31 March, 2007
Letter, The Age, 31/3/07
The Prime Minister's unrelenting belief is that it doesn't matter if Australia contributes to poisoning the atmosphere or the country is ravaged by climate change as long as Australians have jobs.
Out of guilt or as a political ploy, he has decided to throw 200 million taxpayer dollars at impoverished countries to stop them deforesting. Such an idea was slammed by the previous Malaysian prime minister as a Western notion to hamper the growth of developing countries. Rightly so; they are as concerned about jobs as we are.
If Mr Howard is the realist he claims to be, he would understand that the nations he is targeting have a high rate of illiteracy — their people know little and care even less about global warming. The idea of dangling millions before officials of dubious integrity is unlikely to catch on, because the success of this scheme cannot be guaranteed. If reports are any indication, vast amounts of tsunami dollars have yet to reach the victims. What assurance does the Australian taxpayer have that this wild scheme will produce results?
Letter, The Age, 31/3/07
It has been disappointing to hear the Howard-bashing in response to the Prime Minister's announcement of $200 million to be spent on tackling illegal and unsustainable logging in our region.
According to the International Tropical Timber Organisation, of 206.7 million hectares of permanent forest estate in the Asia Pacific region in 2005, only 19.5 million hectares were being sustainably managed. Our partner churches in places such as the Philippines and Indonesia identify illegal logging as a serious issue.
At the same time, we agree that the Australian Government should restrict timber and wood product imports to Australia to those that are certified, where feasible. Also, the necessary and welcome action on unsustainable logging in the region does not relieve the Government of the need to take serious action in reducing Australia's contribution to dangerous climate change. Finally, we share concerns about regulation of logging in some places in Australia, especially Tasmania. However, this is a state government as much as a federal government issue.
29 March, 2007
The Age, 29/1/07
THE Labor Party is keen to sign the Kyoto Agreement but has not advised us which industries it would have to close in order to comply with the Kyoto emission requirements.
Countries with nuclear power stations would find it easier to sign the agreement than countries like Australia whose electricity is mostly provided by coal-fired power stations. The closing of several coal-fired power stations and industries with large electricity consumption would probably be required if the Labor Party were serious about Australia signing the agreement.
The planting of vast areas of forest is a better and quicker means of achieving carbon dioxide emission stabilisation, at least until alternative methods can be properly evaluated. But rather than engaging in the reforestation of South-East Asia, why not start in Australia by turning low-productivity agricultural land back into forest?
The Age, 29/3/2007
JOHN Howard is concerned with the loss of Australian jobs because of any response to climate change, and so has decided to help reduce logging in Asia. Just wondering, Prime Minister, how many jobs will be lost in Asia?
The Government needs to be reminded of the biblical principle of removing the plank from your own eye before worrying about the speck of dust in the eye of another. Stop shipping our climate change problems off-shore, Mr Howard and focus on making changes in our own country.
Perhaps start by ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. Maybe then move on to stopping the logging of old-growth forests and investing in renewable energy. Oh, and de-deifying the economy might help: change does cost money, but it's money well invested.
March 29, 2007
ONE of Australia's largest timber importers has introduced technology that ensures that no wood it brings into Australia has been illegally logged.
Simmonds Lumber now conducts DNA testing of timber — a world first — that verifies the exact source of each tree being imported from Indonesia. The test is similar to DNA testing of humans.
The technology is expected to strengthen the fight against the estimated $400 million worth of illegally logged timber products now imported into Australia annually.
Simmonds, which has an annual turnover of $100 million, has invested more than $250,000 in the past five years to develop the technology with Singapore timber auditing company Certisource.
A genetic profile is taken of each tree while it is growing in legally allocated concession areas in Indonesia. Simmonds chief executive Paul Elsmore says a sample is also sent to Certisource in Singapore.
The genetic profile is then rematched with another genetic analysis once the logs have arrived at the production mill in Indonesia.
"This proves the log has come from the concession," Mr Elsmore said. "It's checked against the data in Singapore."
The approved timber is then processed through the mill, where it is audited by Certisource, before finally being exported to Australia.
Mr Elsmore said he was confident the technology would make Australia a world leader in the global fight against illegal logging.
Mr Elsmore said Indonesia was suffering one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, with more than 80 per cent of all wood produced and sold there thought to be illegal.
"In the past five years, though, the Government has made huge inroads into reducing this," he said. "It's improving every day."
Mr Elsmore said the legal concessions were probably in regrowth native forest areas.
