World Rainforest Movement

Australia: Concern over plantations swept under the carpet by environmental movement

Australia like all colonial countries was founded upon the theft of indigenous peoples land. However in Australia, the authorities took the theft one step further by declaring the continent to be ‘Terra Nullius’, meaning an empty land or a land belonging to nobody. Terra Nullius guaranteed indigenous people no legal rights, for how could they have rights if legally they did not exist?

In the southern parts of Australia, that meant that the indigenous survivors of the massacres and disease were rounded up onto mission stations and ‘removed from most white people’s view’. With the indigenous population dislocated from their countries, Europeans moved in and attempted to ‘Europeanise’ the land, mostly with disastrous results.

Widespread clearing of the land took place both for agricultural expansion and forestry. An indigenous description of the environmental carnage that eventuated described it as; ‘ like a plague of locusts descending upon the land, devouring everything in sight’.

By the late 1960’s and early 1970’s export wood chipping operations increased the rate of destruction of native forests. 40-50% of the native forest timber produced in Australia was exported to Japan as woodchips. By the 1990’s that figure had increased to 80%.

Also in the 1960’s, efforts to fund an expansion of Australia’s plantation base occurred and resulted in the clearing of large tracts of native forests. Conservationists were opposed to such plantation establishment, as they were to the clearfelling of large tracts of native forest. Essentially the conservation movement in Australia was dominated by groups wanting to protect the natural biodiversity of the nation’s forests.

However by 1989 Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology published a paper called “No Need for Conflict”. The paper was written by Judy Clark (a resource economist and ex government bureaucrat) and Margaret Blakers (a forest campaigner). The paper began promoting the view that with a growing plantation base it was possible for Australia to stop logging native forests entirely, with all of the country’s sawn timber needs coming from softwood plantations and pulp from softwood and hardwood plantations. Plantations established in the 1960’s were ready to be logged meaning that a large volume of plantation timber was available.

The first group to publicly endorse this position was The Wilderness Society in 1991 who encouraged consumers of timber to be ‘ethical’ by only buying plantation timber. In July 1995 Australia’s State and Territory Conservation Councils commissioned the report “Australia’s Plantations” by Judy Clark. This report brought together information from the entire country, again with the agenda of speeding the transition from native forests into plantations. In 1996 the Australian Conservation Foundation also endorsed a no native forest logging policy. The Greens political party was also active in supporting plantations.

Barely no mention was made by pro-plantation groups of the obvious problems with plantations, such as pesticide use and water consumption or (shock horror) indigenous land rights. Previously, environment groups had been critical of industrial forestry in all its shapes and guises. Plantation criticism from the mid 1990’s would now only come from a small minority in the movement and from communities impacted by plantations.

By 1996 ENGO groups such as Friends of the Earth who questioned the sustainability of plantations started to come under increasing pressure to support a no native forest logging stance and a rift developed in the forest movement, with people critical of plantations either sidelined or ignored completely. A plantations only policy was one that FoE could not support because only two years earlier FoE activists in Tasmania had been poisoned with Atrazine leaching from a eucalypt plantation at Lorinna. How could FoE endorse a plantation policy that poisoned domestic water supplies!”

Criticism included any logging of native forest for any purpose. Restoration forestry, eco-logging, firewood harvesting etc etc were all treated with suspicion. Essentially then the majority of the Australian environmental movement had by 1996 been voluntarily captured by the plantation only ‘no-native forest logging’ ideology.

In 1997 the State and Federal Government’s announced the 2020 Vision, which essentially would see a trebling of Australia’s plantation base by the year 2020. From one million hectares to three million hectares. Criticism of the Vision (one of Australia’s largest ever corporate land grabs) was almost non-existent from ENGO’s. How could a movement almost fully supportive of plantations come out and criticize a plan to treble their size? What a bonus for the plantation companies!

Likewise with plans to quicken up the pace of plantation development in an international sense, how could Australian ENGO’s fully criticise plantation development in other countries when they supported similar development in their own country?

With Forest Stewardship Council entering Australia in 2002, the nascent Environmental Chamber could not agree on certification in native forests and since that time certification has occurred only in plantations under interim standards.

In summary, the push for plantations in Australia by ENGO’s has come as a result of widespread destruction of native forests and desperate attempts to save what is left from the woodchippers. However in their haste to promote plantations a number of key ecological and social concerns with plantations have been entirely “swept under the carpet” by the ‘environmental movement. This has left the fight against plantations in Australia to unfunded communities and a sparse scattering of environmentalists, including myself.

By Anthony Amis, Friends of the Earth Melbourne, email:

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