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Communities catch-up 3: Forest Industry Surveys

In mid 2009, two new reports were released on socioeconomic impacts of  plantations on rural communities in Western Australia and Tasmania were released. This was the culmination of three years of work in the Communities project on this topic. The studies explored questions commonly asked about the impacts plantation expansion has on rural communities.

When we held group interviews with members of rural communities in 2006, they asked a lot of important questions about the social and economic implications of plantation industry expansion for their lives. While we were not able to answer all the questions – some very important ones remain, such as how plantation expansion changes local economic activities – many could be examined in depth. This was done by accessing independent data from sources such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics and analysing it to try to answer key questions about plantations.  

One of the key challenges in this type of study is to ensure that the findings aren’t oversimplified. Social impacts are different for every person, and so one person may be impacted positively by plantation expansion, and another negatively, depending on their individual circumstances. Some of the common questions asked, and our findings, are:

  • How much employment is generated by plantations? In 2006 an estimated 2,730 people worked in the plantation industry in WA, equating to approximately 2,495 full-time equivalent jobs; while in Tasmania an estimated 1,950 people worked in the plantation industry in 2008. The number of jobs generated per hectare of plantation differs depending on the type of plantation – between 0.33 and 0.45 jobs are generated per 100 hectares of hardwood plantations, and 1.44 to 1.8 jobs per 100 hectares of softwood plantation. In coming years hardwood plantations are likely to generate more employment as a greater proportion of the estate reaches maturity and enters harvest and replanting.
  • How does the employment generated by plantations compare to other land uses? Plantations may generate more or less employment than other land uses, depending on the point in the chain of production at which different land uses are compared, the type of land use plantations are compared to, and the type of plantation. While plantations generate fewer jobs before the ‘farm gate’ than most traditional agriculture, once downstream processing is included in the analysis they generate more jobs than grazing and cropping, and less than intensive agricultural activities such as dairy farming and horticulture
  • What types of jobs are generated by plantations? The plantation industry generates a higher proportion of full-time jobs than the average for the workforce in WA and Tasmania, and almost as high a proportion of full-time jobs as traditional agriculture.
  • Where are plantation industry jobs located compared to other land uses? Plantation industry workers are more commonly located in large towns and regional cities than those working in traditional agriculture, and less likely to be located in small towns or on rural land. Therefore a shift in land use from traditional agriculture to plantations is likely to be accompanied by a shift in the location of job opportunities from smaller towns to larger regional centres.
  • How does plantation expansion affect rural population levels? Land use change from agriculture to plantations leads to different types of population change depending on how plantations are established. On properties sold to plantation companies, around 75% of previous residents shift away when the land is sold. In the majority of cases new residents then shift into the housing on plantation properties, with the result that there is a net population of between 7% and 19% on plantation properties. When land is leased to a plantation company, there is a net loss of approximately 5% of the population that used to live on these properties. When farmers establish their own farm forestry, there is no change in the number of people living on the properties involved. These changes are not necessarily higher than those that would occur in the absence of plantation expansion, with trends such as farm amalgamation having similar impacts on rural population in many areas; however, further analysis is needed to confirm this. When population change is examined at a larger scale, the effect of this small net population loss at individual property scale isn’t visible, as other factors such as population loss due to farm amalgamation, and influx of ‘seachange’ residents in coastal regions, have had a larger impact on rural population than the expansion of plantations. At the local government area scale, factors such as distance to the coast and proximity to regional cities are better predictors of population change than the area of plantations established in a region.
  • How does plantation expansion influence the type of people living in rural communities? While there is a relatively small net loss of population associated with expansion of plantations, there is a high turnover of residents on rural properties that are sold to plantation companies. Three quarters of previous residents shift off these properties when they are sold, and new residents then typically shift in, either renting houses or purchasing subdivided housing on the plantation property. This turnover can create rapid change in the people living in a rural community, but little is currently known about the characteristics of these new residents compared to those who shifted away from plantation properties. We plan to do more research to find out how these new residents differ to others in rural communities and what that means for rural communities
  • How does plantation expansion influence service provision and community groups in rural communities? There is sometimes, but not always, a slightly higher decline in school enrolments in areas that experience high plantation expansion compared to other regions, although the reasons for this need to be further explored. In a recent survey, landholders who sold land to plantation companies reported that they ceased or changed location of their membership of local fire brigades in 60% of cases, ceased membership of service groups such as Rotary in 32% of cases, and changed location or ceased membership of sporting groups in 55% of cases as a result of the sale, while those who leased properties reported almost no change in community group membership. The extent to which new residents shifting onto plantation properties join local groups and access local services is not known, something which will help determine the net impact of plantation expansion on community groups and rural services.
  • How does plantation expansion affect rural land prices? During period of rapid plantation expansion, plantation companies have often paid higher than average prices for land suitable for plantations. This has led to higher than average land price growth in plantation regions during periods of rapid plantation expansion. However, sometimes other types of demand for land lead to similarly high land price rises – for example, demand for agricultural land for rural residential purposes, or intensive agricultural uses such as dairy farming.
  • How does plantation expansion affect traditional agricultural industries? Areas experiencing high rates of plantation expansion have typically experienced a higher than average decline in sheep and lamb numbers, and slower growth in beef cattle numbers and the area of land cropped, compared to other regions. It does not appear that plantation expansion has affected expansion of grape growing, horticulture or dairy farming, with all of these expanding equally rapidly in plantation and non-plantation regions
  • How do the socio-economic impacts of plantations vary in different circumstances? The expansion of plantation estate, or of industry associated with it, can lead to a wide range of socio-economic changes in rural areas, as can establishment of any new industry. The impacts of expansion of the plantation industry will vary depending on the size of the rural town being examined, the location of processing facilities associated with the plantation industry, the types of new residents who shift onto plantation properties, and the types of agriculture being replaced by plantations.  For example:
    • If employment opportunities shift from small rural towns to larger regional centres as a result of the land use change, this may have negative impacts for some people living in the small town, and positive impacts for some people living in the regional centres
    • If land prices rise due to demand from plantation companies, this will likely have positive impacts for those who wish to sell land, but may reduce opportunities for other farmers in the area to expand their farm enterprise through purchasing additional properties

You can download the two reports  titled Socioeconomic impacts of the plantation industry on rural communities in Western Australia and Socioeconomic impacts of the plantation industry on rural communities in Tasmania from [here].