FSC, Hancock and Smartwood Selling Out the Gippsland Environment

Last month, FSC-Watch received the following post about SmartWood’s certification of Hancock Victorian Plantations. Early in February, a large area of Hancock’s plantations burned down: part of the tragic fires which saw the loss of more than 200 lives and 1,800 homes. More information about the fires is available here.

FSC, Hancock and Smartwood Selling Out the Gippsland Environment

The reputation of FSC in Australia has been dealt another nasty blow with Smartwood’s 2008 audit of Hancock Victorian Plantations (HVP). It appears that Smartwood has chosen to ignore recommendations made by Accredited Services International (ASI) in August 2007 and has instead rehashed company biased propaganda.

The following quotes from the 2007 ASI audit are telling.

Page 19: “ASI auditor has serious concerns about the SW decision to maintain certification even if after two years of certification (and 4 years of the main assessment) the company still has several Major CARs…”

Page 20: “ASI considers that the results from this ASI audit, as well as results from ASI 2006 office audit for SW, identifies substantial systematic deficiency in SW decision making system for issuing and maintaining certificates…”

In the conclusion ASI wrote: “ASI auditor detected that, … one of the major problems is that SW issued CARs that do not adequately address the identified non-compliances. Many of these CARs were extended and/ or closed despite the lack of compliance instead of being upgraded, or other disciplinary measures be proposed against the certificate holder. Another major issue is that SW issued a certificate to a company that did not demonstrate full compliance with FSC certification requirements thus encouraging a continuous improvement approach instead of a performance based certification. This seems to be the root-cause for many problems, including high visibility of the HVP certificate. This is a major threat to the credibility of the SW certification system and subsequently to FSC if not corrected.”

It has now been two years since ASI visited Victoria. Hancock’s performance has seriously deteriorated in that time with the company now clearfelling areas supposedly set aside in a rainforest reserve in October 2006. It has been business as usual showing that the FSC system can be undermined by unethical certified companies, with both Smartwood and ASI unable to pull Hancock and their destructive practices into line.

The situation in the Strzelecki Ranges is now desperate with locals exasperated with both Hancock and Smartwood. Groups monitoring Hancock now know that FSC cannot (will not) withstand often dishonorable tactics employed by the timber industry (who also control auditors’ purse strings). It is now crunch time for Strzelecki Rainforest and Strzelecki Koalas. FSC Australia stands mute and totally ineffectual, fearing that the loss of Hancock from the FSC system will mean the loss of all FSC certified sawlogs in Australia. In short, the Strzeleckis is being ‘sold out’ by all parties.

Hancock will be soon clearfelling sites of National Conservation Significance at College Creek, the stronghold of Slender Fork Fern on mainland Australia. The species is critically endangered on mainland Australia. The Heads of Agreement signed by the company and community in October 2006 has now been superseded by a secret agreement signed by Hancock CEO Linda Sewell and Victorian Conservation Minister Gavan Jennings in August 2008. The original agreement fell through after Hancock doubled the amount of timber to be extracted under the deal without properly explaining this change of volume to the community. Further details available here.

The new agreement allows for clearfelling of 1500ha of reforestation in key rainforest catchments including the nationally significant College Creek. Replanting of the cut over areas will allow Hancock to benefit from carbon credits, whilst ignoring the carbon emitted from the logging. Hancock also have made the most of stating that they will not log any of their custodial land, much of which consists of weed infested gullies and drainage lines of little conservation and industry significance. Hancock are already cutting out forests that were protected under the 2006 deal in complete opposition to the wishes of the local community. Over 100 people signed a petition protesting FSC’s continued support of Hancock at a rally at Boolara in July. So much for FSC working with local communities. 75% of the timber cut from the Strzelecki Rainforest Reserve will make its way to Maryvale Pulp Mill which has also benefitted from Smartwood/FSC Chain of Custody Certification since 2006. (This has also occurred with the Maryvale Mill vastly increasing their supply of native forest timber during this time, sourced largely from fire salvage operations).

Despite no one from the community supporting this horrendous deal, Smartwood give Hancock the benefit of the doubt by stating in the 2008 audit; “It should also be noted that the decision of HVP to follow the stipulations of the HoA whether or not the agreement is formalized is seen as a positive step by HVP to meet the concerns of stakeholders“.

Strzelecki Rainforest

Much has been written about the dire state of Strzelecki Rainforest and lack of protection afforded rainforest by Hancock. The new audit basically endorses Hancock’s agenda of redefining rainforest out of existence, with scientifically indefensible buffers in contradiction to recommendations made by leading scientists in the field.

