Rival demonstrations have been held in the southern Australian state of Tasmania over the future of the island's ancient forests. Recently, thousands of Australians rallied in the capital Hobart to protest the logging of ancient forests and demand the extension of the special nature reserves. Tasmania's logging industry has held its own rally, insisting it is proud of its environmental record and that it is safeguarding the oldest trees.
"Save Our Forests" was the cry from protesters who packed the center of the Hobart for the biggest demonstration the island state has seen in more than 20 years. They are angry at what they see as the continued destruction of the state's ancient rainforests and woodlands outside of specially protected areas.
The leader of the Australian Green party, Senator Bob Brown, acknowledged the crowd's determination. "Today, we have a great forest of the people of Australia standing up to keep the great forests of Australia standing up," he said.
Senator Brown says the issue of logging goes far beyond the small state of Tasmania. "People want this stopped and they know that economically and job-wise we're much better to have the forests. They attract people from all around the world. People are proud of Tasmania, they're angry about what's happening and at last it's a national issue," he says. "It's becoming an international issue and the federal politicians are taking note."
Logging is the most divisive issue here in Tasmania. With a federal election due in Australia this year, environmental concerns and the strength of the green movement are pushing the debate further onto the political agenda. Logging employs one in every seven Tasmanians and is a multi-million dollar industry. It has the support of the state and federal government, keen to see more jobs in one of Australia's poorest regions.
Bob Gordon, from Forestry Tasmania, an organization that oversees much of the logging industry, says conservation is a priority. "We're quite proud of our environmental record. We're also proud that we've got over 40 percent of Tasmania's land area in secure reserves including World Heritage areas," he says. "I think the only area in the world that's got more World Heritage area than Tasmania is the Vatican, which is one hundred percent World Heritage area."
Environmentalists, however, say that is not enough. They have built a treetop protest platform in a stretch of forest 90 minutes drive from Hobart. The Styx Valley is home to some of Australia's tallest and oldest trees. Some of them stand more than 90 meters tall and are more than four hundred years old. The area is due to be logged this year, although the protest, which began last November, has forced that plan to be postponed.
Activists argue that logging these old-growth areas is not sustainable and want the timber companies to concentrate on developing new tree plantations, instead of cutting old trees.
There are few comforts on the platform, 65 meters above the ground. Life can be very cold and wet up here for the handful of protesters but this is part of an efficient publicity machine. Both sides in this fierce debate recognize the need to have a loud voice.
The activists took to the trees last November, and aim to have the area protected by law.
"Whenever I come out to the Styx and I spend a lot of time here, I'm always impressed and depressed. You know, impressed and awed by the amazing trees and the wildlife," says one protester. "The total opposite spectrum of emotions is the depression when you see swathes of landscape just basically trashed and burnt."
Another one of the treetop protesters says there may be other benefits to protecting the trees. "This forest here has never had proper studies done on it," he says. "The insects you'll see up here probably don't have names. We don't know if we're sitting right next to a cure for cancer or not."
A few days ago, a pro-logging rally was held in Tasmania. Hundreds of trucks crammed into the city of Launceston to voice their support for the industry.
Forestry Tasmania's Bob Gordon says the campaign to discredit the industry is controlled by opportunistic politicians. "If you think the motivation of the leaders of the Green movement is their profile and to get votes in politics, then there can never be a solution because if they haven't got something to argue about, they haven't got a profile and that's part of the problem," he says.
Both sides appear to be as far apart as they have ever been. With dedicated and well-organized environmentalists up against a wealthy industry, and the thousands of workers it employs, a compromise on the future of Tasmania's forests seems unlikely.