U.N. rejects Australia's bid to strip rainforest of heritage status

SYDNEY Tue Jun 24, 2014 3:08am EDT

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The United Nations has unanimously rejected an Australian proposal to revoke the heritage status of 74,000 hectares (183,000 acres) of Tasmania's rainforest and enable them to be reopened to logging.

Added to the World Heritage List in 1982, the Tasmanian Wilderness 'constitutes one of the last expanses of temperate rainforest in the world', says U.N. cultural agency UNESCO, and sprawls over more than one million hectares (2.47 million acres), or a fifth of the island.

At a meeting in Doha, Germany, Colombia and Portugal were among the members of the U.N. agency's World Heritage Committee to argue against the proposal to waive protection for some areas, Australian media said on Tuesday.

"The justifications presented for the reduction are, to say the least, feeble," Fairfax Media quoted the Portuguese delegation as saying.

"Accepting this de-listing today would be setting an unacceptable precedent impossible to deny in similar circumstances in the future."

The area is part of the 170,000 hectares (420,000 acres) added to the World Heritage Area in 2013 by Australia's previous federal and state Labor governments in a deal between environmentalists and the timber industry, which forms a key part of Tasmania's economy.

"This is a great win for the forests, for wildlife and for Tasmania," Australian Greens Leader Christine Milne said in a statement, adding that Prime Minister Tony Abbott should now commit to funding to look after the site.

In its 2013 election campaign, Australia's ruling Liberal National Party pledged to ask UNESCO to reduce the extension, arguing that the area had already been disturbed by prior logging and degradation.

The Australian government was disappointed by the U.N. decision and would study it before taking the next step, Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters in Canberra.

"We're disappointed with the decision, but the application that we made to remove from the boundaries of the World Heritage listing areas of degraded forest, areas of plantation timber - we thought was self-evidently sensible," Abbott said.

"We'll be carefully looking at the decision and deciding what's best now."

The delisting move had roused domestic opposition, Greens leader Milne added.

"We've seen thousands of Australians hit the streets in support of these forests and a Senate inquiry into the delisting proposal received thousands of submissions against it."

UNESCO annually inscribes sites on its World Heritage List in recognition of their outstanding universal value to humanity and to encourage citizens and states to preserve them for future generations.

A country may also receive advice and financial support from UNESCO to preserve a World Heritage site.

Last week, the agency deferred until next year a decision on whether to rate as endangered another world heritage site in Australia, the Great Barrier Reef, over planned coastal developments, including the building of ports and natural gas facilities. [ID:nL4N0OZ37G]

(Reporting by Thuy Ong; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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