Secret Forest: Australia rivals The Congo on deforestation, blocks media access to world scientists

by Callum Foote | Oct 6, 2023 | Energy & Environment, Latest Posts

Forestry officials have blocked journalist access to scientists at a global forum this week to monitor the destruction of native forests. Callum Foote reports on the secrecy of Department of Agriculture officials – following the destruction of 1.5m hectares of forest in three years.

Not many are aware of it, including many in the scientific establishment, but an international group of forestry officials known as the Montréal Process Group were meeting today at Sydney’s Hyatt Hotel. 

Unfortunately, the Department of Agriculture is keeping a tight lid on the meeting, even denying journalists access to the event. Perhaps not all journalists. If you were a reporter for Australian Lumberjack Weekly, you might be there with your jar of mints but this reporter from Michael West Media was denied entry.

Murray Watt

Elusive: Minister for Agriculture Murray Watt

It was the 32nd meeting of the Montreal Process Working Group, an international collaboration between 12 countries representing 60% of the world’s forests, scheduled to run through the weekend at Sydney’s 5-star Hyatt Regency Hotel.

In 1995, the Montreal Group endorsed a comprehensive framework of seven criteria and indicators to provide a common understanding for describing, assessing and evaluating a country’s progress towards sustainable forest management. 

Unfortunately, senior members of the federal Department of Agriculture who are organising the event have deemed that media should not be privy to, nor share with the public, this “common understanding” of sustainable forest management.

Common understanding – rack off

Elusive: Keiran Andrusko, Department director

Elusive: Keiran Andrusko, Department director

After the common bureaucratic rigmarole of finding the right email address, MWM and other journalists were told by a Department spokesperson, “The MPG has no permanent staff or headquarters and the Australian Government is not able to facilitate contact or interviews with its members”.

This is a strange reply, given the convener of the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) to the group, New Zealand forestry expert Dr Tim Payn told MWM, “Normally, the meetings are just for member country representatives but media interviews outside the meetings are not uncommon.”

We had been keen to facilitate contact with the Montreal Group following reports of testy relations between the NSW Environmental Protection Agency and the NSW Forestry Corporation over monitoring of the state forests and the secrecy of the mooted Great Koala National Park.

Mystery Koala hubs

The government has refused to provide public details of the Park and, rather than blocking logging in the proposed boundaries, has instead set up a number of ‘Koala Hubs’ although it has also declined to identify publicly where these hubs actually were. Hopefully, they are in the park.

What has been identified publicly, by readers across the state with their mobile phones, are the very common sightings of logging trucks carting about what used to be native forest trees.

New documents: EPA and Forestry Corporation at loggerheads over forests, koala protection

Uncommon species – a straight answer

Tim Payn

Media interviews “not uncommon”. Dr Tim Payn.

MWM was pleased with the response from Dr Payn as to media interviews as it aligned with one of the stated criteria in the framework proposed under the Montreal Process, specifically Criterion 7.5.b which states the importance of “Public participation and conflict resolution in forest-related decision making”.

We then followed up with the chair of the meeting Keiran Andrusko, who is the director of International Forestry Policy at the Department of Agriculture.

Alas, our hopes of public participation were dashed upon the rocks of forestry officialdom and bureaucratic pettifogging.

The elusive Mr Andrusko and the elusive Mr Mahoney

Mr Andrusko’s response was to tell MWM that despite Dr. Payn’s acknowledgement that interviews with representatives were not uncommon, “We are not able to arrange media access to members of other governments”.


Elusive: Department official Jesse Mahoney

Elusive: Department official Jesse Mahoney

Jesse Mahoney, another Director of International Forest Policy at the Department of Agriculture, Australia’s representative at the meeting, was not a member of another government. Would we be able to interview Mr Mahoney, we wondered wistfully. 

Alas, Mr Andrusko refused to reply when asked whether Australia had any representatives at the meeting. And Mr Mahoney has yet to respond to a request for an interview himself.

So why might Australia’s federal government be so determined to block media access to Australia’s representative, a public servant, at an international meeting?

Analysis by experts of Australia’s poor record in forestry management might shed some light on the thick shrubbery of bureaucratic obfuscation.


Absolutely not compliant

Professor David Lindenmayer from ANU, described by his colleagues as Australia’s foremost expert in forestry monitoring, was very direct when describing Australia’s record.

Australia "non-compliant". Professor David Lindenmayer

Australia “non-compliant”. Professor David Lindenmayer

“Absolutely, we are in non-compliance [with the MPWG framework] because essentially we can’t tell how many species are not travelling well.”

“We know that in Victoria, and in New South Wales, logging is actually taking place in some of the most important places for threatened forest biodiversity,” Professor Lindenmayer said.

“We do know about our deforestation levels because you get that from satellites and somebody else is flying satellites over Australia pretty regularly. But when it comes to things like threatened species, only about a third of Australia’s threatened species are properly monitored, including many threatened species in forest environments.”

“Yeah, each state does its own thing. There are lots of lovely glossy documents saying ‘We’re going to stop deforestation and forest degradation’ and all that sort of stuff. But we’re still clearing about 500,000 hectares every year.”

Nathaniel Pelle, the business and nature lead at the Australian Conservation Foundation, says that Australia’s high levels of deforestation have flown under the international radar.

Nathaniel Pelle

“We compare with The Congo”. Nathaniel Pelle

“Global markets, like the US and the EU are very, very worried and putting standards in place to avoid contributing to deforestation in places like the Amazon, Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia, where they buy a lot of palm oil from tropical rainforest destruction. This is what people think about when we think of the loss of forests.”

However, deforestation is continuing unabated in Australia.

“The two best analyses of this are in Queensland and New South Wales, where both of those states have recently updated what’s called their Statewide Landcover and Tree Study (SLATS)”.

According to the SLATS, together Queensland and New South Wales have destroyed 1.5 million hectares of woody vegetation in the last three years. The agriculture sector is responsible for the lion’s share of this habitat destruction.

“Australians are not usually aware that the vast majority of the destruction of forests is happening on agricultural properties,” says Pelle “And by far, the majority of that is linked to livestock, beef and sheep farming in particular”.

In Queensland, 93% of land clearing comes from the agricultural sector.

The WWF has also labelled Australia as the only developed country with a deforestation front, says Pelle. “WWF has pointed out that no other developed country in the world is still clearing forests. We compare with The Congo and other developing countries.”

Banned: MWM too ‘aggressive’ for the merchants of death but we won’t shut up

Callum Foote was a reporter for Michael West Media for four years.

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