LLast Friday, dozens of armed New South Wales police officers raided a camp near Sydney and arrested two environmental activists. One of them was Aunt Caroline Kirk, an Aboriginal elder. She was charged with “willful obstruction and intimidation of the police”.
“I can’t run, I can’t climb,” she said. “All I can do … is teach my culture. Why do they do that?”
The answer lies in our time’s showdown between greed and green.
The focus is greenophobia, the fear of green things, including environmentalists. It includes the corrupt idea that people should be prevented from taking action to protect the environment, especially if doing so gets in the way of making money.
It has infected the world of resource miners and they have found mainstream political parties around the world particularly helpful. In the Queen’s speech this year, Boris Johnson announced a bill that would jail peaceful British protesters for up to 10 years. The proposal of these measures was one of the triggers that led 400 alarmed scientists to support environmental activists last year.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro is a greenophobe who wants the Amazon rainforest and its indigenous cultures destroyed. His nation is mired in environmental lawlessness, which has seen the murder of two rainforest defenders, British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous advocate Bruno Pereira, this month. Around the world, 220 environmentalists were murdered last year and thousands more were injured, terrorized or imprisoned. Most of the perpetrators were neither arrested nor charged.
My foundation’s campaign to defend the Takayna/Tarkine Rainforest in north-west Tasmania came across the Chinese Communist Party mining company MMG. More than 80 people — nurses, teachers, students, ecologists, soccer players and farmers — have been arrested for peacefully stopping MMG’s machines from entering the Tarkine rainforest to destroy a dump for the toxic waste from the Rosebery heavy metals mine to build. There are options for disposing of the garbage outside of the Tarkine.
MMG’s lobbying helped persuade the Tasmanian Parliament to vote in favor of tougher penalties for defenders of the Tarkines and their giant masked owls last week. A clear majority of Tasmanian MPs want MMG to have its toxic waste site in Tarkine and Tasmania’s conservationists to have a cell in Risdon Prison.
Tasmania’s laws match those of NSW, with fines of up to $11,000 for peaceful environmental protests and double or two and a half years in prison for a second offence. Had these laws been in effect in other jurisdictions at other times, the Franklin River would have been dammed, the Daintree Rainforest destroyed, and much of Kakadu National Park mined.
Victoria has also introduced legislation aimed, among other things, at discouraging scientists who have previously gone to the highlands and found forests containing protected species – such as the tall ship and the state’s endangered fauna emblem, the Leadbeater’s possum – to be cut down. This is illegal. While the loggers have not been charged, the intent of the new laws is to stop or arrest these scientists next time.
In Newcastle last year, a young man was sentenced to a year in prison for delaying a coal train. The court did not listen to the assessment of the former NASA chief scientist, who told the US Congress that in this world of dangerous global warming, transporting coal is a criminal activity.
Greenophobia seeps down. On the Monday before Aunt Caroline’s arrest, about 100 officers raided Blockade Australia’s peaceful protest camp in Colo, near Sydney, after four undercover officers who could not identify themselves “feared for their lives” – despite police having the guns and the people in the camp had camp, including the children, had none.
Corporate PR machines, while the right-wing media stands ready, are developing greenophobia to divert attention from the well-being of their corporations and the more serious threat of the collapse of the Earth’s biosphere, including from global warming and species extinction. As NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman put it, “What we stop or criminalize further are protests that shut down vital economic activity.” It’s money before the planet.
New Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek is now Australia’s most powerful environmentalist. She will decide whether MMG should treat its toxic waste inside or outside of the Tarkine rainforest. She will also decide whether Tasmania’s environmentalists are threatened with the new draconian penalties there. These penalties for peaceful environmental actions are now the same as for grievous bodily harm or threatening neighbors with a shotgun.
Such laws, like previous laws, may be subject to scrutiny in the High Court after I was among those arrested in Tasmania’s Lapoinya rainforest in 2017. The court found these laws unconstitutional because they took away the right to peaceful protest. Meanwhile, the Lapoinya forest was flattened and burned down along with its rare wildlife. No one was arrested for this.
For example, if MMG’s landfill gets the green light, I will help defend this vital forest, its owls, kingfishers and Tasmanian devils. They can take us from nature, but they cannot take nature from us.
As for the “terrifying” Aunt Caroline, I’d love to meet her and thank her. She may not be able to walk or climb, but she is an inspiration.