It took me a while to get through Judith Ajani’s The Forest Wars (MUP), partly because of my habit of having four books on the go at any one time, and partly because it’s more of an economic history of an industry than a history of conflict. Far from being an exciting account of stoushes and tree-sits in the mud of Goolengook and the Styx, this book addresses the root causes of, and solution to, the problem of logging Australia’s old-growth forests. There’s a welter of statistics, footnotes and tables. Ajani describes in loving detail the various committees and acts of legislation which have sculpted our forest landscapes since the 1930s. In fact, the experience was a bit like chomping through a very big bowl of oldgrowth woodchips, with very little milk or sugar. But it’s well worth it.
In the last few years the timber and woodchip industry’s publicity focus has shifted from addressing the environmental issues – on which they know they can never win – to a plausible sounding assertion that stopping old growth logging will destroy the rural economy. Native forest logging, they claim- pointing an accusing finger- forms a substantial part of rural employment. People who oppose clearfelling old growth forests for woodchips are simply effete urbanites, and selfish to boot. We’re treading all over the little guy to achieve our wishy-washy environmentalist aims. Not only that, but “locking up” the old growth forests will lead to an explosion in imported hardwood and paper. These arguments have been kept in the public domain, largely by the National Association of Forest Industries and the CFMEU.
Dr Judith Ajani is an economist at the ANU whose expertise is in plantations, the wood products industry and forests. Her background is with Forestry departments and foresters; She’s an insider. She has participated in numerous studies and government reports on forests. Her book just kicks the chocks out from under this argument. It’s as simple as that.
The focus in the first section of the book is the elephant in the room which the forest industry doesn’t want you to notice: the history of massive overplanting in softwood in the first part of the twentieth century, and then in hardwood from the 1990s, due to tax minimisation schemes. When the forest industries tell you that so many thousand people are employed in “forest industries” in your state, they’re rolling the competitive plantation industries in with the uncompetitive native timber sawmills, but allowing you to come away with the impression that all those people are employed logging the native forests.
Ajani observes that because of old alliances (such as membership of NAFI), the plantation industry continues to unite with the old growth woodchippers against the “common enemy” of the environment movement, against their own interests as well as that of the rest of us.
Here’s a little potted history from chapter 15, where Ajani pauses to recap the history of Australian forestry:
By the early 1990s, Australia had planted enough wood to meet its sawntimber needs. Planting therefore moved to replanting harvested areas, like other cropping regimes, and native forest clearing tapered off. By this time, large areas of erlier plantings were laden with sawlogs and ready for processing. The core interests of native forest activists and the plantation provcessors fundamentally changed from being in opposition (because clearing to plant softwoods destroyed native forests) to being complementary (because plantation sawntimber substituted for native forest sawntimber). ..The environment movement moved to build a new alliance with the plantation processors, but the processors were too locked into the native forest industry dominated lobby groups’ agenda of maintaining environmentalists as the “common enemy” to find their own voice.
The plantation sawmillers paid a heavy price for their silence. They desperately needed market-clearing intervntion because by the mid-1990s Australian was saturated with sawlogs [My italics] …With government forest policies and subsidies geared to the commercial interests of the incumbents – the native forest based industry – the emerging plantation sawmillers battled for market-share severely handicapped. Their ecomomies of scale and quality advantages … won them through, but the resulting unimpressive profits stirred a wave of plantation-processing asset sales to mostly overseas buyers.
Despite 80 per cent of Australian sawntimber and wood panels now being plantation-based, native forest logging did not decline. Instead, the hugely profitable export woodchippers rose to dominate native forest logging.
…In forestry, the invisible hand of market forces is really the big hand of state governments who created extraordinary profit opportunities for a few native forest woodchip exporters.
Dr Ajani amply confirms what most forest activists already know, that the export woodchipping industry, based on the clearfelling of old-growth native forest, is the most massive rock-painting make-work exercise for a minority of profit-takers that Australia has ever seen. Politicians and industry spokespersons get away with this by conflating plantation forestry with native forest industry, woodchips with plantation panels, clearfelling with planting, by speaking of the “forest industry” as if it was all native forest industry.
Here’s an example: Fran Bailey on the Victorian Central Highlands Regional Forest Agreements:
We are talking about an industry that employs over 82,000 people nationally, that has an $11.5 billion annual turnover and that represents 1.9 per cent of GDP.
Bailey did not tell parliament just how many of the 82,000 people actually worked in businesses based on native forests and who actually generated most of the $11.5 billion in turnover. Bailey said the word ‘plantation’ only once in her forty-two minutes of speaking…
If there’s one thing I want to point to as a message you will take from this book, if you’re concerned with employment in south-eastern Australia, it’s that we can stop logging old-growth forest today. Plantations are not some vague solution for the future, for which we have to wait because trees, after all, take time to grow; The plantation wood for both sawntimber and paper pulp is already there. New South Wales, Victorian and Tasmanian governments need to follow their northern and western counterparts who have already ceased logging their old growth. And it’s crucial, now that we have wall-to-wall labor governments, that those governments get out of bed with the forestry wing of the CFMEU.
To sample some Ajani, here’s an edited extract published in The Australian last year. Note the relationship between prominent Laborites like Martin Ferguson and Julia Gillard and the Forestry wing of the CFMEU. And you’ll all remember Mark Latham’s demise at the hands of the Forestry dinosaurs.
I’ll have more posts on this book later, because it’s dense, fascinating and contains some interesting stories which would make this post way too long. I’d like to say more about the recent election and the grubby politics of forests. Gary Sauer-Thompson has blogged it a while back and Tim Dunlop likewise. Tim also writes about it with reference to the Tamar Valley pulp mill proposal.
At least I know better than to ever let the woodchippers guilt me again.
Crossposted at Road to Surfdom