UNESCO rejects 'feeble' Abbott government bid to wind back protection of Tasmanian forests

Australia has been 'humiliated' by the governments efforts to de-register part of Tasmania world heritage forests, according Greens leader Christine Milne.

Andrew Darby Sydney Morning Herald 24 June 24 2014

Christine Milne: 'Australia humiliated' - (Video: Fairfax media)
UNESCO's World Heritage Committee has summarily dismissed the Abbott government's bid to wind back protection of Tasmanian forests.

The committee meeting in Doha took just seven minutes to consider the bid, which member nation Portugal called "feeble", and setting an unacceptable precedent for the future.

Members of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community looking over forests in the Florentine Valley in southern Tasmania.
Members of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community looking over forests in the Florentine Valley in southern Tasmania. (Apologise: Names not known)
(Photo: Sydney Morning Herald - Pic: Peter Mathew)

No country spoke in favour of the bid to de-list 74,00 hectares of old-growth forest, which official cultural and natural values advisers told the meeting would weaken the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

Colombia and Germany supported the recommendation to reject the de-listing, but only Portugal spoke at length to the meeting in a passionate defence of the World Heritage system.

"The justifications presented to the reduction are to say the least feeble," the Portuguese delegation said.

"Accepting this de-listing today would be setting an unacceptable precedent impossible to deny in similar circumstances in the future.

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"If this committee cares for conservation according to responsible engagement of states parties to the convention when they submit their nominations, we cannot accept these requests to de-list."

Jubilant environmentalist Bob Brown tweeted that the committee rejected an "embarrassing" government bid.

"Global diplomatic humiliation for (senior Tasmanian Liberal Eric) Abetz, and (Prime Minister Tony) Abbott."

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Monday that the government was "disappointed".

"We're disappointed with the decision but the application we made to remove from the boundaries of the world heritage listing areas of degraded forest areas of plantation timber we thought was self-evidently sensible. We will be carefully looking at the decision and deciding what's best now," he told reporters in Canberra.

In a statement issued on Monday morning in response to the decision, Environment Minister Greg Hunt and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture, Tasmanian Senator Richard Colbeck, said the government had honoured an election commitment by seeking the boundary change.

"The Committee has not approved the Australian government's request. Australia accepts and will consider the decision of the World Heritage Committee," the statement said.

Greens Leader Christine Milne said on Monday that she was "absolutely thrilled" by the decision.

"It is another case of the Abbott government humiliating Australia on the global stage. It clearly was a humiliation for Australia, and so it should have been, because it would have been a shocking precedent if governments can just fiddle with the boundaries of their world heritage areas, destroy outstanding universal values, just for cheap politics," Senator Milne told ABC TV.

Labor's environment spokesman Mark Butler said the proposal should never have gone to the committee.

"Australians do not support Tony Abbott's 'dig it up, chop it down' attitude,'' he said.

Independent Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie said the Abbott government's bid was senseless.

"I'm tickled pink,'' he said of the decision. He said he hoped that the government did not unilaterally withdraw from the world heritage framework.

"It would be an appalling development if Australia set that precedent,'' he said.

The forests of the Weld Valley. (Photo: Enviroment Tasmania - Pic: Rob Blakers)

Environmental lobbyist Alec Marr, who was in Doha, said: "The World Heritage Committee saw through the deception of the Australian Government's efforts here, and the high quality science and professionalism of the advisory bodies was exemplary."

"Today is vindication for every Australian, and people around the world, who love Tasmania's forests and want to see them protected," Mr Marr said.

Also in Doha, Environment Tasmania spokesman Dr Phill Pullinger described the decision as "a great relief for the wild forests of the Great Western Tiers, Weld Valley, Butlers Gorge and the Upper Florentine Valley''.

However, "much of Tasmania's natural heritage remains at risk, with the Tasmanian Government aiming to turn vast areas of protected forest into logging zones'', Dr Pullinger said.

"The World Heritage Committee's decision sends a clear message that the international community holds Tasmania's forests in the highest regard,'' he said.

Also part of the Doha delegation, Australian Conservation Foundation campaigner Jess Abrahams said the finding underlined the fact Tasmania's forests were some of the most spectacular on earth and "the Southern Hemisphere's equivalent of the Californian Redwoods''.

The de-listing bid, one of few in UNESCO history, arose of out a 2013 election promise by the Abbott government to roll back a 170,000 hectare extension to the 1.5 million hectare Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

The extension fulfilled a key plank of the peace deal struck by industry and green groups to end the generation-old Tasmanian forest conflict, and was guided through by former Labor environment minister Tony Burke.

Mr Burke, now Labor's finance spokesman, said on Tuesday: "The world heritage committee has confirmed the position that has always been held by Labor and by every Liberal Prime Minister except Tony Abbott: World heritage means protected forever."

After Liberal landslide wins in three of the five Tasmanian seats in the election, the government claimed a strong mandate to wind back the listing.

"We need to ensure that the great state of Tasmania is a strong economy as a well as a beautiful national park," Mr Abbott repeated as recently as last week.

The Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Richard Colbeck, launched a campaign arguing that the listing of 74,000 hectares of forests made a mockery of World Heritage values because of previous logging.

But the federal Environment Department told a Senate inquiry into the de-listing bid that only four per cent of the 74,000 hectares had been heavily disturbed.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature advised the World Heritage committee that the wind back would be "clearly inappropriate", and diminished the wilderness' outstanding universal values.

Among areas targeted for de-listing was the bitterly disputed Upper Florentine Valley in central Tasmania.

A total of 150 hectares of its 7,000 hectares tall old growth forest was logged, and in its heart lies an ice age cave with ancient Aboriginal remains, part of the Tasmanian Wilderness' rare status as a combined cultural and natural World Heritage site.

The International Council on Monuments and Sites said the government had failed to make a convincing case to exclude areas with significant cultural attributes.

Lobbyists at the meeting said there appeared to be little evidence of Australian government lobbying for the wind-back, in contrast to concentrated effort last week to avoid the listing of the Great Barrier Reef as in danger.