The peace talks underway about Tasmania’s forests are as rich in ironies and paradoxes as Tasmania’s old-growth forests are in carbon.
The current direction of the peace talks locks Tasmania into a pulpwood future, the very situation critics of Tasmanian forestry have been arguing against since woodchipping started in the 1970s.
This future ignores Tasmania’s comparative advantages in forestry and the bigger global picture. It delivers marginal carbon and biodiversity gains at unnecessary economic and social cost.
There are certainly elements of the peace deal that should endure, but the current package throws the forests baby out with the proposed pulpmill effluent water.
Plantations are good for pulpmills
The first irony is that critics of Tasmanian forestry have long argued that the state’s forest and industry policies gave too much weight to the interests of one dominant company, Gunns Ltd.
The peace deal continues that tradition. It disproportionately reflects the interests of one corporation, not those of the forestry sector or the community more broadly.
The second irony is related. Tasmania’s Regional Forest Agreement, signed between the Australian and Tasmanian Governments in 1997, traded off an increase in national parks against an increase in turning other native forests into plantations.
Many environment groups, with a narrow focus on protecting old-growth forests, effectively acquiesced. 150,000 ha of native forests valuable for biodiversity, carbon, and wood were converted to plantations before December 2007, when the practice stopped.
WWF, in its 2004 Blueprint for Tasmania’s Forests, was one of the few to point out that this was a bad outcome. But the expanded plantation area forms part of the resource that allow Gunns to propose the plantation-only pulpmill that is associated with the peace deal.
A good process doesn’t happen behind closed doors
A third irony is that the peace process has breached the principles of good forest governance. Environment groups have argued persuasively that these should be the foundation of Tasmanian forest policy and management.
Those principles include inclusivity and transparency. Both of these are difficult to achieve in invitation-only closed-door talks convened by the two parties with the most extreme interests – no logging, on the one side, and logging on the other.
Those with positions that don’t align with those interests, and who might see the situation in rather less black-and-white terms, have no voice.
Reserving forests won’t solve our problems
Protagonists have found common ground by excluding or silencing those with other views. They are seeking substantial public funding to solve a concocted problem. Tasmania’s forests are not, in fact, under any imminent threat from which they need to be “saved”.
The carbon emissions associated with harvesting all of Australia’s native forests form a trivial proportion – a few percent - of national greenhouse gas emissions.
The overwhelming majority of forest-related emissions and biodiversity loss are associated with clearing forests to make way for farms, houses and plantations. (Over the decade to 2008, 90% of this clearing was for agriculture and urban development, and 10% for plantation conversion – another double whammy).
The paradox is that Tasmania does have a global comparative advantage in growing native forest timber.
The global comparative advantage in plantation production is in South America, where the growth rates of eucalypts in pest-free exotic environments and the scale of plantation development deliver extraordinary production advantages.
Indonesia’s advantage is that deforestation associated with forest products appears of little concern to Australians who consume them. There, plantation forestry generates the stinging critiques we usually associate with Tasmanian native forest politics.
Get the trees out of the woods
There is a bigger global picture, which received a little national airing before the global financial crisis intervened. There is a looming crises in global food, energy and water supplies. With the added impact of climate change, we will have to change the way we manage rural landscapes to survive these.
These issues are rightly the focus of growing concern and strategising globally, but have so far received scant attention in Australia’s peculiar electorally- rather than policy-focused contemporary politics.
The broader international consensus is that we need to transition to carbon- and energy- positive landscapes. These must use less water for food and fibre production than do current systems.
They must maintain biodiversity across the landscape rather than just in reserves. They must be resilient to climate change. They need to spread rather than concentrate risks.
One solution: forested landscapes which are well, but not completely, reserved, and farming landscapes with more trees.
Plantation forests, as relatively energy- and water-intensive, and biodiversity-poor, production systems, have only a partial role in such a future.
Extensively-managed self-regenerating native forests, with low inputs and many co-benefits, are a better fit. So are other forms of tree growing more integrated with agriculture.
Ironically, Tasmania is well down some parts of this path – a third of its native forests are already reserved, there is strong focus on conservation of private as well as public forests, and it has a forest practices system that scores highly in global comparisons.
However, like the rest of Australia, it needs coherent and sustained public policy supporting integrated and sustainable management of predominantly agricultural landscapes.
A curate’s egg: good in parts
The peace deal on the table has elements that the Australian and Tasmanian Governments should support: an end to old growth harvesting, reducing the volume of sawlogs that Forestry Tasmania is legally required to deliver, and ample exit packages for those whose employment depended on an earlier era of native forest harvesting.
But there’s no need to fund a transition away from harvesting native forests for high-value wood products. Tasmania has a natural advantage in this industry.
What’s needed is a harvesting regime where biodiversity and carbon stocks are protected in an adequate reserve system and valued by the market. This, in turn, requires a price on carbon.
Rather than buying out businesses that don’t need to close, the Australian and Tasmanian Governments would to better to direct public funding to developing and supporting integrated production systems that address the real issues in sustainable management of Australia’s landscapes.
These are in our agricultural, not our forested, landscapes, both in Tasmania and mainland Australia. That’s where building a lasting peace most needs our attention and public funding.
Helping develop Tasmania as a global showcase for that environmentally-friendly future would be a public investment worth making.