Veteran environmentalist mounts court bid to protect Tasmania's native forests

by Michael Taylor | @MickSTaylor | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 24 August 2020 11:06 GMT

Bob Brown inspects a recently logged old growth forest that was home to the critically endangered swift parrot in Denison forests, Southern Tasmania, in August 2020. Credit: Matthew Newton

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A lawsuit seeks to overturn an agreement that gives Australian states and state logging firm environmental exemptions

By Michael Taylor

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The former leader of Australia's Greens party has mounted a legal challenge against logging agreements between state and federal government that he says allow laws on sustainable forest management to be flouted.

Bob Brown's nonprofit, the Bob Brown Foundation, last week filed a Federal Court action against federal authorities, the state of Tasmania, and state-run Sustainable Timber Tasmania, over logging activities in native forests.

Brown's legal challenge follows a similar Federal Court action and ruling earlier this year that favoured conservation group Friends of Leadbeater's Possum, in a case brought over logging activities in the state of Victoria.

Brown, who built the Australian Greens into a powerful political force but quit politics in 2012 after 16 years in parliament, is taking aim at the Regional Forest Agreements (RFA) Act 2002 that he said allows states to bypass federal environment laws on logging activities.

"Our case is that not only do we not have ecologically sustainable forest management, but the Commonwealth (of Australia) has washed its hands of that responsibility and left it to the states," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Monday.

Last year, tropical rainforests - whose preservation is considered crucial to holding the line on climate change - disappeared at a rate of one football pitch every six seconds, according to data from Global Forest Watch.

Australia has stands of both tropical and cool temperate rainforests.

While the top three countries for primary forest loss were Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia, Australia experienced a 560% jump in tree cover loss from 2018, driven by unprecedented bushfires.

RFAs allow states and state-run logging firms an exemption from federal environment laws relating to sustainable forest management and the protection of endangered species, the Bob Brown Foundation said in a statement.

There are currently about ten RFAs across Victoria, New South Wales, Western Australia and Tasmania, it said, adding that the critically endangered swift parrot was among species currently under threat from logging activities in Tasmania.

Brown, who became a national figure in the 1980s when he led a campaign to stop a dam project in Tasmanian wilderness, has been an environmental activist for more than 40 years.

"The federal authorities, like all other countries, are responsible for international obligations for protecting endangered creatures and they've duck-shoved that to the state and the result has been disastrous," he said by phone.

State-run Sustainable Timber Tasmania, which manages about 800,000 hectares of public production forests, declined to comment, while the Tasmanian government did not respond to requests for a comment.

A spokeswoman for Australia's agriculture, water and the environment department said it was aware of the legal action taken by the Bob Brown Foundation but as it was "a matter before court" they could not comment further.

Ross Hampton, the head of the timber industry's leading national body, the Australian Forest Products Association (AFPA), said the latest legal action threatened vital regional jobs in an essential industry.

"Bob Brown should realise that Australians are fed up with his anti-job agenda and propagation of falsehoods about Tasmania's forest industries," he said in a statement.

"These attacks on workers are all predicated on the untruth that Australia's native timber industry is not sustainable."

Logging and other forestry operations occur on only a fraction of native forests, the AFPA said, adding that every tree is replaced as the areas are regenerated and regrown by law.

RFAs have been in place for more than 20 years and are independently reviewed every five years, it added.

If successful, the legal bid could lead to similar action against RFAs in other Australian states, Brown said, adding that environment groups from other states had already been in touch with his foundation.

"We are alarmed that one of the wealthiest countries on earth can be so cavalier about the destruction of its forests," said Brown, who expects a ruling in 2021.

"We cannot expect Malaysia, Indonesia, the Congo or Brazil to protect their forests for the rest of the planet if we won't do it ourselves."

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(Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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