Strzelecki Ranges Morwell River East Branch, with cool temperate rainforest marked in green. The rainforest in the Morwell River East Branch catchment is of regional conservation significance and should have been granted eucalypt buffers of at least 60m. Instead Hancock have granted buffers <20m. All of the catchment has been logged since 2004, and all has been logged under FSC certification. Endemic reforestation containing Mountain Ash, has been converted to Shining Gum, a non-endemic species in the Strzeleckis.

On page 4 of its 2008 Audit, Smartwood’s assessors make an astonishing claim that there is scientific dispute regarding rainforest buffers. “Furthermore, it was alleged that a rainforest ecologist is of a similar opinion”. Why has the audit team failed to mention that recognised rainforest ecologists in Australia are dissatisfied with the rainforest Best Management Practice (BMP) developed by Hancock? It should also be noted that up until the 2008 audit, all ecologists working on the Smartwood Team were also dissatisfied with these BMPs. All of these ecologists have since been removed from future Smartwood audits.

Hancock has done everything to undermine expert opinion on measures required to protect the Strzelecki Cool and Warm Temperate Rainforests. They have sought expert input to gain credibility and to meet Corrective Actions of 2004, 2005 2006, however none of the Corrective Actions have been adequately met. A point raised by ASI in 2007.

We are pleased to see that Smartwood expects Hancock to remain active in their stakeholder communications as the Company has refused to be involved in meaningful dialogue with a number of key stakeholders since 2006 and as far as past audits conditions, the company has failed to consult with stakeholders on measures to protect rainforest post the initial 2004 audit.

Rainforest is protected in Victoria and Hancock have not afforded additional protection. In fact it has been stated repeatedly that the Company has not provided adequate protection for Rainforest in the Strzeleckis (see for example the Peer Review carried out by Terry Walshe and David Cameron in 2005). If the Company has not afforded adequate protection to Cool and Warm Temperate Rainforest, how can Smartwood claim that Hancock is adopting a precautionary approach which should facilitate a net gain recovery of Cool and Warm Temperate Rainforest? This can not occur.

Strzelecki Koalas

The Strzelecki Koala, the only ‘genetically diverse’ koala population remaining in Victoria and South Australia, faces an equally uncertain future with Smartwood now claiming that Hancock are under no obligation to protect the species.

Under the heading Koala Bear Management, the 2008 Smartwood audit states;

However, in Victoria the Koala is not offered additional protection as a species let alone as distinct populations. As such HVP or any other forest manager for that matter is not required to establish specific management plans for the species … If the Koala population requires conserving then it is the State Government’s responsibility to list the species accordingly and this has not yet occurred. As such there is no specific reason why HVP as a private land manager should be required to establish conservation measures for a species such as the Koala as long as it is not required by the state or federal Government.

The Koala is considered to be nationally significant, therefore it is reasonable to expect conservation measures for this species on all land tenures. The Strzelecki Koala is the only endemic Koala population remaining in Victoria and it IS recognised as a distinct Management Unit.

Strzelecki Koala facing an uncertain future, with Smartwood, FSC and Hancock Victorian Plantations now washing their hands of any strategies to protect this species.

According to the Koala Management Strategy the land manager is required to protect this species. How can any land manager do this without a Management Plan?

On January 22, 2007 Owen Trumper Manager Grand Ridge Plantations (a Hancock Subsidiary) stated: “We do not have a Specific BMP for Koalas. Grand Ridge Plantations is currently working with the Australian Koala Foundation on a Koala Management Plan. This project is awaiting the completion of the current EVC mapping project in the Strzelecki ranges.

The 2008 audit statement by Smartwood is actually a major step backwards from the situation that occurred before the FSC certification. Realising the sensitivity of the koala issue, Hancock very early wanted to show that it was working to conserve the species. On 2 October 2000 Hancock and the Australia Koala Foundation (AKF) announced a joint MoU to learn more about koalas on Hancock land.

The press release stated:

“The scientific community regards the Strzelecki koala population as making an important contribution to the national koala gene pool” Mr (Kevin) White (CEO Hancock) said. “This MOU along with the field studies, will hopefully lead to a situation where critical koala habitat on HVP’s holdings will be permanently protected.”

