The Liberation Of The Tamar Valley


"If the machine of government … is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law".

So wrote Henry David Thoreau 160 years ago and so might the words of that wilderness philosopher continue to inspire the protestors and activists defending the environment of Tasmania. The conservationists' acts of disruption — of legitimate protest and democratic engagement — are not attacks upon the lives of logging contractors and legitimate industry, but responses to an environmental and human injustice.

At stake is the future of the Tamar Valley and Tasmania's old-growth forest — with Environment Minister Peter Garrett's recent pre-emptive approval of the pulp mill despite Gunns Ltd's failure to demonstrate that the project will not harm the environment, and with the corporation launching simultaneous legal action to crush demonstrations against their operations — but there is an even greater ethical question we need to face.

The Tasmanian environmental movement has been locked in battle in defence of the rights of nature for 50 years. Their adversaries have been various — the Hydro-Electric Commission, Forestry Tasmania, Gunns Ltd — but always in some manner the State itself.

Since the first protests to save Lake Pedder from the country's largest hydro-electric scheme, there has been an ideological fissure at the heart of this confrontation. It is the timeless battle between, on the one side, those who believe that the environment has inalienable rights, that nature has some intrinsic claim on us, requiring of man a duty of care — and, on the other, those who would exploit the forests and rivers for individual profit, believing the landscape just another commodity within the structure of capitalism.

This conflict has manifested itself over the last five years through the question of whether Gunns should be allowed to build the world's largest pulp mill in northern Tasmania's rural and wine-producing Tamar Valley. The $2.2 billion project to create a bleached eucalyptus pulp mill that will pump 64 million litres of effluent per day into the sensitive marine system of Bass Strait and chew through 1.5 million tonnes of native forest per year, was approved without appropriate community consultation and with little initial analysis of the environmental impact.

But while there are sound environmental reasons why the pulp mill is an inappropriate project, what ensured its development from an ideological fissure into a public perforation was perhaps the fact that it is grossly out of proportion to the community it will occupy and will demand an insatiable feed from the state's public old-growth forests and carbon reserves.

As with all issues that are defined either philosophically or ethically, we must understand the battle for the Tamar Valley as a conflict between right and wrong. At a time when global warming requires international collaboration in actually saving the planet, it is possible to see in the relentless passion of the environmentalists the same ideological position that was taken by those fighting for the abolition of slavery.

There is a universal truth here: the environment has an inalienable right to exist, the same right to freedom and liberty as a human being. At the same time, we have an intrinsic right to live in healthy environments. The protestors, activists and intellectual commentators who have fought Gunns' pulp mill and argued for an end to old-growth logging, have fought to protect nature as one fights to protect other people.

In this fight, we will find that rhetoric is one of the weapons used against us. Rhetoric and law are connected through language: the language of defining, shaping, creating morality and ethics and recognising rights. And rhetoric is used of course by both sides in an ethical battle to persuade us of their rightness.

The American activist for the abolition of slavery, William Lloyd Garrison, knew what kind of rhetoric those with entrenched interests would use against him. He warned his colleagues in 1829 that they would be "ridiculed as fools, scorned as visionaries, branded as disorganisers, reviled as madmen, threatened and perhaps punished as traitors".

So language is used to dismiss us today. In a small community like Tasmania the power of rhetoric to ostracise and dismiss conservationists remains stark. If you stand up for environmental ethics in Tasmania they will call you a traitor, a serial complainer, an extreme green, a hippy-green-c*nt, or even gay. And when the rhetoric works them up into a state of righteous violence, they will come with their sledgehammers and no leader will say it is wrong.

But the rhetoric they use to dismiss us is rendered powerless if one will not be dismissed. As America celebrates the inauguration of its first African-American President, let us not forget that in 1829 Garrison too had to counsel the abolitionists of slavery: "we shall bide our time".

