP. But environmentalists argue that the timber industry is badly managed and heavily subsidised by the public purse.

"There is strong evidence", Parker says, "that right around the country the woodchipping and logging industry is heavily subsidised by the taxpayer. The Resource Assessment Commission in 1991 quoted a figure of a $5 billion debt that the timber industry had accumulated over the last five years.

"So you have this double bunger: not only are we losing our native forests, but as taxpayers we are subsidising the process. There is evidence of logs being downgraded so that companies can rort on royalties. The industry costs $65-80 million a year, and the royalties return $22 million. You don't have to be an Einstein to work out the maths of that."

In NSW, Walker explains, the State Forestry Commission accrued a massive debt over the 1980s. This was wiped clean by the state government so that now, with "creative accounting", it can claim to run on a profit.

"Even Senator John Button, who is not known for his green leanings", Walker continued, "has called woodchipping a bastard industry. That is not a bad description. It has an extremely low level of economic benefit for the Australian people because all we are doing is exporting raw logs. All the downstream processing, with all the associated jobs, occurs out of this country. From an economic point of view, it is the sort of industry that you would expect to find in the Third World. It is an embarrassment that it is still going on in Australia."

Figures from the Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories show that total export of forest products, 53% of which was woodchips, reaped $859 million in 1993-94. Over the same period, Australia imported $2639 million worth of timber products, 48% of which were paper products. Over the last 20 years, jobs in forestry and logging have declined by 21%.

In addition to poor economics, woodchipping leaves a terrible environmental legacy. According to the Wilderness Society, 20 mammal species have been lost due to forest clearing since 1788. Three or four different types of birds have disappeared, and the habitats of many endangered species are rapidly vanishing.

Parker says that it is "no longer OK to destroy our pristine forests. Once they are gone, they are gone forever. We only have 5% forest coverage left. It's time to stop the destruction."

But the "smash and grab" approach of the government means that very little assessment is made of the environmental impacts of logging. Walker said that in many areas no environmental impact assessments have been carried out at all.

Beddall is actually facing two court cases in which conservationists have challenged the legality of logging operations. "In the Gunns case in Tasmania, no environmental impact statement [EIS] at all was prepared on the forests targeted for logging, and the minister in his wisdom deemed that none was necessary. Clearly this is outrageous. The Tasmanian Trust was brave enough to take Mr Beddall to court. If they win it will force the revocation of the licence.

"On the north coast of NSW, a different case is under way. Sawmillers Exports have been under pressure for 15 years to carry out a proper EIS on their operation in this area. They finally did one last year, but the North Coast Environment Council considered it so deficient as not to constitute an EIS. They have also taken Beddall to court."

Amongst many environmentalists there is a sense of desperation, that the woodchipping industry will just continue destroying old growth forests until there are none left. According to Parker, "The government's policy is to phase out woodchipping by the year 2000. But there is no evidence that this is actually happening. There is a commitment to set up a national reserve system by 1995, and that is not happening.

"It is little wonder that the conservation movement has been disillusioned. You get involved in very exhaustive consultation processes, and governments just ignore it. Organisations like mine, which run largely on a volunteer basis, are being forced to do the government's job for them. We have to go in and do the EIS because they aren't. We have to do the work to ensure that the government follows its own laws."

But Parker remains optimistic. "The Labor government can make themselves into heroes in the next few weeks. We are asking them to be as good as their word." The Wilderness Society is calling for Paul Keating and John Faulkner to be involved in the decision on licences. Parker feels that Faulkner has played a "constructive role through the whole process, because he has shown a willingness to take on environmental issues and listen to what the community has to say".

Walker believes that the elements that make up a winning strategy against woodchipping are a "consolidation of public support", a "better working relationship between the environmental movement and trade unions" and the forcing of a change in the "political will" of governments. He is very careful to point out that environmentalists have to "work with unions and working people to make sure they are not hurt by the steps required to get rid of woodchipping and replace that with employment alternatives".

Gavin Hillier, NSW state secretary of the Timber Workers Division of the CFMEU, is also concerned about the future of the timber industry. He explains that his members (50% of the hardwood loggers are unionised) "do understand that trees need to continue to exist if they want to keep their jobs, although our approach to conservation issues would certainly differ from environmentalists'. These are rural communities frightened that the greens are going to close down their industry and they are going to be left unemployed. By the same token, these people don't want to rip the guts out of the forest and woodchip anything they can see."

Hillier has little time for the giant logging companies that dominate the industry: "Harris Daishowa and Boral spend millions of dollars telling everyone how lovely they are. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, they screw the timber workers. We have had to take Boral to court over the last few years just to get a decent wage. They are the biggest mob of bastards when it comes to paying people a decent living. If you take a community such as Grafton, Bellingen or Mount George, they only live for Boral. But Boral live for themselves."

Hillier lays the blame for the state of the woodchipping industry at the feet of the federal government. "Let me give you a scenario. If [ALP leader] Bob Carr wins the next NSW election, we know that he is going to increase the national parks system. This will cause Harris Daishowa a lot of concern. They will lose about 500,000 tonnes of chip in that decision.

"But this is what will happen. Harris Daishowa will toddle across the Victorian border and Mr Kennett will give them another 700,000 tonnes there. The chip will be just as high for Harris Daishowa, but we will lose about 60 jobs. Why is this the case? It is because the federal government doesn't have the balls to make the right decision."

Hillier is frustrated that the government is not forcing the timber industry to add value in logging operations. The National Forest Policy Statement, produced in 1992, removed controls on owners of private forests, both plantation and old growth. The impact has been that private timber operations are shipping logs straight out to be processed overseas, providing almost no jobs for timber workers.

Hillier points out, "On the one hand, the government is saying how green they are, and on the other the sawlog I want to use that will get me out of old growth forests is being taken out of the country in log form.

"What we want to be able to say to the greens is that yes, we have a pine alternative, and yes we will get out of the old growth forest because you have proved that it has an endangered species in it, that our wildlife or our water is at risk. But we don't have an alternative while the bloody government sign licences over without wanting to value add or halve the woodchips going out of this country."

The solution to restructuring the timber industry, Hillier sees as community control. He argues that what is needed is a "committee of greens, unions and community groups looking at the licence each year. If they don't value add, if they don't look after the environment, they lose their licence. You would only need to knock off one licence of a big player like Boral, and the rest would start doing the right thing.

"But this doesn't happen, which is a real shame because the greens and the timber workers fight one another all the time while the common enemy gets away with it. The government will continue playing us off against one another because they make far more money out of woodchipping than they do out of timber workers or the greens."

Anne Pavey, a member of the Democratic Socialist Party who is active in the WA forest campaign, feels that the only way to win a campaign against woodchipping is to build on the relationship between unions and environmentalists.

"There is this terrible sense of dread", she explained to Green Left Weekly, "with all the woodchipping licences hanging over our heads at the moment. If we are going to halt the woodchipping of old growth forests, we are going to have to do more than put in detailed submissions to Beddall and Faulkner. We have to organise the community in support of environmental aims. One of our most important allies could be the timber workers. We have to make our demands include the questions of value adding and jobs.

"At the moment environmentalists can only go begging to Keating and hope that he will listen to our concerns. But of course he won't. We need to build a political alternative to Labor and stop kidding ourselves that they will challenge the Bunnings and Borals of the world. If we are going to be able to move into plantations, we have to start planning that now."

Over the next few weeks, the fate of thousands of hectares of native forest hangs in the balance. The pressure is on the government to call the woodchipping companies to account. But past experience makes many fear it will continue with business as usual, putting timber workers out of work and destroying irreplaceable old growth forests.