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Koalas in timber plantations: a testing issue for FSC certification

By Mark Poynter - posted Thursday, 21 November 2013


Last month, in a widely publicised move, Australian Bluegum Plantations – the nation’s biggest export woodchip company – had its Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification suspended because koalas were being killed or injured during harvesting operations in south western Victoria.

Concerns about the impact of plantation harvesting on koalas were first aired on the ABC’s 7:30 Report last July at the behest of local wildlife carers. The reaction of the plantation industry to this program largely involved attempting to put the issue into some perspective by emphasising that although ‘unfortunate’, the harm being done to koalas was somewhat less than the supposed carnage that was being implied. 

Providing context and perspective is highly appropriate in the face of throwaway claims made by the ABC, such as that Australian Bluegum Plantations operates in “vast koala habitats across south-eastern Australia”. In fact, the company’s western Victorian plantations had been established only since 2000 on cleared farmland where no koalas resided. These plantations had been subsequently invaded by koalas previously resticted to small patches of remnant native bushland. In some cases, these koalas had travelled overland for up to 15 km to take-up residence in the company’s plantations. However overall, the establishment of the plantations specifically to produce wood has benefitted koalas by inadvertently creating favourable habitat that has allowed the regional population to substantially expand – arguably this far outweighs harm done to individual koalas during harvesting operations.

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Unfortunately these days, responding pragmatically to environmental claims is typically dismissed as lacking in compassion, and for critics, simply confirms perceptions of a heartless corporate sector. In this case, this perception was enhanced because the ABC report failed to disclose that the regional plantation industry had been endeavouring to manage the koala issue and often worked closely with local wildlife carers to assist in relocating animals displaced by plantation harvesting.

According to the ABC, complaints against Australian Bluegum Plantations ‘flooded in following our report’, and ‘international environmental auditors, the Rainforest Alliance launched an investigation into Australian Bluegum Plantations and 7:30’s claims.’ 

In fact, the Rainforest Alliance was already very familiar with the policies and management practices of Australian Bluegum Plantations because they routinely audit FSC-certified companies to ensure that they continue to meet FSC standards. Indeed, the Rainforest Alliance’s audit of Australian Bluegum Plantations in 2012 was sufficiently favourable for the company to be named as the FSC’s ‘Australian Forest Manager of the Year.’

In April this year, the Rainforest Alliance had again conducted their routine annual audit of Australian Bluegum Plantations and found no significant problems with its policies and practices. Yet just months later, their spot investigation of the company launched in responseto the ABC’s July 7:30 Report, unearthed ‘six areas of major non-conformances’ related to how they manage wildlife.

As the Rainforest Alliance’s report of this later investigation has not been publicly released, this finding raises questions about what had changed in the intervening period between the two audits, and whether this change related to the performance of the auditors, the company, or both.

Nevertheless, the Rainforest Alliance’s investigation finding led the FSC to suspend the company’s forest management certification. This prompted the ABC’s 7:30 Report to cover the issue again in late October.

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This time, under hostile interrogation, Australian Bluegum Plantation’s Managing Director, Tony Price, made a heartfelt apology for “the fact that koalas have been harmed on our property” while pledging that “going forward, we do everything we possibly can as a business to avoid harming koalas”. However, the ABC again misled its audience by failing to disclose that the plantation sector had already developed a new koala management policy since the issue was first publicised in July, and was developing operational guidelines aimed at attaining a zero-harm result.

Some observers have lauded how this issue has played out and believe it verifies the success of FSC certification in improving environmental outcomes. While there may be some truth to this, it is clear that a greater test of the FSC certification concept lies in whether the scheme will allow Australian Bluegum Plantations to have its certification reinstated after its koala management practices have sufficiently improved, or whether it will become conditional on the company being forced to meet inappropriate or unrealistic standards demanded by the FSC’s environmental stakeholders.

Understandably for a certification scheme developed by the international environmental movement, FSC is particularly sensitive to the demands of its environmental stakeholders. Unfortunately, this leaves the scheme open to manipulation by ideologically-driven ENGOs such as the Wilderness Society.

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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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