Photo of a tree in tarkine
Reportage

Nature on Death Row

As public opinion in Australia moves towards protecting native forests, the Tasmanian state government continues moving in the other direction.

It holds one of the largest temperate rainforests in the world, but you won’t find it marked on any map. It is home to over 60 species of rare, threatened or endangered plants and animals, but you’ve probably never heard of it. Lying in the northwest of Tasmania, the Tarkine / takayna sweeps across 439,000ha of rugged coastline, mountain ranges and old growth rainforest. Australia is truly blessed to be hosting such pristine, intact wilderness. But there’s a catch. To enter sections of this natural wonder is to risk arrest. More and more tracts of ancient wilderness risk being cordoned off from the public and rented out to multinationals. More and more of this intricate web of life finds itself on death row.

Stoked by vested interests, the issue of resource extraction in Tasmania is deeply polarised. Surveys show the majority of Australians want native forests protected, but politicians tout mining and logging as key pillars of the economy, despite these industries relying on government subsidies to survive. Meanwhile, conservationists are branded as dangerous and out of touch radicals risking jobs and livelihoods. It’s a clever and convincing set of soundbites, manufacturing a false dichotomy between native forests and jobs. And It works. Tasmania is not just Australia’s wildest state, it’s also the poorest. Stoking anxieties about jobs with misinformation wins votes. But as ever, dig deeper and a different story emerges.

If there is a frontline for the Jobs v Native Forests dichotomy, it’s on the southern edge of the Tarkine near the town of Roseberry. This is a part of Tasmania where the trees are 500 years old, the animals are rare and the oxygen is fresh.Core habitat for rare and endangered species will become an industrial waste If you’re looking for “one of the world's last great wilderness experiences”, as the Tarkine is described on Discover Tasmania’s website, you’ll find it here. There’s just one problem. 285,000ha of this area is scheduled to be destroyed. The traditional custodians of this land, the palawa/pakana people, have been cast aside for a multinational mining company called MMG.

The state-owned company from China needs somewhere to dispose of waste from its nearby Roseberry mine. Their solution is to build a pipeline across the Pieman River and pump 25 million cubic metres of acid producing tailings directly into the Tarkine rainforest. This will essentially turn core habitat for rare and endangered species into an industrial waste site for MMG’s mine. MMG has warned that hundreds of jobs could be lost if the planned facility does not go ahead. Meanwhile, the conservative Liberal government has condemned any resistance to the plan as an attempt to destroy Tasmanian jobs. In case you hadn’t noticed, the official narrative here is all about jobs. If you oppose the plan, you will need to carry the burden of putting up to 500 people out of work. The burden for environmental vandalism? That’s less important. As is the responsibility for a multinational to work sustainably when they know government will satisfy their every need, regardless.

Scott Jordan is now part of the campaign to protect takayna

Scott Jordan is a lifelong Tasmanian resident, miner-turned-conservationist, who is now part of the campaign to protect the Tarkine. He is at the blockade to stop the machines coming in; the frontline of the false dichotomy, as it were. “Every mining engineer that's contacted us has said that MMG should be doing this another way”, says Scott. “They should be using best practice methods like paste fill”. Paste fill stores tailings waste back underground in the mine, instead of in a native rainforest. It costs more money, but it’s more sustainable.

MMG has two existing tailings dams, the most recent having been commissioned in 2018. For all the sustainability values listed on its website, these tailings dam facilities continue to pose a risk to local areas. “They recently had to report the third breach in the four years it's been running”, explains Scott. “There's not a tailings dam in Tasmania that doesn't leak. Each leak risks contaminating creeks and rivers”.

But for MMG and the Liberal government, it’s worth remembering that the issue here is not the environmental impact of MMG’s plan. The issue is jobs. “Well if it’s a jobs argument, then you'd do paste fill”, explains Scott. “Not one job at the mine would be lost by going paste fill. In fact, it would actually create new jobs”. But of course, the proposal is less about jobs and more about a cheap way for MMG to dispose of its waste. And when government wilfully hands over native rainforests to be used as industrial waste sites, there’s little motivation for any company to invest in sustainable alternatives.

For the government in Tasmania, there is a clear incentive to facilitate these projects, however flawed they may be. Both the Tarkine and MMG’s Roseberry mine are situated in one of the most marginal seats in Australia, Braddon. The seat is home to a number of timber and mining towns who rely on government subsidies for support. While these industries continue to operate at a loss, they employ enough voters to incentivise government to keep them operating. As states around Australia unveil plans to phase out native forest operations, Tasmania continues to spend millions of taxpayer dollars in the other direction. It makes no economic sense. It makes no environmental sense. But politically, it makes perfect sense. A few hundred votes in a small town of a marginal seat can shift an entire election.

