Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Holy soup crackers.

This is sickening.

First, their [timber conglomerate Gunns Limited] loggers come and clear-cut an area. Then, rather than hauling out the felled trees, helicopters are sent in to drop incendiary devices to light the slag on fire. (Side note: Due to Gunn’s practice of not hauling out felled trees, more than 4,000 timber-related jobs have been lost in Tasmania since 1994.) The dense hardwoods burn hot and slow for days, but eventually cool back down, and that’s when the loggers return—but not to plant new trees yet. Instead, they scatter the charred forest floor with carrots soaked in a chemical known as 1080. All the animals that then come to feed on the carrots — including wombats, possums, and wallabies — quickly die. Only when all the native life has been drained do the foresters return, to plant non-native trees in massive plantations, which are then aerially sprayed with chemicals.

Whether those chemicals are dangerous or not is anyone's guess. Gunns lobbying has eliminated most oversight — they’re not required to file environmental impact statements, nor detailed lists of chemicals used, nor announce their schedule of operations in advance — leaving communities with very little information. In one telling episode last December, a helicopter spraying near the town of St. Helens crashed, dumping some 80 liters of its load into the hillside. Gunns insisted there was no danger, and it took seven months for the Department of Health to check the small town's water supply. By then it was too late. In January, a "once in a lifetime flood" had roared through the area and within a week, more that 95% of the oyster beds in nearby George’s Bay were dead or dying. Government and industry officials chalked it up to "excessive fresh water."

And what happens when people complain? They get sued:

Two weeks before Christmas, on December 14, 2004, Gunns stunned Australia's conservation community by filing a 216 page, $6.3 million (AU) claim against a group of activists and organizations, including Geraghty. Gunns, the world's largest woodchip exporter, claimed that the group had cost the company millions and demanded their money back. The most costly allegation: environmentalists conspired to pressure Japanese buyers out of doing business with Gunns. "The demands were to be accompanied by threats express and implied," reads the writ, "of adverse publicity, consumer boycotts, and direct action against the Japanese customers and all of their operations." For corporate campaign activists, all those tactics are fairly standard fare. Gunns, however, is asking the courts to declare such activity illegal.


It's not just activists and politicians who are getting sued — Gunns is also going after doctors who complain about potential health risks. In 2002, Dr. Frank Nicklason raised concerns about the possible contamination in massive woodpiles left on a harbor wharf, and called for an independent analysis. What he got instead was a letter from Gunns saying he had "recklessly, irresponsibly and negligently" misused his position as a medical practitioner to draw attention to "supposed health risks existing in the local community." He has also now been SLAPPed with a potentially large fine, raising alarm in the medical community. As Australian Medical Association's president told the Australian Financial Times: "Our Hippocratic oath demands we investigate any possible cause of disease, whatever that may be—tobacco, asbestos or any other concerns. It would be a dangerous development if doctors faced legal action any time they raised concerns about public health risks."

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