The Protest that Turned the Tide of Global Green Opinion


In a remote corner of south-west Tasmania lies the Franklin river, wild and beautiful, in the same pristine state as when the first British convicts arrived on the island 200 years ago. Sea eagles soar above canyons and ravines fringed with ancient rainforest; platypuses swim in the calm pools that punctuate the waterfalls and rapids.

Yet the Franklin could have been obliterated 25 years ago. The plan, if the government of the day had had its way, was to build a hydro-electric dam that would have flooded the river and swallowed up large swathes of bushland. Only the efforts of a determined band of protesters -- combined with a change in the political landscape -- saved this unique wilderness area.

The dam project galvanised public opinion in Australia and beyond, inspiring one of the greatest conservation battles of all time. On 1 July 1983, the High Court threw out a final challenge by the Tasmanian authorities. It was a spectacular victory, and a defining moment for the global environmental movement -- proving, possibly for the first time, that direct action could defeat the massed forces of government and big business.

Among those who celebrated the 25th anniversary at a dinner in Hobart last night was David Bellamy, the British naturalist, one of 1,400 people arrested during a summer-long "blockade" of the river. Dr Bellamy, who spent his 50th birthday in Hobart's Risdon Prison, later described the protest action as "the most uplifting thing I have ever been part of."

But the scrapping of the hydro-electric scheme was not universally welcomed, particularly in Tasmania, where many locals equated it with new jobs. And while the dam was stopped and the river given World Heritage protection, the logging of old-growth native forests continues apace and there are plans to build a pulp mill in a scenic valley, an issue that David Bellamy says he would go to prison over again.

In the early 1980s, the environmental movement was still relatively young, and Tasmania was a fitting backdrop for its coming of age. The state had already given birth to the world's first Green party -- founded in 1972, after protesters failed to prevent another of the island's outstanding attractions, Lake Pedder, from being dammed. When the Franklin came under threat, they knew they had to change their tactics. They had to take the campaign into the living rooms of middle Australia.

Television pictures of the Franklin in all its majestic beauty -- and of the machinery poised to destroy it -- shocked mainland Australians. Thousands converged on Tasmania's west coast, where they threw themselves in front of bulldozers and dived into the path of barges transporting equipment to the dam site.

While the blockade made international headlines, it was not until a federal Labor government, led by Bob Hawke, came to power in March 1983 that real progress was made. Mr Hawke, whose pledge to save the Franklin helped get him elected, overruled the Tasmanian premier, Robin Gray, who dismissed the river as a leech-ridden "brown ditch". Mr Hawke's wife at the time, Hazel, wore earrings adorned with the words "No Dams" -- the campaign slogan -- on election night.

Mr Hawke was among the guests at last night's anniversary dinner; Mr Gray, who now sits on the board of Gunns, Tasmania's biggest logging company, declined his invitation.

The Franklin Blockade was led by Bob Brown, who had recently arrived in Tasmania to work as a doctor. He founded the Wilderness Society, and was one of more than 500 protesters jailed during the blockade; the day after his release, he was elected to the state parliament -- Australia's first Green MP.

One of Tasmania's Supreme Court judges, Pierre Slicer, also went to jail for three weeks. "I'm the only judge in Australia that I know of who's been refused bail by his own Chief Justice," he said.

Dr Brown, now leader of the Australian Greens, recalled yesterday how the campaign strategy was formed. "We knew we had to directly confront the seemingly unbeatable power of the Hydro Electric Commission, and do it in the wilderness itself. We had to let the wilderness speak to people throughout Australia."

In the fishing village of Strahan, the campaign headquarters and access point for the Franklin, Dr Brown and others were threatened and attacked. Stones were hurled through the window of the Wilderness Society's information centre. Hostile locals gathered at the wharf every day to shout abuse. Every evening police would bring boatloads of arrested protesters back to Strahan.

Twenty-five years on, Dr Brown believes that the Franklin victory remains "a source of optimism to environmentalists around the world fighting against seemingly impossible odds".

The blockade certainly sent ripples far afield. Demonstrators against a dam planned for the Danube in Austria adopted similar tactics, with success. In the forests of Oregon, in North America, opponents of the chainsaws sat in trees and sang songs penned by the Franklin activists. The "No Dams" slogan was adopted by campaigners in India, in their struggle to prevent a river from being flooded.

The events of 1982-83 put Strahan on the map, and south-west Tasmania has since grown prosperous thanks to tourism. More than 150,000 people visited the area last year, a major attraction being the wilderness of which the Franklin is the centrepiece.

But the bitterness has been slow to evaporate. Richard Flanagan, an internationally acclaimed Tasmanian novelist, said yesterday that the Franklin victory led to a "cold civil war that went on for a quarter of a century."

Mr Flanagan, who kayaked the Franklin as a teenager, and whose first novel, Death of a River Guide, was based on his experiences working on the river, said: "We are left with ongoing destruction of our forests, and with the proposed pulp mill, which often seemed like the spiteful vengeance of the old men who lost the Franklin battle and continued to run the island in an image of hate."

Nevertheless, he said, the blockade was "a great symbol and story for the times we find ourselves in ... It was the first significant national movement that came about, moved by something other than power and money, by the belief that there were things that mattered more. It gave environmental politics a prominence and a position that it enjoyed in no other country other than Germany."

The dam was based on the premise that, with more power capacity, Tasmania would attract heavy industry. Mr Flanagan said: "It just seemed inconceivable that the dam could be stopped, because you had the full resources of this state bearing down, determined to have its way. I would have left the island if the Franklin had been dammed."

Gunns, which wants to build the pulp mill in the Tamar Valley, has just been given another six months to finalise private finance for the project. The mill will be heavily subsidised by the Tasmanian government. Bob Brown described it yesterday as "every bit as ugly as the dam."

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