Direct Action Down Under

Outrage in the Outback, Battles in the Bush

 

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Australian Native Title

The issue of Native Title could be said to be the most contentious one in the country, currently, and may well get top billing in the next election. In 1992, (a little late to say the least) the Mabo High Court decision reversed the long-standing assumption of 'terra nullius': that Australia was empty and belonged to no-one before white people turned up. The court spoke of Native Title as the common law rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, which confirmed the legal status of their customs, traditions, and laws.

 

This led to Native Title Claims - indigenous people claiming the right to practice those traditions on land leased by pastoralists. The Wik decision made by the High Court in 1996 found that pastoral leases (long standing leases of grazing land from the government, covering in total 42% of Australia) and native title could co-exist in the vast majority of cases. If they did conflict, however, the rights of the pastoralist leaseholder would prevail. The Howard government has responded to this decision, approved of by indigenous Australians, with the outrageously racist Amendments to the Native Title Bill. The reason for this becomes clear when a list of pastoralists affected is looked at - mostly not ordinary farmers, but rather an incredibly small handful of very powerful people, including media baron Kerry Packer, the Sultan of Brunei (!), developers and some MPs. No doubt the last thing they wanted to have to do was consult traditional owners about development on 'their' leaseholds.

Howard's amendments would allow the State governments to upgrade most pastoral leases to the equivalent of freehold, so Kerry Packer and mates, rather than the Australian public, would suddenly own a very large portion of Australia, and native title could no longer be an issue. There would be no native title rights over rivers and waters, and no protection for them. There would be no option for Aboriginal people to have a say in what happens to their land. Unlawful mining licenses would be validated. The final insult is that for any possible claim left, Aboriginal people would have to prove continual physical access to the land - when countless numbers were forcibly removed from it.

Nelson Mandela recently offered to help mediate on this issue. John Howard, who says his amendments offer a middle ground, apparently located between some mythical pastoralist who wants to shoot everyone who isn't white, and the radical leftist High Court, turned this offer down. But Native Title has made it into the global spotlight, and it is to be hoped that with an upcoming election and a large number of Australians who value Reconciliation too much to let it be irreversibly damaged, Howard's amendments will be halted and the Native Title Act protected.

Update on Native Title, December 8.

After a week of debate, it's been made clear that several of the clauses in the Native Title Amendment Bill will not be accepted by the Senate - most importantly the discriminatory clause that throws out the Aboriginal right to negotiate about the use of traditional land. If a Double Dissolution occurs (the Senate rejecting the Bill twice) John Howard can, and has said he will, immediately call the Federal Election…and with the lies and scare tactics used by politicians against Native Title, an election based on racial issues is a very worrying prospect for Australia.

Jabiluka: Leave the Uranium in the Ground

Kakadu National Park, in the Northern Territory, is listed as a World Heritage site. It contains ancient rock forms, amazing waterfalls, wetlands, diverse flora and fauna, rock art dating back thousands of years, and last and certainly least, the Ranger Uranium mine, owned by Energy Resources Australia. Politicians like to play word games about the mine "not being in the National Park at all", but when you hear of a protest against the mine that involved delivering hundreds of doughnuts to Parliament House, you'll have some idea of the shape the National Park just happens to be. The land destroyed by the mine is at the very heart of Kakadu.

And now, the government plans to allow another mine in the area - Jabiluka. Clearly to do so would be a further act of environmental vandalism. ERA's mining at Ranger gives a good idea of what to expect at Jabiluka - a leaky dam of 40 million tonnes of radioactive waste surrounded by walls that will last a mere 1000 years, compared to the waste itself, which will be radioactive for 25000 years, plus the regular release of contaminants into the local creek.

The Mirrar people, traditional owners of the area, are unanimously opposed to this contamination of their home. Yvonne Margarula, Senior Traditional Owner, says: "My father was forced to sign the Ranger agreement in 1975. Our people were given no choice in the Jabiluka agreement - and all Australians will lose if mining goes ahead in the Park."

Australia contains 80% of the world's uranium, which ought to be seen as a huge responsibility. Senator Parer, the Minister for Energy and Resources, in approving the mine, managed to say with a straight face "Nuclear energy is environmentally a good idea since it doesn't contribute to global warming." A pilgrimage against uranium that covered much of Australia earlier in the year involved several activists who know better - they were from Chernobyl.

