Amid national conversations about First Nations justice and forest management, Indigenous leaders, regional communities, and grassroots environmental activists – who stopped logging around the country last week – are laying the foundations for a “new way forward” together. By Kim Croxford.
First Nations leaders, community members, and grassroots environmental activists who stopped logging operations last week have said that Australia’s environmental crimes can be traced back to colonisation and that Traditional Custodians must lead the way on forest management.
On June 9, locals and activists walked on to active logging sites throughout Victoria, suspended themselves in ‘tree sits’ 30m off the ground, and locked to harvesting machinery – forcing contractors to stop clear-felling native forest in seven different locations. The next day, in NSW, traditional custodians and community members in Nambucca State Forest were prepared to respond to any attempts made by NSW Forestry Corporation to resume logging – after a court mandated ‘stop work order’ lapsed – by blockading the site.
Court proceedings against state-owned logging agencies in both Victoria and NSW, including a landmark case led by Wirdi man and top barrister Tony McAvoy, have empowered traditional owners to reassert their sovereignty and emboldened local communities to physically stop logging in close proximity to their homes.
A spokesperson for the coordinated protests in Victoria, Chris Schuringa, said locals were taking these escalatory actions because government was failing to acknowledge the urgency and seriousness of the “dire situation” regional communities are in, due to the threat of more frequent and intense bushfires, accelerating wildlife extinctions, water security concerns, and the climate crisis.
“There’s just no debate about the science that links climate change, bushfires, and the mismanagement of forests because of logging. [Ignoring this] is actually jeopardising communities that are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and bushfires,” she said.
A federal court case on May 27 began a national conversation about the future of native forest logging when it exposed that Victorian government-owned logging agency, Vicforests, violated regulation intended to protect threatened species. The debate continued on Monday when it was announced a ‘major event review’ would examine Victoria’s forest management in light of this year’s bushfires, which ravaged recently protected areas. VicForests endured another legal blow on Tuesday when a small community group, Warburton Environment, launched a case asking the court to investigate whether codes of practice regarding threatened trees were being followed in the coupe ‘Pat’s Corner’. As VicForests’ machines were immobilised by protestors across the state, the Supreme Court agreed to restrain logging under specific conditions while the inquiry was underway.
Environmental NGOs have said that the VicForests court findings justify calls for logging to be held accountable under federal law and for national environmental legislation, which is currently under statutory review, to be strengthened.
But those who took direct action in the forests this week are calling for more transformative change. Schuringa said that attempts at reform had already “systematically failed.”
“There have been years to conduct reviews within the status quo,” she said. “We need fundamental change. That means ensuring traditional owners have the ultimate say, because [environmental damage in Australia] stems from colonisation and the ongoing dispossession of country.”
Schuringa said that while the protestors value pursuing legal options to halt damage to forests as soon as possible, they try to remain cognisant of the fact that the regulatory systems that currently determine how Australia manages its landscapes are not legitimate, because First Nations people never ceded their sovereignty.
She said that one of the intentions of non-Indigenous activists who protested in the forest this week was to act in solidarity with traditional owners. In a ‘solidarity statement’, which is still in development, the activists said that they were committed to ongoing learning, supporting the struggle for sovereignty, and mitigating risk for First Nations activists participating in protest. The statement reads, “We will take any opportunity to work together… We understand First Nations people are disproportionately impacted by police racism, violence, harassment, imprisonment and death in custody. We will work with First Nations activists who take part in action to do all we can to make sure they are not put in a position of risk, unless they have explicitly chosen to do so.”
Protestors centering Indigenous sovereignty in their messaging is a result of First Nations leaders from the Taungurung, Wurundjeri and Gunnai people – whose country in the Central Highlands and East Gippsland region is affected by logging – organising meetings last year to address what Schuringa said what was a “pretty shocking track record” of non-Indigenous forest campaigners consulting with custodians. The gatherings instigated a shift in the grassroots forest movement and led to a positive new alliance between custodians, activists, scientists and ecologists all working to protect forests.
The Traditional Owners who convened these meetings also sent a letter to the Victorian Premier, eight MPs, and VicForests last November asserting sovereignty over the area and arguing that the government had breached the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by handing VicForests their country without their consent.
Signatory to the letter and Wurundjeri woman, Stacie Piper, said that traditional owners never received a reply from the government or VicForests.
Piper said the mountain ash forests on her country store more carbon than anywhere else in the world and that “clearing and incinerating” them is just “mind blowing,” considering that over 80 percent of what is logged becomes copy paper or cheap packaging, which could be sourced from plantations.
