Woodchips and Law Suit
Australian timber company sues conservationists – who fear for their right to speak their mind

Urs Walterlin, Hobart
Handelsblatt, 24.3.2005

Doctor Frank Nicklason appears shy, when he states in a soft voice that he is frightened.

Frightened of a situation, in which he might lose not only his home, but also possibly his job and his reputation. And his freedom, too. The freedom to speak his mind.

Frank Nicklason, 46 years old and a doctor in the Royal Hobart Hospital, is one of the so-called “Gunns 20”, a group of 20 Tasmanians being sued by the Australian timber company Gunns for damages. Gunns is suing them for 3.7 Mill. Euros.

Among those sued are the Leader of the Australian Greens, environmental activists, film makers, doctors and housewives. Gunns accuses some of them to have hindered the clearfelling process by blocking access roads in the Tasmanian forests. And further: Those 20 persons are claimed to have caused damage to the company’s business interests – by public criticism on a national and international level.

To experts it is clear that the primary aim of the lawsuit is to silence critics.

And already observers of these developments are worried about the future of freedom of speech in Australia. “This case is alarming”, says Tim Bonyhady, lawyer and Director of the Centre for Environmental Law at the Australian National University in Canberra.

“Because this is about something I would call perfectly normal political activity”.

Professor Sharon Beder of the University of Wollongong and author on the subject believes that Gunns is trying to set a precedent. The company itself is silent.

Gunns is by far the most important and most influential company on the Australian island of Tasmania. Still a small sawmiller in the 80s, Gunns today controls 85% of the Tasmanian timber industry and is one of the world’s biggest exporters of woodchips. It is precisely this product and the methods of its production, which have divided the population for years.

A woman contacted the doctor

Gunns “harvests” a significant number of the trees by clearfelling. Individual forestry experts talk of “environmental vandalism”. While part of the timber is used for furniture making, at least 5 Mill. tons of valuable timber go through the chipper each year.

The woodchips are exported to Asia, where they are being processed into paper bags and one-way packaging materials.

It is these woodchips, which brought the trouble he is now facing to Frank Nicklason. In the port of the northern Tasmanian city of Burnie a mountain of them, dozens of metres high and increased daily by Gunns, is waiting to be loaded onto ships.

A woman contacted the doctor with her concern that the woodchips might contain the bacteria responsible for the fatal Legionnaires disease.

After a struggle with the government the doctor succeeded in having a scientific analysis of a sample carried out. Result: No signs of Legionella bacteria were found among the woodchips.

Nicklason accepts the result, although he finds it “incredible, that the sample for the analysis had been taken by Gunns themselves”.

Towards the end of 2004 however the reckoning arrived for what Nicklason describes as “my duty as a doctor and guardian of public health”.

Gunns sued him for nearly ¼ Mill. Euros in compensation.
Now he is awaiting the judgement.

This is a translation from the German newspaper Handelsblatt – a leading business daily in Germany with around 650,000 readership.