Earlier in the year, campaigners travelled to Kakadu to meet traditional owners. Since then, there have been anti-uranium rallies in most capital cities, and the Senate has passed a vote against mining at Jabiluka, which is nice but didn't stop approval going ahead. Mining may begin mid-1998, and environmentalists say the ensuing blockade could be the biggest thing since the Franklin Dam.

Forests

After a three year process known as the National Forest Policy, Australia's precious native temperate, sub-tropical and tropical forests and rainforests are facing liquidation via "Regional Forest Agreements". Under these RFAs, all quotas on export woodchips will be abolished in favour of market forces. In exchange for the predicted clearfelling frenzy, the federal and State Governments are supposed to put in place a "Comprehensive, Adequate and Representative Reserve System" to protect all remaining forests that are not to be logged.

Surprise, surprise! The first two RFAs signed to date (East Gippsland in Victoria, and the entire State of Tasmania) have been worse than inadequate. Shady last minute deals have seen entire old growth forest areas handed over to the forest industry, with inadequate "rocks and ice" reserves in exchange.

In Tasmania high conservation value forests and rainforests in the Great Western Tiers, Southern Forests and the Tarkine are now more threatened than ever, destined to be logged to provide woodchips for the likes of Mitsubishi and other Japanese pulp and paper companies. Australia exports over six million tonnes of woodchips to Japan annually.

Tree sits, blockades and tripods are likely to be popping up wherever the Howard Government (yes! we remember Kyoto, too!) signs off on the next RFA.

Forest Massacre Looms: a Case Study

Many people around the district are expressing the view that with the signing of the Regional Forest Agreement the forests of the Western Tiers, NW Tasmania are safe. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. As I write, some of the area's most popular tourist destinations are being - or are about to be - clearfelled out of existence. These include forests that are immediately adjacent to popular walking tracks, such as the Meander Forest Reserve (next to the World Heritage Area), Western Creek (adjacent to Higgs Track) and Mother Cummings Peak (Scotts Rd).

In addition to timber industry lobby groups, the Aboriginal Community and Conservation organisations participated as "stakeholders" in the "RFA" process. It was truly inspiring to see the amount of energy that committed local people put into the process. A majority of submissions to the RFA process were generated in this region, almost all of which argued for increased protection, not tokenism. We all really believed that our economic arguments were being taken seriously; in particular that tourism was an important "sunrise" industry which required high conservation value forests to be protected in order to allow indigenous cultural tourism and nature-based tourism to flourish. In the last few days of negotiations all this hard work was sacrificed on the altar of political expediency and increased woodchip exports. The money that we had lobbied so hard to secure for an interpretation centre - $1 million - remained, but the very forests we had argued needed to be protected were handed back to the likes of North and Boral. [Two of the biggest Australian logging companies - David Bills, the current head of the Forestry Commission in the UK, used to work for North.]

In the end we were given the inaccessible scraps at the top of the Tiers, and our aspirations - especially those of the Aboriginal community - were cruelly dashed. The idea of a jointly-managed conservation reserve for Kooparoona Niara, or "Mountains of the Spirits", was a far-sighted concept, and one that had the potential to make the tourism appeal of the Meander Valley completely unique in Tasmania. What is the value of an interpretation centre when there will shortly be no forests left to interpret?

A major concern to all of us who lobbied for increased protection was the future of Mother Cummings Peak [the most notable peak in the Great Western Tiers], and in particular a forest "coupe" that Forestry and North have been trying to log for over two years: HU 307. Situated at the very end of Scotts Rd on a high bench at 850 metres, the forest is truly magnificent, a source of inspiration to countless people. The area contains tall, dry Whitetop forest, which has never seen an axe, and is interspersed with delicate sphagnum moss beds and King Billy pines - relicts from the last ice age. Mountain Warratahs add a vibrant splash of colour in season, and an all-year-round creek flows over mossy boulders. I have to admit that I fell in love with the place, and I have been taking guided walks in the area ever since access to Pine Lake became restricted due to dieback. I have now led over 190 clients through the area, and they are all of the same opinion: that logging such a valuable asset is sheer madness.