“When I talk to people about it they are just bewildered,” she said. “It’s just so destructive. To see your country ripped up like that is quite confronting.”
The letter made nine demands, including an immediate end to logging and “meaningful negotiation” about “culturally respectful” forest management into the future.
“We wanted to assess the economic and employment benefits of carbon storage, eco tourism, cultural tourism, land management, feral species management, and fire management like the cultural cool burning process, which is so beneficial for biodiversity,” Piper said.
Gunnai woman Lidia Thorpe walked on to an active logging site to protest logging on her country on June 9. She said that while her family had worked in the logging industry in East Gippsland, the collapse of both local ecosystems and the timber industry meant that change is necessary.
“The alternative has to be one that doesn’t kill off our country. We sustained this country for thousands of generations: let’s get back to finding sustainable ways to care for it now,” she said.
Thorpe was instrumental in connecting traditional owners from around Victoria with others in the forest campaign. She said the relationships she has built with environmental experts and scientists are important in order to repair and care for country moving forward. She said that while clear-fell logging had been categorically proven harmful by ecologists, the sustainability of practices like cultural burning needed careful scientific scrutiny too, because of the “decimation” forests had recently endured. Thorpe said that industry’s “constant assault on country” has meant the environment is now radically different to the balanced landscape it was before colonisation, when it was meticulously managed by First Peoples.
“It has to be First Nations led, but we need to work together now. Whitefellas have done this to us – and now we need collective expertise to fix it. We need to do this as a collective of knowledge holders, both black and white,” she said.
In the Nambucca State Forest, NSW, at a peaceful protest camp occupied by the Gumbaynggirr Conversation Group, Gumbaynggirr woman Sandy Greenwood is part of a powerful First Nations led campaign to stop logging.
She said NSW’s logging agency, NSW Forestry Corporation, “haven’t done due diligence” and would destroy cultural heritage, rich ecology, and abundant bush foods and medicines if allowed to continue.
Gumbaynggirr custodians have launched a landmark case this week that could fundamentally challenge forestry laws. The case by McAvoy went to the Land and Environment Court on June 17 but was adjourned until June 25.
“I was straight on to it when elders told me there were sacred sites all through the forest,” Greenwood said.
On June 5, the Gumbaynggirr Conversation Group secured an initial stop work order, which allowed custodians to conduct an independent cultural heritage survey. Logging was permitted to resume when the temporary order ended on June 10, but Greenwood said that heavy rain had obstructed logging on the group’s behalf.
“The rain was the ancestors watching over us,” she laughed. “[Forestry Corporation] are not getting back in until we have our hearing in court.”
A spokesperson for Forestry Corporation said their operations in Nambucca consisted of “low-intensity thinning” in “regrowth forest” that adhered to “strict conditions regulating forestry to protect and maintain wildlife habitat and forest flora.”
But Greenwood said that is demonstrably not the case on the ground. Ecologists and botanists converged on the site when custodians reported finding endangered flora, including 28 varieties of rare orchids, rainforest, old growth forest, and threatened species like the koala – and Greenwood said they had confirmed these values in the area.
“They have ‘thinned it out’ so much that it’s hardly even a forest anymore. It’s a crime scene,” she said. “They’re not meant to be cutting bloodwood trees, but we’ve found logs which are oozing blood.”
In Victoria, volunteer citizen science groups like Wildlife of the Central Highlands and Goongerah Environment Centre, who regularly identify species in active logging coupes that VicForests failed to find, said the VicForests court case validated what they had reported for years.
But a spokesperson for VicForests said that native forestry was “carefully managed” and that its “operations are scrutinised by the Office of the Conservation Regulator (OCR) and its strict regulatory guidelines ensure the protection of threatened flora and fauna.” The OCR, a subsidiary of the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), was established last year after a report revealed that DELWP had “no clear compliance and enforcement policy” and VicForests was “in a practical sense acting as a self-regulator.”
Activists, who camped in a tree in an active coupe near Cambarville from June 9 until June 16, captured video footage of threatened greater gliders, which were inhabiting a neighbouring tree that would have been logged in their absence. During the recent case, the court found that VicForests had paid “insufficient regard” to the protection of greater gliders and that it was “reluctant to implement” further management policies.
When asked about the tree sit protests, a VicForests spokesperson said that, “while VicForests respects the right to protest, our first priority is safety and safety on site is more important than ever in light of current Coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions.”
