Thousands rally in Hobart to save World Heritage forests

Monday, June 16, 2014
'There are so many people who love and value these World Heritage forests.' Photo: Shaine Stephen.

About 5000 people protested outside Parliament House in Hobart on June 14 to call for the protection of Tasmania’s World Heritage forests.

The World Heritage Committee unanimously approved the extension of 120,000 hectares of new reserves to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage property at a meeting in June last year. The forests were judged to have met all four natural heritage criteria.

The federal government, with the support of the Tasmanian Liberal government, has asked the World Heritage Committee to revoke the listing of 74,000 hectares of the new reserves, claiming the areas are degraded and should be available for logging.

The World Heritage Committee is due to consider the request when it meets in Doha, Qatar, next week. Its advisory body, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), confirmed the World Heritage values of the forests and recommended the application be rejected.

Environment groups say that more than 90% of the contested area is pristine old-growth forest, rainforest and other intact natural vegetation. Its protection will ensure the integrity of the 1.6 million hectare World Heritage Area.

Greg Irons, a wildlife expert and Tasmanian tourism operator, told the rally: “This is the first time a developed country has asked to delist a World Heritage property when its heritage values are well and truly still intact.” He pointed out that an estimated $780 million has been spent to prop up the timber industry and asked what could have been achieved if this had been spent on retraining workers into secure long-term jobs.

Jess Feehely from the Environmental Defender’s Office, told the rally: “When Australia signed and ratified the World Heritage Convention in the early 70s, we took on legal obligations. We agreed to identify and nominate areas of international significance. We agreed to protect the values of listed properties. And, where areas within the listed property are degraded (which the Convention clearly allows for), we agreed to take action to restore those areas.

“The 191 countries who have signed the World Heritage Convention did so recognising that properties are listed because they have ‘Outstanding Universal Value’.

“There are only a handful of examples of countries who have asked to have property removed from the list, and even fewer examples where the request has been successful. The most recent example was a request made by the Tanzanian government to remove an area of the Selous Game Reserve to allow mining. In a hotly contested decision, the World Heritage Committee agreed, but only on the grounds of the exceptional economic circumstances of the developing country, and only on the condition that additional forest area be added to compensate for the areas removed. This was a rare and exceptional circumstance, and is not something Australia should aspire to repeat.”

Professor Jamie Fitzpatrick from the University of Tasmania, who has been a member of the World Heritage Advisory Committee, said that “no institution is incorruptible, which is why we are here, to show that there are so many people who love and value these World Heritage forests.”

A delegation of activists from environment groups and the Aboriginal community are travelling to Doha to brief the committee. Ruth Langford from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre spoke at the rally about how important these landscapes were to their people’s sense of wellness. She linked the destruction of forests and places of cultural importance to illness, pain and suicide among her people.

Beekeeper Peter Norris highlighted the importance of bees -- and the leatherwood-rich forests they rely on -- to the Tasmanian economy. He said only about 20% of the leatherwood resource remains since 1964 when there was a change from selective logging to a clearfell and burn regime. He said that the demand for Leatherwood honey was growing rapidly and there was scope for expanding the industry but only if the forests were protected.

Vica Bailey from The Wilderness Society told the rally: “Logging World Heritage forests is as reckless as destroying any other World Heritage site, like using the Grand Canyon as a garbage dump, knocking down the Sydney Opera House for harbourside apartments or selling the Eiffel Tower for scrap.”

“The [Tony] Abbott government should drop its discredited request to axe the new Tasmanian World Heritage forests before it further embarrasses Australia and wastes more of the world Heritage Committee’s time,” he said.

From GLW issue 1012