Resistance everywhere – eco-defense in Tasmania

Beyond the southeastern tip of Australia is a small heart-shaped island called Tasmania. The land is ull of sharp natural and cultural contrasts. Indigenous Tasmanians possess the oldest living culture in the world, and the island was the most southern outpost of humans during the last ice age. It is home to large tracts of ancient rainforest, rugged mountains, spectacular coast lines, wild rivers, and many rare and endangered flora and fauna.

Like most of the natural areas on earth, these amazing habitats are under attack from loggers, roadbuilders and industry — which has sparked a vigorous direct action movement to defend the wilderness in Tasmania. Using road blockades, tree-sits and art — we’ve constructed a full-size ship in the middle of a logging road — we’re stopping the chain saws.

Colonial exploitation

The island was invaded by the British in 1803, initially used as a site for the Australian colonies’ most horrific penal institutions, and then as a home for new settlers. Settlers, with the assistance of their convict slaves, proceeded to clear the land and kill native animals that competed with sheep for pasture. Over-hunting rapidly led to the extinction of the the Tasmanian Emu and the marsupial Tasmanian Tiger, a beautiful wolf-like creature. Within 40 years of colonization the Indigenous inhabitants had been dispossessed of their land and the few remaining were shipped off to a remote island to be ‘civilized’ in a harsh Christian mission.

These early acts of brutality towards land, animals and people seem to have set the standard in Tasmania. The early 20th century saw the beginning of mega-dam developments in the lakes of the highlands and western wilderness, which destroyed vast tracts of rainforest. The proposal to flood the stunning Lake Pedder in the southwest wilderness saw a surge in ecological thinking and action, and is seen as the point at which Tasmania developed a potent environmental movement. Despite a strong campaign, Lake Pedder, with its beautiful quartzite beaches, was lost to the insatiable greed of the Hydro Electric Commission. The HEC had total power — they were a government department given full privileges over the island, were exempt from freedom of information, and their locked boom gates kept their destructive work hidden from the public eye. They were an unstoppable force, until they tried to dam the Franklin River. In the early 1980s the Franklin campaign resulted in a massive river blockade. Even though the HEC had started building the dam, the river was saved when the federal Labor Party made it an election promise to save the river, and they won. The Franklin-Wild Rivers National Park is now part of the South West World Heritage Area, the formation of which has been another tireless effort of conservationists.

Around the same time the woodchipping industry started to take a firm grip in the forests, a lot of which were left out of the World Heritage Area due to industry pressure. Conservationists started to shift their focus from the HEC, who had already built more dams than they really needed, to the Forestry Commission. Once again exemption from freedom of information and locked boom gates were an attempt to stop the public understanding what was happening to their common land. Forest blockades have been a regular occurrence in Tasmania ever since.The ’90s saw a lot of action in the Tarkine rainforest, Australia’s largest remaining tract of rainforest.

Attempts were made, but failed, to stop a new road into the heart of the wilderness. Today a small chunk in the heart of the Tarkine has been protected in a reserve, but huge amounts of the rainforest are still torn out and dragged off to the woodchipper. At the end of the ’90s, after heavy industry lobbying and infiltration of the unions, the Regional Forest Agreement was signed off by federal and state politicians. This was an attempt to put into legislation a guarantee of wood supply to the industry, offer weighty compensation if they were unable to log an area, and enable them to over-ride legislation protecting threatened species. It was a huge blow to those fighting for the forests, and many of those that had been struggling for nearly 20 years felt that there was no longer any hope for change.

Time for Direct Action

This is where we came in! The Huon Valley Environment Centre was born in 2001 in the southern Tasmanian town of Huonville, across the road from the chainsaw shop regularly visited by loggers with ‘Save a job, shoot a greenie’ stickers on their trucks. I don’t think most of us realised at the time what had come before us, so there was a lot of youthful enthusiasm to take on the forestry industry in the Southern Forests. The Southern Forests consist of large tracts of ancient old-growth Eucalyptus forests, and some patches of rainforest. These forests lie along the outside boundary of the World Heritage Area, and are therefore open to industry destruction. Our sights quickly focused on the Lower Weld Valley (the upper reaches are in the World Heritage Area), a stunning wilderness valley that had never heard the sound of a chainsaw until very recently. A number of blockades have attempted to stop the building of new roads and a bridge over the Weld River, as well as regular work in logging areas.

Within five years the name “Weld Valley” has gone from being nearly completely unknown to being synonymous with the fight for the forests in Tasmania.

One of the most spectacular actions that has happened in the Weld was the Weld Ark pirate ship blockade. A full-size pirate ship was constructed to block the extension of a road into the deep wilderness, which it did for over a year until it was destroyed by police and Forestry officials in November 2006.

Countless people visited and lived at the Weld Ark camp, which was home to a canopy research station, numerous tree-sits and tripods, a fort, and of course a dragon (lock-on device) in the heart of the ship itself. The Weld Ark was an inspiration to many, and many songs, movies and pieces of art have been produced in its memory. It was devastating for activists when the camp was finally destroyed — bulldozed and set fire to in the middle of the road. An activist who was able to remain in a tree-sit when the camp was raided saw Forestry workers posing in front of the pirate ship with their wives and children, while co-workers took photos of them.

