Heritage or international embarrassment?


The heritage of a nation can be seen in the proud singing of a national anthem, or in the flying of a national flag. It is embodied in the way we live our lives, the values that we instill in our children, and the laws we abide by as we move through our lives. Heritage is what we pass down through the generations; it’s our history, and it’s our future. Despite this amalgamation of culture, spirit and ingenuity, it is our unique and organic landscapes that offer the true embodiment of heritage and that have and will be embedded in the nation forever.

But how long is forever?

Styx Valley, Tasmania. Photo: Flickr

A river flows peacefully through the Styx Valley of Tasmania – the future could look very different if the Coalition’s submission goes through. Photo: Flickr

The World Heritage Committee, part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), has formed a list that includes 981 properties that form part of the cultural and natural heritage of the world and which are considered as having outstanding universal value. Among these sites, 193 natural and 29 mixed properties shine as cherished and respected etchings in the global landscape.

Australia is home to 19 World Heritage listed areas, the majority of which showcase the natural beauty of our country: places which we hold close to the heart, and places we proudly share with those who travel to our shores. Our island state Tasmania, in particular, hosts more than 1.5 million hectares of pristine wilderness area that is included on the list. The area was embraced by the Committee in 1982 and has been significantly extended twice in 1989 and again in 2013. The Tasmanian Wilderness constitutes one of the last expanses of temperate rainforest in the world.

In the words of Lithuanian-Australian landscape photographer Olegas Truchanas, Tasmania is “a shining beacon in a dull, uniform and largely artificial world.”

Renowned Australian author Richard Flanagan went into detail of the vast destruction of the state’s forests in his paper Out of Control (2007). “Its remoteness, its wildness, its unique natural world – all seemed to offer the possibility of a prosperous and good future to a state that had for a century been the poorest in the Australian Commonwealth. Instead, over the past three decades, Tasmania has mortgaged its future to the wood -chipping industry, which is today dominated by one company: Gunns Ltd. And it is Gunns – not the Tasmanian people – that has been the beneficiary of the destruction of Tasmania’s unique forests.” What is clear about any author, or artist, who chooses to represent Australia’s southern-most state, is its natural beauty has moved, and its misfortune, angered many.

The Tasmanian wilderness has been the battleground of ongoing forestry wars for over thirty years. Today, it is the only state in Australia that clear-fells its rainforests to make room for wood chipping plantations.

This year, the Abbott government put forward a bid to de-list 74,000 hectares of the Tasmanian Wilderness from the UNESCO list. The government claim the area put forward for de-listing is heavily degraded due to previous logging and that it doesn’t meet World Heritage standards.

Both the Senate committee and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), however found that only four per cent of the 74,000 hectares had been heavily logged and degraded in the past.

Jess Abrahams, a campaigner from the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), is disappointed at the way the government is portraying the wilderness area. He believes the Coalition isn’t telling the public the whole truth.

“The Prime Minister talked about how these areas were plantations – that’s very misleading. There was a tiny area, half the size of a tennis court, that was an experimental pine plantation and that area was also to be restored to native forest under this World Heritage plan.”

Wilderness Society national director, Lyndon Schneiders said in a statement, “Logging World Heritage forests is … like knocking down the Opera House for harbourside apartments, dismantling the Great Wall of China for paving stones, or selling the Eiffel Tower for scrap.”

But it’s not just those who come to enjoy the unspoiled wilderness that cherish the Tasmanian forests. The state is home to an internationally renowned special timber industry that produces exceptional timber furniture, artwork, and wooden boats that put Tasmania on the map. This industry accounts for more than 2000 full time jobs and injects $70 million a year into the economy in a struggling state that has an unemployment rate of 7.6 per cent as of January 2014; the highest in the country.

This industry has been struggling recently, due to the 2012 Tasmanian Forest Agreement, a signed deal between environmentalists, union, community groups and the timber industry, designed to end conflict over Tasmania’s wilderness and to allow all parties to move forward peacefully.

Colin McCulloch, CEO of The Australian Forest Contractors Association says, unfortunately the TFA did hurt some professionals and industries.

“The [specialty timber] industry’s seen a major upswing, related to both resource security and a weakened Australian dollar from the time of the TFA formation. It’s not as if it’s pristine wilderness by any stretch [the area included in the de-listing bid] and it does contain a lot of specialty timber for the fine furniture crafts business in Tasmania and that’s been a severe weakness of the agreement in itself.” he said.

