Industry bogged down in bluegum

THE furore surrounding the bluegum plantation industry’s pesticide spraying program in the southern parts of WA has the potential to open a can of worms.

For the past decade, the forestry business in WA has evolved rapidly from a few largely government-backed scientific experiments to host a number of slick commercial operators which rank among the country’s top companies.

These days thousands of people would claim to be investors in plantations, mainly through a wide selection of tax-effective products which proved a lucrative marketing ploy for bluegums.

The success of this marketing operation has seen the industry scramble for suitable land, inflating prices and proving a windfall for many lucky farmers who were looking for a quick exit from this increasingly tough business.

The bluegum was seen as some sort of holy grail.

It helped reduce the risk of salinity, it would provide the basis of a homegrown paper manufacturing industry and, most recently, offered a viable alternative to harvesting native timber.

But the result has yet to prove a success, with the real test for the industry’s ability to deliver a new commodity and production capability to WA still a few years away.

In the meantime, farmers who stuck with traditional land uses have found themselves increasingly hemmed in by bigger and bigger corridors of trees.

Their communities suffered as long-term residents left, replaced by absentee landlords and trees that needed little physical tending for most of their 10-year crop rotation.

As farm communities shrunk, so the services left, few able to generate the same level of business from itinerant and seasonal workforces involved in bluegum husbandry.

The forests too, created other issues of farm management.

But the bluegum industry failed to see a rising tide of resentment until it was too late.

Perhaps they were too busy focusing their attention on marketing their product to urban Australians who want to reduce their tax bills or maybe it was the excitement of being the corporate player during a stockmarket float.

Whatever the case, it took until last year for the industry heavyweights to recognise they had a public relations problem.

Their answer was education but it appears it was all too little too late. A lot of people have made big money from bluegums but few of them live in the areas where they grow.

In effect, they have failed to share the spoils. The industry is now in serious danger of wider public opinion turning against them before they have had a chance to prove what plantation forestry can do for WA’s south.

In a democracy during election time, that is a dangerous thing.

Hopefully, the industry and its critics can sit down and iron out their differences – and the current blue can be dismissed as simply the result of a traditional industry finding itself confronted by a rising new star.

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