An examination of the power politics between stakeholders and Aboriginal people involved in the forestry industry in Tasmania, Australia
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The Tasmanian forestry industry, focused primarily in the regions of Launceston, Dorset, Circular Head, Central Coast, Meander Valley, Huon Valley, Devonport and Burke (Schirmer, 2010) has experienced significant boom and bust since the turn of the 21st Century. From growing almost double between 1999 and 2004, the industry has shown a strong decline over the last ten years (Dare et al., 2014). This downward trend has illuminated deeply ingrained power tensions within governance systems in Tasmania, and Australia more broadly. One of the most serious issues related to management in the forestry industry is the legacy of colonialism, which elucidates the position of Aboriginal Australians within those systems.
In Australia, Aboriginality is a product of ancestry and acceptance by Elders in the community. Tasmania is the traditional land of Aboriginal nations, collectively known as the Palawa people, who have experienced significant trauma and discrimination as a result of colonization, which reached the island in 1803 (Berk, 2017). It is widely recognized that indigenous communities are experts at living sustainably from their land, and that their traditional understanding of the ecosystems that they interact with is crucial to the development of successful long-term environmental management strategies. However, the capacity for those communities to be involved in the decision-making processes has been drastically reduced as a result of the ongoing suppression of Aboriginal communities and culture resulting from colonization events in Australia.
The decline in success of the forestry industry in Tasmania presents many challenges to communities in the region. But, it also provides an opportunity to reassess power structures, and attempt to alleviate some of the ongoing injustices felt by Aboriginal people in Tasmania.
In Australia, rights to land are complexly legislated and are difficult to obtain. Land rights are tightly controlled by top-down organization in federal and state governments, and only statutory rights are formally recognized within this system. This delegitimizes the customary institutions recognized by Aboriginal nations, and often allows for the allocation of unceded land to private owners.
In Australia, Aboriginal land rights are recognized based on a number of requirements. Firstly, native title is not the same as land rights (Fletcher et al., 2014). Recognition of native title is based on the acknowledgement that an indigenous community has customary claim over territory. This does not necessarily translate into statutory acknowledgement of land ownership, and provides governments with room to only do half of the work required to legitimize Aboriginal land claims.
Secondly, if there is strong evidence that a community has always resided on an area of land, their native title and rights to land are automatically acknowledged. But if a community has ever been displaced from a specific region, they don’t have legal claim over territory. This is problematic because traditional Aboriginal communities were largely nomadic, especially in Tasmania where seasonal climate fluctuations limited where people could live. Furthermore, colonial development led to the forced removal of indigenous people from their customary land until as recently as the 1970s. This loophole in the law has made it extremely difficult for Aboriginal communities to find legal grounds on which to fight for their rights to country.
Even more complicated to gain recognition for are sacred sites. Sacred sites are customarily recognized often by multiple Aboriginal nations for their spiritual or cultural values. However, those spiritual values mean that people have rarely lived at these sites, meaning that these fit into the second category of difficulty in gaining land rights.
In Tasmania, 70% of commercial forests are state-owned and regulated by top-down management within the Tasmanian Forest Practices Code under the Tasmanian Forest Practices Act (Dare et al., 2014). The remaining 30% are privately owned. At the time of this research, no evidence was found that Aboriginal communities owned any commercial forests in Tasmania.
The Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) was a collaborative initiative developed by the Commonwealth of Australia and the State of Tasmania in an attempt to boost the timber industry in the region (Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, 1997). It invested AU$800million to protect 250,000 hectares of Tasmanian forests, and produced extremely successful short-term benefits for the industry (Dare et al., 2014). However, the subsequent decline in Tasmanian forestry has been attributed to the increase in environmental regulations on industrial forestry practices in old-growth timber forests, resulting from the growing environmental movement. These regulations were administered at local, regional, state and federal levels of government.
In a recent amendment to the RFA, the federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources invested a further AU$50million to convert 150,000 hectares to reserve lands for the forestry industry (ABC News, 2017). However, this investment explicitly excluded multi-use forests, and serves only to purpose the large proportion of state-owned commercial forests in Tasmania.
