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Markets for change: when anti-logging activism morphs into extortion

By Mark Poynter - posted Friday, 20 May 2011


Australia has 147.4 million hectares of native forests and woodlands. Timber is mostly produced from a 4.1 million hectare slice comprising less than half of the publicly-owned, multiple use state forests. This, plus a smaller area of private land and leased public land which is also used for timber production, equates to around 5 per cent of Australia’s forests.

Despite this, new environmental activist group Markets for Change is urging Australians to boycott locally-made hardwood furniture, flooring, and paper products largely on the basis of the grossly exaggerated premise that “logging is still permitted in 76 per cent of Australia’s native forests.”

Markets for Change was launched in early May 2011. Its Chief Executive is a former national forests campaign co-ordinator for the Wilderness Society and its activities are being overseen by a Board of Management comprised mostly of current and former Greenpeace activists (several of whom live overseas).  It is reportedly being funded to the tune of $7 million by anonymous local and international donors.

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The group's first campaign is entitled, 'Retailing the Forests: Confronting the Australian Retail Sector’s Involvement in Native Forest Destruction'. It is supported by a glossy 40-page publication that argues there is a direct link between ''the destruction of Australia's native forests and the everyday consumer products on the shelves and showroom floors of many of Australia's top retailers''.

Under the guise of hypothetical examples, the Retailing the Forests publication details how a range of social media could be used to direct and encourage consumer boycotts of targeted timber retailers. This effectively amounts to threatening those retailers with significant financial hardship unless they desist from selling products made from Australian native hardwoods. 

Perhaps eco-based consumer boycotts of this nature could be justified where there is irrefutable evidence of resource use causing significant environmental damage. However, inciting consumer boycotts by deliberately promulgating misinformation to manufacture an unwarranted imperative for change constitutes a form of extortion.

The Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (formerly the Trade Practices Act) normally protects retailers from campaigns to incite consumer boycotts designed to unfairly restrict trade. However, the 2010 Act allows an exemption for consumer boycotts which ‘relate to environmental protection’ thereby denying targeted companies their right to complain to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

This exemption effectively gives environmental activists carte blanche to prosecute consumer boycotts by distorting or exaggerating the nature of environmental threats posed by targeted products and misrepresenting the availability of alternatives. This is evident in the Retailing the Forests campaign, which:

  • Wrongly asserts that Australia has sufficient plantations to supply all its timber and wood product requirements without having to log native forests, when in reality there is a lack of plantations capable of meeting the demand for hardwood sawn timber.
  • Falsely asserts that consumers have a choice between furniture made from Australian native hardwood and plantation-grown hardwood of the same species, with equivalent quality and price, when they clearly do not.
  • Implies that Australian native forest wood production is akin to forest ‘destruction’ and ‘loss’ when, in reality, logged Australian forests are regenerated with the intention of supplying wood in perpetuity.
  • Infers that logging is akin to the extinction of flora and fauna when this is not the case in Australia. Biodiversity has been primarily damaged by permanent habitat loss for settlement and agricultural development, the introduction of feral carnivores, and changed fire regimes.  
  • Grossly overstates the actual environmental impact of wood production by focusing only on the immediate aftermath of the most intensive harvesting system. While ignoring the next 80 to 100 years of regrowth during which wood production forests recover their biodiversity in much the same way as occurs after natural disturbance, such as fire. Indeed, most High Conservation Value forests identified for protection by forest activists in Tasmania have produced timber over the 200 years of European settlement.
  • Ignores the reality that substantial volumes of native forest timber products are derived from low intensity harvesting systems.
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While the Retailing the Forests publication superficially presents as being plausible and well referenced, it selectively uses official figures out of context or deceptively draws unwarranted conclusions from government publications. In addition, it is heavily reliant on previous reports funded or prepared by anti-logging activists or their supporters. Some specific instances of this are:

  • The misuse of land tenure statistics from a Government publication to imply that huge areas of forest will be logged simply because they are not contained in formal nature conservation reserves. In reality, the vast majority of Australian forest that is not formally reserved, such as most of the 103 million hectares of privately-owned or leased public forest, will never be logged. This is because it is comprised of unsuitable forest types that are too small, too defective, or contains non-commercial species; is too remote or topographically-challenged to be economically accessible; or is owned and managed by people with no intention of logging. 
  • The heavy reliance on a flawed publication that was funded by the Wilderness Society to underpin the discussion about logging and climate change.
  • The heavy reliance on the work of an economist who has for 20-years advocated closing the native forest timber industry to underpin discussion about Australia’s future wood requirements. 
  • Drawing erroneous conclusions from research by the Department of Sustainability and Environment to assert that, “logging is having a deleterious effect on Melbourne’s water supplies”. In reality, just 12 per cent of Melbourne’s forested water catchments are available for timber production, with just 250 hectares (or 0.15 per cent of the total catchment area) being logged and regenerated each year. This has little effect on water supplies.
  • Claims that logging in public state forests are exempt from Commonwealth threatened species legislation when a 2009 review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 found that this was not the case.
  • Referring to Victoria’s mountain ash forests as “threatened” despite them still occupying over 90 per cent of their original extent with about 70 per cent residing in water catchments and conservation reserves that will not be used for wood production.

Most natural resource use involves complex local and distant cost/benefit trade-offs that, if disturbed, may actually worsen environmental outcomes. This is particularly the case in Australia where resource use is highly evolved and operates within strong planning and regulatory frameworks, designed specifically to minimise environmental impacts. Decisions about the future of Australian natural resource use need to be carefully considered and evidence-based to avoid consequences which can lead to perverse, unintended outcomes.

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About the Author

Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 40 years experience. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia and his book, Saving Australia's Forests and its Implications, was published in 2007.

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