It’s 1981 and I am standing on the corner of the Windsor Tableland and Peninsula Development roads with a small band of picketers holding our first direct action in the long campaign to protect the Wet Tropics rainforests. As a cloud of dust appears on the horizon, Henry Lawson’s famous poem, The Teams, comes into my head:
A cloud of dust on the long white road,
But it’s not teams creeping, it’s timber-jinkers hurtling towards us with massive momentum from their load of maple, kauri and silky oak logs. We ceremonially lie on the road. The timber-jinker stops perilously close to my head. We are arrested.
Our protest briefly hits prime-time television and sinks without political impact - although we make National Geographic magazine because, remarkably, we are the only known people in the world protesting about rainforest destruction at the time. Joh Bjelke-Petersen is still running Queensland. It’s just one year since Artie Beetson ran onto the field to beat New South Wales in the first State of Origin match. The loggers join our camp in the evening and we sit around the campfire, singing, exchanging stories and finding fun and companionship despite being on opposing sides of a difficult issue.
I’ve arrived at the Mount Windsor picket via Cape Tribulation, following a brief career as a research scientist. Myself and others bought a partly cleared rainforest block at Cooper Creek in 1979 to live an alternative lifestyle based on sustainability and communal living. The science of limits to growth and the predicted dangers of global warming convinced us of the urgent need for dramatic change. We planned to save the world by showing a better way - well, it was the seventies. The dream ended when George Quaid’s bulldozers arrived on our front door, catapulting me into years of intense social, scientific and political engagement about rainforest conservation. By 1983 I’m handing a stop-work order to the bulldozers clearing forest for the Daintree road. Our legal win is short lived and we go back to direct action, with many arrests. This time our protest is backed up by our extensive research and public relations. It has political impact.
It’s 1987. I am entering a noisy, crowded hall in Cardwell to discuss World Heritage. I’m surprised by one burly bloke’s warm greeting: ‘Rosemary, remember me? You got arrested in front of my logging truck at Mt Windsor!’ However, I’m more than a little nervous as tensions are running high – a few days earlier Bjelke-Petersen had declared that ‘the greenies should be tarred and feathered and run out of town’. Our democratically elected leader has mobilised division and incited violence between decent people with genuine differences of opinion. My husband, Mike Graham, talks to the Cardwell crowd about our farm where we are planting stands of maple, quandong and red mahogany trees which grow straight and tall in plantations. The audience is silent, listening, until someone yells out ‘dreamer’ and the chance to bridge the divide is lost.
By 1988 a new Australian Government has proclaimed World Heritage listing and I am on a tour of the Wet Tropics with our UNESCO ambassador, Gough Whitlam. He’s politely interested in the trees, but fascinated to hear more about the then little-known Mabo case which our colleague and President of the Environment Centre, Greg McIntyre, is running. I understand why only years later when working with Kuku Yalanji people during my doctoral research. Their stories, written on the landscape with layers of meanings and experiences from generations of people long past, demand recognition.
Twenty years later the World Heritage Area reminds us why it is worth the effort – for the beauty and wonder of our planet and our human societies that depend on it. I imagine a future where Aboriginal people are co-managing a natural and cultural World Heritage Area. We’ve rebuilt forest connectivity and the distant goal of sustainability inches closer – and Queensland still thrashes New South Wales in the State of Origin.
Dr Rosemary Hill
Rosemary is a senior scientist for CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems in Cairns. She has a background in environmental science and planning, with an emphasis on biodiversity conservation and Indigenous approaches to environmental management in tropical Australia. Rosemary has published over 30 scientific papers in these fields of study. She is a co-author of a book written with Kuku-Yalanji Traditional Owners on Aboriginal fire management which won the Cooperative Research Centres Association National Award for Excellence in Innovation in 2005. Rosemary is a member of IUCN’s World Commissions on Protected Areas and Economic, Social and Environmental Policy and Vice President of the Australian Conservation Foundation.
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