In Tasmania, the timber industry is largely dominated by wood-chipping corporation Gunns Ltd. Gunns Ltd has a strong influence over the Tasmanian stock market and holds significant monopolies in both state and federal government. (Flanagan, 2007)
Overall, it’s clear that the administrative arrangements dictating the regulation and management of forests in Tasmania are dominated by top-down systems championing short-term commercial benefits to governments and corporations. Aboriginal communities have very little participation or authority within the power structures of Australian government.
Schirmer’s Tasmania’s forestry industry – trends in forest industry employment and turnover 2006 to 2010 declares that people most affected by this bust will be communities that rely on jobs in pulp and paper forestry industry. Even with strong sustainable business initiatives (Hanlon, 2014), Tasmanian forestry businesses are downsizing.
Until the mid 2000s, Tasmanian Aboriginal communities were excluded from participating in management decisions (Flanagan, 2007). In fact, prior to 2010, there was complete lack of mention of first nations, traditional owners, or indigenous communities in reports pertaining to forestry in Tasmania. Even in the Cooperative Research Centre’s most recent Tasmanian Forestry trends report, Aboriginal Australians are still not included under the ‘affected communities’ subsection.
Fortunately, self-determination of indigenous communities is catalyzing the growth of a significant and powerful social movement. Activist groups (Penberthy, 2015) and representative committees (Warrener 2014; 2015) are empowering Aboriginal young people and Elders to demand that their communities are included in the decision-making processes for Tasmanian forestry (Dare et al., 2014).
Though local businesses are downsizing, corporations are still confident in the future of the forestry industry in Tasmania due to the recent amendments to the RFA. New business launches, such as FORICO (Hanlon, 2014), are taking the environmental regulations that limit industrial forest practices and incorporating them into their business initiatives, making these ventures more viable economically and environmentally.
However, in forestry there is a modern context of lower global demand for timber forest products as a result of the environmental movement and global awareness of the importance of carbon sequestration. Furthermore, the strong Australian dollar has meant that Tasmanian timber is significantly more expensive than timber from other regions, leading to even lower demand (Gail, 2011). Interested stakeholders are reassessing the viability of involvement in the Tasmanian forestry and are moving their money to other areas.
Australian government structures are aware of the importance of interested stakeholders in influencing forestry practices. In the development and ongoing assessment of the RFA, the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources consulted logging and processing workers’ unions, small businesses, environmental non-government organizations, and economic advisory boards (Schirmer, 2010). There interested stakeholders were considered before traditional land owners were included in decision-making processes pertaining to their customary land.
The Tasmanian forestry industry is at a critical turning point. The decline in the economic viability of timber and pulp and paper practices is presenting a perfect opportunity to promote reconciliation and take the leadership of Aboriginal communities in the development of a more sustainable, long-term multi-use forest strategy. New legislation dictates that Aboriginal communities must be consulted (MEPH, 2014) but does not define what makes up adequate consultation or who has ultimate authority in a decision. In the past, Aboriginal consultation has been largely tokenistic. However, self-determination of Aboriginal communities is generally ensuring that inadequate consultation is addressed currently. However, it is extremely difficult to identify where past consultation has been inadequate, and to remedy the problems that have arisen as a consequence. The large disparity between native title and legislation for land rights has compounded this problem, by removing the authority from those communities when it comes to making decisions that impact their land.
Tasmanian foresters earned trust when they consulted communities, consistent with a case study in New Brunswick, Canada (Dare et al., 2014). While it is not clear if these ‘communities’ were indigenous or local, this initiation of bottom-up management systems garnered much more support than the top-down controls of the past. The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) operates on the values of indigenous people and works closely with Aboriginal communities to educate and empower them to demand consultation and leadership authority. TAC also delivers cultural awareness workshops and education programs to corporations, playing a significant role in the development of FORICOs community strategy (Warrener, 2015).
