The Guardian, 23 June 2016
A United Nations decision on whether to allow the stripping of world heritage protection from swathes of Tasmanian forest will be adhered to, the Australian government has indicated.
Unesco’s World Heritage Committee has gathered in Doha, Qatar to determine its position on, among many other matters, whether to allow the removal of 74,000ha of forest from Tasmania’s world heritage area.
It’s expected that the committee will hand down its decision late on Monday night, Australian time. A draft ruling, following a recommendation by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, states that the boundary change, as requested by the Australian government, should not be permitted.
The Coalition formally requested the world heritage area to be shrunk earlier this year, citing economic benefits from opening up more forestry to logging. The government has argued that 74,000ha of the 170,000ha nominated by the previous Labor administration for world heritage protection is degraded by previous logging and development and should be excised from the area.
But ministers have indicated they will abide by the World Heritage Committee decision, should it confirm it has accepted expert opinion that the current boundary should remain.
A spokesman for Liberal senator Richard Colbeck, who has published a series of photographs showing degraded areas within the 74,000ha, told Guardian Australia the government would respect the Doha ruling.
“The decision will be accepted, whichever way it goes,” said the spokesman for Colbeck, who is the parliamentary secretary to the agriculture minister. “It’s all hypothetical until we hear, but we will move forward with whatever they decide.”
Greg Hunt, the federal environment minister, was less definitive on the issue, telling the ABC that it was “a matter for the Tasmanian government”.
A spokeswoman for the Tasmanian government told Guardian Australia that it would also respect the outcome of the World Heritage Committee meeting.
“We continue to support the federal government in its decision to seek the delisting of 74,000 ha of world heritage area,” she said. “We will accept the umpire’s decision when it is made.”
In its recommendation to the World Heritage Committee, the IUCN stated that the Coalition’s request was “clearly inappropriate” and would "impact negatively on the outstanding universal value of the property" and "reduce integrity of key natural attributes".
The IUCN stated that, contrary to the government’s claim that the area was heavily degraded, 85% of the 74,000ha was natural forest, with 45% old-growth forest. Just 4% could be described as heavily disturbed by logging, roads and other infrastructure, the IUCN report found.
The Greens have called on the government to abandon its map-redrawing exercise, which would trim the protected area which covers much of southwestern Tasmania. Christine Milne, the Greens’ leader, has called the proposal a “demeaning act of environmental vandalism”.
Unesco has confirmed that the proposed boundary change is highly unusual as it comes just a year after the area was assessed to be of world heritage quality.
The world heritage listing was agreed following an agreement between conservationists, loggers and the government, in order to end decades of argument over the use of native forests for timber. The Coalition wants to scrap this agreement, arguing that it was hastily conceived by vested interests and unfairly locked out local communities and the logging industry.
“To assert that pine plantations, roads, high tension wires, eucalypt plantations is worthy world heritage preservation simply does not pass the common sense test,” Liberal senator Eric Abetz told Seven’s Sunrise show on Saturday.