(Deborah) Tabart (from the Australia Koala Foundation) said “This MOU and the final Koala Habitat Atlas that will be produced could lead the way to sustainable logging by all companies in the Strzelecki Ranges. The koalas in this region are critical to the future of Victorian koalas and we are delighted that HVP understands their scientific importance.”*

Almost one decade later neither the Atlas or the Koala Best Management Practice are anywhere to be seen, with rumours suggesting that Hancock have refused to hand over Strzelecki information that can be properly used by the Australia Koala Foundation. Strange given that Hancock has extensively studied their land holdings for the past decade and have a database second to none. Meanwhile Hancock have logged almost 6000ha of Mountain Ash/Koala habitat (which are koala feed trees) and converted these trees to Shining Gum Plantations a non-koala feed tree. (Approximately 3500ha of koala habitat has been converted since FSC certification by Hancock in February 2004.)

In its initial audit in 2004/5, Smartwood wrote “Further work is also being carried out by the Australia Koala Foundation to detail koala habitat in the Strzelecki Ranges and a draft Koala Habitat Atlas is expected soon” (page 58).

Four years later we have seen nothing produced neither by the company or the Australia Koala Foundation. It would appear that Smartwood too has now washed its hands of any responsibility in protecting this species. This should be an international disgrace. How can FSC allow Smartwood to get away with this?

The Koala in Victoria was almost wiped out by the 1930s. The only remnant population to survive the onslaught of white hunters and disease was a small population in the Strzelecki Ranges/South Gippsland. All other koala populations in Victoria and South Australia are descendents from a few individuals transferred to Phillip Island and French Island in the late 1880s. A study by Friends of the Earth in 2005 found that approximately 54% of sitings of Strzelecki Koalas since 1990 occurred on land now managed by Hancock. Clearly, the way Hancock manages its land holdings is the single most important factor in the long term protection of the species.

An investigation carried out by Dr Bronwyn Houlden, School of Biological Science, University of New South Wales, 20th March 1997 and 6th April 1998 confirmed that the genetic pool of South Gippsland koalas has not been compromised. Dr Houlden indicated that on a national basis koalas generally are not considered to be threatened. She advised that this assessment has unfortunately led to an extremely simplistic view of conservation of biodiversity in the species. Her report was entitled “Low genetic variability of the koala Phascolarctos cinereus in south-eastern Australia following a severe population bottleneck” – Published in Molecular Ecology 1996, 5 269-281.

Through extensive analysis by herself and her collaborators Houlden revealed that the species is composed of highly differentiated populations with low levels of gene flow between populations throughout their range. The Strzelecki Koala population constitutes a separate management unit and is significant in terms of management of biodiversity on a regional and state basis. Dr Houlden found that the Strzelecki Ranges had the highest level of genetic variation, of any Victorian population she analysed. This is important, given the low levels of genetic variability found in many populations in Victoria, which have been involved in the translocation program.

The Strzelecki koala population has high levels of genetic variability which have been detected by rare and unique genetic markers. These animals are statistically significantly differentiated from other Australian populations and therefore constitute a separate management unit. Because biodiversity in the species as a whole is dependent of conservation of populations throughout the species range, the Strzelecki Ranges population, together with the South Gippsland population is nationally significant as well. The lack of genetic diversity amongst Australian koalas could be critical to the survival of the species as a whole.

In conclusion, FSC is rapidly becoming a very bad joke. In no way can it now be separated from the other appalling forestry standard in Australia, the Australian Forestry Standard. The dire situation can partly be explained by the fact that Hancock are supplying unsustainable logging contracts to the Maryvale Pulp Mill. The current contract specifies about 300,000 cubic metres each year until 2027. It has been estimated that Hancock are looking at a contractual shortfall of anywhere between 1 to 2 million cubic metres of woodchips in a few years time due to massive failure of their Gippsland bluegum plantations. Growth rates in the bluegums are as low as 35 – 70% less than predicted. This means that any attempt to gain adequate forest protection in the region is being undermined by unrealistic supply projections, an issue which FSC ignores.

The other major development in Victoria is the arrival of Woodmark’s auditors who are attempting to work with Vicforests regarding the certification of native forests in Eastern Victoria. Given the disaster unfolding in the Strzeleckis, any attempt by Woodmark to see Victorian native forests certified will be savagely dealt with, as the issues faced in the Strzeleckis will be magnified 100 times in native forests elsewhere in Victoria. The masterminds behind FSC entering native forests are Maryvale Pulp Mill and ITC, Australia’s largest hardwood sawmillers.

14 January 2009

Anthony Amis – Friends of the Earth Melbourne

Susie Zent – Friends of Gippsland Bush


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