Gunns, the company responsible for logging the Tasmanian rainforests, is responding to a 5-year long campaign of protests and direct action by issuing a mass lawsuit, hoping to intimidate or impoverish its opponents out of existence. On the 13th of December, 2004 it filed a case naming 20 individuals and groups, from direct action protestors to a Green Party senator, and is seeking over A$6million in damages from them for a 'conspiracy to injure Gunns by unlawful means' - harming Gunns' profits by protesting. This is the latest round in a bitter struggle that has polarised the Tasmanian community over the future of the remaining rainforests - on the one hand there is a powerful corporation and large number of loggers who depend on the industry, and on the other there is a large community of green citizens who are concerned to see the forests preserved.
Only 13% of old growth forest remains in Tasmania, and 20,000 hectares of this are cleared and burnt each year, mainly by Gunns, which is the largest company in the state. This position gives them a great deal of influence within the Tasmanian government, of course, and this lawsuit can be seen as an attempt by Gunns to use the friendly state apparatus to squash popular opposition to their logging activities. The Green Party in Tasmania got around 15% of the vote in the last local elections of August 2002, which may indicate another reason why the ruling Labor administration seems happy to go along with Gunns' plans.
This attempt to sue their opponents out of existence could actually indicate Gunns' weakness in the face of concerted opposition. The list of groups and individuals cited in the suit adds up to a long list of campaigns and actions - including The Styx Valley tree-sit campaign in 2003, a protest and 'lock-on' at the Triabunna woodchip mill and a letter-writing campaign which saw more than 7000 people write to Japanese woodchip customers urging them not to buy Gunns woodchips. If they are hoping to isolate 20 'ring leaders' their hopes are probably mistaken, since a crowd of 600 rallied in the small Tasmanian state capital Hobart to protest the charges on the 15th of December, 2004.
Most of the wood logged in Tasmania - 90% - is converted into woodchips for the Asian paper industry and sold at around A$15 (less than Â£6) per tonne. In 2000 the Australian Bureau of Statistics calculated that 5,498,654 tonnes were converted to woodchip, plus 15 to 20 million tonnes of 'woodland waste' were burnt. The Tasmania that Gunns built is rapidly eliminating the forest habitats of species such as the Wedge-tailed Eagle and Eastern Pygmy Possum, and is also making life hard for the human population. Tasmania has the highest density of trucks on the roads of all Australia, and although the trucking and logging industries employ approximately 5,000 people, this situation is not sustainable.
According to a report published by Timber Workers for Forests (TWFF), the number of people employed in Tasmanian logging has declined by nearly 4,000 since the 1980s; they see this as due to 'the replacement of high quality forest with fast growing pulp species which create a future solely for mechanised harvesting with only one possible output - low value woodchips and associated job minimisation.' Currently Gunns are involved in clear-felling sections of old growth woodland, that contains unique Tasmanian timbers such as myrtle, blackwood celery-top and sassafrass, and in their place growing new trees that are harvested every 25 years or so, and then made into woodchip. TWFF advocate minimal felling for use in carpentry, joining, building and other craft industries, such as boat building and instrument making - an approach that would diversify the Tasmanian jobs market and provide much more employment, especially in the long run. However, as long as Gunns are making profit (over 73 million A$ in 2003) they are unlikely to abandon their policy of clear-felling ancient woodland. When this heritage has been squandered the remaining loggers and truckers will be laid off and Gunns will move on to continue its vampiric career.
Against this scenario are ranged the environmental campaigners. They hope that Gunns' use of the courts will backfire against them, just as it did against McDonalds when they tried to sue two campaigners in what eventually became a massive public relations own goal for the company.
Report on the case
Tasmanian Green Party
Action in Manchester against Australian logging, July 2004
Spoof Tasmania tourism site with many facts and figures
Timber Workers for Forests
- 183 Environment