Australia's Environment Protection Agency has come under fire because damage to an important rainforest has gone unpunished. The nation's environmental watchdog claimed it didn't have enough evidence to prosecute the state-owned Forestry Corporation NSW, who are thought to have done the damage, and the failure has been damned as ‘totally preposterous' by the eco-activist who identified the many breaches committed by the Corporation.
Apparently the EPA had a full two years in which to investigate and take legal action for damage caused in the beautiful, ancient Cherry Tree State Forest. But the organisation waited until two weeks before the deadline ran out to tell the spokesman for the North East Forest Alliance, Dailan Pugh, that the origin of the damage couldn't be proved ‘beyond reasonable doubt'.
FC NSW in hot water
The Forestry Corporation NSW has allegedly harvested and bulldozed numerous roads through the precious lowland rainforest, which is seriously endangered. But Mr Pugh first alerted authorities to potentially thousands of instances of damage to protected trees during 2015. And Forestry Corp have completely refused to admit it was responsible for the damage. The EPA is trying to claim someone else damaged the forest, something Mr Pugh said was ‘preposterous'. In his opinion the Agency has long had more than enough circumstantial evidence to prosecute.
Proof of who did the dirty deed
The other problem is the difficulty of proving whether the cleared trees were virgin forest or regrowth from previous harvests. While Jackie Miles from the EPA's forestry division told Mr Pugh they had, “conducted a thorough and rigorous investigation“, they concluded there wasn't enough evidence to prove the damage wasn't caused buy someone else. Mr Pugh responded that both the EPA and the Forestry Corporation should have been aware of protected rainforest in the region since its principal area was mapped as such in the 1960s and has been re-mapped repeatedly since then. He feels there's absolutely no doubt who is to blame.
Greed trumps the environment yet again
Is this another instance of greed and profit trumping environmental protection? Dawn Walker, spokesperson for the NSW Greens, says there's “no clearer example of how the current system is failing,” with “one government agency, Forestry Corp, wantonly damaging the environment, while the EPA turns a blind eye”. There are currently more investigations going on to pin down the blame for similar damage in Australia's Gladstone, Giberagee and Sugarloaf forests.
As reported in the Cairns Post newspaper, so far Rainforest Trust Australia has bought more than three million acres of rainforest spread across the nation's famously beautiful and unique Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. It has cost them millions of Australian dollars. But now they're being investigated by the authorities for allegedly ‘misappropriating' money they were given as grants.
About the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area
The Wet Tropics World Heritage Area sits between Townsville and Cooktown on the north-east coast of Queensland. It covers a vast area of almost nine thousand square kilometers, 450 km long and consisting largely of lush tropical rainforests. Many plant and animal species in the Wet Tropics are unique, found nowhere else in the world.
A grant that wasn't spent on weed control
Apparently the Commonwealth grant in question was for $775,500, a sum that was handed over in 2014 to pay for weed control at a chunk of land near El Arish, at the Mission Beach cassowary corridor. It looks like the promised weed control hasn't been done, a delay that contravenes the grant's guidelines. Local people have a similar complaint – that the land bought by the foundation is in worse condition now than it was when they bought it. Far from there being fewer weeds, there are actually more, and there has even been some re-vegetation.
The case now rests with the Commonwealth DPP
The investigation was recently confirmed by Australia's Federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg, who is keen to look into a government grant awarded to the organisation, which was previously called Rainforest Trust Australia. Now the case has been sent to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, who will be considering what direction to take the investigation in next.
RTA defends itself
In the charity's defence, Rainforest Trust Australia chairman David Butler said there wasn't a case to answer because an ex-employee, who was responsible for the fraudulent behaviour, has already been charged by the Department of Public Prosecutions and no longer works for the organisation. Furthermore, because the matter is still being dealt with by the court, it's sub judicae and the charity can't comment further. He also said that since the enquiry started they've been busy putting in place better processes and procedures as regards governance and financial management, so this kind of thing can't happen again.
Guest post by The Rainforest Foundation.