Protecting Australia's Forests Is About to Get A Whole Lot Harder

When Australia and its island state Tasmania signed the Tasmanian Forests Intergovernmental Agreement in 2011, it seemed to offer a peaceful conclusion to the fight over the country's natural forests that had raged for decades. That agreement, which expanded the protected area of Tasmanian forests and provided resources for logging companies to develop alternative plantation-based pulp production, may be in danger if Tasmania's new state government gets its way.

Will Hodgman, whose term as the premier of Tasmania started at the end of March, announced plans this week to repeal the agreement and open up around 400,000 previously protected hectares of forest for the timber industry.

Even more troubling, this news comes days after Australia's federal government announced a review of competition laws that members of parliament hope will altogether ban environmental boycotts. Under current law, secondary boycotts (any boycott not coordinated by employees against their direct employer) are illegal, except for those "substantially related to environmental or consumer protection." The Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Richard Colbeck, said last week, "I do think there is an appetite in the government for changing these laws."

The 2011 agreement was largely a result of successful campaigning to better inform foreign manufacturing companies about their Australian suppliers. Facing the declining market value of products made from unsustainably logged forests, Gunns Limited, Tasmania's largest private forestry company, announced it was exiting native forest harvesting. With their ability to stage similar campaigns now threatened, conservation and environmental advocacy groups are furious.

"It's quite outrageous in our view," says Peg Putt, the CEO of Markets for Change, an organization that researches and informs markets about companies driving environmental destruction.

Colbeck cited Markets for Change's 2011 investigation of major Australian furniture retailer Harvey Norman's supply chain, and subsequent advertisements criticizing the company, as an example of the type of dishonest campaigns the proposed ban aims to stop.

"Advocates of the forest industry, when they can't actually argue their case, just smear the people who are conducting the campaigns to protect the forest," Putt says. "They give no actual evidence. Whereas we have researched evidence of what's actually going on."

Sam Mclean, the national director of GetUp!, an online campaigning organization in Australia that partnered with Markets for Change for the "NoHarveyNo" campaign, agrees with Putt about the proposed ban.

"It's a nonsense idea," Mclean says. "And one which I think the vast majority of Australians would find very concerning."

When asked his reaction to Colbeck's statement that environmental campaigns are "dishonest," Mclean shared a conversation he had with Colbeck two weeks ago. Colbeck told Mclean that he thinks it is misleading to tell companies and the public that cutting down forests is bad.

"I said, that's not misleading. That's just what we think. We think destroying the forests is bad," Mcleans says. "He said that it's not bad, so it's a misleading campaign. So it's very clear that his definition of misleading in this instance is one we don't agree with."

Putt worries about the ramifications this ban would have on political speech.

"We could only talk to the producers. We could only talk to the bloke with the chainsaw," she says. "And that just undercuts a major action that any ordinary person can take to influence what goes on with their natural environment."

Mclean also framed the issue as a threat to political freedoms.

"The first thing we need to do is call on the government, which calls itself a free speech government, to live up to that standard," he says.

Photo by Josh Couch on Unsplash

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