Nomination for World Heritage

Last Thursday, Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke announced he would be proceed to nominate a further 170,000 hectares of Tasmania for World Heritage. Tasmania already has 1.4 million hectares so registered. He said he was only doing so on the invitation of industry. An interesting and rather dissembling construct, considering his expressed desire to do so and the ramping up of pressure he was applying to participants and others over the preceding days.

What does World Heritage listing mean exactly?

The process followed is that a country will nominate “property” to be considered of world significance to the World Heritage Committee, an organ of the UN body, UNESCO. The Committee will formally consider and assess the nomination against a set of criteria, and may lay down a range of conditions, agreed to by the nominating country, before listing the nominated “property” on a register. Such a process is regarded as an International Agreement. Minor additions to an existing listed property may not need to undergo the same rigorous assessment as the original nomination.

Under an arrangement with the States, the Commonwealth will ONLY nominate property which has already been determined a reserve by the State. In other words, World Heritage is an overlay on a pre- existing reserve status. Tasmania’s World Heritage Area is made up of a number of pre-existing reserves - Tasmania has a number of reserve categories, including National Parks, Conservation Areas, regional reserves etc. World Heritage status obliges the State to conform to the conditions laid down by the World Heritage Committee. For example, no dams, no mines, no forestry.

Readers will recall that the long-lasting forest negotiations ended with an agreement last November, and the basis of that agreement is presently before State parliament. A part of that agreement was to accept that 123,500 ha of forest should be put forward for World Heritage nomination as a minor extension to the existing listing. Interestingly, not all of these areas were contiguous, ie they did not abut the existing the property. For example there were areas surrounding the Mt Field National Park which were nominated, even though the park itself was not on the world heritage register.

The Minister’s announcement was extraordinary for a number of reasons, and raises a number of issues and questions:

  • Has he received express support from the State Government to nominate this area? If so, in what form was that support given, and does it require any approval from Parliament? If not, why not?
  • He nominated 170,000 hectares – the forestry agreement recommended 123,500 hectares. The extra hectarage involves pre-existing reserves – a matter not discussed publicly at any time during this process. In this regard, nominating non-contiguous forest areas seems to have enabled a larger hectarage to be nominated than was otherwise considered, presumably to ensure a contiguous boundary. A classic case of bracket creep and subterfuge?
  • The 123,500 hectares covers areas presently managed by Forestry Tasmania. They are not in reserves, so therefore there is an obvious breach of previous agreements to only nominate from existing reserves.
  • This same hectarage contains forest coupes recently harvested, coupes that are presently being harvested, and coupes that are planned to be harvested. So therefore the nomination is in breach of the “no forestry” rule.
  • It is proposed that the 170,000 hectares be treated as a “minor addition” to the existing “property” on the register. It takes a somewhat fertile imagination to regard 170,000 hectares as a “minor addition”.
  • The nomination has been considered within the confines of forestry. What of other activities? The nominated area contains areas of mineral prospectivity, and this was specifically recognised during the earlier verification process following the Intergovernment Agreement. Vica Bayley, from the Wilderness Society, when questioned recently by the Legislative Council Committee on this topic, stated:

    ... If you unpick and look underneath the large assessments of the prospectivity for the World Heritage area extensions - it is possible to paint a different picture with weighted versus maximum indexing in terms of mineralisation and so forth. An argument or analysis in that context will show that many of those areas that overlap with the World Heritage minor extension are not as prospective as they look in some of the reports”.

    In other words, if you fudge the data, things can appear as you want them to appear.

    Further, Bayley was rather vague when it was put to him that present mining activities presently operating would have to cease in reserve areas where mining was a permitted use. However, the World Heritage is quite explicit when it comes to mining. It requests the Commonwealth

    ...not to renew the existing leases for mineral exploration and exploitation within the property and immediately adjacent to it after their expiry and to rehabilitate the areas concerned and to incorporate them into the World Heritage property. Further, no new mining licenses should be granted within the property or in the areas which are being recommended for addition...

    Mining interests and their employees will be making their own judgments about this decision, and it will not be favourable to either government.

    In fact an approvals process for any development to be considered within the boundaries of the Heritage areas, including a tourism development, will have to undergo a complex, arduous, lengthy and expensive approval process involving both governments and their agencies. The reality is that it won’t happen.
  • The inordinate haste with which the Minister has driven this agenda for inclusion of more area to be nominated for World heritage raises a whole lot of questions, such as Why?

    In fact he has ridden this agenda hard, even before State Parliament has considered the matter. It is well known that for a decision to be made by the World Heritage Committee this year it will have needed to have a nomination placed before it by 1 February. However, what’s wrong with doing it next year?

    I suspect the World Heritage Committee will recognise that certain matters remain unresolved when they come to deliberate this nomination. They may even defer a decision, or send another mission to consider the matter. In making that decision, they will probably take into account the fact that they sent an investigating commission to the State in 2008, a mission that was heavily lobbied by conservation groups at the time, and that mission concluded that there was no need to expand the boundaries of the World Heritage Area in Tasmania.

    The area managed under the TWWHA management plan provides a good representation of well- managed tall Eucalyptus forest and there is similar forest outside the property which is also well- managed, but for both conservation and development objectives. The threats to these forests from production forestry activities are well managed and there is no need for the boundary of the property to be changed to deal with such threats.
  • Finally, what if State parliament does not pass the legislation?
All in all, this bears all the hallmarks of a right royal stuff-up.