Peaceful Resistance: Rainforest Activists Still Fight For Precious Tasmanian Forests

John Seed
Tuesday, 1st March 2011

John Seed, long time rainforest activist and one of the founders of the Deep Ecology movement, reports on the state of the Tasmanian rainforests – home to tallest tree in the Southern Hemisphere and the endangered Tasmanian Devil. He also updates us on the perilous sell off of the Malaysian and Indonesian forests and reports on The Southern Forests Convergence

?In February, the outstanding activists at the Huon Valley Environment Centre (HVEC) and Still Wild Still Threatened (SWST) organized the Southern Forests Convergence. These folks are the heart and soul of ancient forest protection in Tassie and, as always, it's a great honour to work with them.

I have been involved in protecting the temperate rainforests of Tasmania since 1982 when the Tasmanian Wilderness Society (as it was then called), noted the success of our blockades to protect NSW's sub-tropical rainforests the previous year and invited our Nightcap Action Group to come down and help set up blockades to stop the damming of the Franklin River. (This turned into the largest environmental action in Australian history; more than 3000 people from all over the country converged on this remote wilderness and over 1500 were arrested before the dam was stopped.) A few years later I co-produced a film 'Earth First' about this and other Australian rainforest actions for the ABC. This was shown around the world and helped spread the message of the rainforests far and wide.

More recently, Ruth Rosenhek, Director of Rainforest Information Centre has been supporting these activists through the 'Foster Feral' program through which we have sent thousands of dollars down to the blockade camps in the Tasmanian rainforest. These young people care passionately for nature and face intimidation and violence from the logging contractors the likes of which I haven't seen in Australia in 35 years of activism.

Last year we also raised funds for HVEC's 'Forest Life Survey Project' to scout the wilderness for previously unidentified High Conservation Value forests (HCV) to add to those forest areas already included in negotiations between logging companies, unions, conservationists and governments. Part of this scouting is the search for endangered species like the Tasmanian Devil using motion activated cameras.

So little is known about these forests. While visiting Tasmania last year, I was taken to see the 100 meter tall 'Centurian', the tallest tree in the Southern hemisphere. Though barely 2 hours from Hobart it wasn't discovered till 2008 (and though this individual tree is now protected, it sits within a coupe still slated for logging!)

Friday Feb 18, the day before the convergence began, there was an action in the threatened Picton Valley where cable loggers had been sent to clearfell an old growth forest area just weeks before a crucial moratorium deadline. Twenty five people took part in the protest; Viv climbed a cable logger and forced the machinery to stop.

The next day consisted of forest campaign planning sessions and updates, a live video link with US activist and author Derrick Jensen and presentations on Tassie forests' wildlife and on media skills.

Back in the 1990's the Rainforest Information Centre was one of many groups supporting the last hunter-gatherer tribal populations in Asia, the Penan who were blockading the logging companies destroying their traditional jungles in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. Some of us spent months in jail there for our efforts.

Now another Malaysian logging company, Ta Ann, has not only been destroying rainforests in Sarawak but also those in Tasmania. Ta Ann is the biggest hardwood timber company in the world in terms of market capitalization. It has been able to achieve this through its close ties with the corrupt Chief Minister of Sarawak, Abdul Taib, whose vast wealth and power has been amassed through the strategic distribution of timber concessions. Taib is also finance minister and planning and resource management minister.

Earlier this month, the European NGO 'Bruno Manser Fonds' (founded by the Swiss activist of Bruno Manser who lived in the jungle with the Penan from 1984 to 1990 and shared their struggle before mysteriously disappearing in Sarawak in 2000) released a blacklist of 49 companies in 8 countries (10 of them based in Australia) and is urging anti-corruption and anti-money laundering authorities in these countries to investigate any improprieties. This is being reported in the Malaysian press as follows: "According to Malaysia's Democratic Action Party (DAP), Taib has failed to account for a staggering 4.8 billion Malaysian ringgits (1.58 billion US dollars) of Sarawak state funds over the past three years alone. In 2007, the Tokyo tax authorities uncovered a massive corruption scheme that involved the payment of kickbacks to the Taib family. In return, nine Japanese shipping companies had received export licences to carry logs to Japan, Sarawak's largest timber export market." And so on.

