Urban Salvage

The Drum


      AUGUST 2010

  • The End of the Hardwood Plantation Era?
  • What's New?

The End of the Hardwood Plantation Era?

The recent and calamitous events surrounding forestry projects on the Tiwi islands near Darwin are an example of how imperfectly forest issues are understood in the cities. A plantation company - Sylvatech - was approved by the Federal government in 2001 to clear 30,000ha of bushland on Melville Island and plant a variety of tropical acacia (Acacia mangium) for production of woodchip. 

All the Big Words attended: Environmental Impact Assessments, Public Consultation, Economic and Social Partnership with the Tiwi Land Council, Wildlife Corridors, Riparian Protection zones and of course, the Guest of Honour word, Plantations. Declining to embarrass the guest of honour, the Deforestation word did not attend.

In a drawn out tragedy - the subject of a 2008 Senate enquiry - Sylvatech cleared over 20,000ha of open forest, woodland and savannah containing Darwin Stringybark, Northern Woollybutt and Melville Island Bloodwood. The timber from these trees is similar enough to be mixed as an appearance-grade eucalypt timber in rich red-browns - as dense, as durable, as beautiful as Ironbark. Those in the timber trade reading this will be wiping tears from their eyes. Caught twixt grief and laughter in the knowledge of the relative values of fine hardwood like Red Tiwi and the wattle Sylvatech grew for woodchip in its place. 

Seven barge loads of Red Tiwi timber were shipped to China in 2003 at a loss of $610,000. I will concede, freight costs a bomb nowadays - and the central underpinning of the project (perhaps) was income from pulplog investments. On this do we then judge it - rather than on any sideshows of disinformation and rorting.

In 2004, Sylvatech sold out to Great Southern Plantations for $50 million. GSP continued the clearing and planting operations, but was in trouble by 2007 for damaging sensitive buffer zones and failing to complete habitat and environmental monitoring. When Greens Senator Christine Milne reported her concerns to Parliament, the media - on a hair-trigger for any scandal touching Native Forestry - took a look at this Plantation Project fully six years down the track. First in - Wendy Carlisle on ABC's Background Briefing.

With an exchange of Words-I-like-to-Use and Words-I-prefer-to-Avoid, Media Liaison for GSP, David Ikin, sparred with Carlisle. To Deforestation he countered with No - merely Conversion of Scrub to Plantation Form. When Carlisle insisted Deforestation, he denied any truck with true Forests and claimed Open Forest slash Woodland. Carlisle relented and conceded Savannah. Savannah? squirmed Ikin. New one on me.

Carlisle - no stranger to irony - linked the controversy to Howard's announcement of $200 million in grants to Indonesia intended to limit Deforestation in that country - part of his late conversion to Carbon Warrior in the lead-up to the 2007 elections.

Melville Island landscapes include coastal lowlands, ridge and escarpment. The flora is found in 7.0m high savannah on impervious subsoils
to 25m high canopy woodlands. These grade from open woodlands of 30% to 70% canopy cover with patches of escarpment, gorge or riverine forest and monsoonal forests on the lowland river edges. As with all eucalypt forests, the best template for species selection in any form of managed forest
is the one that already exists. Management practices that retain indigenous seed volumes on the forest or woodland floor,
ensure biodiversity even through thinning or burning regimes.


We know that Great Southern went into receivership in 2009 leaving the Tiwi Land Council without any returns on the plantation investment aside from a few years of rent and wage cheques. The Land Council are seeking government grants of $120 million to sustain the investment and rebuild the wharf - damaged during timber export of the Red Tiwi. Gee, that really was non-profitable, wasn't it? But just the interest rate at 5% - or $6 million annually - is a hell of a lot more than the $700,000 per annum the project was projected to return to the Tiwis. 

Where was the due diligence? I know hindsight is a wonderful thing, but what was it about this whole eight year episode, which played out sans credibility and ended as it always had to, that kept it free from close scrutiny - or even distant oversight?

In truth it was a word. A big word. A powerful word in Australian media. Plantation. For 15 years now, we have inclined our heads devoutly when we say Plantation. And I wonder at how powerful this word has become. It was a Global idea that found easy residence amongst our urban middle classes. There was sense of order to it that was reflected in the uniform age, rank and species of the scrawny hardwoods selected for growing - and it contrasted with what many saw in native hardwood sawmilling as a disorderly, chaotic rural industry. A Plantation could be structured, controlled and measured. A National Socialist State of Woody Plants. It appealed to utopians, the media, social demographers and scolds. It looked good in black and sounded better after a pinot noir. Since many urban folk find our rural traditions aberrant, fanciful or absent, the plantation ideal was seen to fill a vacuum rather than replace a tradition.

Yet the tradition exists. It is strong and competent. I think that if a mixed group of hardwood timber people - forest managers, millers, and producers - were to come together as a board to formulate an alternative enterprise for the Tiwi Land Council to return $700,000 plus annually to the community in wages and dividends, they would fashion a small-scale milling and re-forestation program that would be cost-effective, productive, of low-waste and low-energy and sustainable. Instead of the millions of investor dollars spent by white shoe plantationists, your hardwood bushie would buy secondhand machinery for a song, pull in a few favours from mates in return for a spot of barra fishing, and rig the most inventive infrastructure for loading and shipping seen since the 1944 Normandy beach landings. 

Have we yet come to the close of an era where we think that by allowing tax incentives for investment in a single crop type at the expense of similar ventures, we can establish an economically viable industry? Do we need to look to Global standards anyway as a measure of who we are and how we rate as a nation, or like the French can we look inwards, build on our traditions and encourage regionalism? 

We should find in our rural traditions a sense of pride, and in our small and medium businesses, the paradigm for industry and growth - where the investment is personal investment, where the work is hard and where what pays off eventually is persistence, commitment and determination.

What's New?

Recycled Messmate   150 x 30mm   Rate $26.00/m

A hard-to-find thickness of board for less bulky table tops, sideboards, shelves and bookcases with all the interest of recycled structural timber.


Recycled Messmate   200 x 60mm   Rate $52.00/m

On the other hand, maybe 30mm or 40mm thickness doesn't have the impact you want. These boards make great treads, tables or island benchtops.


Recycled Messmate   330 x 65mm   Rate $110.00/m

These edge-laminated beams will give good service as stair treads or countertops in any building project.


KD F27 Stringybark   210 x 40mm   Rate $33.00/m

In lengths to 4.8m

This timber may have ended up behind plaster as a structural member - simply because some building engineer found it easier to specify than an engineered product. Dressed to FG finish, it will be better used as an appearance grade timber in a pergola, exposed beam or joist, or a bench seat on an outdoor deck. Don't waste good hardwoods in the hidden elements of construction.