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Tassie Logging Agreement Toppled?

By Ian Lowe

Logging is continuing in Tasmanian forests of high conservation value months after an agreed deadline to cease logging has passed.

Last year there was reason to be optimistic about Tasmanian forestry. After decades of political fighting, the contending parties came to an historic agreement. Foresters, loggers, the timber industry, environmentalists and government signed a set of principles that formed a basis for the future. Logging would stop in forests of high conservation value, there would be a significant investment in plantations to provide a secure supply of wood for future needs, and responsible value-adding would be explored.

It looked like a win for industry, a win for government and a win for the natural values of the wonderful Tasmanian forests. It would have been a repeat of the arrangement brokered by the Beattie government in Queensland, ending the logging of native forests and putting the industry on a secure plantation basis for the future.

Now the reports I am getting from Tasmania suggest that the historic agreement seems to be unravelling. Months after the deadline to cease logging forests of high conservation value, logging tracks are still being forged into the forests and coupes are still being clearfelled. The level of expected funding for the transition did not materialise in the recent Commonwealth Budget. And there is still deep division in the Tasmanian community about the proposed Gunns pulp mill.

While there is wide support for the principle of adding value to forest products, rather than the irresponsible trashing of old-growth for cheap woodchips, the corruption of the process by the Lennon government has left a legacy of distrust. There is a solid body of local opposition to the proposed site in the Tamar Valley. There are other possible sites where a pulp mill would have local support, but Gunns has resisted calls to consider those sites.

Forestry Tasmania appears to be locked in its past attitudes, making it difficult to see a resolution. The Commonwealth government really needs to intervene and salvage the historic agreement or we risk going back to the guerrilla warfare of the past.

As you read this column I am in Spain walking the Camino del Norte, a path stretching more than 800 km along what we call the Bay of Biscay and locals call the Mar Cantabrico. It is one of several caminos, or paths, winding across Spain to the ancient city of Santiago de Compostela.

About 100,000 people per year walk between 100 and more than 1000 km to reach the common destination. The tradition of walking to Santiago developed around a preposterous medieval myth that the body of the murdered Christian apostle James was carried to Spain in a stone boat and then buried at a remote spot on the north-west coast, not far from Finisterre (which was regarded as the end of the Earth until Columbus sailed off to the Americas).

The modern tradition of walking to Santiago has great support locally, and no wonder: I estimate it tips about €100 million (A$150 million) into the economy of rural Spain. Buying paella and an occasional vino, I am doing my bit to keep the euro afloat.

While Spain is doing well out of back-packers, Australia is not at the moment. The policies that are good for one sector can be bad for another. The settings that have helped mining and mineral exports have driven up the value of the Australian dollar, making our manufacturing less competitive and reducing the attractiveness to foreigners of our tourism and education.

Among the many outrageous claims being made to delay serious action to slow climate change, the most dishonest is the assertion that our economic future depends on continuing to subsidise mining and mineral processing.

Dr Richard Denniss, who heads the Australia Institute, points out that the very idea of a nation´s competitiveness has no credibility within economics, because no economy is homogeneous. The settings that make it easier for Australia to export cheap commodities like coal and iron ore make it harder for our manufacturers to compete, and also undermine our service sectors.

Manufacturing, education and tourism are all larger sectors of the economy than mining, so the current policy of subsidising minerals is bad for the overall economy. Phasing out the huge public subsidies should be part of the concerted response to climate change.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.