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The Forests of Eastern Victoria: Experiences and Challenges of Working with Adversaries

Stephen Atkinson
August, 2018


In the last article, I wrote about how key stakeholders from the timber industry, the union movement, and forest conservation groups came together in an attempt to create consensus recommendations about the future of the timber industry and protection of the threatened native flora and fauna in the forests of Eastern Victoria, Australia. I also shared the scenarios that this Core Group created together as part of the process. In this article, I reflect on some of the experiences and challenges of the process of attempting to work together in this new way.

An unprecedented challenge

Through a series of workshops, the Core Group of representatives from the timber industry, the union movement, and forest conservation groups came to understand that the longstanding “business as usual” response to the many complex issues facing Victoria’s forests was insufficient, and that to continue on that path would be detrimental to all stakeholders and the broader community. Wood and fibre supply and the forest-dependent industry appeared too fragile in their current forms, unique ecosystems were diminishing, and the effects of climate change and natural disasters posed uncertainty about the future. An alarming pattern of increasing pressure and demand on declining forest resources was also noted.

The group agreed that the challenge was to reframe their understanding of the issues facing the forest at a systemic level and to reconceive the opportunities and possiblilities that lay within the forests to ensure industry growth, job security, and the health and wellbeing of the environment and the species within it. Over time, members recognized that this challenge would require a different and new way of working together involving a collaborative process of research, dialogue, and decision making.

The Core Group members were aware of the enormity of the task ahead: that of attempting to address complex, multi-dimensional problems that were decades old and seemingly intractable. These problems had never been solved before in a sustainable way, but the group was willing to try. Each member was there because they wanted to make a difference. Because of the diversity of stakeholders involved, it had traditionally been difficult to agree on what the problems were, let alone what the solutions could be. No single stakeholder group “owned” these problems, yet all were negatively impacted by them. Through much deliberation, the representatives agreed that the systemic interdependence of the issues meant that the challenges could not be tackled piece by piece. They recognized that previous approaches for addressing these problems have been short term and disjointed, and they did not want to repeat the past.

Sewing the seeds of the future

The Core Group worked steadily over a number of workshops to determine the most fundamental areas requiring change that, when addressed together, would solve many of the systemic problems. These areas included establishing new parks and reserves, protecting threatened species, encouraging industry investment and growth, increasing wood and fibre supply security, valuing and accounting for carbon, maintaining and growing jobs and regional employment, and engaging in regulatory reform. The group converged on these areas of focus collaboratively and relatively quickly. They knew the characteristics of the solution they wanted to achieve, but not yet the form of the solution or how to get there.

Balancing a new way of working with constituent representation

The make-up of the Core Group represented a fundamental process challenge. Many members were experienced senior leaders and experts in their respective fields who participated as representatives of their constituent groups and not as individuals in their own right. While this meant they represented many thousands of people outside the Core Group, it also limited their ability to be genuinely creative and open to radically new ideas for future solutions. They often found themselves second guessing what would or wouldn’t be seen as appropriate by their constituents once they left the workshop.

In addition, agreeing with adversaries can seem dangerous – what if our proposed solutions don’t work? What will my constituents say? Will I be blamed for making a poor decision while trying something new? Could this put my job at risk? Is this really what my board has asked of me? It can feel difficult and hazardous to air new ideas and solutions when representing an empassioned constituent group who do not understand or trust what you are trying to accomplish. In such cases, self preservation almost always wins.

I recall a situation in developing scenarios for the country of Thailand when a senior left-wing political leader delightedly tweeted a comment about agreeing with his opposition counterpart on a matter of national significance. While this was a revolutionary step forward in terms of bilateral cooperation, the leader was taken aback by constituents who called him a traitor, accused him of bowing to the enemy, and questioned his ability to hold the party line. Clearly, the stakes are high for Core Group members.

The ransom of short-termism

The Core Group also faced a perceived need to make early positive progress and achieve short-term gains as a prerequisite for progressing toward longer-term solutions. This pressure, which was at times driven by constituent demands, became a distraction that constrained the group from fully focusing on more important, longer-term strategic solutions. It is almost always necessary to go through some short-term pain or loss in order to transform into a new and improved state. Even with this understanding, some members were not willing to tolerate pain, even with the promise of longer-term benefits.

Opening up to the whole

At the commencement of the process, union representatives, industry leaders, and conservationists felt relatively powerless to change things on their own, with each group believing they were “victims” who were continually on the losing side. While each group felt they were losing, they were surprised that no one else seemed to be winning. It was and is a “lose-lose” environment. Gaining this insight helped them to consider the future with greater perspective and openness. This openness lead to more insights and more learning.  For example, a conservationist with decades of experience was shocked by the nature and extent of business and economic challenges after visiting a timber mill and hearing the perspectives of mill workers and local rural community members. The member said, “I understand now what’s at stake for them… all of a sudden this problem has got a lot more complicated than I ever thought.”  Seeing more of the whole also enabled participants to see more of the complexity.

The world goes on

Over the months that the Core Group met, the external environment remained the same, and the combative behavior between groups continued. The Core Group made concerted efforts to reduce the traditional conflicts occurring “in the field” and delay logging of particular areas to achieve short-term gains. For some members of the Core Group, this external pressure was a critical issue, as the ongoing fighting leaked into the group and created an ebb and flow of increasing then decreasing trust across the group. For others, it was just a continuation of business as usual.

Envisaging a new future

Despite the ongoing external challenges, the group worked to imagine possible solutions to the current problems with a view to addressing the government’s challenge to develop consensus recommendations. At this point, the stakes became higher for all involved, as recommendations could become policy decisions and dramatically impact the lives and wellbeing of timber workers, environmentalists, unions, and whole rural communities. The work was no longer about reflecting on what has happened in the past, but rather attempting to create a new future. For some, the known past is a lot safer and more comfortable than stepping into an unknown future. That being said, great progress has been made, with some clear recommendations, such as land acquisitons for new plantations in order to reduce the logging of native forests.

In the next article, I’ll share some of the impacts and implications of this work.

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