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Australia going backwards on World Heritage listed forests

The Styx forests: world heritage, or soon to be unprotected again? Rob Blakers

The Abbott government wants iconic forests removed from the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, so they can be logged – a plan opposed by timber companies, their industry body, Tasmania’s Premier and her government.

What is going on? It’s more World Heritage “Alice in Wonderland logic” from an Australian Government disregarding its duties under the World Heritage Convention, and other consequences of its actions.

The government seeks delisting of forests added to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area ([TWWHA extension]( “)) by the international World Heritage Committee in June.

Opening the World Heritage forests to logging is part of rescinding the Tasmanian Forests Intergovernmental Agreement ["IGA”].

Tasmanian Liberal Senator Eric Abetz says “State and Federal Liberals promised no IGA and we intend to deliver …” State Liberals want to “tear up and roll back” the IGA if they win Tasmania’s 2014 election (expected in March).

The Liberals’ World Heritage logging policy is a thermo-nuclear option which, if detonated, will blow up the IGA. But waging war on World Heritage forests would also kill forest peace prospects and cause casualties further afield: collateral damage. So could the Liberals’ policy to revoke the World Heritage extension and tear up the IGA backfire? Why are so many so strongly opposed?

Delisting World Heritage forests to log

Removing World Heritage extension forests from the World Heritage List to log them would, as I explain here:

  • breach Australia’s international treaty obligations
  • damage Australia’s reputation
  • undermine Tasmania’s “clean, green and clever” brand, upon which many of its industries rely
  • strike at the heart of the Tasmanian Forests IGA
  • damage demand for Tasmanian forest products.

For example, each nation party to the World Heritage Convention acknowledges in article 4 its duty to:

do all that it can … to ensure the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage situated within its territory.

The international World Heritage Committee, by inscribing the extension forests on the World Heritage List, legally acknowledged their outstanding universal value. Delisting then logging these forests would contravene our treaty obligations.

The Queensland Tourism Industry Council chief executive confirmed this week that delisting could damage Australia’s World Heritage reputation and rebound on tourism:

Removing that status clearly sends a signal that it is now worth less or is perhaps less well protected and that is not something that would sit well with us promoting our natural assets … as a competitive edge in the tourism market.

World Heritage boundary change opposed

Other notable bodies opposed to delisting forests by modifying the World Heritage boundaries include:

  • Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings, who warned that her government would “strongly oppose” any alteration to World Heritage boundaries, which she said would be “reckless, politically motivated vandalism which would plunge Tasmania back into conflict.”

  • Industry, union and environment groups which negotiated details for the forests agreement over 3 years and now sit as a Special Council assessing its implementation.

  • Major timber companies operating in Tasmania, including Neville Smith Timbers and Ta Ann.

Styx Valley rainforest: Rob Blakers

The Tasmanian Forests Intergovernmental Agreement

The 170,000 ha World Heritage extension is a key conservation gain of the forests agreement, and the only one fully delivered so far. Undoing it will torpedo the agreement which is a package deal, essentially to:

  • give industry guaranteed wood supply volumes and funding and
  • reserve over 500,000 ha of high conservation value land.

The forests agreement is designed to give customers confidence in the Tasmanian forestry industry, rescue, reinvigorate and transition it a better future. The stated objectives of the agreement are to support:

  • a Tasmanian forest industry that has a strong, sustainable and certain future
  • the formal protection and management of native forests as identified in the Schedules of the Agreement
  • a Tasmanian economy that grows and diversifies creating new job opportunities.

Public funding of $387.4 million has/is being made available under the agreement to achieve these objectives, most of this going to the forestry industry. Without the reserves, the Australian Government and taxpayers get little for their money.

Given the forests agreement’s multiple objectives and carefully negotiated compromises and trade-offs, delisting World Heritage extension forests for logging would undo the whole package. The World Heritage extension is the centrepiece of the reserves.

The Tasmanian forestry industry needs the forests agreement for it to restructure, transition and move forward. The forests agreement and its reserves are also essential to Tasmanian forestry gaining Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, the “green stamp” for forestry products now required for customer confidence.

Only FSC certification will secure demand in the key export markets the industry needs for a strong, sustainable and certain future.

Industry future

Forest industry leaders have highlighted the need to move beyond past forest wars. As Terry Edwards of the Forest Industries Association said recently, “Our markets are calling for conflict free wood.” Nothing is more sure to reignite conflict and protests over Tasmanian forestry than World Heritage logging.

Mr Edwards has written to Tony Abbott requesting his government reverse its policy to undo the forests agreement as this would jeopardise FSC certification prospects and forestry related jobs.

Two of the biggest companies in Tasmanian forestry recently said the agreement has allowed them to expand and create jobs for the first time in years. Ta Ann’s Evan Rolley stated that without the forests agreement, “I don’t think we’d be operating the business, frankly”. Mr Rolley said of the future, “We will not be processing wood products that come from any other areas that are contentious.”

James Smith, executive chairman of Neville Smith Timbers, stated that the forests agreement has:

“allowed us to re-think what we’re doing within our business and engender confidence with our customers…[I] have no doubt that where we’re heading there’s a bright future.”

That bright future would be destroyed if the Liberals proceed to delist World Heritage extension forests and tear down the forests agreement, reigniting Tasmania’s forest wars. That would kill off FSC prospects and drive away remaining customers, turning a potential win-win through the agreement into a lose-lose for the state’s economy, forests and society.

A backwards step

Just when Tasmanian forestry is looking to the future, the Abbott government seems intent on dragging the industry back to a past which customers don’t want and won’t buy. But the Liberals have not presented a viable Plan B to the forests agreement.

World Heritage logging will be destructive in net economic, environmental and social terms. So it seems the Liberals’ motivation is more political. Perhaps an obsession to undo achievements predating their election? Or, part of an anti-green strategy to crowd out the Palmer United Party at the 2014 Tasmanian election?

Regardless, Mr Abbott should reconsider and provide national leadership, upholding Australia’s international legal obligations. He should rule out World Heritage delisting and logging – not help hardline Tasmanian Liberals breach international law, tear down past achievements and wage forestry war for political purposes, despite market realities.

Meanwhile, iconic World Heritage Areas in Queensland, the Wet Tropics and the Great Barrier Reef, also face multiple threats. These include:

Then there’s cane toads and the latest Ranger uranium mine spill in Kakadu.

If we don’t fulfil our international duties of care for our World Heritage Areas, what chance Australia’s lesser known environmental assets?

The Weld River forests: part of World Heritage extensions. Rob Blakers

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