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Australia's role in the tropical timber trade

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Member for Pearce Shadow Minister for the Environment


Australia can best contribute to the maximum preservation of the world's tropical rainforests by constructive involvement with major supplier countries in South East Asia.

The Coalition believes that Australia must take a positive approach aimed at ensuring tropical timber operations are genuinely sustainable.

It is clear the countries in our region would welcome increased technical co-operation aimed at improving forestry practices towards economically and ecologically sustainable development.

It is equally clear they regard talk of bans as offensive to their sovereignty and a slight on their concerns for the economic and social improvement of their population.

We reject the blunt instrument of import bans because, while those who advocate them are unquestionably well-intentioned, such action is unlikely to reduce forest loss and could well lead to greater deforestation.

A decision by this country to impose bans, no matter how selective or how conditional, would cause enormous harm to our relations with the countries of our region and run counter to our support for a freer world trading environment.

In addition, given Australia's relatively minor role in the timber trade, bans would have insignificant impact on tropical timber operations. Even in the unlikely event that this unilateral action led to similar steps by some of the major

importers, there is no convincing evidence to suggest that this would produce the result that advocates of such action desire.

On the contrary, if the market for timber products were severely reduced or disappeared altogether, the likelihood is that land uses such as clearing for agriculture spurred by poverty and population pressures - the major cause of deforestation in tropical countries - would result in even greater forest loss.

The Coalition is very aware of the concerns of many Australians about tropical rainforest depletion and particular attention has focussed on the Malaysian State of Sarawak.



We believe Australia's best prospect of influencing and improving the situation there and in other tropical timber producing countries is through continued active membership of the International Tropical Timbers Organisation. The ITTO has

set the year 2000 as the target by which all internationally traded timber should come from sustainably-managed forests.

It has also accepted the results of a special mission sent to report on the sustainable utilisation of tropical forests in Sarawak and the genetic resources and ecological balance in that State. That Mission reported that sustainability was being partly achieved but recommended action, including a reduced cut and better forest management, to ensure total achievement.

Australia is uniquely placed to play a major role in helping Malaysia and other countries in the region reach the goal of sustainability to which they have committed themselves through the ITTO. ■

During a recent visit to Malaysia and Indonesia I was impressed by the desire of those countries for Australian involvement. Our forestry expertise, in particular, is greatly respected and sought after. There are real opportunities for Australians to get directly involved by helping these countries improve forest practices.

Proof of this is the part Australia will play in the World Bank - sponsored Tropical Forestry Action Plan for Papua New Guinea which contains 14 projects suitable for Australian contribution. There is also the prospect of the

implementation of the Ecological and Economic Sustainable Tropical Rainforest Use Study (EESTRU) developed by the CSIRO for Papua New Guinea.

If Australia is to maintain its high reputation it needs to constantly update and improve research and management techniques. The Government decision to quarantine the North Queensland World Heritage area will make this more difficult and consideration should be given to allowing limited access to that region for demonstration and scientific purposes.

The complex issue of the tropical timber trade highlights the difficulties in dealing with environment-related matters affecting developing countries.

It is no good the developed world lecturing or threatening less developed countries when such action would have major economic implications for those countries unless they are prepared to address those consequences. It might make some Australians feel good if their country were to ban imports but

results on the ground would almost certainly be counter­ productive.


Discussing the issue of import bans, the recent publication by the CSIRO's Tropical Forest Research Centre notes:

"... developing nations are not at liberty to relinquish a major economic base without replacing it with another. If the value of rainforest trees as timber is reduced, it is possible the forest will be cleared for agricultural use instead. This could result in even greater destruction of the rainforests than that caused by


In April last year the Government received a report from consultants it had commissioned to study and report on Australia's role in the international tropical timber industry. That report recommends against trade restrictions

of any type.

It is high time the Government announced a decision on this matter to remove the concern of Australia's near neighbours about threats of import bans and to assure them of our desire for constructive involvement, as advocated by the Liberal and National Parties.

Some of the other recommendations of the consultants, Coopers and*Lybrand-FORTECH, are also worthy of support and are in line with Opposition policy.

They include:

. assistance to forest management authorities in source countries

. support for projects to reduce pressures on remaining forests, such as improved production from already cleared land, and

. improved efficiency in use of tropical timbers in Australia

CANBERRA 19 February 1991 Contact: Keith Kessell 06 277 4760