Many auditing systems rely on a "certificate of origin" issued in the source country to prove the legality of the cargo. "However, these systems can be corrupted. Many log smugglers sidestep the authorities by providing false certificates," Mr Elsmore said.
About 150,000 cubic metres of sawn timber is imported into Australia from South-East Asia every year. Simmonds has imported about 10,000 cubic metres of DNA-tested merbau products into Australia in a test program.
Australia imports about $4 billion worth of forest products annually, but has a trade deficit of about $2 billion in forest products.
23 March, 2007
The Age, March 23, 2007
THE recently announced closure of the Black Forest Timbers (BFT) sawmill at Woodend is far more than just another story about yet another small business shutting its gates. It's the story of the end of a myth that has underpinned the state's logging industry for three decades: the myth of sustainable logging.
Black Forest Timber was established in 1974 at a time when the logging industry was struggling with low profits, dropping demand and a dwindling log supply caused by decades of overlogging and poor forest management. Loggers were being hammered by imports and competition from domestic pine.
Out of this crisis sprang a new industry model. BFT was both a creation of and an ardent practitioner of the then new business model. The new approach changed fundamentally the way state forests have been managed as well as the relationships between government, industry, bureaucracy and the community.
In the 1980s the new logging industry plan gained momentum and was embraced by governments at all levels, by the unions and the bureaucrats. An essential change was the move to intensive logging. Selective logging all but disappeared in favour of clear-felling. At the same time the areas of logging also dramatically increased.
In turn, this required the introduction of export woodchipping as a convenient way to profit from and practically deal with the huge mountain of trees being felled.
Herein lay a troublesome hurdle. Woodchipping has never been accepted by Victorians. Many polls have been carried out over many years. They all register a very high disapproval level. In an effort to sell the new approach to government and the community, a PR campaign was mounted and vigorously maintained, often using government grants.
The plan became more than a plan; it became a dogma. A new vocabulary was consciously developed to distinguish old "unsustainable logging" from the new "sustainable logging". "Logging" became "harvesting". The "logging industry" became the "timber industry". "Woodchips" weren't chipped trees, but rather the "waste from the forest floor that would otherwise be burnt". From dogma to mythology, criticism was incomprehensible to believers.
The industry needed huge subsidies, and they got them; again and again. They sold the idea of "sustainability" at every opportunity. It justified the enormous injection of taxpayer support because it carried with it the notion of building something for the future, something permanent.
In this new era, loggers were not only successful business managers, they were environmental stewards. This was an important part of the message.
There have been many industry restructures and rescue plans over the past 30 years.
As industry target after target failed, new plans substituted for old as quickly they failed. "Value adding" has arguably been used by no industry as successfully as Victoria's hardwood loggers for raiding the public purse. There have been export grants and product development grants. There were grants to "prove up" the viability of kiln-dried beams. There were grants to improve efficiency of kiln drying and steaming. There have been transport subsidies, marketing subsidies and several adjustment packages.
For a small sawmill with limited prospects of expansion, BFT's access to government support has been extraordinary. In just the past four years it has received about $1 million a year in transport subsidies and has also received several $1 million-plus industry development grants. Distributed over the
14 sawmill worker jobs disappearing with the closing of the sawmill, this equates to subsidies and grants of $150,000 a worker a year over the past four years.
The amounts of money thrown at hardwood loggers in recent times is sobering. In 2000, Steve Bracks signed an agreement with the Howard Government that locked in a further 20 years of export woodchipping and clear-felling in western Victoria; $63 million was set aside for more industry adjustments and to ensure this was a final helping hand from government. BFT was overjoyed. Two years later the Bracks Government determined that the local forests upon which BFT depended were logged out and it decided to end all native hardwood logging west of the Hume Highway. It introduced yet another "new plan": Our Forests, Our Future. Bracks threw another $80 million in industry adjustment at the loggers and reduced sawlogging by about 30 per cent but did not reduce the area of state forest being logged. Instead, less went to sawmills and more to woodchips. They continue to believe and invest.
Good myths are potent and often endure against the odds. So it was with the sustainable logging myth. Because Labor and Liberal governments had invested so heavily, they ignored the obvious warning signs of failure. Instead, they became more desperate to "make it work". Clear-felling and woodchipping were rapidly killing the hardwood sawmilling industry. Because failures were always met with new adjustment plans, failures were hidden by the "good news" of new grants and investments.
In 2000 an alternative industry plan was developed by conservation groups and Treasury. It offered a no job loss, no woodchipping, transition into plantations for western Victoria. Initially, the state's peak industry body and some sawmills received it positively.
