First Nations leaders, community members and environmental activists who stopped logging operations in Victoria and New South Wales in early June said the continent’s environmental crimes can be traced back to colonisation and that Traditional Custodians must lead the way on forest management.
On June 9, locals and activists in Victoria walked on to logging sites, suspended themselves in tree-sits 30 metres high and locked on to machinery, forcing contractors to stop clear-felling native forest in seven locations. The following day in NSW, Traditional Custodians and environment activists in Nambucca State Forest blockaded a site to prevent NSW Forestry Corporation from resuming logging after a court stop work-order lapsed.
Court action against state-owned logging agencies, including a landmark case led by Wirdi man and barrister Tony McAvoy, have empowered Traditional Owners to reassert their sovereignty and emboldened local communities to stop logging in close proximity to their homes.
Spokesperson for the Victorian protesters Chris Schuringa said locals are taking action because the government is failing to acknowledge the consequences of over-logging and a warming climate — more frequent and intense bushfires, accelerating wildlife extinctions and water security concerns.
“There’s no debate about the science that links climate change, bushfires, and the mismanagement of forests because of logging. [Ignoring this] is jeopardising communities that are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and bushfires,” she said.
A Federal Court ruling on May 27 found that VicForests had violated a law intended to protect threatened species. The Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum group mounted the challenge to protect 66 coupes in Victoria’s central highlands.
On June 9, community group Warburton Environment lodged a court action against VicForests to investigate whether it stuck to the law regarding threatened trees in the coupe known as “Pat’s Corner”. As VicForests’ logging machines were immobilised by protestors, the Supreme Court agreed to restrain logging while the inquiry was underway.
Environment non-government organisations said the VicForests court findings justified their call for logging to be held accountable under federal law and for national environmental legislation, currently under review, to be strengthened.
Transformative change needed
But those who took direct action in the forests in early June are calling for more transformative change. Schuringa said that attempts at reform had “systematically failed”. “There have been years to conduct reviews,” she said. “We need fundamental change. That means ensuring Traditional Owners have the ultimate say, because [environmental damage in Australia] stems from colonisation and the ongoing dispossession of country.”
Schuringa said that while protesters value pursuing legal options to halt damage to forests, the regulations governing how Australia manages its native forests are not legitimate because First Nations people never ceded sovereignty. One key motivation for non-Indigenous activists who protested in the forest last week was to act in solidarity with Traditional Owners, she said.
A “solidarity statement”, which is still being finalised, states that activists are committed to learning and supporting the First Nations’ struggle for sovereignty, as well as mitigating risk for First Nations activists. “We will take any opportunity to work together … We understand First Nations people are disproportionately impacted by police racism, violence, harassment, imprisonment and deaths in custody.”
Placing Indigenous sovereignty at the centre of forest protests comes from work with First Nations leaders from the Taungurung, Wurundjeri and Gunnai people, whose country in the Central Highlands and East Gippsland regions is being damaged by logging.
Last year, organising meetings between Traditional Custodians and non-Indigenous forest campaigners to address what Schuringa said is a “pretty shocking track record” of consultation led to a new alliance between custodians, activists, scientists and ecologists all working to protect forests.
The Traditional Owners who convened these meetings also sent a letter to the Victorian premier, eight MPs and VicForests last November asserting sovereignty over the area and arguing that the government had breached the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by handing VicForests their country without their consent.
Wurundjeri woman Stacie Piper, a signatory, said Traditional Owners have not received a reply from the government or VicForests.
Piper said the mountain ash forests on her country store more carbon than anywhere else in the world and that “clearing and incinerating” them is “mind blowing” considering that more than 80% of what is logged becomes copy paper or cheap packaging that could be sourced from plantations. “It’s just so destructive. To see your country ripped up like that is quite confronting,” she said.
The letter made nine demands, including: an immediate end to logging; and “meaningful negotiation” about “culturally respectful” forest management into the future.
“We wanted to assess the economic and employment benefits of carbon storage, eco tourism, cultural tourism, land management, feral species management and fire management like the cultural cool burning process, which is so beneficial for biodiversity,” Piper said.
Gunnai woman Lidia Thorpe walked on to an active logging site to protest logging on her country on June 9. She said that while her family had worked in the logging industry in East Gippsland, the collapse of both local ecosystems and the timber industry mean that change is necessary. “The alternative has to be one that doesn’t kill off our country. We sustained this country for thousands of generations: let’s get back to finding sustainable ways to care for it now.”
Thorpe has helped connect Traditional Owners across Victoria with other forest campaigners. Relationships between environmental experts and scientists are important in the repair and care for country, she said. While clear-fell logging has been proven harmful by ecologists, she said the sustainability of cultural burning also needs scientific scrutiny because of the recent “decimation” of the forests. Thorpe said the forestry industry’s “constant assault on country” had radically changed the environment from its balanced state before colonisation when it was meticulously managed by First Nations people.
“It has to be First Nations led, but we need to work together now,” she said. “Whitefellas have done this to us and now we need collective expertise to fix it. We need to do this as a collective of knowledge holders, both Black and white.”
At the protest camp in the Nambucca State Forest in NSW, set up by the Gumbaynggirr Conservation Group, Gumbaynggirr woman Sandy Greenwood said that the NSW Forestry Corporation “haven’t done due diligence” and would destroy cultural heritage, rich ecology and abundant bush foods and medicines if allowed to continue.
