Documentation:Open Case Studies/FRST522/Illegal Logging in Brown Mountain
A case study of illegal logging in Australia
Australia is the sixth largest country in the world and 16% of its land is covered by forests. Australia is composed by eight federal territories, the state of Victoria, located in the southeast region of the country, being one of them. Three hundred kilometers east of the state`s capital, Melbourne, there is a region named East Gippsland, where the old-growth forest of Brown Mountain is located adjacent to Errinundra National Park.
An old-growth forest is defined by the Commonwealth and Victorian Governments as a forest that is ecologically mature and has been subjected to negligible unnatural disturbance. Brown Mountain is considered an old-growth forest and is noted for hosting Eucalyptus older than 500 years.
Part of the forest is protected by being located within the Errinundra National Park, but the major part is supervised by VicForests, a State-owned company responsible for managing timber from Victoria`s State on behalf of the Australian Government. VicForests is certified by the Australian Forestry Standard (AFS), which is endorsed by the forest certification system PEFC – Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification.
According to the Australian Government, illegal logging is defined as “timber harvested in contravention of laws in force in the place — whether or not in Australia — where the timber was harvested.” . In other words, it is the action of harvesting wood by means that contradict the laws enforced in the local area where the logging occurred. In 2009, VicForests was accused of illegally logging old-growth trees in Brown Mountain.
Framing the problem
An overview of Australian forests
According to WWF, illegal logging exists because of the increasing demand for timber and timber products . Most of the time, illegal logging originates in developing countries, but in reality it is a problem worldwide. Around the globe, it has been estimated that 15-30% of all wood trade comes from illegal harvesting . As for Australia, about 10% of timber and wood-based products imported into the country each year come from sources with high risks of being illegally logged .
Australian native and plantation forests are Commonwealth, state or privately owned  and are classified in different tenure categories that include conservation reserves, private and indigenous lands held under freehold title, public-owned forests and leasehold forests  . For the state of Victoria, 3.4 million hectares are public forest, and VicForests is the company responsible for the harvesting and commercial sale of timber from those areas .
The problem in Brown Mountain
In East Gippsland there are 224,000 hectares of old-growth forest, out of which 15% (34,000 hectares) are available for harvesting . According to VicForests, each year it harvests approximately 330 hectares of old-growth forest in that region.
Conservation groups such as Environment East Gippsland (EEG) and The Wilderness Society and local protesters accuse the company of felling dozens of old-growth eucalypt trees in Brown Mountain and of failing to protect habitat for threatened fauna species, which are illegal acts.
In addition, in 2009 the Victorian Government wanted to allow the logging of an area in Brown Mountain through a seven-month moratorium arguing that government scientists had found no evidence of endangered species there. VicForests was planning on logging 60 hectares of old-growth forest at Brown Mountain right after the moratorium was lifted. The case was taken to Victorian Supreme Court in 2010, which ordered logging to stop in the region. The environmentalists won and the moratorium was revoked under the understanding that the state government has a responsibility to look out for and protect endangered wildlife.
Before European settlement, Australian lands were owned by the Aboriginal peoples. Victoria State was home to more than 32 different Indigenous languages and each group had their own agricultural practices and manipulated the environment for their own ends . After European establishment, land uses and ownership drastically changed.
Brown Mountain was assessed and listed as an old growth National Estate area by the Commonwealth Heritage Commission in the 1980s, meaning that it has the same value as a National Park. The management of these areas was handed to the state government, which started clear-felling them in 1989 and since then the destruction of native forests has increased in the region .
In 2007/08, Brown Mountain old-growth forests were put on the logging schedule for those same years for timber exploitation , bringing local community members and environmental groups together to stop this action. Brown Mountain has a high conservation value with more than 500-year-old trees and rich populations of wildlife, many of which are endangered .
In general, logging causes negative impacts on the environment. When it comes to illegal logging, these consequences tend to be even more damaging, since there is no interest in managing the forest in a sustainable way. Often the negative impacts include loss of biodiversity and species habitat, increase of carbon emissions into the atmosphere and reduction of ecosystem services delivered by natural forests.
