When the Hawke government announced in March that it was going to introduce legislation to guarantee access to native forests for wood processing projects (e.g. pulp mills) worth $100 million or more, the environmental movement reacted with anger. Peak groups like the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Wilderness Society and Greenpeace condemned this as a major betrayal of the green movement by Labor. They vowed to wage a nationwide campaign against the cynically named "resource security legislation", which would destroy forever many forest resources.
The first group to start organising a national campaign against the planned legislation was the Environmental Youth Alliance. PETER BOYLE spoke to several activists in Melbourne EYA: Danielle Morrell, year 11 student; Mandy Trueman, engineering student at Melbourne Uni; Zanny Begg, arts/law student, Melbourne Uni; Kylie Budge, activist; Kalu Ribush, year 10 student; Kevin L'Huillier, socio-environmental assessment and policy student at RMIT; Wendy Robertson, year 11 student; Francesca Davidson, arts/law student; and Vanessa Johanson, arts student at Latrobe Uni.
What is the history of EYA?
Danielle: When David Suzuki came out to Australia in 1989, he brought the idea of setting up an Environmental Youth Alliance — which exists in Canada. Young people who attended his talks took up the idea and formed EYA Australia.
We got going and now we are in the process of empowering lots of young people. EYA gives us a say in our future.
Zanny: I think it's really important that young people feel valued in the environmental movement and that they are to be taken seriously. EYA gives us a chance to really get involved, make decisions and organise campaigns — instead of just doing photocopying for some peak environmental group.
Young people need to be taken seriously at all levels, internationally as well. I think the youth delegation that went to the Montreal Protocol set a precedent for young people being involved in international treaty negotiations, and I'd like to see that followed up at Eco '92 and future environmental treaty negotiations. [Zanny was an Australian Conservation Foundation youth delegate to the Montreal Protocol meeting in 1987 which called for dramatic cuts to CFC emissions in order to stop the break-up of the ozone layer.]
How has the rest of the environmental movement reacted to the establishment of EYA?
Kevin: There is a group in Melbourne called Greenlink, which brings together different environmental groups. EYA sends people along to these meetings, and there is a lot of support from the other groups like Greenpeace, the Wilderness Society, Conservation Council, Worldwide Fund for Nature and others. They want to do joint campaigns with us, like the campaign against the resource security legislation.
Zanny: Some peak environmental groups have placed too much faith in the federal government. Before the last elections, the Hawke government was as green as can be because it wanted the environmental hey betrayed the movement with National Estate forests being logged, the planned resources security legislation and the Gulf War. Certain environment groups like the ACF and the Wilderness Society were pro-Labor Party before the last elections because of Labor's promises, but that has proven to have been a mistake.
What made EYA choose a campaign against the resource security legislation as its first national project?
Vanessa: Resource security legislation is basically a plan by the government to make it a hell of a lot easier for timber and woodchip companies to have access to parts of our native forests for an indefinite duration. We oppose this because this sets a bad precedent for other industries, such as mining, to carry on destroying the natural environment.
Wendy: One of the main purposes of the legislation is that the multinationals can get their hands on as much native forests for woodchips before the big entrance on the markets from the great wood plantations around the world, in about 10 years' time.
After that, the price of woodchips will come down so the multinationals want to woodchip our native forests now in order to make as much money as possible.
Danielle: We don't want to have to pick up the pieces later on just because of these companies' greed for short-term profit. We are saying that, even in these tough economic times, we have to put the environment before economics. EYA can take on the government on this issue because, as a group of young people, we are not tied to the economic interests.
How do you plan to stop the legislation?
Zanny: One way is through a massive education campaign. We want to spread awareness about why this legislation is wrong and why it has to be stopped.
It will not be education in the passive sense. Once people know what is wrong, they will be taking action with rallies, public forums and demonstrations.
In another sense it is also spreading awareness that there are not enough forests in Victoria, that we need to move into plantations and we can help by planting trees.
EYA's campaign works on a number of levels. First, we are telling the government that we reject this legislation and will not tolerate any further compromises. But on a practical level as well, we are planting trees, recycling our paper and making sure we reduce our reliance on our natural resources.
