Forest campaigners vow to fight Gunns

March 2, 2005

Alex Bainbridge, Hobart

Forest campaign initiatives in Tasmania are beginning to gather momentum again after a lull following the October re-election of the pro-logging federal Coalition government. The December announcement that woodchip company Gunns Limited is suing 20 environmental activists and organisations has become a major focus for campaigners.

At the same time, activists are highlighting the forest destruction that is continuing unabated in the lead-up to a twice-delayed announcement by the federal government about exactly which areas are to be reserved as a result of Prime Minister John Howard's pre-election promises.

After initial protest rallies against Gunns' lawsuit, the campaign has begun raising funds. On February 4, at least 150 people packed the upstairs theatre at Sirens Restaurant to see three films as part of a Gunns 20 campaign fundraiser. The films included McLibel (about the attempt by McDonald's to sue two British activists) and The Battle of Bakers Creek (about a local community campaign against logging at Lucaston).

The Gunns suit has been likened to the "McLibel" case, which has heartened many supporters of the Gunns 20 because that case was a public relations disaster for McDonald's. Even Rupert Murdoch's Hobart Mercury editorialised in December that the suit could backfire on Gunns.

It was therefore inspiring for activists to get the news that the McLibel 2 won a further legal victory on February 15. "The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg declared that the notorious and long running McLibel case was in breach of the right to a fair trial and the right to freedom of expression", according to a media release from the McLibel Support Campaign.

"The European Court ruled that UK laws had failed to protect the public's right to criticise massive corporations whose business practices can affect people's lives, health and the environment."

Helen Steel and Dave Morris — the McLibel 2 — have sent solidarity greetings to the Gunns 20. "With imagination and determination the case can be used as an opportunity to highlight the devastation Gunns is causing to Tasmania's forests", they wrote.

Songwriter Peter Hicks organised a second fundraiser for the Gunns 20 on February 16 as part of the Fringe Festival. The concert was described on the night by festival director and Gunns 20 member Simon Brown as the most well-attended event at the Backspace Theatre in a long time.

Another initiative was the "Forest Inquisition" on February 25. Organiser Helen Gee told Green Left Weekly that the inquisition was organised because Forestry Tasmania will be put under the spotlight by state parliament's Government Business Enterprises Scrutiny Committee on March 2. Gee and Greens leader Peg Putt have invited concerned members of the community to write questions to be posed by Greens parliamentarians at the committee hearing as a means of demonstrating community concern.

Gee also told GLW that "a second reason [for organising the action] is that it is really important to keep the momentum of the forest campaign going — more than ever we need to keep on questioning" what the government is doing.

Gee, who is the convenor of the South East Forest Protection Group and one of the Gunns 20, emphasised that it is important to keep pressure on both state and federal governments. She said that the state Labor government is "pre-empting the federal government's announcement" about which forests will be saved by logging and building logging roads in contentious forests.

She said this is happening all around the state but emphasised the case of Wielangta in the south-east as one of the clearest examples of an urgent push by Forestry Tasmania. Gee explained that the area contains rare and threatened species including ice age refugia (species that have survived there since the last ice age).

"Local conservationists have fought to protect this area for 15 years", she said. "Forestry Tasmania has acknowledged the rare and threatened species but is allowing it to be couped up for logging.

"A road has been built into the centre of that area ahead of the [federal government's] announcement.

"The people of Tasmania must demand a moratorium on logging of all high-conservation value forests. Please contact your politicians, state and federal."

Another high-conservation value area that forest activists are campaigning to save is in the Weld Valley, south of Hobart. Greens activist and former Huon Valley councillor Adam Burling told GLW that this is one of the areas that was specifically mentioned by the federal government prior to the federal election as an area to be saved.

Before the election, Howard said the 170,000 hectares of new reserves would be detailed by December 1, 2004. This was later revised to Christmas. At the moment, there is no clear date for making the announcement.

"One of the concerns we have is that the deadline for the election promise has failed twice", Burling said. The promise "was supposed to protect areas such as this planned for roading".

"My feeling is that while we're waiting for the Howard government to make its decision, more of these forests are falling to the chainsaws and bulldozers."

Yet activists have had some success in the Weld, establishing a protest camp more than seven weeks ago. The camp is at the site of a proposed logging road that, according to Burling, "aims to open up a high quality wilderness area for logging".

"This area has been nominated for World Heritage listing by the World Heritage Bureau itself." Burling said that this nomination has been supported by Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife and 15 local environmental groups, including the Wilderness Society.

"This is the first time that they've breached the nominated world heritage area. There is the potential of damaging the world heritage qualities of the area."

So far, the camp has managed to prevent construction of the logging road that was due to commence in January.

"At the moment, there is a dedicated core group of people that are prepared to stay there as long as logging still threatens the area", Burling said.

Kamala Emanuel, from the Socialist Alliance, told GLW that continuing grassroots pressure is the only way to ensure that the election result and the Gunns writ don't become significant setbacks for the movement.

"The only way to defeat intimidation is to stand up to it."

Huon Valley environmentalist Neil Cremasco told GLW that Gunns' lawsuit has "uncaged massive fear" in Tasmania. However, he also pointed out that "the resolve of many ordinary people is now hardening in the light of this action and every day more and more environmentalists are saying that they cannot and will not remain silent".

Burling also pointed to the uncertainty and fear generated by the writ but said, "We as a movement are organising ourselves after being scattered".

"The Gunns 20 group is getting very well coordinated. We're going to come out fighting and we've only just started to comprehend how far they've put themselves out on a limb.

"It could be the downfall of Gunns."

[Alex Bainbridge is the Hobart convenor of the Socialist Alliance.]

From Green Left Weekly, March 2, 2005.
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