Story and photos
by David Brazil
New South Wales forests are going up in smoke.
Up and down the north coast, bush fire brigades and the Forestry Commission are going though their ritual of winter burn-off.
At Chaelundi, in the name of forest management, large tracts of understorey are ravaged, giving forestry workers and their equipment easy access for logging.
I drove through blackened forest to the Misty Creek camp site, one of three protest camps set up around Chaelundi. Situated at the head of the Chaelundi Waterfall, this is the largest and most accessible site. We found it almost deserted; most of the protesters had moved to the "Feral" camp deep within the National Park and closer to the disputed area. It is accessible only by foot.
I left the 7:30 Report filming atmospheric pieces and theatrical interviews and drove to the police blockade on Chaelundi Road.
The senior police officer at the blockade checked our credentials and gave us our instructions. The road, and all land to the right of the road, belonged to the Forestry Commission. Everything to the left was National Park. We had to walk in the bush, on the left side of the road, or we would be trespassing. We could not carry firearms, knives, metal bars or "hooch".
I set out on the 12-kilometre trek to the camp, following a well-worn path about a foot from the left side of the empty, newly graded, wide logging access road.
I stumbled into Feral camp after dark, in time for dinner. Food was a collective affair, prepared by up to 40 people over a large fire in huge cast iron pots.
Sitting around the fire eating and talking, I was struck by the level of organisation.
The camp was strung out along the old fire trail, so as not to disturb the surrounding bush. At the main cooking and eating area, copious quantities of fruit, vegetables and staple foods donated by local sympathisers were covered by tarpaulins. Nearby, a communications tent housed an FM radio transmitter.
The camp had been designed to cope with as many people as possible with minimal environmental damage.
During dinner, two police officers dropped in on a routine check. They left to heckling — "watch out for booby traps"
— a joke which did not amuse Ian Cohen, a veteran environmental campaigner and a spokesperson for the North East Forest Alliance. "We don't need any of that shit. We are non-violent. We are educating the police — our battle is not with them."
He talked of the changing attitudes of police who had spent a few weeks in the forest. "We're getting Newcastle cops up here who start out completely freaked being in the bush at night. By the end of their two-week stay, they don't want to leave."
Each night, around the fire, plans are laid. This time, they decide to erect a banner high in the trees above the main logging road proclaiming Chaelundi a "People's Park" and to put barricades on the roads to slow police patrols.
The most successful blockade actions involved building huge wooden tripods in the middle of the road, with one or two protesters perched on top. P.J., a local who has been at the camp for most of the campaign, described his experience of being chained for over nine hours in a large drainpipe buried vertically in the middle of the road: "It didn't seem so bad while you were in there. It was only when the police finally got me out that I realised I couldn't walk — my legs were like jelly. I had to be dragged into the paddy wagon."
There was no doubting the protesters' commitment, and their optimism was infectious. John Murphy, singer, guitarist and a veteran of the South East Forests campaign, summed up the mood, "We're going to win this one. This is the turning point in the history of NSW forests. They gave in to us at the Washpool rainforest — and they're going to be beaten here too."
A brilliant, sunny morning followed a cold night's sleep under the stars. Stepping over sleeping bodies, we made our way to the food tent for porridge and toast. John Murphy's protest songs filled the air.
I looked about at majestic gums forming part of an incredibly dense and diverse ecosystem. The understorey was a thick, jungle-like mass of vines, creepers, ferns and acacias.
The morning's activities included workshops on non-violent action, tree climbing and a trip into the forest to ensure the bulldozers were idle. Some simply stayed at the camp cooking, cleaning or enjoying the sunshine. There was no expectation that people must help, but everyone did.
I joined Peter, a tree surgeon, and a group of 12 people learning the basic methods of climbing with ropes. If logging is to continue, protesters will lodge themselves high in the trees to obstruct chainsaw operators.
After an hour of tying fisherman's bends, prussic loops and bowlines, we returned to camp. Izzy, a protester, is on the FM radio trying to communicate with her husband, an electronics engineer who installed the system. News from the outside world is important, and the radio, run off solar-powered batteries, is their only way of following the Chaelundi court case.
I left in the afternoon along the old fire trail, and came across a beautifully constructed canvas teepee deep in the bush. It had stores of food and water and was equipped with a radio antenna and bedding. A number of these hidden bases have been established in case the main camp is closed down. Again I was struck by the resourcefulness of the campaign.
Back at the police barrier, I was preparing to leave when a middle-aged couple in a late model Commodore drove up and left four large boxes of food and utensils for protesters. They had driven from the central coast to lend their assistance, demonstrating the widespread support for the campaign.