It was the veto of BFT and the CFMEU forestry division that scuttled any hope of a secure future in plantations. Instead, BFT opted for a continued future in native forests, and hoped for the impossible.
New Zealand, with an economy about the size of Victoria's, and facing the same postwar logging industry structural problems, took another path:
it diversified and eventually completely made the transition into purpose-planted plantations. It ended all logging in public native forests in 2000.
By 2004 the NZ logging industry directly employed 23,000 people and accounted for 4 per cent of gross domestic product. It had annual sales of $5 billion, with $3.5 billion of that earned in export. It was NZ's third-biggest export earner. In Orbost, long viewed as the logging capital of Victoria, the signs along the highway proudly identifying Orbost as Victoria's timber town have recently been removed. Expect another round of industry adjustment packages soon.
Marcus Ward is forestry spokesman for the Victorian Greens
21 March, 2007
The Age, March 21, 2007
Timber giant Gunns has spooked the Lennon Government into fast-tracking its $1.4 billion pulp mill. But that's the Tasmanian way.
You need to understand the way things are done in Tasmania to see why Australia's largest-ever timber industry project could fall over like a house of cards in a gentle breeze. Leave aside any notions of pragmatic decisions based on calm reflection. Set up instead a permanent chasm, a deep ravine in the political landscape, with the timber industry on one side and greens on the other. Remember the island's tiny, two-degrees- of-separation business and political worlds, its obsession with the notion of the one, giant industrial project that will secure its future, and repetitive history of disputes over these developments.
And remember also that this is the nursery of the granite batsmen David Boon and Ricky Ponting, and of the firebrand novelist Richard Flanagan. Count on the refusal of some individuals to be bullied.
All of this may help mainlanders understand that the $1.4 billion Gunns pulp mill is more what Tasmanians might call a "rum 'un" - a strange character - than "a ringtail roarer", their term for a certainty. For more than three years, Tasmania's biggest home-grown company, Gunns Ltd, has been trying to complete its transformation from Launceston-based sawmiller and hardware store to global competitor in production of the universal paper stock, bleached kraft pulp.
Gunns employs 1700 people and has a $700 million annual turnover. Before a share price decline, it was valued at more than $1 billion on the market. From the contracted tree fellers in the bush, to the woodchip loaders and the counter staff at its stores, Gunns is there. The company reaches throughout Tasmania.
When Premier Paul Lennon paid for $100,000 of renovations to his graceful but ancient sandstone house in the country, a Gunns subsidiary, Hinman Wright Manser, did the work. When the mill project in the Tamar Valley, north of Launceston, was announced, Prime Minister John Howard went to Tasmania to commit $5 million to ease Gunns' task of assessing it.
And when old-growth logging in Tasmania blew up as an issue in the last federal election campaign, timber industry interests dominated by Gunns spent nearly $486,000 on political advertising.
After the Howard Government won with a forests policy backed by Gunns executive chairman John Gay, the company donated $45,000 to the Liberals in Tasmania, and $20,000 to the party's associated Free Enterprise Foundation. It gave nothing to Labor over the same period.
Little surprise that when Gunns began to make noises in January about pulling out of the normal statutory assessment process for its giant mill, the Premier interrupted his leave to get on the highway to Launceston, to Gay's office.
Unusually in Australian corporate life, Gay is both chief executive and chairman of Gunns. He is the one who travels the globe, meets the politicians, strides the shop floor and fields the media.
Endearingly awkward of speech, evidently respected by his employees, he grew up in timber, drives a modest European car and farms for recreation. Gay is also a tiger of an opponent. Back in the 1980s, he took on a royal commission, refusing to be browbeaten when Gunns came under attack because its then chairman, Edmund Rouse, had used money on deposit with the company to attempt to bribe a state MP, and thereby buy a parliamentary majority. Though other witnesses folded, Gay sat like a rock, unscathed.
Also to appear in the box at the time under adverse questioning were two other men who are now Gunns directors, businessman David McQuestin, and the former Liberal premier Robin Gray.
In Tasmania, being what it is, there is further symmetry to this history: Gray's fall from power 18 years ago was hastened by his handling of the failed Wesley Vale pulp mill project put forward by Gunns' predecessor, North Broken Hill.
Under the present Gunns board, the company remains a fierce defender of its beliefs, and plays hard. It is pursuing a highly controversial damages case against 15 individuals and evironmental organisations. Already two statements of claim have been thrown out by the Victorian Supreme Court.