Since then it has been impossible for activists to establish a long-term camp in the Weld due to around-the-clock security, but it has not stopped activists conducting walk-ins, locking on, and setting up tree-sits and tripods, in an attempt to stop work and highlight the destruction to the wider public. In March 2007 the whole of the Weld valley was locked down when activists set up two blocks, one controversially blocking Forestry’s major tourism attraction — an airwalk through the forest canopy. Blocking the road to the airwalk was a young performance artist and activist Allana Beltran, sitting atop a tall tripod dressed as an angel. Matthew Newton, a photographer who has been taking photos of activists in the forests, took a number of breathtaking photos of Allana that now seem to have inspired the nation. The photos made it into national newspapers, magazines, and, television. Additionally, the photographic essay that it was part of was nominated for a prestigious Walkley Award (Australia’s journalism awards). The images were further thrust into the public domain when Forestry Tasmania and the police decided they were going to sue Allana for nearly $10,000 as compensation for lost wages, lost business at the airwalk, and the hire of a crane to get her down. The outcry was enormous. The issue had gone beyond the forests into issues of civil liberties and the right to protest, and people who would never have spoken out about the forests were inspired to action. Luckily, due to all the bad publicity, the police withdrew their compensation claim, but Forestry are still going ahead with their claim which will be heard in court sometime early in 2008.

At the same time, activists from the HVEC have been busy lobbying politicians and the World Heritage Committee (UNESCO, a United Nations group) regarding the threats to the World Heritage Area from logging along its boundary. The World Heritage Committee has always wanted the forests along the border to be added to the world heritage area, and have responded strongly to reports sent to them by HVEC activists. In mid-2007 at the World Heritage Committee meeting in Aotearoa, New Zealand, 21 countries voted unanimously to express concern over the logging along the world heritage area border, including the Lower Weld Valley, Upper Florentine, and Styx valleys, and are sending an inspection delegation to Tasmania in March 2008. With a newly elected Labor Party federal government we are hoping they will take more notice of the World Heritage Committee than our previous decade-long conservative government. But we are not holding our breath! Like all left-leaning major parties in western countries, the Australian Labor Party has moved strongly towards the center and is strongly influenced by industry unions that have been infiltrated by big business during the past decade. The new Environment Minister is Peter Garrett, the lead singer of the famous ’80s band Midnight Oil, who produced songs with strong messages about the environment and Indigenous rights. He is Labor’s new pin-up boy, an attempt to encourage those who might have voted Green to vote for them instead. Unsurprisingly, Garrett has already proven himself completely impotent on important environmental issues.

A few years ago Tasmania’s woodchipping giant Gunns Ltd. (the world’s largest hardwood woodchipping corporation) decided to float a proposal for an extremely polluting pulp mill in northern Tasmania. There has been strong community and national response against the pulp mill. Despite glaring errors in pollution calculations and extreme corruption on behalf of the state government, Peter Garrett recently approved the pulp mill. All Gunns need to go ahead with building the pulp mill is major finance from the ANZ Bank, who are currently the target of a massive boycott campaign run by The Wilderness Society. ANZ are currently biding their time, but it is likely there will be a massive community direct action response if the pulp mill starts to be built.

Gunns Ltd. are a cliché of a dodgy corporation. Its CEO only avoided going to jail for his involvement in political bribery in the early ’90s because he wouldn’t talk. Another board member is Tasmania’s most reviled conservative ex-premier. They treat their workers scandalously, and pay a pittance for public forests thanks to their backhanded deals with equally corrupt politicians. In 2004 Gunns Ltd. decided to sue a wide range of conversationists and activists, including the HVEC, for half a million dollars in relation to actions at woodchip mills and community actions in the Huon Valley. There have already been years’ worth of court appearances, without the case even properly getting started. Gunns is accusing activists of a series of offenses, some provable and others not, but if any of Gunns’ claims are upheld by the Supreme Court, activists will be liable to pay for the whole case, including the cost of Gunns’ expensive lawyers. This means activists could become bankrupt and lose their homes and businesses, as well as risk a life-long injunction order that would jail them for any further action or speaking out against Gunns.

While this case seems minor in comparison to the grand juries in the U.S. which are sending people to jail, the Gunns case is likely to have a massive effect on people’s perceived freedom to speak out, and is extremely disempowering and distracting for many activists.

But the action never stops! There are still regular actions in the Weld Valley, and there is currently a well-established blockade camp in the Upper Florentine Valley which is increasingly gaining attention from the media.

Recently our campaigning efforts have also shifted towards linking the destruction of old-growth forests to climate change, and arguing that the protection of these places is one of the easiest actions to take to help mitigate dangerous climate change. If you must travel, travel to Tasmania and help us out! These forests are a global treasure, so they are yours to fight for too! Check out our websites for more info: www.huon.org www.coolforests.org