The Pieman blockade

Add emotion and misinformation to the politics of resource extraction and we have a deeply polarised issue. A timber support group on social media claims there is no wilderness of significance at the proposed site, despite the site quite literally being in the middle of ancient wilderness. Photos that dispute the location are liked and shared by supporters, including a Tasmanian MP. But that’s just the misinformation; wait for the smears. Protestors are described as economic terrorists, invaders, feral animals and green scum who are damaging local communities. Photos of a male woodchip employee assaulting a young woman are met with gleeful comments. Calls for lengthy jail terms sit alongside calls to turn protestors into fertiliser. When politicians and media present one side as dangerous and oppressive, and the other as victims, this tends to be the outcome.

“Truth is, we’re not advocating for the closing of any of those existing mines, they support existing communities”, explains Scott. “But we strongly believe that we shouldn't be expanding and plundering new areas”. Juxtaposed against the smears and misinformation on timber support pages are galleries of sepia photos harking back to family run sawmills from the 1930s. For all the bile on these pages, the photos are a reminder that for many of these small towns, timber and mining are not just livelihoods, they are an identity. “I grew up in a traditional West Coast Tasmanian mining town”, explains Scott. “My father worked at the mine; my grandfather worked at the mine.Whatever the outcome here, 90% of the Tarkine will remain unprotected I can understand the anxiety that comes with talking about change. But In the 21st century, we shouldn't be knocking down rainforests to mine for what are pretty commonplace materials”.

A leaked Forest Wood and Products Australia commissioned study found 65 per cent of the rural-based respondents said native forest logging was unacceptable. Meanwhile, at the site of MMG’s proposal, an interchangeable group of over 600 everyday Australians have visited the blockade to halt MMG’s plan. For all the misleading information surrounding it, the issue of native forests resonates. Among the Tasmanians at the blockade was Susie Aulich, a small business owner from Mount Arthur. “I would actually prefer to be at home in my garden looking after my grandchildren and going on adventures with them”, she said. “This isn't where I really want to be. But we have to be here because if we weren’t, this would now be a toxic waste dump”. There was also a young woman studying remotely from the blockade, a contract teacher, a nurse and a diverse list of people so long it could be a story in its own right.

Whatever the outcome here; 90% of the Tarkine will remain unprotected and vulnerable to exploitation. Laws currently being tabled in state parliament will mean standing in front of a tree to protect wildlife will risk a lengthy jail term. For every false and misleading statement about the rainforest and the people defending it, evidence to the contrary continues to mount. Government and MMG have lost the argument; plan B is to lock everyone up. It’s deeply polarising. It’s deeply depressing. And as it stands, the odds are stacked up against this ancient wilderness and the endangered species that call it home.

On the final day of my visit to the blockade, environmentalist and former leader of the Greens, Bob Brown, made an appearance. “There's nothing worse than standing aside at the scene of a crime and doing nothing”, he said. “But if we’re going to mull over the odds up against us, we'll end up depressed. And if we get depressed and do nothing about it, we’re not just harming ourselves, we’re also blighting the prospects for a better future for the planet”. And that is the silver lining. While vested interests continue to use all the power at their disposal, popular opinion continues to move in the other direction. More and more everyday Australians are prepared to put themselves on the line and take responsibility for an issue their government has abandoned. “Power falls readily into the hands of the selfish, cruel and cocksure. The challenge to intelligent, sensitive folk is to take over”.

Bob Brown spoke at the blockade

Conversations from the Blockade

Over 600 people having visited the camp to protect this patch of native rainforest. This is a snippet of conversations I had with people at the blockade in February

It’s illegal for us to be here, but it's legal for them to trash it. Pouring toxic chemicals into an ancient rainforest? That's legal. But just standing here in the forest? That’s illegal. I would actually prefer to be at home in my garden looking after my grandchildren and going on adventures with them. I’d much prefer to be at my shack. This isn't where I really want to be. But we have to be here because if we weren’t, this would now be a toxic waste dump. Once you see what’s at risk and you get what it is, then you have an obligation. Susie. Pieman Blockade, Feb 2022.

Imagine having one of the last temperate rainforests in the world and not wanting to protect it. This is a legacy of the colonial way of putting food on the table: Cut it down. Dig it up. What we are trying do is show that we can have jobs, security and we can protect these wild places. We actually all benefit from protecting them. Jenny Weber. Pieman Blockade, Feb 2022.

Something that is interesting to me as French, is I've been to the West Coast of America where they have the tallest tree in the world, and they are very proud of it. There is big tourism around it; people travel just to see this big tree. Do you know where the tallest tree in the southern hemisphere is? It’s in Tasmania. Do you know about it? No. What are we doing about these natural places? Not tourism, we are logging them. Charley. Pieman Blockade, Feb 2022.

When you walk in here and see what’s at stake, you really understand what the action here is about. It becomes impossible to take for granted. Even someone who might be sceptical about what’s going on here - and might just view the blockade as trouble - would appreciate what’s at stake if they saw it. Emina. Pieman Blockade, Feb 2022.