The Tarkine region in the North West of Tasmania is at the centre of one of the most divided land use debates in Australia.
The rainforest covers around 4,500 square kilometres and debate has erupted over the application for mining developments in the region, with the Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke currently assessing a claim for site to be listed as a world heritage site, which would limit future mining projects.
Shree Minerals wants to develop twin iron magnetite and hematite deposits in the area, Beacon Hill resources is looking for magnesite in the area’s limestone karst country and Venture Minerals is exploring for tin, tungsten and magnetite deposits.
However, debate rages between environmental groups who want mining developments halted and companies and potential employees who say opening up the Tarkine region to mining is crucial in the future economic prosperity of Tasmania.
Recent meetings between green groups and the unions collapsed after a 90 minute meeting in Sydney led by delegates from the Australian Workers Union and The Greens party both accused each other of being unwilling to compromise , with both parties promising to use ‘direct action’ as a way to lobby for the two different outcomes they are after.
In December 2009, Tarkine was listed as a national heritage site under an emergency listing by then environment minister Peter Garrett, after a 134km road was planned to be built through the rainforest.
A report prepared for the government by The National Heritage Council found 434,000ha were worthy of listing in their entirety. It concluded: “Tarkine contains extensive high-quality wilderness and natural landscape values. Such largely undisturbed extensive tracts of cool temperate rainforest are extremely rare worldwide.
"The consideration of wilderness in the Tarkine as a national heritage value must encompass all of these areas as parts of a whole, as a single wilderness region, as is traditionally done for the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area."
However Garrett’s successor Tony Burke allowed the emergency listing to lapse in 2010, arguing that because the listing had been issued for the development of a road which had since been scrapped, a more thorough assessment was required.
With a decision on the listing of Tarkine eminent, debate has escalated on both sides.
While the region is no stranger to mining, with two mines operating at present, critics say the proposed development of nine open cut mines in the region will ‘destroy’ the rainforest.
The Tasmanian Government backed the decision made by Burke in 2010, outraging environmentalist groups, who said the lapse of emergency heritage listing for the Tarkine region in north-west Tasmania in December allowed three mining companies to begin exploration and drilling work.
The Tarkine National Coalition argued that companies would use the lapse to continue with exploration work.
''Companies, including Venture, are using the removal of the heritage protections to ramp up exploration activities including roading and drilling that are having a significant effect on the values of the area,’ spokesman Scott Jordan said.
The coalition was joined by WWF, the Australian Conservation Foundation and The Wilderness Society in seeking the listing.
A spate of protests have hit the region with groups lobbying the government to list the site under world heritage in order to prevent further mining.
GetUp! is among the strongest activists, launching a national campaign to halt mining.
Paul Oosting, a member of GetUp!, said Australians want to see Tarkine protected.
"People are really shocked at what is being proposed: open-cut mines in the rainforest and tailings dams with problems of acid drainage."
Oosting argues preventing the development of more mines at Tarkine will be an important and hard-fought win for the environment.
"This area would be the crowning jewel in any forest agreement in Tasmania. It has been assessed as having the highest conservation values possible on the planet," he argued.
Grassroots community action group GroundSwell gathered at the federal government's community cabinet forum in Launceston early last month, calling for immediate action to be taken.
Wearing t-shirts that read “Tarkine Heritage Listing”, the group called on the government to list the site as world heritage.
“Panel ministers Gillard and [Tony] Burke should be ashamed that under their leadership, the Tarkine will be opened up to a new wave of open cut mining operations,” GroundSwell spokeswoman Dr Lisa Searle said.
“The Labor government has so far failed to act on protecting the Tarkine; the second largest remaining tract of cool temperate rainforest in the world. We are not prepared to stand back and watch as our precious ecosystems are decimated for short term profit.”
Environmentalists argue that open-cut mining will destroy the area and say that any decision to expand mining will result in irreversible contamination.
However, those who want to see mining developed in the region are just as passionate and vocal about the site, arguing that a sweeping heritage listing would condemn the area to "permanent economic and social disadvantage".
The Australian Workers Union is leading the fight against plans to list Tarkine as a heritage site, arguing that mining developments have the potential to create jobs and stability for the region.
National AWU secretary Paul Howes said the community would benefit from the development of mining projects and says mining needs to expand in the Tarkine to give a boost to Tasmania's ailing local economy.
"In a state like Tasmania where you have had substantial drops in the size of the workforce, every single new project matters and there are some very exciting projects on the table," Howes said.
The AWU has attacked environment groups and accused them of being out of touch with what local communities want.
"We're going to make sure these jobs remain and we're going to make sure the myths and mistruths that are being pedalled are exposed for the lies that they are.
“Workers told me they are fed up with the constant efforts by mainland environmental activists to damage their industries and wreck their jobs.
“They are frustrated by claims that resource industries cannot co-exist with conservation, when the Tarkine area has already been responsibly mined and forested for over 120 years."
Over the weekend, 3500 people attended a rally in Burnie calling for the area not to given National Heritage listing.
The Our Tarkine, Our Future rally saw thousands of locals turn out to call for proposed mining to go ahead, arguing that the mines were imperative to job security in the region which the AWU said shows the importance of future projects on the local community.
“It’s clear that the local community does not want a blanket heritage listing imposed over 450,000 hectares of land in one of the most heavy mineralised parts of the Australia,” Howes argued.
Howes went on to say that while he agree some areas should be conservation listed, he does not believe developments need to be halted.
“There must be protection of high-value conservation areas, but there must also be opportunities for much-need jobs and investment.
“The existing mines in the area must be allowed to continue operating, and new projects must be given a fair chance to get up and running.”
Premier Lara Giddings also supports the need for development in the area.
"All we're talking about is 1 percent, that's what we're arguing about here is 1 percent of the Tarkine region; it's nothing," she said.
"We cannot afford for the political interests of a few in the heartland of Sydney and Melbourne to dictate what happens here in Tasmania.
"We are already being criticised as being the National Park of Australia. We don't need more of it in that respect."
The Future of Tarkine
Tony Burke is limited in his decision-making to the relevant legislation, namely the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, and his decisions on high-profile cases like Tarkine, and others, will likely set the precedent for environmental policy as it relates to mining proposals in the future.
What is clear from the Tarkine case, and the escalating level of local conflict and protest, is that the public consensus over mining has not reached a conclusion and is not likely to ever be a harmonious process with outcomes that suit every opinion.
However, with high profile groups like the AWU and the Greens unable to have an extended and open public debate about the issue, what remains to be seen is how a public divided on such important economic and environmental decisions will benefit any of the players involved.