Mandy: Many people don't understand what the resources security issue is about. I've passed petitions around and people have said "I've never heard of it before". That's the problem with lots of things in Australia — people just don't know about it.
Kevin: This highlights another aspect of the campaign, that of rticipation. People don't know much about it because the resource security legislation was decided on in the backrooms between forestry industry and mining company representatives and some government officials. There's not any public consultation, and that is why many people don't know much about it.
It is talked about in the media, but the public can't get hold of any documents or copies of the proposed legislation that can be read.
We are telling people that the government and industry heads can't go about destroying our future. It is our future, and we have got to have a say in it.
Vanessa: One important thing we have to do is to stress the alternatives. We can say the government is selling out, that it knows it's going to lose the next elections so it doesn't care about the environment vote, that it will do anything it bloody well can to get money, or whatever. That is all true. But no matter which government is in, we are putting forward the alternatives like using damaged farmland to grow wood plantations and introducing more recycling.
The government and the logging industry are saying we've got to have the resource security legislation because it is a choice between the environment and jobs. What do you say to that?
Wendy: One thing that was highlighted in the East Gippsland campaign to save native forests was that it is mainly the multinationals who are doing the logging. This actually steals jobs from small timber mills which employ more people than the highly mechanised multinational operations.
The money that the multinationals make is not necessarily put back into creating more jobs.
Zanny: Economically, it would be better for Australia to move to high quality, small timber industries rather than drawing in large multinationals which would export their profits. The multinationals' operations are not viable in the long term, because they are only interested in chopping up the old growth and high conservation forests and have not moved into plantations. They are going to destroy our natural heritage for little economic gain for most Australians.
Danielle: The whole idea of calling the legislation "resource security" is to give people the idea that it will secure our resources. In fact, it is just the opposite.
Kevin: They try to convince people that the greenies are going to take away their jobs. But they don't tell them that if the multinationals are allowed to chop down all the forests, there won't be any more jobs in the industry because there won't be any more forests.
It is important for the environment movement to point out that there are more jobs to be had from maintaining the old growth forests, growing plantations and moving to smaller mills. It might be more labour intensive to take out the low quality timber that can be used for woodchips instead of cutting down the high quality timber they want to use and letting the rest rot on the ground, but it will create more jobs and save forests.
One common caricature of environmentalists is that they are more concerned about trees and furry animals than people. Do you see a connection between environmental concerns and social justice issues?
Kylie: Yes, of course. For instance, we see a connection between land rights for Aboriginal people and the issues that environmentalists address. We recognise the deep spiritual and cultural links between Aboriginal people and the land.
In the Third 8World, we also see connections between environmental destruction and the actions of multinational companies in exploiting those countries. In Indonesia, multinationals, particularly from Japan, are destroying the tropical forests and forcing local people off their land. The connection between the need for land reform, human rights and environmental issues is very clear there.
Francesca: Urban pollution is another concern of environmentalists that connects with social justice issues. In Melbourne's western suburbs there are chemical plants leaking toxic chemicals, and people had to be evacuated four times last year from the Housing Commission flats in Footscray because of such dangers. Yet there is not enough money to pay for translators to explain to non-English speaking residents that they have to evacuate because of toxic leaks. So we are not just concerned about animals and trees. People are part of the environment as well.
Zanny: Environmentalists should be concerned about endangered species and bio-diversity — furry animals and trees, if you like — but that is only one element of EYA's concern. But it is a fundamental concern because, if we have no air to breathe and no water to drink, no matter how many political prisoners are freed, we won't have a world to live in. Human justice is an important part of our concerns but we shouldn't lose sight of the other side of our concerns.
Vanessa: Environmentalism is very much a philosophy about caring. This extends to caring about your friends, your local community, the human community as much as the environment. An awareness of all these areas is essential to living green.
How do you rate the self-proclaimed "most environmentally concerned government in the world"?
Zanny: Australia adopted in principle the Toronto agreement to cut greenhouse gases by 20%, but they haven't passed any legislation to implement this.
Kevin: They talk a lot about introducing cuts in greenhouse gases and CFCs, but they only have two people in the whole of Victoria working on keeping track of industries.
They are also prepared to allow industries to use alternatives to CFCs that are turning out to be environmentally damaging too.
