This is a story of broken promises from the Australian and Tasmanian governments, private companies profiting from the destruction of the environment with tax payer funded subsidies, threatened species under threat despite being “wholly protected,” one woman sitting in a tree to stand up for the forests and a community locally and internationally who are standing behind her in the fight to save an irreplaceable ecosystem.
Almost two years ago now the forest round table talks began, bringing together groups that had once been seen as opponents in the long running battle over the forests in Tasmania. Environment groups sat down with unions and industry representatives to negotiate a future for Tasmania that would be good for the environment, communities and workers. It brought a new hope for the Tasmanian community that a solution could be possible, after generations of conflict and division over the issue. It all began when the forestry industry seemed to be in a state of crisis. The international community no longer wanted to buy woodchips from Tasmania’s old growth. Yet, the industry here was so stuck in its ways that it needed to change fast. What was needed was a transition out of native forest logging. Finally, the negotiations brought about an agreement. In August 2011 the State and Federal governments put together the recommendations of the round table and signed the Tasmanian Forest Inter-Governmental Agreement. It promised an “immediate conservation agreement” would be placed over 430,000 hectares of forest.
Four months later, not a single hectare of forest was protected. Logging machinery moved into controversial old growth forest at the base of Mount Mueller in the state’s south west, that should have been protected under the conservation agreement.
Grassroots group Still Wild Still Threatened responded with a new high tech edge to the traditional forest action; placing a platform at the top of a tree and equipping it with solar panel, computer, and camera and internet access. The project, known as "the observer tree" has picked up momentum with over 12,000 views on the website so far and has begun to generate media coverage not only in Tasmania but internationally.
My name is Miranda Gibson and right now I’m sitting 60 meters above the ground in The Observer Tree. I have been up here for three weeks now and have vowed to remain on the tree-top platform until the area of forest receives the protection that was promised by the State and Federal governments in August 2011. From this tree-top perch I have been updating an online blog daily, giving talks at community forums over the internet, speaking to the public at market stalls through Skype, and taking part in press conferences via phone link-up.
Still Wild Still Threatened have been monitoring the forests of Mount Mueller for the past six months, finding evidence of endangered species including Tasmanian devils, spotted tail quolls and white goshawks. The group set up hidden remote sensor cameras in the forest, as a non-invasive form of monitoring. The cameras have captured footage of several healthy Tasmanian devils. On the 12th of December 2011, the day before logging began in the area, a devil was seen on camera carrying food in its mouth. Colette Harmsen, a veterinarian with a special interest in Tasmanian wildlife, who has worked with devils for the past 5 years, said this indicates that the devil is a mother taking food to pups in the den.
“Unfortunately forestry operations are exempt from endangered species legislation set out in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999). This means that despite the Tasmanian devil being listed as endangered in the EPBC Act and the Tasmanian Threatened Species Protection Act (1995) so that it is now considered wholly protected, logging is still occurring in areas where devils are denning. There is no doubt that infant devils die in dens, as they are buried during logging operations.”
The question remains - why would the government so blatantly break an agreement they signed? The answer lies in a Malaysian company, Ta Ann, part of a network of companies under the control of the wealthy Taib family. The company has a contract for 265,000 cubic meters of wood each year from Tasmania, which is turned into veneer to be sold around the world. This contract is one of the major blocks to forest protection in Tasmania. Managing director of Forestry Tasmania, Bob Gordon, has claimed that coupes needed to be logged within the 430,000 hectares ear-marked for protection, because the wood was “critical to the supply of logs to Ta Ann.” Around the globe Ta Ann have brought about environmental devastation and human rights abuses, yet the Tasmanian government provides tax payers money to the company through millions of dollars in subsidies, in order to allow them access to our precious native forest. The wood is sold to the company at rock bottom prices, making it cheaper for them to log here than in their home country of Malaysia.
Ta Ann has been targeted around the world in a campaign against their destructive practices. A positive outcome of the campaign was the recent announcement by UK company International Plywood that their contract for timber from Ta Ann has been suspended and will not be resumed unless the company changes it’s environmentally destructive practices. This announcement is encouraging and it shows the concern of the global community for protecting the last remaining areas of old growth forest around the world. "The London ban on this company's products will spread. The Sarawak logging industry is now under inquiry in Malaysia for corruption" Greens Senator Bob Brown stated in a media release on the day of the announcement.
The Observer Tree has also brought attention to the major furniture retailer Harvey Norman and their role in forest destruction. This follows on from a recent global day of action that saw protesters scale the Opera House to display a banner urging Harvey Norman to stop sourcing native forest timber. This came as a response to the report produced by Markets for Change which provided evidence of the chain of custody of wood products sourced from Australian native forests being sold in Harvey Norman stores.
Who knows how long I will end up living in this tree? That will be up to those who control the fate of this forest – the Australian and Tasmanian governments, Ta Ann and Harvey Norman. I have made a commitment to remain here until this area is protected. Meanwhile, networked to the world, I will continue to use technology to expose the ongoing logging of this area to the international community.
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