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Speech: Nippon Paper and Bushfires

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 13 Sep 2011

Adjournment speech, Tuesday 13 September 2011

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:51): A Bega based forest activist's website has resulted in a woman facing a charge of international identity theft. This occurred in July this year and it raises questions about the power of business to control the use of domain names on the internet and about the ability of individuals with a mousepad to influence and irritate multinational companies.

Click on Harriett Swift's website and you will see a figure in a suit and hard hat furiously jumping up and down on a koala whose eyes squeeze shut apologetically with each impact. The figure is wearing sunglasses and a tag around his neck that reads 'Nippon Paper'. It is a one-dimensional, repetitive graphic, but the ferocity of the jumper makes it oddly compelling. The rest of the site consists of a few links and a couple of sentences about Japanese multinational Nippon Paper's harvesting of timber in New South Wales for pulp, and the impact that is having on vulnerable koala populations. It is a simple site, but it really got up Nippon Paper's nose; so much so that Nippon Paper appealed to the World Intellectual Property Organisation in Geneva, claiming Harriett Swift had committed identity theft. The spokesperson from Nippon's Eden woodchip company, South East Fibre Exports, Vince Phillips, accused Harriett Swift of using a false identity to deceive the public when he spoke to the ABC on 6 July this year. He said:

... identify fraud is probably one of the worst things about the Internet. I think everybody in the community believes that. There's a whole lot of criminal activity, and just unacceptable activity associated with identity fraud.

Nippon Paper is the owner of South East Fibre Exports, notorious for its destruction of native forests and animal habitat. The Forest Stewardship Council has identified the use of wood from Victoria's native forests as unacceptable. South East Fibre Exports operates the Eden woodchip mill, which uses wood sourced from forests that include koala habitats in New South Wales and Victoria. Forest campaigners believe that unsustainable forestry practices are putting increasing pressure on the area's koala populations, which are facing probable extinction.

Stung by the criticism Harriett Swift made of Nippon Paper and its alleged disregard for koala populations on her no-frills site, Nippon Paper commenced legal action. Australian Paper, also owned by Nippon Paper, is the manufacturer of Reflex paper products. Australian Paper has also come under public pressure for the company's continued use of pulpwood sourced from Victoria's native forests—despite plantation and recycled fibre pulpwood being readily available. South-east Australia contains some of the most carbon-dense forests on Earth, which are home to a myriad of threatened species including the critically endangered Leadbeater's possum. The 2009 fires burned almost 50 per cent of the tiny creature's habitat. Despite this damage, Australian Paper continues to source pulpwood from these areas. On 22 August 2011 Reflex paper lost its Forest Stewardship Council certification.

The woodchipping of Australian forests for export has received widespread attention in the traditional media over the last decade and is the subject of fierce criticism in a host of social media spaces. Why would Nippon Paper target an activist site created by a single campaigner in Bega, New South Wales, given the global scale of its operations and the iconic nature of its brands such as Reflex and Kleenex? Why would a multinational complain to WIPO in Geneva when the alleged offence involved a single webpage and a single individual in regional Australia? At issue is the site's name. It is a domain name more instantly and easily associated with the multinational entity known as Nippon Paper than the corporation's actual URL, Any Google search lists Harriett Swift's highly critical website just beneath the company's own online 'front door'.

Like many global corporations behind many products, Nippon Paper is the entity behind many of the paper products in Australian supermarkets. When we furnish our homes and offices we generally do not investigate the brands to discover the identity of the parent company behind them. It is the same when we buy a box of tissues or a ream of paper. Harriett Swift's website blows that association wide open. When turned up just beneath the official URL of the Japanese paper company, it presented an uncomfortably close link between the activities of woodchip mills in regional Australia and the global corporate entity which profits from their operation. The decision of the World Intellectual Property Organisation in this case was therefore important in terms of the ability of web-based activists to challenge the control of corporations over their online personality.

The result was unequivocal: Harriett Swift won. The judgment made it crystal clear that she had every right to use the domain name and commended her willingness to draw attention to the disputed nature of the site name. Even more significantly, the judgment gave substantial weight to the sincerity of Harriett Swift's views of Nippon Paper:

The Panel is also of the opinion that the Respondent genuinely believes in the criticisms that she is displaying on the Website, and that the Respondent is not operating the Website for any dishonest purpose.

In short, Harriett Swift's use of the similar domain name was given a ringing endorsement as a legitimate use of the internet to promote a passionately held belief—a win for an online activist, for online freedoms, and hopefully a win for the native forests of south-east New South Wales and north-east Victoria. I congratulate Harriett Swift for her energy, ingenuity and commitment to her cause.

An important forestry issue that needs to be rethought in Australia is the management of bushfire risks for the protection of life, property and the environment. Whenever a major bushfire occurs, people naturally seek answers and action in response to the natural disaster. The call invariably goes out for governments and industry to log our forests and to increase prescribed burning. In an emotionally charged environment, it is important that we do not shun evidence that contradicts the conventional wisdom. We need to meet the challenge of making decisions about the management of our forests based on fact, not fear.

Chris Taylor has authored an excellent report for the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission entitled The Victorian February fires—areport on driving influences and land tenures affected. The report, which has been widely accepted, found evidence that the intensity and spread of fire is greater where vegetation has been modified or disturbed by logging activity. This is due in large part to the increased levels of fuel such activity creates, and the relative susceptibility of regenerating forests to wildfire when compared with their undisturbed and older counterparts. His findings are supported by prominent research both nationally and internationally, which has found that industrial logging makes a forest more prone to fire because it alters the forest's microclimates by increasing the drying of understory vegetation and the forest floor. Such research is only beginning to scratch the surface of what we know of our forest systems and how they interact with fire.

Climate change will continue to amplify bushfire hazards. The Taylor report concluded that climate change is likely to have a significant influence on droughts, maximum temperatures, the low moisture content of fuel, decreased humidity levels and was a contributing factor in the unprecedented maximum temperatures in the February 2009 fires. It also found the number of high, very high, extreme and catastrophic fire danger days is predicted to increase, thereby increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather conditions such as those which led to the Victorian bushfires.

It is time that we started to examine the complex interactions between our forests and fire. Federal and state governments should support research into how forest systems across Australia are likely to respond to fire to help develop science based policy based on fact.

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