FSC Certified operations fast losing credibility in Australia

This posting has been submitted by Anthony Amis, Friends of the Earth Melbourne, Australia.

In February 2004, Hancock Victorian Plantations received Australia’s first FSC certification [certifier: SmartWood]. Many interested parties initially hoped that FSC would deliver on what it promised and we would see a marked improvement in Hancock’s forest management practices. Those promises have not eventuated and in many ways Hancock’s forest management is getting worse not better.

The Hancock certification involved almost 250,000 hectares of land throughout the State of Victoria, with about 70% being ex state owned plantations previously controlled by Victorian Plantation Corporation which Hancock gained 99 year logging rights from in 1998 and the remaining 30% being land that was controlled and leased by Australian Paper Plantations in Gippsland. Of the 250,000 hectares about 20,000 hectares was hardwood ‘plantation’, 130,000 hectares being radiata pine and the rest being native forest or custodial land.

The most contentious issues for Hancock were/are pesticide applications, particularly in plantations located in domestic water supply catchments (the rural city of Geelong had their water supply poisoned with hexazinone by Hancock for 18 months between December 2004 and June 2006 – with FSC certification), water quality issues, scale of clearfells, roading, management regimes for the Strzelecki Koala (Victoria’s only endemic koala population) and cool temperate rainforest management in the Strzelecki Ranges in South East Victoria.

Initially most people involved in protecting forests in the Strzelecki Ranges, were cautious yet optimistic with FSC and the certifying body wanting to enter Australia for the first time, Smartwood. In the initial scoping, community members basically helped select a very good team including a forester, an ecologist, a soil expert, a social scientist and a roading engineer. Local community members were also interested in seeing if FSC could help bring about a rainforest reserve in the Strzeleckis.

The rainforest reserve known as “The Cores and Links” planned to link up most of the identified cool temperate rainforest in the Strzeleckis. The rainforest and its wet forest eucalypt buffers would total about 9,000ha. Hancock agreed to a two year moratorium of logging the Cores and Links in July 2004 and many thought that the FSC process helped facilitate the moratorium.

Rainforest in Victoria is particularly vulnerable to disturbance. Its biggest threat is fire, which if it occurs will see the rainforest completely wiped out to be succeeded by eucalypt forest. Because of its fragility rainforest is not allowed to be logged in Victoria.

Cool temperate rainforest also suffers from a disease known as Myrtle Wilt, which can enter Beech trees via wounds in the tree. If the disease gets a foothold in rainforest it can wipe out an entire rainforest stand. Rainforest is therefore in an extremely vulnerable position in Victoria. Logging activities in close proximity to rainforest can increase the risk of stirring up Myrtle Wilt spores, increasing the likelihood of disease and can increase risks associated with fire.

In State Forests, rainforest is basically guaranteed rainforest buffers of 60 metres. That is to say logging can occur in Eucalypt forests to within 60 metres of the rainforest ecotone. On private land however, which is what Hancock purchased, there is supposed to be a buffer, but no specific buffer width is specified under the Code of Forest Practice. Rainforest buffers have been at the forefront of forest issues in Victoria for more than 30 years.

The Strzelecki Cool Temperate Rainforest is recovering from past disturbances and is extremely vulnerable. It is located in gullies and drainage lines. In some instances in the past, eucalypt forests were planted next to rainforest leaving no buffer. Hancock is now logging these areas and despite being granted an FSC certificate in 2004, the company decided that their policy would be to leave only 20 metre buffers, usually consisting of Silver Wattle and Mountain Ash.

In the 2004 FSC audit, Smartwood wrote that 40 metre buffers might be inadequate and that these issues are of “importance and urgency”. Hancock were requested by Smartwood to get this issue sorted out, via a Corrective Action Request (CAR), by completing a Rainforest Best Management Practice (BMP) plan by 1 March 2005.

By the time the 2005 audit occurred, Hancock had not completed their Rainforest BMP. In the meantime however, they continued to log large amounts of eucalypt buffers in the Morwell River East Branch, a regional site of rainforest significance, leaving only 20 metre ‘buffers’. This infuriated conservationists who feared that Hancock were deliberatey stalling the process. The audit team rightfully suggested that a Major CAR be written that would either cease operations in all coupes that are adjacent to rainforest or put in place a minimum of two tree height (100 metre) buffers on all rainforest sites… This suggestion however was over-ridden by Smartwood, who instead granted a CAR giving Hancock more time until the end of 2005 to complete their rainforest BMP.