Shadow Assistant Minister for Forestry, Gary Blackwood, recently called for the “full force of the law” to be applied to this “enormous spike in illegal protest activity” in the forests. He argued that tree sitters should be charged with the COVID 19 public health legislation, because of their interference with worksites. But obstructing timber harvesting operations already incurs hefty fines. Despite these consequences, Schuringa said activists felt it was essential to stop logging directly and immediately, especially since the implications of the court findings were likely to take months to produce outcomes for forests. Local community group Protect Warburton Ranges have been consistently stopping operations at the coupe ‘Pat’s Corner’ for most of the past five weeks, which VicForests said cost them about $8,000 a day and interrupted their supply chains. But on Friday June 6, contractors cut down what witnesses estimate was about a hectare of trees in just four hours – despite the fact that a dozen locals were present inside the coupe.
“A moratorium is really the only way that forests can be given a reprieve,” said Schuringa, “A coupe can be up to 30 hectares and that forest can be destroyed within a month – and there are over 20 active coupes in Victoria right now.”
In NSW, Greenwood said the Gumbaynggirr people have had no choice but to maintain a physical presence in the forest, after their initial enquiries concerning logging on their country were ignored.
“After [we contacted them] it went from five trucks a day to 19 trucks a day,” she said.
“I’ve stopped three semi trailers by myself – and a hundred people walked into the coupe and stopped the machinery,” she said. “56 semi-trailers have come out since they started logging. My elders were very upset.”
The forest protests in solidarity with First Nations custodians last week followed massive Black Lives Matter rallies on June 6. The rallies sparked extensive media coverage about Australia’s shameful rates of indigenous deaths in custody. The destruction of sacred sites has also been in the spotlight, after Rio Tinto blasted a 46,000 year old culturally significant site two weeks ago and BHP were pressured into withdrawing their plans to destroy 40 heritage sites, because of a “national outcry.”
In a nation built on colonisation – with such a woeful track record of respecting indigenous lives and culture – first peoples could be forgiven for doubting that self-proclaimed allies this week might not follow through and continue the work necessary for change in the long run. Indigenous commentators have emphasised on platforms like Twitter that rallying a few days a year is not the same as actively supporting the sovereignty movement, defending country, or returning land. Writer Nayuka Gorrie tweeted on Tuesday: “too many allies, not enough land back” and “we need to get comfortable with the world looking completely different. We can’t have business as usual because that… requires our dispossession. It requires our bodies in jail.”
At the Gumbaynggirr forest camp, however, Greenwood said they have created a “historic alliance of greenies and blackfullas” who have united to defend country in a way that properly acknowledges First Nations’ rightful custodianship. She said it has been really empowering.
“There needs to be more of this model; First Nations led, with environmentalist allies,” she said. “It’s very important that First Nations people lead these movements, because of our history of colonisation and all the things that we’ve been through. It’s very healing when we step into that [leadership position] and it strengthens our connection to country.”
Greenwood and Thorpe both said that co-operation and information sharing between custodians – who are connected to thousand of generations of sustainability knowledge relevant to this landscape – and environmental experts studying logging’s impact, had significantly strengthened the forest movement.
“[Industry and those in power] have kept the environment and climate sector away from us traditional custodians. It’s been a good tactic for a long time. But we’ve woken up to it. It’s time to unite these groups and fight together,” said Thorpe.
In the four weeks the Gumbaynggirr protest camp has been established, Greenwood said collaboration, kindness and generosity has been in abundance. “Things have been plentiful. We all contribute and we are all led by heart,” said Greenwood.
“We are just working together so beautifully, it’s inspiring. We’re going to work side by side and save all the forest in this whole area,” she said.
“I would like the Nambucca State Forest turned into a national park dedicated to teaching Gumbaynggirr cultural heritage and biodiversity. We could create incomes through cultural and ecological jobs – and we’d all work together to preserve it.”
After the disruption of the COVID 19 pandemic, Greenwood said people are interested in change and don’t want to return to the usual state of affairs.
“We want to create a new way forward – a new dreaming. Whitefellas can take on the principles of the way us blackfullas have lived for many years. That means supporting each other and having the same vision. The Gumbaynggirr camp is kind of a microcosm of a new way into the future,” said Greenwood.
Greenwood said the camp is a vibrant community where Gumbaynggirr people are practicing culture on country and sharing traditional weaving, storytelling, songs, and cultural knowledge with non Gumbaynggirr people.
“For me, it’s healing my trauma. I feel like a powerful Aboriginal woman. Gumbaynggirr girrwaa balmuun (Gumbaynggirr mob are strong)! We’ve got our elders guiding us, our ancestors protecting us, and our beautiful allies by our side – and there’s nothing that’s going to stop us. We are going to win.”
Victorian Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio and NSW Resources Minister John Barilaro were approached for comment.