According to a report from Australian National University (ANU), natural forests are more resilient to disturbances and climate change because of their genetic- and higher biodiversity. In fact, Brown Mountain is one of the most carbon dense forests in the world . The same ANU report showed that natural forests in south-eastern Australia, which include Brown Mountain forests, store about 640 tons of carbon per hectare, including biomass and soil. As a consequence of clearing these areas, the environment experiences a great decrease in carbon storage, contributing to climate change.
Moreover, Brown Mountain forests are rich in biodiversity and are home to endangered and threatened animal species. Some of them are: Victoria`s rarest marsupial, the long-footed potoroo; spot-tailed quoll, mainland Australia`s largest marsupial carnivore; greater gliders and yellow-bellied gliders; giant burrowing frog and large brown tree frog .
This particular case attracted public and the media attention. Environmental groups and the local population got together in order to stop VicForests` illegal logging in Brown Mountain and the company had to face court in 2010 . Since VicForests is owned by the State, Victorian government`s alleged lawlessness was also considered in court.
In 2012, the Government of Australia passed the Australian Illegal Logging Prohibition Act 2012, with Regulations slated to be developed in 2014. The Act aims to combat illegal logging by prohibiting “the importation of illegally logged timber and the processing of illegally logged raw logs”. However the Act is still not operational .
Illegal logging also brings negative consequences for the economy of legal logging companies and local communities . Governments also are impacted by this action, since they lose income from taxes that they cannot charge, as in the case of legally logging forests.
The Government of Australia stated that illegal logging represents 30% of the annual value of global timber trade, corresponding to US$100 billion. Also, the government highlighted that importing and buying timber and timber products from unknown sources give financial incentives to those who commit forest crimes .
It has been estimated that between US$400m and US$800m of illegal wood and wood-based products are imported by Australia each year. The highest risk products include outdoor hardwood furniture and decking from tropical forests.
Global Forest Products Model suggests that illegal logging decreases product prices by 7% to 16% on average. This happens because illegal logging companies do not have to pay the same duties as legitimate businesses, so they can lower their prices. As a consequence, consumers, who sometimes do not know the source of the timber product they are buying, look for the cheapest prices and end up stimulating illegal businesses.
Social and cultural
WWF stresses that many local communities whose lives depend on forests have little or no control of their land, which violates human rights and affects their livelihoods. As it has already been stated, the forests of Brown Mountain are owned by a State company, meaning that the local population cannot claim ownership to their land nor make decisions regarding the forest. However, in this illegal logging case, popular pressure coming from local environmental groups and local people was crucial to ensure environmental legality. Therefore, sharing power among the local groups could minimize the negative consequences of illegal logging in Brown Mountain.
Furthermore, old-growth forests carry a huge historical background. Aboriginal communities used different parts of eucalypt tree for many purposes, such as for building canoes and hunting tools . Eucalypt trees were also used for crafting traditional art pieces and those trees have high cultural and spiritual value for traditional communities. Harvesting old-growth forest means, to some extent, destroying local and national history.
Initiatives to combat illegal logging
The Australian Illegal Logging Prohibition Act 2012 is considered a great achievement in both national and international scale for making it a criminal offense to import or process illegally logged wood or wood-based products , minimizing the amount of illegal timber into the Australian market .
International environmental groups, such as Greenpeace and The Wilderness Society, considered the Act a success, especially because combating illegal logging in Australia also incentivizes legal logging in the exporting countries. However, although the Act was passed in 2012, it has not yet been put into practice, leading to social and environmental pressure for its implementation.
The Act highlights that businesses are required to evaluate if the wood and wood-products that are being imported or processed were illegally logged and manage that risk , meaning that businesses also have a role in combating illegal logging.
To show their support to the Act, big names in the Australian timber industry, together with social and environmental groups, formed an alliance and signed a Common Platform that emphasizes the importance of fighting illegal logging in Australia . The platform is also a way to pressure the government to continuously take actions against illegal logging.
Overall, illegal logging is a big issue all around the world, in developing and developed countries. Actions are being taken in order to stop this practice from global to local scales, but there is still a long way to go.
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