According to the Wilderness Society, the actual damages claimed in the third statement - the financial losses caused, rather than the exemplary damages sought - are far outweighed by the legal costs so far awarded against Gunns.
"What we're sick of is the malicious damage some people are doing to us," Gay said of the pursuit. "We will continue to chase that down to the nth degree."
Then last year, as the pulp mill assessment moved to its critical stages, Gay started to come up against Tasmanian characters much like himself.
The chairman of the state's Resource Planning and Development Commission, Julian Green, was the ultimate legal-minded public servant, deeply experienced and dismissive of the limelight.
Green was blunt with Gunns. At a commission public hearing called to consider the company's confusing 7000-page, $11-million submission, Green suggested that perhaps Gunns might like to do it again.
When the Lennon Government began to stick its nose into the process through a "cheer squad" it called the Pulp Mill Taskforce, Green had had enough. Assessment panel member Warwick Raverty resigned when the taskforce brought up past work that might be perceived as biased, and Green followed.
Unfortunately for Gunns, his replacement as commission chairman did not appear to be any more helpful to the company. A retired judge, Christopher Wright, a stickler for procedure, refused to meet Gay privately for discussions.
He also criticised Gunns for its repeated failure to meet deadlines set by the commission, pushing out far beyond May a decision on the mill's approval.
"It has become quite apparent that due to accumulated delays, all or most of which appear to have resulted from Gunns' failure or inability to comply with their own prognostications, or the panel's requirements, that timeline can no longer apply," Wright said.
At first Gunns tersely agreed to a new timetable set by Wright that would not have seen a decision on the project before November.
But behind the scenes, the Premier was seeking something quite different. At a meeting with Wright in late February, Lennon proposed plans to introduce special legislation and abandon public hearings to speed up assessment of the mill.
"I was gobsmacked, to be perfectly honest," Wright said. After thinking about it, he offered his resignation. Faced with this additional highly embarrassing loss, Lennon backed down. But Gunns remained dissatisfi ed. On March 14 it formally withdrew from the commission process. "We have tried to have discussions with people during this process and, from within the Government and RPDC, have never been able to talk to anyone," Gay told the ABC. "They have said: 'we can't talk to you' and obviously at the directions hearing Mr Wright said that he can't talk to me.
"I have offered to put a project which would add value to the forests and add value to Tasmania, that I can't talk to anyone about. We cannot continually run a process which has not got any timelines."
Each six-month delay would add $60 million to the cost of the project, Gunns calculated, as a result of bank commitment fees, financial hedging costs and additional construction costs. Instead it "required" a process that delivered a decision by June 30. It was time for the Premier to hit the road to Launceston again.
He put forward a plan to take the proposal, now ballooned to a breathtaking 9000 pages, through State Parliament.
A relaxed Lennon recounted his Sunday evening visit to Gunns' office where he met Gay. The Premier laid out his plan, Gay "withdrew, presumably to consult others in the company", and came back an hour later to agree.
Lennon said that essentially the mill had failed at the commission because of the organisation's inability to determine a final timetable. "Investors need certainty, and the process did not supply certainty. This process has to end now by August 31."
But he confirmed that he had an understanding with Gunns that the project would be unchanged from the one that fell short in the commission. Dr Raverty, the Victorian organic chemist whose resignation from the assessment panel started the cards collapsing, is convinced that on existing data, the mill will not be environmentally acceptable at its site in the Tamar Valley.
Raverty said Gunns was yet to show that its airborne emissions would fall within prescribed limits, in an airshed already notorious for poor quality. Gunns had also left open the option of using a bleaching process not used by any other pulp mill in the world.
"You would have to worry that the process is going to get out of control some days and produce highly toxic organochlorines. If that happened, Australia would be in breach of its international obligations under the UN Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants."
Lennon is confident that consultants employed by the State Government will be able to make the project comprehensible to state MPs. The mill would meet stringent environmental guidelines, or be rejected, he said. "If it doesn't meet the emission limits, I won't be voting for it."
Having abandoned the process that he previously endorsed, Lennon apparently faces fewer difficulties in getting the project through the Parliament. Less than half-way into a fouryear term, he has political time on his hands, and a secure lower house majority.
In the state's upper house, conservative independents and Labor MPs, who could be expected to be kind towards the project, predominate. Their sensitivity to lobbying is legendary. More immediately, Lennon faces heavy political criticism over his attempt to sway Wright.
