I love Tasmania’s forest. Happiness is a mountain-top or a myrtle forest in my world and I’ve spent many blissed-out hours walking through the mossy half-light of the old-growth forests that quietly soothe and revitalise the human spirit. These are special places, rich in biodiversity and ecological complexity. Special places that many people believe are worth fighting for.
You see, Tasmania’s economy is driven by primary industries. We don’t have a big manufacturing base or services sector on this sparsely-populated island, a long way from export markets. Our economy is a small and frail thing, prone to recession and heavily dependent on forestry, mining and agriculture, as well as nature- and food-based tourism, which make for strange bed-fellows and very strained politics. Forestry in particular has been an economic mainstay of regional Tasmania, with the fortunes of whole towns and communities closely tied to taking trees out of the forests.
Those beautiful trees that are the lungs of our planet, that support entire ecosystems and protect rare and threatened species, that the tourists come to our island to see, can also be viewed as potential employment and earnings for many people on an island with limited job opportunities and low educational levels. Families have their fates tied up in the forests, having invested their fortunes in tree-felling machines and logging trucks. For these people the forests are their livelihood and their future in Tasmania: worth more turned into building materials, timber veneer or – tragically – wood chip and paper pulp.
As a consequence of this strong dichotomy – conservation vs. forestry – there has been conflict in Tasmania’s forests for a very long time. Passions run high, occasionally erupting into vandalism and violence, as the future of the forests hang in the balance. We are a State deeply divided along divergent value lines, with this division breeding political and economic uncertainty in a place that can ill afford it.
A little over 2 years ago it was recognised that the only way to move forward was compromise: for the forestry industry and the conservationists to get together and find common ground. Sponsored by the Federal Government, the round table talks began for the Intergovernmental Agreement on Forestry. It looked as though, at last, there might be peace in the forests, with the highest conservation value patches of old-growth forest to be protected in new reserves and financial assistance provided to foresters to exit the industry. Remaining areas of forest would still be logged – after all, we still need timber products to come from somewhere – using “sustainable” practices. Working together, we would find a mutually-acceptable solution.
Except we didn’t. After a promising start the talks failed to find common ground. A Federal Government deadline came and went, and even the threat of losing a $120 million assistance package couldn’t get things back on track. Yesterday it was announced that the talks had failed. The Tasmanian Forestry Agreement is dead.
Both sides are blaming the other for the failure. Both sides are accused of being unwilling to compromise. The conservationists couldn’t win all the reserves they felt were necessary to protect old growth forests. The saw-millers wouldn’t give up access to coups they claimed were essential to fulfil their contracts. Forestry Tasmania, the government business enterprise that manages the timber industry, is operating at a $12 million loss and has been accused of questionable practices and political manipulation.
So where does that leave us? In a worse situation than ever.
It’s a totally unsustainable state of affairs, economically, environmentally and culturally. The longer the conflict rages, the more Tasmania is torn apart.
The only way forward is to work together, to try to understand what motivates the opposing side and to talk with empathy and understanding. We need to build a Tasmania that has economic opportunities that don’t rely on extractive industries. That means investing in education and developing new industries that can provide stable employment for many years to come. Tourism and value-added agriculture alone can’t support this island. We need to put our heads together and create another way. With creativity, compassion and compromise we can build a Tasmania we can all be proud of and see peace in the forests at last.
What’s your take on the failed Tasmanian Forests Agreement? Do you have a vision for this isolated island state?