Conflict over forest ‘peace’ deal

May 11, 2013
Author Richard Flanagan described environment groups signing up to the forest peace deal as "the greatest own goal in Australian

The environment movement in Tasmania has split over support for a forest “peace” agreement the Tasmanian Greens and environment groups made with the logging industry.

The environment groups have been in negotiations with the industry for almost three years. As the industry declined, environmentalists saw a chance for reform to win an end to the forest wars permanently.

The agreement was passed in state parliament on April 30, supported by the Greens and Labor, and opposed the Liberal party.

However, many people in the environment movement disagreed with the bill.

Author Richard Flanagan gave voice to this dissent in an essay he wrote for the Tasmanian Times on May 3. Flanagan worked closely with the Greens and The Wilderness Society (TWS) for many years in the campaign to stop the Gunns pulp mill that threatened Tasmanian forests, and was one of the most high-profile opponents of the mill.

He wrote: “I lived with the silence of Tasmania for too many years. And now the leaders of The Wilderness Society, Environment Tasmania, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Tasmanian Greens have signed up to a deal that seeks to achieve what even Gunns failed in doing: silencing the rage Tasmanians felt with the destruction of their land and the corruption of public life that for a time became its necessary corollary. It is perhaps the greatest own goal in Australian political history.”

The interim agreement that was signed between environment groups and industry groups last year had been heavily amended by the state parliament’s upper house.

TWS said the deal would protect 500,000 hectares of forest in “reserves”; create a World Heritage area to include forests such as the Weld, Styx and Florentine valleys; and restructure the forest industry.

Critics said logging would continue for the time being, and the majority of forests nominated for protected reserves would not be covered until late 2014 or 2015, after the next state and federal election. The Tasmanian Liberals have vowed to rip up the legislation if elected.

Further, the creation of permanent reserves is dependent on Forestry Tasmania being certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which ensures the environmentally sustainable management of forests. Forestry Tasmania needs FSC certification to gain access to international markets, but has been unable to achieve this because of its history of unsustainable management practices.

A key part of gaining FSC certification is to have the support of the community. As part of the peace deal, environment groups have agreed to support Tasmanian timber products to overseas buyers. This will lead to pressure on environmentalists to “greenwash” the reality of forest practices in Tasmania to promote timber products as “environmentally friendly” to keep the peace agreement alive.

Grassroots environment groups including the Huon Valley Environment Centre and Still Wild Still Threatened have vowed to continue to campaign for Tasmania’s forests.

Miranda Gibson, who recently ended a 457-day tree-sit in Tasmania’s southern forests, said: “The legislation entrenches and props up the unviable native forest industry and ongoing logging of high conservation value forests, while making the attainment of new reserves virtually impossible. Conservation outcomes have been undeniably sidelined.”

Federal Greens leader Christine Milne, her predecessor Bob Brown, and former Tasmanian Greens leader Peg Putt also disagree with the agreement.

Brown said the Tasmanian Greens and environment groups had been “outmanoeuvred” by the forest industry.

Environmentalists have to wait a further two years for the creation of forest reserves, but money for the industry will flow immediately.

Flanagan wrote: “These environmentalists have managed to negotiate a deal that extraordinarily manages to resuscitate at vast public subsidy (reportedly $350 million) the worst aspects of a dead forest industry employing less than a thousand people; lock in social conflict for another decade; empower in Forestry Tasmania a rogue government agency that sees itself as the real power on the island and which works to undermine governments; and delivered the island to political stagnation by ensuring forestry remains the island’s defining political issue.”

One of the most insidious parts of the agreement is the “durability clause”. This seeks to stop public protests. In the event that “substantial active protest” occurs, the clause allows for either house of parliament to cancel the agreement and open the reserves for logging again.

Richard Denniss from the Australia Institute wrote in the Australian Financial Review on May 7: “The creation of this legislative poison pill is equivalent to telling a union that if it strikes for better conditions then the minimum wage will be cut, or telling human rights groups that if they protest for improved treatment of asylum seekers the annual intake of refugees will be cut.”

Environment groups outside Tasmania have also condemned this part of the agreement. Victorian forest campaigner Steve Meacher said he feared that “the loggers, state governments and those environment groups party to the forest agreement will now attempt to use this as a model for the rest of the country with dreadful impacts on Australia’s forests.”

TWS’s Vica Bayley defended the durability clause. He said: “Just because you can protest, doesn’t mean you must … That is a big responsibility and a big price to pay. The responsibility I accept is to not condemn protest or dissenting voices, but question the message, the timing, the tactic, the targets and voice my organisation’s opinion on the Agreement, the forests it protects and anything that threatens that protection.”

This will put huge pressure on longstanding environment groups that were not invited to be part of negotiations, and do not agree with it, to not protest or be too vocal in their criticism against the industry. In the past, their protests have been the key to raising awareness in the broader community about destructive forestry practices. If they are silenced, the industry will be able to continue these practices without public scrutiny.

There was disagreement even among the Greens about whether to support the amended agreement. Greens MP Kim Booth crossed the floor and voted against the legislation. He said the bill “went too far in terms of undermining the fundamental principles of free speech, democracy and protection of parks and conservation reserves”.

“The only certainty for forests to be placed in reserves is the 123,000 hectares of forests that will be protected through the Tasmanian World Heritage Nomination that will be finalised in June this year. The forest protected under the World Heritage Nomination would have taken place regardless of whether the Tasmanian Forests Agreement Bill passed the Lower House.”

Most damningly, Flanagan questioned the direction of the Tasmanian Greens under the leadership of Nick McKim. He wrote: “At the forthcoming state election there would be many reasons for environmentalists to not vote Green and very few to support them.

“In their determination to achieve respectability, they seem to have become simply the third aspect of a conservative Tasmanian polity with no ideas or vision for the future. Could it be, that for Nick McKim, the decision to support the package proves his Meg Lees moment?”

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