Ta Ann Holding's chairman is Taib's cousin, Abdul Hamed Sepawi. In 2008, Forbes listed Sepawi as the 30th richest man in Malaysia. Ta Ann holds 408,366 hectares of timber concessions, including the Raplex and Pasin timber concessions, which were previously controlled by Taib. They are also heavily engaged in the establishment of industrial tree plantations and oil palm plantations on Native Customary Land In Malaysia.

As Tasmania's main newspaper, The Mercury reported on Sat Nov 8 2008 p11:
"Ta Ann was lured to Tasmania by the cheap timber price offered by Forestry Tasmania. Ta Ann chairman Datuk Hamed Sepawi told Tasmanian media in 2006 that hardwood from this state was cheaper than wood from Malaysian and Indonesian forests...Ta Ann's deal with the State Government locked in the price it would pay for the timber at the 2006 level for the next 15 years."

Ta Ann has a wood supply contract for 265,000 m3 a year. It is estimated that Ta Ann is paying approximately US$50 per cubic meter for these logs at a fixed price and then selling the product for US$387 per cubic meter.

In recognition of the recurring Malaysian connection, the films shown at the Forest Convergence on the Saturday night included two from the 1990's that spoke to this issue: 'Blowpipes and Bulldozers' (the struggle of the Penan tribe against the logging of their traditional lands featuring an interview with Bruno Manser) and 'Melbourne Rainforest Action Group – A Time to Act' depicting the courageous actions by MRAG and the maritime unions in 1991 to try and stop ships carrying those timbers from landing in Australia.

It is anticipated that the unions will once again play an important role in the struggle against Ta Ann who promised to offer local jobs when seeking permission to establish itself in Tassie but now lowly paid workers from Malaysia comprise an increasing proportion of its workforce.

Sunday morning there were planning sessions for Monday and Tuesdays actions and Sunday afternoon a benefit concert at the Brookfield Vineyard in Margate.

The venue was packed and the show opened with a few children's' songs from 'At Night They Howl at the Moon' – an album of environmental songs for kids that Dana Lyons and I had made in 1993. We were also treated to the intelligent and relevant lyrics of local 6 piece band 'Log Jam Fury' with an eclectic style of folk, reggae/roots, funk and gypsy punk, after which I gave a short deep ecology rave, performed Drew Dellinger's poem, 'The Universe Jam', and introduced Dana.

Monday I had been scheduled to facilitate a deep ecology empowerment workshop for the forest activists in the Weld forest wilderness but it turned out they were already plenty empowered, had more important things to do and, instead, went to Hobart's waterfront where Agata locked on to a truck of rainforest logs being delivered to a ship bound for China. They were protesting the bad faith shown by Forestry Tasmania whose logging operations have been targeting high conservation value forests just a few weeks before a moratorium that has been promised for March 15th. Our smaller than expected workshop was very beautiful nonetheless.

It was such a privilege and an inspiration to spend time among these young activists defending our ancient forests from the depredations of logging companies and their captive government bureaucracy, often under the threat of violence from logging contractors. Tuesday there was another action, this time at Ta Ann's veneer mill in the Huon Valley rainforest. Charlotte attached herself to a conveyor to protest Ta Ann's logging practices and work was stopped for about 3 hours.

