Native Forests are precious to many stakeholder groups as they form an integral part of the livelihoods of many groups of people. They hold economic, scientific and environmental value. They are also places of reverence that support wellbeing beyond measurable terms.
Native Forest harvesting in Victoria has a long and complex history. More recently, as the remnant native (also known as “old growth”) forests dwindle, the contest over their use has become increasingly fraught. In Australia, the commercial use of forests are partially governed by Regional Forestry Agreements (RFAs), which set out the aims and expectations for related industries over a five-year period.
In 2019, the Victorian Government Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning (DELWP) partnered with Matt Wicking from Cloud Catcher to undertake the community consultation component of the renegotiation of the Victorian RFAs. The new, 5-year agreements would set out the plan for the industrial and economic use of Victoria’s native forests and the myriad communities around the state that rely on those forests would need to be consulted on their preferred direction.
Cloud Catcher, like many facilitation consultancies, is made up of a collection of independent facilitators and a project of this size would need more than Matt’s capable hands. For this reason, Matt engaged Lina Patel from Revma Consulting and Tom Henderson from Polykala to assist with the project.
The project involved statewide, in person community consultation and the subsequent collation of the data collected into regional reports that were presented to DELWP to inform their decision.
Alongside the wonderful staff at DELWP, the facilitation team designed bespoke community engagement sessions for the many regional and Melbourne-based groups that were engaged in the consultation process. These sessions consisted of defined sessions where guests were invited to participate in a facilitated process and ‘drop-in’ sessions that were open to community members to attend.
The team travelled throughout Victoria to deliver the sessions in communities within or adjacent to areas of remnant native forests. This included Daylesford, Beaufort, Forrest and Geelong in Western Victoria, Healesville, Powelltown, Marysville and Alexandra in the Central Highlands, Benalla and Corryong in North East Victoria, and Orbost, Bairnsdale, Heyfield and Traralgon in Gippsland. In many of these communities, the topic of the use of forests is fundamentally divisive as it is intertwined with livelihoods, family history and environmental concerns. The projects also consisted of delivering a number of community engagement workshops with academics, scientists, tourism operators and recreational groups.
It’s fair to say that there were strong opinions that were passionately delivered throughout the sessions. As a facilitator, it is essential to stay calm and manage strong emotions when they show up; to not sideline those contributors but at the same time balance them with the other participants in the room. It is also important to pick the moments when the process needs to change in order to serve the people in the room. We had to stay sure-footed and flexible at the same time.
The data collection and analysis aspect of the project was led by Lina Patel. Lina managed to corral the immense amount of qualitative data collected throughout the consultations and to craft it into a digestible form. Matt and Lina then compiled the summarised data into a written report for each region.
At the end of 2019, six months after the completion of the community engagement phase of the renegotiation of the Victoria RFAs, the Victorian Government announced that native forest harvesting would be phased out within a decade and that commercial activity would be immediately ceased in 90,000 hectares of native forests across the state.
Polykala is proud to have been involved in such an immense project. To meet, listen, and understand the needs and identity of communities across the state was a rich learning experience. We are incredibly grateful to Matt Wicking for the opportunity to be involved in the delivery of this project.
“We needed a really great facilitator to join our team for this big project, with complicated subject matter and conflicting community attitudes. Tom was an obvious choice and wonderful to work with – reliable, creative and fun to be around. I’d absolutely make the same choice again.”Matt Wicking, Cloud Catcher