Otways Forest under the axe: stop the plunder, save the future!

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The Otway Ranges in southwest Victoria, says a travel brochure, are home to “mighty trees hundreds of years old, cascading waterfalls, huge tree ferns and a forest floor teeming with life.” True; the Otway coastal forest, lining the Great Ocean Road, is breathtaking. But go deeper into the woods, as I did recently, and you find huge stretches of nothing but stumps.

Reacting to threats of even worse destruction to come, area residents are now lining up against the international timber cartels to protect the region’s natural treasures from extinction.

Profits at any cost.

Until just over 200 years ago, the Otways were almost completely wooded. Tree felling began with the British invasion, as settlers cleared huge tracts of Aboriginal land for sheep grazing and established an aristocracy over the dead bodies of indigenous resisters.

Today’s encroachers are the timber corporations, who consider a wasted tree to be the one still standing. For the environment and people who live here, however, the results of levelling the forest would be devastating.

Sixty percent of these great trees are removed as pulpwood, or low-grade timber. They end up as products such as chipboard and paper and as profits for giant companies such as Kimberly-Clark Australia, manufacturer of Kleenex tissues.

Depending on nature to provide life’s pleasures and necessities is not the problem. The disgrace is that under the system of private production, both human needs and material resources are always sacrificed to the insatiable quest for profits.

Pulpwood is removed by “clearfelling,” which strips a forest of the vegetation needed to regenerate growth and provide wildlife habitat. In the Otways, the area clearfelled every year is equal to 200 football fields. The Powerful Owl and many other species are now endangered.

The woodchipping industry has been responsible for most clearfelling in this country. In the mid-1990s, however, a 20-year boom in chips went bust. Japan’s demand for Australian woodchips dropped in half. By May 1997, the price of chips had plummeted by 65 percent.

Meanwhile, the market for high-quality planks also slumped.

The slowdowns have led the timber barons to eye Australia’s forests with increasing guile. Desperate to make a return on their investments one way or another, large mills are now squandering good solid logs, tearing them up to create woodchips.

The logging frenzy is causing landslides that release dangerous industrial chemicals into water supplies. In 1996 the residents of Apollo Bay, at the foot of the Otways, watched the East Barham River — their main water source — run yellow. The river is also home to a rare native fish that needs clear streams to survive.

In the Otways are eight water catchments that provide for more than 270,000 people. Unless these reservoirs are surrounded by protected wilderness, our water will not be pure. The case of Sydney, where the hazardous protozoa giardia and cryptosporidium bacteria were found in the drinking water, is a red alert.

Government rescues big business.

When industries are in trouble, our State and Federal Governments run to their aid.

To forestall organizing to save the forests, State Premier Jeff Kennett in June 1998 pushed through legislation banning entry into a Forest Operation Zone without permission. Because there was no publicity, few people know about the law. But picnickers or bushwalkers wandering into these unidentified zones now face a criminal charge and a $2,000 fine.

Following the terms of pacts made among the world’s richest 28 countries and the World Bank, Prime Minister John Howard has instituted Regional Forest Agreements. Promoted as a means of developing “ecologically sustainable management” of forests via community consultation, RFAs are in fact the opposite: a tool for turning native forests into single-species, industrial tree farms.

The method? Deregulation.

Under the RFAs, logging magnates would no longer be required to apply to the Federal Government for licences. For the next 20 years, a crucial check on the capacity of big business to rampage at will through the forests would be removed.

“Sustainable management” is code for sustaining profit. To the capitalist, an unlogged forest has no economic value. Put a fence around it, though, and it can become a lucrative commodity. Add workers who cut down the trees and turn them into houses, cardboard boxes, or Kleenex, and the profit compounds — causing the level of exploitation to spiral even higher.

The RFAs — which the Government calls its “final solution” to the troublesome forest controversy — would give corporate dealers permission to carry on their looting and poisoning of our resources almost unimpeded.

Community anger at boiling point.

In early June, I went with my daughter to a public discussion of the RFA proposed for the Otways. Geelong’s large town hall was packed out with working people — women and men, young and elderly — who were sick of not being consulted and wanted their say.

Several meetings similar to the forum in Geelong were held in western Victoria. At one, a motion was passed demanding that the forests be handed over to community control! Unsurprisingly, the comment periods on the RFA have now been cut short.

Those of us who are opposed to the RFAs urgently need to move beyond voicing outrage to coalescing and organising together as unionists, feminists, Australia’s traditional owners, socialists, and environmentalists. To be effective, we must link the plunder of the Otways to the crimes of the capitalists against nature and humanity everywhere.

The stake that working people have in protecting and managing the planet could not be any greater. Let’s unite to protect one of the most profound interests we all share!

To learn more about environmental, workingclass, Aboriginal, and feminist issues in Australia and Asia, subscribe to the Freedom Socialist Bulletin, a twice-yearly magazine published in Melbourne.

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