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Address to the International Conference on Certification and Labelling of Products from Sustainably Managed Forests

by Senator the Hon Robert Hill,
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Minister for the Environment

2 May 1996

Mr Dennis Cullity, Chair of the Conference, Dr Christina Amoaka-Nuama, Vice-Chair, Dr Jag Maini, Ladies and gentlemen.

On behalf of the Australian government it gives me great pleasure to welcome you to Brisbane and to this conference.

The Australian government welcomes the opportunity to host this conference and I trust that it will be an engaging and productive meeting for you all.

I hope that some of you will have the opportunity, while in Australia, to experience at least some of our natural environment.

Australia is known throughout the world for its unique and diverse native plants and animals.

In fact, Australia is one of only 12 countries classified as 'megadiverse'.

Those nations together represent 60 to 70 percent of the world's biodiversity.

As Australia's national biodiversity strategy notes, millions of years of isolation from the other continents has resulted in Australia's plants and animals evolving in ways different from elsewhere.

At the species level, about 82 per cent of our mammals, about 45 per cent of our land birds, about 85 per cent of our flowering plants, about 89 per cent of our reptiles and about 93 percent of our frogs are unique to this island continent.

All but 13 of the of the 700 known eucalyptus species are confined to Australia as are most of the world's 1070 acacia species.

As the world's only megadiverse developed nation, Australia is uniquely placed to set a high global standard in biodiversity conservation and ecologically sustainable development.

The new federal government is committed to that objective.

In that context, the government presented to the Australian people at our recent elections an environment policy which recognises the important obligation that we have to preserve biological diversity.

As that policy noted: 'conservation of biological diversity is a foundation of ecologically sustainable development'.

More specifically, the government is committed to a range of policy measures that will achieve that goal.

For example, we have committed $80 dollars towards the establishment of a national reserve system.

We will also be pursuing a $318 major revegetation program which will seek to restore degraded land and reverse the decline in tree coverage - a measure that will obviously reap benefits for the maintenance of biodiversity.

Those and other measures will be funded through the establishment of a Natural Heritage Trust fund which we hope to finance through the partial privatisation of our government owned telecommunications company, Telstra.

Achieving ecologically sustainable forest management within Australia is another important part of the government’s platform relating to biodiversity.

The chief vehicle for implementing our goals for our forest estate is Australia's National Forest Policy Statement, signed by the Commonwealth and State governments in 1992.

That policy statement seeks to ensure security for our forest industries within the framework of ecologically sustainable forest practices and a comprehensive, adequate and representative reserve system.

Tomorrow night's Australian presentation will provide you with more detail of Australia's approach to forests and the implementation strategies that are currently well advanced.

I would, however, make a few remarks about our forests in passing.

On a region by region basis, we are seeking to establish regional forest agreements that will encapsulate the goals of our National Forest Policy Statement.

An integral part of the agreements will be the implementation of our objective to see 15 percent of pre-European settlement forest communities, represented in the reserve system.

We will also be seeking to protect high conservation value old growth forests and wilderness areas as part of the current process.

Our policy approach also recognises the importance of the ecological management of forests that don't form part of the formal reserve system.

As part of the regional agreement approach we will be assessing the ecological sustainability of current forest practices and, where required, we will be working with State governments to improve the current management regime in our forests.

The Australian government also recognises that, through conferences such as this and other international fora, we have an obligation to promote the conservation and sustainable management of forests on a global scale.

That responsibility emanates, in part, from community expectation - and there can be little doubt that the Australian community is concerned about the destruction of high conservation value forests in many parts of the world.

It also emanates from the philosophical view that the global forest estate and the biodiversity values they represent are the common legacy of all mankind.

Concern for our planet's environment by communities everywhere knows no national boundaries - this is particularly so in relation to forests.

As a recent World Wide Fund for Nature publication recently noted, forests: " ... perform a range of crucial environmental and climatic functions and are home to the majority of the world's plants and animal species. For humans, forests have historical, religious, philosophical and aesthetic significance, as well as providing valuable resources and living space."

The Inter-Governmental Panel on Forests and the 1997 review of Agenda 21 represents a unique opportunity for those nations and stakeholders with a particular interest in forests to achieve some major steps forward.

I would therefore like to take this opportunity to re-affirm Australia's strong commitment to the work of the Panel.

This gathering, in many respects, is tangible evidence of that support and we hope to present formally to the Panel the outcomes of the conference at its third meeting in September, 1996.

Ladies and gentlemen.

There can be little doubt that the certification and labelling of forest products has the potential to significantly enhance forest management practices throughout the World.

It is equally true that the issue is a complex one that, unless implemented wisely, could leave consumers and markets more confused and less certain about wood products than currently is the case.

That is why we regard this Conference as being of such importance.

The task ahead of you this week is to explore the issue and hopefully provide some guidance to both the panel and national governments such as ours.

In particular, I will be interested in what the conference might conclude about the role of government in establishing certification and labelling regimes.

Such advice could prove useful to a government such as ours which sees merit in the concept of certification and labelling but that, at this stage, has an open mind on the best way to proceed.

I say that we are attracted to the concept because we do see the potential for both consumers and better environmental practice.

I understand that Alan Knight has, in particular, discussed a retailer's perspective and the issue of consumer demand for labelled products.

The consumer voice is loud one that can not be ignored.

We also see some potential for bringing together stakeholders who have traditionally held divergent views on forestry issues.

Certainly, from my perspective, any certification system that fails to establish its independence and the support of a broad range of stakeholders will struggle to have the credibility that the market place demands.

If, as I bi-product of this process, we can create a greater appreciation of the interests that we all have in ensuring more sustainable economic activity then we will have achieved a great deal.

As Dr Karl-Henrik Robert of the Swedish Natural Step Foundation has said: "The environment debate is presented as if nature belongs simply to the environmentalists, while our economy is the sole domain of politicians and the business community".

Whereas, of course, nature and the national economy belong to us all.

Both are intimately connected in a reactive system where nature is the 'house' and economics is the 'housekeeping'.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Each of you bring to this conference the legitimate priorities, concerns and perspective of those whose interests you represent.

However different those interests may be, we all have a common objective and interest - the continued viability and sustainability of our forests and their resources.

I wish you all well in your deliberations this week and I look forward to receiving the outcomes of this conference which I am sure will be of assistance not only to the Australian government but to those around the world who have an interest in achieving that objective.

© Commonwealth of Australia