One of the things that stands out about this movement is the number of women participating. Of the 30-some people at Tuesday's action for example, 2/3 were female. I would like to conclude my story by briefly introducing 4 of them:

Miranda Gibson who has been involved in the Tasmanian forest campaign for the last four years. A long term resident of Camp Flozza, the protest vigil which has been protecting the Upper Florentine Valley for 5 years. Miranda co-authored a book on the flora and fauna of the Florentine. Last year she was locked-on in a car with fellow activist and friend Nishant Datt when the car was smashed up by angry loggers with sledgehammers. She is at the forefront of Still Wild Still Threatened's ongoing campaign to protect southern forests, often on the frontline and a key grassroots organiser.

Jenny Weber is one of the founders of the HVEC, which started 10 years ago focusing on the forests of the Huon. She is treasurer for HVEC as well as its main media spokesperson. Jenny has been the driving force for the HVEC since its inception as a volunteer for the entire time. Jenny helped establish the artist arm of HVEC, the Black Sassy Collective, which runs the iconic Weld Echo art exhibition. Black Sassy has also run collaborative art exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne. Jenny is a key figure in the Tasmanian forest campaign. Her experience and drive to protect the ancient forests of places like the Weld, Middle Huon, Picton and Esperence is matched by few.

Jenny is a mother of 2 young children, who are at the core of her passion for forest protection. Nitya Rolfe played a prominent role in our actions a generation earlier against different Malaysian logging companies. She was part of a group of activists from the US, UK, Germany and Australia who travelled to Sarawak on the island of Borneo in 1991. They worked in solidarity with the Penan people to call a halt to the logging of their rainforest homes. As part of the campaign, the group locked on to cranes in the Baram River to stop the loading of rainforest timbers onto barges headed for export ships waiting offshore enroute to Australia and Japan. The group were remanded in custody for 2 weeks before trial and served 60 days imprisonment. The campaign to protect Sarawak's rainforests continued strongly throughout the 1990s. In 1992 Nitya worked at the Rainforest Information Centre to fundraise and lead a group of indigenous people from the Philippines, Sarawak and Australia to attend the Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro. She was then based in the U.K. working on global forest campaigns including the campaign to halt illegal logging of Mahogany in Brazil. In 1996 Nitya was one of the co-ordinators of Greens Senator Bob Brown's election campaign, and subsequently worked in his office for a number of years.

27-year-old Allana Beltran is an artist and a lover of nature. When she participated in the blockade preventing the logging of the Weld wilderness in 2007 she brought her artistic skills to the project and created what was to become an icon of this campaign, the 'Weld Angel'. Mounted on a tripod blocking the bulldozers out of the wilderness, she created such a poignant and unforgettable image that it brought attention to the issue far beyond Tasmania. Her ethereal presence graced the cover of Vogue Magazine in Italy for example. Police and Forestry Tasmania sued her for $10,000 but their case failed.?

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Mark Poynter |
Thu, 14/04/2011 - 00:42
Those of us involved in Australian forest management have long been frustrated by articles of this nature which create a jaundiced view of the reality to an international audience. This article fails to provide even the basic statistics of Tasmanian forestry that are essential to understanding the balance that has been struck between forest conservation and use. In fact, 74% of Tasmania’s public (state-owned) forests are already contained in national parks and various forms of conservation reserve that will never be logged. This reserved area includes over 80% of the designated ‘old growth’ forests, and 97% of forests that are designated as ‘wilderness’. Also, logged forests in Tasmania are regenerated and this fits comfortably within the disturbance-reliant nature of Australian forest ecosystems. The post-logging regeneration process fits well with the ideals of permaculture as it mimics the natural process of seeding, and involves no use of chemicals. This stands in stark contrast to timber grown intensively in plantations which is the direction we are heading if so-called 'environmentalists' such as 'John Seed' get their way. Australia needs to play a responsible role in the global context of the consumption of timber and timber products by supplying timber and timber products at least to its own population, and elsewhere if necessary and within sustainable limits. Failing to produce anything from our forests would be morally reprehensible given that Australia ranks fifth in the world for per capita forest cover. Mark Poynter Fellow, Institute of Foresters of Australia