Aboriginal communities are still not adequately supported in terms of land claims and authority in decision-making processes, however, self-determination of Aboriginal communities is rising. Generally injustices for indigenous people are recognized by industry, society, and government, but there is significant room for improvement in terms of the development of strategies to alleviate these injustices.
There is still a great deal of work to be done in terms of addressing the legacy of colonialism in Tasmanian forestry. With the decline in economic viability of the timber industry, focus of forestry should shift to multiuse and to conservation objectives, under the direction and leadership of traditional owners. This is an unmissable opportunity to realize the values of reconciliation, and for Australian governments to equitably shift power to Aboriginal communities.
All levels of Australian governments (local, state and federal) must insist on adequate consultation of indigenous Australians, and accept their authority when it comes to decision-making processes. This is crucial to the survival of forestry in Tasmania, and to any form of land use across Australia, and more importantly to the development of Aboriginal communities.
In consideration of the fact that 70% of commercial forests in Tasmania are state-owned, state government should ensure that the economic benefits of the timber and pulp and paper industry are equitably distributed to the traditional owners of the land.
State and local governments should consider community based forest management as a strategy to address both the decline of the forestry industry, as well as the issues of injustice arising from Aboriginal mistreatment by colonials. Traditional knowledge and understanding of land and natural cycles could inform future management.
Fundamentally all of these strategies require the urgent recognition of indigenous land claims at the highest levels of federal government.
ABC News, 2017, ‘Tasmanian Regional Forest Agreement extended for 20 years, PM lauds 'great day' for industry’, Australian Broadcasting Corporation Retrieved from: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-18/tasmanian-regional-forest-agreements-to-be-extended/8818838
Berk, C. D., 2017, ‘Palawa Kani and the Value of Language in Aboriginal Tasmania’, Oceania, vol. 87 no. 1, pp. 2–20
Dare, M., Schirmer J., Vanclay, F., 2014, ‘Community engagement and social licence to operate, Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal’, vol. 32 no. 3, pp. 188–197
Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, 1997, ‘Tasmanian Regional Forest Agreement’, Commonwealth of Australia & State of Tasmania
Flanagan, R., 2007, ‘Out of Control: the tragedy of Tasmania’s forests’, The Monthly Retrieved from: https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2007/may/1348543148/richard-flanagan/out-control
Fletcher, T., Smith, S., Smith, S., Wilkinson, J., 2000, ‘Aboriginal Lands’, Parliament of Tasmania Legislative Council Select Committee Retrieved from: http://www.parliament.tas.gov.au/ctee/old_ctees/reports/abreport.pdf
Gail, F., 2011, ‘Is the Tasmanian forest agreement collapsing?’, The conversation Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/is-the-tasmanian-forest-agreement-collapsing-1401
Hanlon, MK., 2014, ‘New forests launches Tasmanian forestry company FORICO’, New Forests Retrieved from: https://forico.com.au/latest-news/news/new-forests-launches-forico/
Minister for Environment, Parks and Heritage (MEPH), 2014, ‘Aboriginal Heritage Guidelines’, Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment, Retrieved from: http://www.aboriginalheritage.tas.gov.au/Documents/Aboriginal%20Heritage%20Guidelines.pdf
Penberthy, N., 2015, ‘Sowing the Seed: Amelia Telford’, Australian Geographic Retrieved from: http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/science-environment/2015/10/sowing-the-seed-amelia-telford
Riawunna Centre, 2017, ‘Welcome Ceremony Protocols’, University of Tasmania Retrieved from: http://www.utas.edu.au/riawunna/welcome-ceremony-protocols
Schirmer, J., 2010, ‘Tasmania’s forestry industry – trends in forest industry employment and turnover 2006 to 2010’, Cooperative Research Centre for Forestry
Warrener, D., 2014, ‘Annual Report: 2013-14’, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, Retrieved from: http://tacinc.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/TAC_AnnualReport_13-14.pdf
Warrener, D., 2015, ‘Annual Report: 2014-15’, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre Retrieved from: http://tacinc.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/AnnualReport_2015.pdf
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