Gumbaynggirr custodians have launched a landmark case that could fundamentally challenge forestry laws. The case by McAvoy went to the Land and Environment Court on June 17 but was adjourned until June 25. “I was straight on to it when elders told me there were sacred sites all through the forest,” Greenwood said.
On June 5, the Gumbaynggirr Conservation Group secured an initial stop work order, which allowed custodians to conduct an independent cultural heritage survey. Logging was permitted to resume when the temporary order ended on June 10, but Greenwood said that heavy rain had obstructed logging. “The rain was the ancestors watching over us,” she said laughing. “[Forestry Corporation] are not getting back in until we have our hearing in court.”
NSW Forestry Corporation said its operation in Nambucca consisted of “low-intensity thinning” in “regrowth forest” that adhered to “strict conditions”. But Greenwood said that is demonstrably not the case. Ecologists and botanists went to the site after custodians reported endangered flora, including 28 varieties of rare orchids, rainforest, old growth forest, and threatened species including the koala.
“They have ‘thinned it out’ so much that it’s hardly a forest any more: it’s a crime scene,” she said. “They’re not meant to be cutting bloodwood trees but we’ve found logs which are oozing blood.”
In Victoria, volunteer citizen science groups Wildlife of the Central Highlands and Goongerah Environment Centre. which identify species in active logging coupes that VicForests fails to find, said the VicForests court case had validated what they had reported for years.
But a spokesperson for VicForests said native forestry is “carefully managed” and that its “operations are scrutinised by the Office of the Conservation Regulator (OCR) and its regulatory guidelines ensure the protection of threatened flora and fauna”.
The OCR, was established last year after a report revealed that its parent organisation, a subsidiary of the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), had “no clear compliance and enforcement policy” and VicForests was “in a practical sense acting as a self-regulator.”
Activists, who have camped in a tree in an active coupe near Cambarville since June 9, took video footage of the threatened greater glider inhabiting a neighbouring tree that was to be logged. The court recently found that VicForests had paid “insufficient regard” to the protection of greater gliders.
When asked about the tree-sit protests, a VicForests spokesperson said that while it respects the right to protest its “first priority is safety and safety on site”, especially under the pandemic restrictions.
Victorian Shadow Assistant Minister for Forestry Gary Blackwood has called for the “full force of the law” to be applied to the “enormous spike in illegal protest activity” in the forests. He wants tree sitters charged under the COVID-19 public health laws, even though laws already exist against obstructing timber harvesting operations.
Despite this, Schuringa said it is essential to stop logging, especially as the implications of any court findings would likely take months to action.
Community group Protect Warburton Ranges has been stopping operations at the Pat’s Corner coupe for most of the past five weeks. VicForests said this is costing about $8000 a day and had interrupted supply chains. However, on June 6, contractors cut down about 1 hectare of trees in just four hours — despite a dozen locals protesting inside the coupe.
“A moratorium is the only way forests can be given a reprieve,” said Schuringa. “A coupe can be up to 30 hectares and that forest can be destroyed within a month — and there are over 20 active coupes in Victoria right now.”
In NSW, Greenwood said the Gumbaynggirr people have had no choice but to maintain a presence in the forest after their initial concerns were ignored.
“After [we contacted NSW Forests] it went from 5 to 19 trucks a day”, she said. “I’ve stopped three semitrailers by myself; 100 people walked into the coupe and stopped the machinery. Fifty-six semi-trailers have come out since they started logging. My elders are very upset.”
Greenwood said they have created a “historic alliance of greenies and Blackfullas”, united to defend country in a way that properly acknowledges First Nations’ rightful custodianship.
“There needs to be more of this model: First Nations led with environmentalist allies. It’s very important that First Nations people lead these movements, because of the history of colonisation and all the things that we’ve been through [since then]. It’s very healing when we step into that [leadership position] and it strengthens our connection to country.”
Greenwood and Thorpe agree that cooperation and information sharing between custodians — who are connected to generations of sustainability knowledge — and environmental experts who study logging’s impact had strengthened the forest movement.
“[Industry and those in power] have kept the environment and climate sector away from Traditional Custodians,” said Thorpe. “It’s been a good tactic for a long time. But we’ve woken up to it. It’s time to unite these groups and fight together.”
The Gumbaynggirr camp has been established for five weeks and protestors are collaborating to create change. Greenwood said she would like the Nambucca State Forest “turned into a national park dedicated to teaching Gumbaynggirr cultural heritage and biodiversity. We could create incomes through cultural and ecological jobs — and we’d all work together to preserve it.”
“We want to create a new way forward — a new dreaming,” Greenwood said. “Whitefellas can take on the principles of the way Blackfullas have lived for many years. That means supporting each other and having the same vision. The Gumbaynggirr camp is kind of a microcosm of this new way.”
“It’s healing my trauma. I feel like a powerful Aboriginal woman. Gumbaynggirr girrwaa balmuun [Gumbaynggirr mob are strong]! We’ve got our elders guiding us, our ancestors protecting us and our beautiful allies by our side — and there’s nothing that’s going to stop us. We are going to win.”
[Victorian environment minister Lily D’Ambrosio and NSW resources minister John Barilaro were approached for comment. A longer version of this piece first appeared at KimCroxfordwrites.com. Donate to the the Gumbaynggirr Conservation Group's crowdfunder here.]