Danielle: For a start, Australia has got a run-down public transport system. If the government made that better, it would do a house problem.
Wendy: Compared to other wealthy countries, Australia has a very poor public transport system.
Zanny: The Gulf War was a prime example of the failure of energy policy in Australia and in the rest of the Western world. There has been no significant move to renewable energy sources, and we still rely largely on oil and are prepared to go to war for it.
There is a great potential for solar power in Australia, but there just isn't the political will to develop it. We have amazing potential for wind power and geothermal power, but the government isn't making a genuine commitment to their development.
Vanessa: There is very little energy planning. Everything is being decided on the basis of short-term profit. In Queensland they want to build another hydro-electric dam in Tully-Millstream purely to produce surplus electricity — not because they need it. Governments always make their decisions in the shadow of big business.
Danielle: I agree with Zanny that the Gulf War was about oil and showed up a lot about our government. Now there are the terrible environmental effects of that war and even the possibility that the Asian monsoons might be affected, causing the deaths of even more people in India.
This shows that people from one part of the world cannot go to another part of the world to exploit its resources and then return home and expect to live happily ever after. It just doesn't happen like that. It is one world, and we have got to live together, and we had better face up to this soon.
The oil spills and the constant warring over oil and money just have to stop, because we are seeing the world go under.
Some environmentalists think that one step towards solving the problems is to ban immigration and stop population growth in Australia. What do you think about this?
Danielle: I think it has been proven time and time again that the resources are there to sustain the population; it is more a question of how they are distributed and used. Australia is "lucky" in a sense, and we should be able to cope with immigration.
Zanny: The environmental problem is a global problem, so immigration is not the issue. It is a question of distribution of resources and the way that resources are managed and organised. Immigration pressure may become even greater if radical action to address environmental problems is not taken soon. If global warming causes countries like Bangladesh to go under water for instance, we will see millions of environmental refugees.
Wendy: Another thing that shows the global nature of the environment crisis is that in Western countries there are some laws banning companies from releasing the most toxic chemicals into the water systems or the atmosphere (or at least they are supposed not to), but the companies are now moving their toxic wastes and their most polluting industries to the Third World, where they are forced to their desperate economic situation.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
Francesca: Well, it depends on our actions now. Unless we start getting active about the environmental problems, the future does look very pessimistic. Sitting around getting depressed is not going to change things.
Vanessa: I look at the future both pessimistically and optimistically. I accept that there will be considerable human suffering before there are the dramatic changes that scientists say we have 10 years to make.
The environmental crisis won't start then; it is already happening, and it will take years to heal the effects of this crisis.
But there are less grounds for optimism if we all feel powerless and don't try to do something about it.
Danielle: Even the prospect of the ongoing environmental crisis is empowering. You think of what is going on and conclude, "I don't want that and I'd better do something now".
Wendy: To be optimistic, you have to see a way in which radical change can happen, you've got to have a plan or some concept of why things are like they are.
I'd compare it with the position of women in society. If you believe that women are where we are because this is biologically determined, then we'll always be oppressed and men will always be our oppressors. Then there is not much use in campaigning against sexism. It is the same with environmental problems.
Kylie: I'm optimistic too. It's the only way activists keep going. One help is to look at things internationally, because it can get depressing if it seems at times that people here really don't give a shit. We see greens organising in Germany and even in Indonesia, and their struggles inspire us.
Zanny: When we look at all the environmental problems confronting the planet, it seems fairly bleak. But it also inspires a fear for the future that can push us on to further activism. I am optimistic because we hold the power in our hands to change the world for the better.
Mandy: I see the future optimistically because we need to do so if there is going to be anything worth doing. We need to convince ourselves that it is going to work and it will.
Kalu: I think there are already serious environmental problems but it is not too late to change things.
Kevin: If you are a pessimist, you are part of the problem. But you can't just sit back and be optimistic and expect others to be the activists. You've got to be an optimistic activist.
To contact EYA:
Adelaide: (08) 47 1345
Brisbane: (07) 221 3695
Canberra: (06) 258 7714
Hobart: (002) 23 8430
Melbourne: (03) 416 1455
Newcastle: (049) 67 5346
Northern Territory: (089) 321 1762
Sydney: (02) 247 9342.