In this fight, they will also use the law against us. The economic benefits that the oppression of nature carries are not easily forfeited by the oppressors. So it was for the American South during the battle for the abolition of slavery, which argued as strenuously as Gunns and Forestry Tasmania that industry and progress depended upon maintenance of the status quo. The last month has seen Gunns once again using the law to oppress and silence those who morally oppose them. The issuing of civil writs by Gunns against protestors for unspecified damages is not fundamentally an attempt to claim compensation for any real economic loss, but a vile attempt to shut down debate on the moral questions themselves. It is an unconscionable abuse of the law.

Following the demonstration that interrupted Gunns' Triabunna woodchip mill for seven hours on 16 December 2008, the names and addresses of 13 protestors were given to Gunns by police — an act in which the lines of authority between public institution and private corporation were once again blurred.

In a clear breach of the Personal Information Protection Act 2004 (Tas), the state colluded with a corporation to allow the $500-million company to instruct their lawyers to issue writs suing the protestors for economic damage. The private interests of a corporation were passed-off again as public interests. Neither Gunns nor the Tasmanian institutions of government understand the difference. This is why the board of Gunns is given free rein to use both rhetoric and law to oppress those who might oppose its commercial operations.

These men, and men like these men, will use the law to dismiss us. But their actions are rendered powerless if one will not be dismissed. Moreover, rather than using the law as a shield, environmentalists must increasingly use the law as a sword. We must continue taking on a corporation like Gunns legally and ethically, to hold them responsible.

In the latest stoush, for example, it will be possible for the protestors to argue that Gunns illegally obtained confidential information from the Tasmania Police, that the duty of confidentiality remains intact, so that the protestors' information — their names and addresses — should not be used in any manner but the purpose for which they were given.

Similarly, the protestors should be lodging a class action against the State of Tasmania for breach of confidentiality and of the Personal Information Protection Act. And so on.

There are many legal arguments that be used aggressively against Gunns in order to subvert their commercial position of power. This is important. If the Gunns' Pulp Mill is stopped it must be a clear moral victory at every stage, not just a de facto triumph won on the back of Gunns' failure to raise project finance.

Along with trying to use these weapons, our opponents will also refuse to acknowledge what is fundamentally wrong in this situation, much like the perpetrators of other kinds of abuse. I have often compared the oppression of the environment, the constant cycle of environmental abuse in Tasmania and indeed the world, to a family in which there is a cycle of unacknowledged violence. A family in which the perpetrator of that violence fails to recognise or accept responsibility for their actions, is a family divided and a family that can never reach a point of healing or reconciliation.

For a small community divided by the conflict between environment and industry might just as well be viewed in terms of family. I use this analogy because it helps us to see this violence and abuse for what it is, to recognise the oppression and rise up against the wrong. For this abuse of the environment is a constant and fundamental attack on the core of our homeland.

Like many perpetrators of violence, the management of Gunns will never acknowledge their destructive role, so it is left to us to press on, dragging the supporters of environmentally destructive capitalism, kicking and screaming, to the table of moral discussion.

Achieving this will in itself be a kind of disruption to the way things are. But there may be a call for more obvious disruptions. All movements for social change have required disobedience. As Roderick Nash observes in his trail-blazing book The Rights of Nature, liberation of the environment "necessarily entails overriding the laws and customs that deny the rights of the oppressed minority". In the case of the environmental movement it is both the rights of nature and the rights of conservationists, acting to defend the interests of nature, which are oppressed.

In confronting the consequences of its relationship to nature, humankind is facing a moral question. We must all stand up and answer it — and we must answer it within the landscapes of which we are custodians. The liberation of the Tamar Valley is but one. It is the valley in which I was born and the valley to which I constantly return. It means something to all of us who know it. It is the valley which has come to symbolise what Richard Flanagan has eloquently called "a larger battle, the same battle the world over — that between truth and power".

In the manner in which previous generations faced the question of slavery, the great moral question of our time is how we relate to our environment. Right must triumph over wrong, whether through protest, coercion, disobedience, or acts that overthrow the very structures permitting environmental abuse. This is the basis on which we must find the moral fortitude to act — to keep putting our bodies and our souls on the line. This is the reason we must disrupt, disrupt, disrupt. And if disruption itself is treated as a crime or trespass, if the machinery of governance in Australia means that environmental injustice can only be defeated by breaking the law, I say, break the law.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.