In the following months Hancock continued leaving 20 metres or less rainforest buffers on Morwell River East Branch and Rytons Junction in the Albert River. They also logged pine plantations leaving no buffers on the extremely rare Strzelecki Warm Temperate Rainforest at Macks Creek. Local campaigners also found Hancock logging inside the Cores and Links Reserve which under that time was supposed to be under a logging moratorium. All of this was done with FSC certification.

In October 2005 a review of the draft Hancock Rainforest BMP occurred by two respected rainforest experts. The fundamental conclusion of the two experts was that buffers in the draft BMP for both cool and warm temperate rainforest are inadequate. Before the the 2006 audit came around, June 2006, Hancock publicly announced their rainforest BMP, by leaving only 20 metre rainforest buffers despite their experts claiming such buffers were inadequate. After the 2006 audit, Smartwood again changed the CAR by granting Hancock another reprieve, in the form of another Major CAR which had to be completed by February 2007.

During this time Hancock continued on their merry way leaving 20 metre buffers (and less) on Smiths Creek, Morwell River East Branch and, worst of all, Morwell River. In June 2006, the State Government of Victoria in the lead up to the State Election decided that a solution to the Strzelecki crisis had to occur. In July 2006, Hancock had also stated that they intended logging College Creek inside the Cores and Links. The two year moratorium had ended.

After several meetings with the community, the government and Hancock, a formal new rainforest reserve was announced in October 2006 via a Heads of Agreement. However, logging was to occur in about 1,500ha of the new 9,000ha reserve due to Hancock having to meet contractual obligations to the Maryvale mill. This logging could take place well away from rainforests, so although the community was not happy , they ended up agreeing as a way to move the negotiations forward.

Hancock supplies the Maryvale mill with 300,000 cubic metres of hardwood per year until the year 2026. Unknown to the community, Hancock also argued that all contract shortfalls caused by not logging eucalpyts inside the Cores and Links (460,000 cubic metres) would have to be made up by logging their custodial land, native forest. This did not reflect the true intentions of the negotations, whereby the community had demanded that any logging within the Cores and Links would have to be reduced from the supposed shortfall, thereby reducing the shortfall significantly. For an FSC certified company to attempt such a ‘con’ is extemely unethical. The agreement also stated that 60 metre buffers on Morwell River rainforest and 100 meter buffers on Morwell River East Branch would eventuate.

In November 2006, Hancock started logging inside the Cores and Links reserve, starting with coupes in the Morwell River region before a proper process had been formalised. Local conservationists were astounded to see logging within 5 metres of rainforest species, despite being in breach of the recently signed Heads of Agreement. Hancock apparently wanted to make a ‘statement’ by carrying out the logging in such a manner. Hancock also claimed that because the rainforest hadn’t been mapped they had no idea it was there and that the Heads of Agreement maps didn’t show rainforest in that particular location. The maps of course were provided by Hancock, without community scrutiny. Is this the way an FSC certifed company should behave?

During the 2007 audit in February by Smartwood, it was made clear to the local community that Smartwood were starting to get rather agitated by the demands of the community in regards to rainforest. During the audit, community members felt that they were being audited and that their position, rasther than Hancock’s required to be defended and substantiated. The audit was a most unpleasant experience and marked a new low point in relations between the community and Smartwood. The community is now fed up with FSC and Hancock, and feel that the only way that FSC could retain its credibility would be for Hancock to lose their certification.

To rub salt into our wounds, in July 2006 Smartwood announced that the biggest paper mill in the country, Maryvale (owned by PaperlinX), had received an FSC Chain of Custody Certification. Because about 60% of Maryvale’s supply is sourced from Hancock, the mill qualifies for CoC. The environmental community was aghast. For the past 10 years Reflex copy paper had been under a boycott by 27 Australian based environmental NGO’s because of its reliance on the native forests of the Central Highlands and Strzelecki Ranges. No environmental NGOs were consulted about this move by Smartwood and now ENGO’s are having to face a barrage of television commercials stating that one of their biggest headaches, Reflex Copy Paper is now certified by the FSC. The CoC doesn’t even include looking at any of the 600,000 cubic metres per year of native forest that the Maryville mill uses, the source of the ENGO frustration. This scenario is a complete disgrace and will severely undermine FSC’s reputation throughout Australia.

Anthony Amis

More details of this case, including many photographic images of the problems outlined above, are avaialble here, and information on the problems with Australia’s paper industry can be found here.

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