MAYDENA — Down below, ferns and moss thrive on the surrounding humidity. Higher up, they give way first to sassafras, then to giant eucalyptus trees that have been growing for centuries, here in the Upper Florentine Valley.
This thick forest in the southern part of this Australian island was added last year to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. Its protection however is still being fought for, as can be seen by several clearings in the forest, like scars of exploitation in the natural beauty of Tasmania, some 150 miles off the southeastern coast of the Australian mainland.
This is where some 2,000 ecologists from Tasmania gathered on April 27, threatening Australia’s Conservative party — which holds both the federal and local government — of a new "forest war."
"We’ll resume the fight if we have to," assures Phill Pullinger, head of the NGO Environment Tasmania.
In January, the Australian federal government asked United Nation's cultural body UNESCO to remove 74,000 hectares of the 120,000 it had added in June 2013 to its World Heritage list, including the symbolic Florentine Valley. Back then, the Labor party was still in power in the local government, but the conservatives took over in March and announced that they would remove some 400,000 hectares from several other reserves to make it available for lumber, agriculture and other commercial activity.
UNESCO's decision to extend the list in 2013 had been a long-time demand of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and was an integral part of the Tasmanian Forests Agreement, signed in 2012 after two years of negotiations between NGOs, the forest industry, unions and local communities.
This deal was aimed at putting an end to the conflict that has divided Tasmania for 40 years, between ecologists and industrialists.
"This is where the first-ever Green Party was born, in 1972," explains Christine Milne, Senator for Tasmania and leader of the Australian Greens.
Their initial battle against dam projects on the Franklin River ended in victory in 1982 with the addition to the World Heritage list of a vast area in the western part of the island, covering more than 1.6 million hectares, about 23% of Tasmania.
"These parks and reserves are among the last areas of temperate rainforest in the world," a UNESCO official explains. On top of giant eucalyptus trees, it is home to "an extremely high proportion of endemic species and of residual groups dating back to very ancient times."
The conflict then focused on silviculture. To protect the Florentine Valley from bulldozers, ecologists occupied it for five years. One teacher, Miranda Gibson, even spent 457 nights perched on a huge eucalyptus tree.
The "peace treaty" of 2002 was also a response to a structural crisis in the sector. It offered 500 million Australian dollars ($470 million) in government subsidies — half of which has already been paid — to modernize the field and finance the career changes of part of its workers. Tourism, in particular, has become a more important source of employment than silviculture.
Today, the forest industry is divided. "We won’t support any reduction of the World Heritage classified area," says Terry Edwards, head of the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania. "The 2013 extension was part of the deal."
Unlike him, Andrew Denman, who represents special timbers (who exploit local species), rejoices at the idea that the Tasmanian Forests Agreement is being questioned. He believes that a large part of the area was already damaged and therefore demands that "the whole extension" be cancelled. He thus uses the same argument as Australia’s Environment Minister Greg Hunt, who repeats that "these areas damaged by forest exploitation should never have been included in the World Heritage list."
The International Union for Conservation of Nature replies that these morsels were added to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area to give it "more rational limits."
"They have been protected to be rehabilitated. It’s common practice for UNESCO to protect forests," Phill Pullinger explains.
Ecologists have already begun to turn the battle into an economic one. NGO Markets for Change lobbies its clients globally to encourage them to boycott products from these forests. "There’s no market for wood that comes from the destruction of World Heritage," says its director Peg Putt.
Industrialists biggest fear is that they will not get the Forest Stewardship Council certification, which guaranties sustainable forest management and which more and more clients demand. The Tasmanian government, aware of the risk, announced a six-year moratorium before any declassified area can be exploited.
UNESCO's decision is expected in June. "The Australian government’s plea could create a dangerous precedent," says Christine Milne. "Some developing countries, particularly in Africa, will be tempted to imitate Australia."