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Tasmania’s World Heritage Area extension all about politics

By Mark Poynter - posted Friday, 12 July 2013


In late June, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)’s World Heritage Committee accepted the Australian Government’s nomination for a so-called ‘minor’ boundary modification to extend the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA).

This will add 172,000 hectares of (mostly) forest to the 1.4 million hectares of Tasmanian wild lands and forests which were World Heritage listed in 1982 and extended in 1989 following the Helsham Inquiry.

It increases the proportion of Tasmania’s land surface listed under World Heritage from 20% to 22.5%. Even before this addition, no other jurisdiction on the planet had an equivalent proportion of its land on the World Heritage List.

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It could be argued that this development is inconsequential as it merely confers international status to 49,000 hectares that was already reserved in an existing national park and various other formal conservation reserves; and formalises the reservation of a further 123,000 hectares of mostly State forest that was due to be reserved anyway under the terms of the recently legislated Tasmanian Forests Agreement (TFA). The TFA stems from the ‘forest peace deal’ thrashed out by timber industry and ENGO negotiators from 2010 - 13.

However, ignoring how the TWWHA was extended because these areas were already reserved or were earmarked for future reservation by other means, would effectively confer tacit approval to an inappropriately politicised process which arguably devalues the science-based World Heritage concept and does no credit to Australia.

Concerns about this process surfaced as soon as it became apparent that Greens politicians had been working behind closed doors with then Federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, to develop a WHA nomination concurrent with the ‘forest peace deal’ negotiations.

Particular concerns related to 1) the factual veracity of the nomination given its preparation by environmental ideologues; 2) the nomination’s promotion as only a ‘minor’ WHA boundary modification; 3) its suitability given that a UNESCO Mission which examined the same State forests in 2008 concluded that they didn’t warrant World Heritage listing; and 4) the undue influence of politics on what should be an independent scientific evaluation of the significance of physical and cultural values.

A World Heritage Site is a place listed by UNESCO because of its special cultural and/or physical significance. World Heritage listing is determined on the basis of one or more of ten selection criteria. These include four criteria for physical (or natural) significance and six criteria related to cultural significance.

The requirements for physical (or natural) significance include “superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty ........ outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes”;or “the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity”.

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Cultural significance criteria potentially applicable to dense tall eucalypt forests in Tasmania include: 1) “an outstanding example of a traditional human ... land use..... which is representative of a culture ... of human interaction with the environment”; 2) “to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or a civilisation.....”; and 3) “to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions ......”. 

In March 2008, a joint UNESCO/IUCN/ICOMOS Tasmanian Wilderness Reactive Monitoring Mission was undertaken in response to “repeated concerns by well organised Australian and Tasmanian non-governmental environmental orgaisations (ENGOs)” about the supposed effects of forestry activities in State forests adjacent to the TWWHA’s boundaries, and their claims that tall, wet eucalypt old growth forests were under-represented in Tasmania’s conservation reserves.

Tasmania’s ENGOs engaged Peter Hitchcock – the dissenting commissioner in the 1989 Helsham Inquiry – to lobby the Mission for a major extension to the TWWHA using arguments that built on recommendations that he’d made 19 years earlier. Following the Mission, he was again engaged by the ENGOs to lobby the World Heritage Committee to overturn its findings. 

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About the Author

Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 40 years experience. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia and his book, Saving Australia's Forests and its Implications, was published in 2007.

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