A proud history of environmental struggle

August 23, 2008

Tasmania's Wilderness Battles: A History

By Greg Buckman

Jacuna, 2008

272 pages, $29.95

Greg Buckman, an environmental campaigner, details the history of environmental battles in Tasmania from colonisation to today in Tasmania's Wilderness Battles: A History.

Buckman groups the battles into four areas — the frenzied river-damming agenda of the Hydro-Electric Commission, the destruction of forests for sawlogs, woodchipping and pulp mills and the devastation caused by irresponsible mining practices and the struggle to preserve high-conservation areas in national parks.

Time and time again Buckman exposes the "development at all costs" attitudes of present and past state and federal governments when it comes to managing Tasmania's natural heritage. He shows that throughout history, governments have been only too willing to change the laws, ignore public opinion and bend over backward to allow private companies to profit from exploiting Tasmanian wilderness.

This has meant colluding with big business to sell hydro-electricity, forest resources and mining leases for dirt-cheap prices as well as turning a blind eye to things like the destruction of the King River by copper mine waste tailings.

Buckman traces the development of environmental consciousness and its slow translation into environmental law, and occasionally compares this with progress made in other developed countries.

The section on national parks, while a little dry and detailed, does describe the different forces and organisations involved and the various strategies used to fight for the gazetting of national parks. Even this wasn't guaranteed to protect an area though, as Buckman gives examples of where mining, hydro and forestry industries managed to win the right to operate within or excise areas of national parks.

In 1989, through signing the "Labor-Green Accord", the Greens managed to win significant forest protection including a doubling in size of the World Heritage Area to 1.38 million hectares or about 20% of the state. The Labor-Green Accord was successful in stopping the Huon Forests Product Mill, in keeping the woodchipping limit in place and in saving areas like the Douglas Aspley forests.

Buckman details the betrayals made by the Field Labor government in sabotaging the Accord, but because his scope was purely on wilderness, did not mention the concessions made by the Greens in allowing cuts to the public sector.

Grassroots forest campaigns such as those at Farmhouse Creek and the Styx are described in detail, as are the earlier battles against pulp mills that were led by women like Christine Milne and Peg Putt, who both went on to become parliamentary Greens leaders.

Buckman describes the unsuccessful campaign to save Lake Peddar in the late 1960s and early '70s in detail. He also points out the lessons learned by environmentalists, such as ensuring that the campaign is taken to the public and to a national audience instead of being conducted by lobbyists behind closed doors.

The origins of the mighty woodchipping company Gunns are explored, and the current campaign against the pulp mill is placed in the broader context of the fight over the state's forests.

One small criticism might be that Buckman identifies the Wilderness Society as the sole driver of some campaign strategies (such as protesting against the ANZ Bank when it was planning to fund the mill), when other groups were also involved.

In detailing the anti-pulp mill campaign to date, Buckman does not explore the way that Tasmanians Against the Pulp Mill has been able to organise broad community opposition in a sustained way by holding fortnightly mass democratic meetings, nor does he mention the significant development of Students Against the Pulp Mill, which led 600-700 high schools students out of school to protest the mill in both ends of the state in 2007.

While exposing the "all-too-cosy relationship between Tasmanian governments and resource developers" throughout the book, Buckman's conclusion is that "the state needs to replace its twentieth-century, factory-led development mindset with a twenty-first century mindset that focuses on the development of small businesses and services".

This doesn't seem to take into account capitalism's never-ending drive to turn small businesses into big businesses, and to subjugate environmental concerns to the higher power of profits.

The environmental crisis will not be solved by "small businesses", but more democracy and more community control over our resources, our environment and our future.

Instead of Franklin dams and Gunns pulp mills, we could have equally large-scale projects that serve environmental and social purposes, such as wind-farm construction, renewable-energy-powered fast-speed train services, eco-system rehabilitation and countless other projects.

Of course, these projects would need to be government-funded and community-run on a not-for-profit basis.

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