Scotts Road provides the quickest access to the Central Plateau World Heritage Area of any of the tracks at the western end of the Tiers. In just 40 minutes you can get to breathtaking views - so long as you avoid looking down onto the horror show of North's plantation logging. On the ascent, the Scotts Rd forest occupies the main viewing field, and after about twenty minutes you can see it spread out in all its majesty below you. Imagine the reaction of some of my clients when I tell them that all they can see is going to be carted off on a log truck!

The Minister for Forests assures me that all will be well once it is logged. However, I would point out a couple of things that he seems determined to ignore. The forest is very high, and has an open canopy. The "Shelterwood" logging regime and burn that is prescribed will be akin to clearfelling at this altitude, and will severely endanger the swamps and King Billy pines, which are fire sensitive. Forests this high simply don't regenerate after logging. The so-called "reserve" put in place for the swamp and the pines is too small to protect anything, and will be cut in half by a new spur road anyway. Furthermore, there is a major landslide immediately adjacent to the bench, just 40m below Scotts Road - a road that will shortly be taking heavily-laden log trucks. All this sounds like a recipe for disaster to me, but then again I don't have the woodchip industry as my constituency.

There is such little old growth forest left on the Tiers after twenty years of clearfelling that I believe that neither we - nor the old-growth dependent species - can afford to lose one of last major environmental assets. I have been to Canberra three times in an attempt to secure its protection. Eventually I managed to gain a stay of execution. Under the "Interim Forest Agreement", the Commonwealth and State Governments agreed to defer logging while considering its value for inclusion in the Comprehensive, Adequate and Representative forest reserve system promised under the RFA. Imagine my horror and disgust when I found out that the Bessels Rd bench (which has been completely logged and is now riddled with landslides) was included in the reserve but HU 307 was not!

It is not that HU 307 did not deserve protection. It contains old growth forest of a type that was not adequately protected in the RFA, and is an important tourism resource. In fact, the RFA "Steering Committee" even visited the area and marvelled at the Sphagnum swamp. I believe the area was done a great disservice by those people who marched in Deloraine. [A march of wise use and extreme right-wing scumbags.] It gave the State government the excuse that it was looking for, and it was withdrawn from protection. It is not as if there is not enough logging going on already. Meander Valley is now criss-crossed with new logging roads and Private Timber Reserves as a result of the RFA.

Soon the fate of Mother Cummings will be sealed forever. It is not too late to act now, however. Please write to or ring both the Premier and Minister for Forests. Sample letters are available if you need some help. Please make a donation to the ongoing peaceful efforts to protect this wonderful place. For further information please ring: 03 6369 5102. Please stand up for the forests while they are still standing.

For more information, and to help, please visit the Native Forest Network Website: www.nfn.org.au

 

Street Parties in Sydney!

Feb 22nd 1998. Over three thousand people took part in Sydney's second Reclaim the Streets Street Party. Three sound towers were erected playing a variety of sounds as police diverted traffic around the recaptured Crown St, in Darlinghurst, central Sydney. Police reacted in a much more relaxed manner at Sydney's first Street Party on Nov 1st, 1997. In solidarity with the Oxford Reclaim the Streets Sydneysiders took police by surprise and partied in Enmore Rd, Newtown, central Sydney. Two thousand people danced, played cricket and watered a permaculture garden which had sprung up in the previously congested roadway. A banana tree, comfy chairs and two modified cars with the engines taken out (one painted to look like a tank and adorned with anti-Shell slogans) also made an appearance. The police were surprisingly cooperative, even saying that Enmore Rd should be pedestrianised permanently! Street parties are planned for Melbourne, Brisbane and Newcastle later in the year…

Critical Mass

Critical Mass takes place in eight Australian cities every last friday of the month… Adelaide, Brisbane, Hobart, Melbourne, Newcastle, Sydney, Canberra, Wollongong. Numbers vary according to seasons and general energy. One and a half thousand is the highest number of people thought to have come together for the organised co-incidence of Critical Mass…. Melbourne '97. General estimates of numbers of participants vary around the country from 20 to 700.

For a more detailed insight into direct action down under, check out the excellent new EF! Action Update Australia: EF! AU, PO Box 12046, Elizabeth St, Brisbane 4002, Queensland, Australia.

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