As the Tasmanian Greens leader Peg Putt surveyed the special treatment awarded to the party's longtime foe, she said: "This is not in the public interest. This is in Gunns' interest. In the final wash-up, Parliament is set to make an entirely political approval after a second-rate charade."
19 March, 2007
Monday, March 19, 2007
The Tasmanian Government says Gunns has agreed to take part in the new assessment of its $1.5 billion pulp mill.
The Government hopes to put an end-of-August deadline on the assessment.
The Premier, Paul Lennon, says it would be impossible for a new assessment of the mill to meet the timber company's end-of-financial year deadline.
"The 31st of August was the date that would allow us to achieve a responsible and sensible examination of the data," he said.
But he says Gunns has agreed to the new approach.
Mr Lennon maintains he does not see the need for public hearings, and that Parliamentarians will only have three sitting days to consider the final report before voting on whether the pulp mill should proceed.
The Premier hopes to have details of selection criteria for the new consultants ready by the time Parliament's Lower House debates the bill on Thursday.
Mr Lennon says the Federal Government will need to conduct its own assessment to ensure the mill meets Commonwealth guidelines.
12 March, 2007
March 12, 2007
Victoria's forest industry will play a big role in the State Government's climate change and greenhouse policy, according to the Minister for Agriculture, Joe Helper.
Mr Helper said emissions trading was perhaps the biggest opportunity for forestry. '
'Placing a value on carbon may open up new opportunities for forest industries," he said.
Mr Helper said forestry featured strongly in the Department of Primary Industry's action agenda on climate change, drawn up last year.
"While it may be an inconvenient truth for some, the forest and wood products sector has an important role to play," he said.
Mr Helper was giving the opening address to a seminar on forestry's role in combating global warming. The seminar was sponsored by Australian Paper and the Victorian Association of Forest Industries.
Mr Helper said strategies in the department's action agenda included:
- A profitable and credible forestry carbon sink industry.
- Greater recognition of the value of forest products over man-made or fabricated alternatives.
- Potential of carbon-neutral bio-energy from sustainable forest management.
- Engaging with Victoria's timber producers to help them mitigate climate risks.
Forests provided other environmental services, such as habitat maintenance, ameliorating salinity and providing long-term stability for landscapes.
"And let us not forget that growing, harvesting and processing wood provides one of the most ecologically sustainable forms of employment," he said.
"As a land use option, growing trees for timber in the right landscapes is one of the more economically productive options."
However, Mr Helper said awareness of all this in the broader community was not what it should be.
"Some of the relevant carbon accounting tools are also in need of attention," he said. Mr Helper said wood products such as furniture and construction stored carbon in the longer term, while newsprint and packaging, even though shorter term, may be recycled or remain inert in rubbish tips.
"All wood and wood products ultimately have the potential to be used as carbon-neutral fuel, which can effectively offset (greenhouse) emissions," he said.
Mr Helper said wood and wood products should gain greater recognition as a sustainable building material of choice.
"In this regard, I am aware that some building codes discriminate against the use of timber, particularly that from native forests.
"This is something we will continue to work together with industry to address, because Victoria has perhaps one of the most effective forest management systems in the world," he said.
Mr Helper said Victoria's reserve system was now one of the most extensive in the developed world. VicForests, the State Government's commercial forestry arm, had just received Australian Forestry Standard certification and was regularly audited by the state's Environment Protection Authority.
06 March, 2007
March 6, 2007
THE Forest Stewardship Council forest certification scheme has been formally launched in Australia with a pledge to increase FSC membership.
FSC Australia chief executive Michael Spencer said the group was seeking support for a two-year program to develop an FSC-accredited Australian forest management standard.
This would involve building consensus on key issues, he said, including a definition of high conservation value Australian forests, appropriate forest management practices and community benefit from forestry operations.
FSC maintains its standards ensure sustainable forest management and a rigorous chain of custody system that allows tracking of certified wood and wood products from FSC-certified forests from manufacture to the retailer and customer.
Mr Spencer said the number of Australian companies with FSC chain of certification had grown from about 10 in November 2005 to more than 30.
FSC Australia is supported by environment groups, several forest products companies and community groups.
Environmental members include WWF-Australia, the Wilderness Society, Friends of the Earth, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Greenpeace. Business members include ITC, Hancock Victorian Plantations, Australian Paper and Timbercorp.
In Australia, more than 650,000 hectares of forest have been certified to FSC standards. Globally, more than 80 million hectares have been certified in 70 countries to FSC standards, and about 5000 companies are participating in the FSC chain of custody system.