The specialty timber industry is not the only harvesting and haulage contractors that are experiencing ‘major upswing’. The Australian Forest Contractors Association says, plantations are not producing enough wood-chips to satisfy the current market and there are currently not enough skilled workers to work the plantations.

McCulloch says the loss of workers in the state is becoming an increasing issue. “We’ve lost a lot of people to mines. We’ve lost a lot of people to other resource-based industries and I don’t know that we’ve got that trust back yet to get them back into what we’re doing.”

“But would there really be enough skilled workers to work the area the coalition is trying to de-list?”

“Good point.”

Photo: Flickr

Florentine Valley, Tasmania

The Tasmanian forestry wars that have been going on for over thirty years have always been painted as jobs versus trees. Both sides of the argument are valid: the jobs created by the timber industry are valuable in a struggling economy and the wilderness area is a big drawcard for tourism in the state. In direct comparison however, tourism brings $1.582 billion (2013, Tasmanian Visitor Survey) into the Tasmanian economy every year, and the timber industry brings in half a billion. According to a survey conducted by The Australia Institute earlier this year, on average, Tasmanian’s think that logging and forestry account for around 20 per cent of all the state’s employment – the reality is 0.5 per cent. They also think the forest industry accounts for 36 per cent of the state’s exports – the reality is around 5 per cent.

Jess Abrahams believes the government is putting a spin on facts in their press releases that will allow them access to land for the sake of having land.

“This is an ideologically-motivated attempt to log areas of old growth forest so that they can no longer have World Heritage value and can never be protected at a high level in the future. This is actually a land grab.”

Recently, a senate committee heard that the decision to de-list the World Heritage area was made by the Coalition without external review, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature advised the World Heritage Committee that winding back the heritage status of the area would be “clearly inappropriate”.

This advice was released in a draft decision made prior to the 38th committee session, which is scheduled for June 15 in Doha, Qatar.

“That speaks to me that it is a political objective that the Abbott government is seeking, not a scientific or environmental one. There was no new evidence that was put forward to support the de-listing, it was literally just spin,” Abrahams said.

Recent independent national polling of more than 1000 citizens, conducted by Lonergan Research found 97 per cent of Australians believed that governments should do all in their power to protect and conserve properties on the World Heritage list, and 91 per cent said the 74,000 hectares under threat, specifically, should stay on the UNESCO list.

Particularly amusing in the mess that is the forestry wars, the head of the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania, Terry Edwards, stated on public record, “We don’t support any or all excisions to the world heritage area.”

On the agenda of the upcoming session will be the Australian Liberal government’s proposal to remove 74,000 hectares of forest area from the Tasmanian Wilderness. Only two properties have ever been successfully de-listed before: Dresden Elbe Valley, Germany – de-listed in 2009, and Arabian Oryx Sanctuary, Oman – de-listed in 2007.

Both sites are considered global embarrassments on the World Heritage stage. The German property was removed due to the building of a four-lane bridge in the middle of the historic and cultural landscape; it is widely accepted as a political decision made in bad faith. The property in Oman was removed when the state decided to reduce the size of the protected area by 90 per cent. In 1996, the population of the Arabian Oryx on the site was at 450, but it has since dwindled to 64 with only about four breeding pairs left, due to poaching and habitat degradation.

Abrahams believes, Australia will follow in these humiliating footsteps if the government’s bid is successful. “We are the only developed nation who has ever sought to de-list a World Heritage site that is still in perfect shape. It sets an extremely dangerous precedence…what about developing nations who are in much more difficult and pressing economic circumstances?”

McCulloch, however, speaks for the timber industry and calls for a fair distribution of the state’s resources. “I think the embarrassment would be if we actually ran out of our gorgeous and wonderful specialty timbers for the sake of political expediency on an area that’s already been harvested. It’s just a typical Tassie tug-o-war.”

Forestry wars will be ongoing as long as industries require wilderness areas to survive. We must ask ourselves, however how much of our nation’s heritage can we build on our industries and how much on our landscape? We must champion our heritage, our culture, and our life, in more ways than one.

Upper Florentine Valley, Tasmania. Photo: Flickr

Upper Florentine Valley, Tasmania. Photo: Flickr

Thumbnail image: Courtesy of Flickr

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