Saving Tasmania's forests
Last updated: 12 June 2014
The Australian government will attempt to delist part of Tasmania's forests from UNESCO's World Heritage List.


Imagine the uproar if the Grand Canyon was dug up for mining. The protests if the bells of Notre Dame were melted down for car parts. 

There are not many places in the world precious enough for World Heritage listing, so many countries covet this lucrative international recognition. These natural and cultural places are so significant, so exceptional that to deprive the world and future generations of them would be a tragedy.

Tasmania's old-growth forests have been included on the World Heritage list as a natural wonder since 1982 and it's not hard to see why. With some of the oldest trees in the world, some up to 3,000 years old, the forests span more than one million hectares of land, making up one of the last, vast expanses of temperate rainforest in the world. The Tasmanian forests aren't just about the trees, but also the biodiversity they protect and carbon sequestration value they represent.

Yet the Australian government couldn't seem to care less.

At the upcoming World Heritage Committee meeting in Doha, Qatar, the Australian government will put forward an unprecedented proposal to delist the Tasmanian forests.

It is Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott who has been leading the crusade against Australia's ancient forests. Abbott has been instructing his diplomats to lobby committee members, a rarity within the UNESCO world, to delist the forests so that the trees can be logged and shipped to willing buyers.

A million hectares is hard to picture, and the Abbott government may only be pushing for five per cent of the area to be delisted but, that still amounts to 74,000 hectares, an area the size of Bahrain. And what's to say that five percent won't become 15, or 50 in the future?

Going against public opinion

Abbott's delisting campaign is beyond confounding. His actions completely ignore the overwhelming opposition to the move within Australian society; a recent poll showed that 91 percent of Australians believe that Tasmanian forests should not be delisted. His government has also completely excluded Tasmania's indigenous population from the decision-making process.

Abbott's economic motivation to launch the delisting campaign is also under question. Nature attractions, such as the Tasmanian forests, attract hundreds of thousands of tourists and the World Heritage status makes them that much more attractive. Tourism is an important sector for Australia's economy which accounts for 2.8 percent of Australia's GDP.

Tourism is even more important for Tasmania's economy. More than one million tourists visited Tasmania in 2013 (a 14 percent increase since 2012), bringing the local economy some $1.4bn).

Encouraging the growth of the tourism industry is one way to address the island's 7.6 percent unemployment rate. Removing the forests from the World Heritage List and boosting logging would certainly not make Tasmania more attractive to tourists.

At the same time, the forestry industry has not been supportive of Abbott's delisting attempt either; their concern is that  there may not be any buyers for the product of controversial logging. Industry groups have been urging him to honour the Tasmanian Forests Agreement, otherwise known as the peace deal between loggers and environmentalists.

Hidden value

Almost one-third of Tasmania is protected in forest and marine reserves, leading Abbott to argue that "too much forest is locked up". Abbott is mistaken in thinking that Australia has "quite enough national parks", given that we lag behind the rest of the world with our conservation efforts.

The value of Tasmania's forests resides not in timber, but in their ecosystem. They provide habitat for the already endangered Tasmanian devil and the rare eucalyptus regnans, the tallest flowering plant in the world.

In addition, if managed properly, forest conservation can be the most cost-effective way of abating carbon and dealing with climate change. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's findings, forests and land use account for 24 percent of global emissions and addressing this is crucial if we want to limit the planet's warming to within 1.5C. The moment we allow for the protected Tasmanian forests to be logged, its potential for emissions reductions will be lost.

Only two other UNESCO sites have been delisted before. Germany's Dresden Elbe Valley was delisted after a four-lane bridge was built through the city. In Oman, a sanctuary for the Arabian oryx antelope was removed from the list, after the government found oil in its grounds. After decreasing the size of the reserve by 90 percent, most of the animals died. Will Tasmania's forests have the same fate?

The Australian government has already showed that preserving the environment is not on its priority list. It recently allowed three million cubic metres of dredging spoil to be dumped near the Great Barrier Reef in order to make way for large ships. If the governments get their way, miners will be able to additionally export millions of tonnes of coal through the Great Barrier Reef each year, threatening ecosystems in the short term with spills, and in the long term with ocean acidification.

UNESCO condemned the dumping and the World Heritage Committee has considered putting the Great Barrier Reef on the endangered list, meaning it would join the degraded forests of Congo and Colombia, cities in Syria and Iraq devastated by war, and the ancient sites at Timbuktu in Mali, destroyed by extremist groups.

It is clear that Abbott's government does not take seriously Australia's environmental issues, even worse, it does not have any qualms about pursuing policies that can further the destruction of already endangered areas. It is imperative to resist its anti-environment policies and to fight for keeping Tasmania's forests on the World Heritage List.

Linh Do is the community coordinator at the Australian Conservation Foundation, editor at The Verb and an experienced climate change campaigner. She is based in Melbourne, Australia.

Follow her on Twitter: @lmdo

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