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Debate over rainforest conservation gets heated

peatlands clearance in kalimantan
Peatlands clearance in Kalimantan.

A debate over the need to conserve forests versus converting them for industrial use grew heated last week at Australian National University (ANU).

A forum brought together policy experts, scientists, and a forestry lobbyist to discuss Australia’s role in overseas forestry. But an exchange between William F. Laurance, an ecologist at James Cook University, and Alan Oxley, a former Australian trade ambassador who lobbies on behalf of forestry interests, became the focus of the event.

Laurance blasted Oxley for representing himself as a moderate voice on forestry issues and portraying his World Growth International group as a humanitarian organization. He said that Oxley took positions supporting large forestry interests, rather than the rural poor.

Oxley retorted that his groups never hid the fact they are supported by forestry interests, but added that he wouldn’t disclose specific funders.

Laurance took Oxley to task for “misrepresentation” and “corruption” of scientific data. He cited examples where Oxley inaccurately claimed scientists and conservationists support his world view. Laurance also said Oxley is a well-known climate change denier.

Oxley responded by claiming tropical forest countries already have 25-55 percent of their land preserved and that there is no scientific proof further deforestation will harm biodiversity. Laurance disagreed sharply with those statements, noting that the area of tropical forest under protection in IUCN categories I-IV is far lower than Oxley’s numbers, around 10-11%, and that habitat loss indeed imperils many species.

Further, Laurance argued, many parks in developing countries suffer from serious problems of encroachment, fires, hunting, and other disturbances, so the figure of 10-11% forest protection is highly optimistic.

Laurance also criticized Oxley for “seriously misrepresenting” the findings of a recent study by Philip Shearman which concluded much of Papua New Guinea’s lowland forests would be deforested or subjected to industrial logging. Oxley claimed Shearman’s figures were much higher than they actually were.

Finally, Laurance challenged Oxley’s assertion that “illegal logging is not very important” and shouldn’t be targeted for trade restrictions.

The hostile exchange ended with Oxley blasting the forum organizers, implying that he had been ambushed. He told Laurance “to get some legal advice”. Laurance, who observers reached by said won the debate, retorted by reportedly telling Oxley to “stop crying”.

The animosity between Laurance and Oxley is not new. Last year Laurance and 11 other distinguished scientists wrote an open letter “outing” Oxley as an industrial lobbyist. Oxley’s World Growth International subsequently attacked the credibility of the scientists, an effort that fell mostly flat.

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