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Trading Freedom to Save Trees

February 3, 2016

“That’s right officer, I’m here for the forests — they’re here to destroy it.”

This was the rallying cry of Goldman Prize winner and former leader of the Australia Greens political party Bob Brown (1990, Australia), who, along with three other protesters was arrested at Lapoinya in Northwest Tasmania last week. Together, they were defending native forest against logging by Malaysian mining company Ta Ann. The reason for their arrest? ‘Failing to comply with a direction to leave a business access area.’ For an area of designated forestry land, and one that is treasured by its residents, this allegation rings hollow.

Standing in front of a tree to protect it from bulldozers should not be considered an arrestable offense. Unfortunately for Brown, he left the forest he was determined to protect in handcuffs.

Brown with logged and burnt forests in the Styx Valley, Tasmania. (Photo Credit: Peter Mathew)
Brown with logged and burnt forests in the Styx Valley, Tasmania. (Photo Credit: Peter Mathew)

A Unique Ecosystem

Lapoinya, meaning ‘tree fern’ in the indigenous Tasmanian language, is one of the last pieces of undisturbed, temperate rainforest left in the Tasmania. It is a regrowth forest, meaning that after being selectively harvested over 60 years ago, the original fern trees have been left to grow. The remaining 168 acres of trees belonging to the original temperate rainforest will be almost entirely destroyed if Forestry Tasmania, the government department managing the island’s forests, allows Ta Ann to continue with its plans.

Photo credit: Tasmanian Times
An example of a Lapoinya fern tree. (Photo credit: Tasmanian Times)

Lapoinya is home to many IUCN red-listed endangered species such as the giant freshwater crayfish, and even small populations of the Tasmanian Devil (a carnivorous marsupials) and platypus (one of the few species of egg-laying mammals). A full-scale evaluation of the impact the logging activities would have on the biological diversity of the forest by Forestry Tasmania still hasn’t happened. This is despite the announcement that tree felling would start in January 2016. In addition to a wildlife assessment, no evaluation has been made of the value the forest has to aboriginal heritage.

Facing Government Crackdown

Tasmania’s government had recently introduced new, controversial laws aimed at cracking down on environmental protesters that UN officials have described as ‘shocking.’

“In terms of ecological wisdom, the Lapoiyna logging is a criminal act in the twenty-first century. It is the ministers, not the residents of Lapoiyna, who should be facing fines and jail sentences,” said Brown in a statement a week before his arrest.

In an unusual turn against its citizens, and despite being widely considered ‘free’ in terms of civil liberties by independent watchdog organization Freedom House, the Australian state joins the ranks of countries that have shown a worrying trend in the suppression of civil society and peaceful action. According to a 2015 report by Global Witness, the number of cases where environmental activists have been threatened and even murdered has been steadily growing. Countries across Latin America are particularly dangerous for activists and sadly, Freedom House’s report shows that overall, the number of countries showing a decline in freedom has increased.

A History of Peaceful Protest

“I didn’t go with the intention of being arrested, but when I saw the destruction, I had to take a stand.”

This isn’t the first time Brown has been arrested. For his role in a non-violent blockade of a dam site in 1982, Brown was arrested and imprisoned for 19 days and again in 1986 for his role in the Farmhouse Creek protest, where once again he fiercely protected the Lapoinya from loggers. Since his arrest last week, he has been released but has a court appearance on March 15 and faces up to five years in jail:

“In Tasmania these days, there are harsher penalties for saving a tree than for endangering a child.”

Brown and musician John Butler during Save the Kimberley Rally in Fremantle Western Australia in 2013. (Photo credit: Bob Brown Foundation)
Brown joins musician John Butler at the ‘Save the Kimberley’ rally in Fremantle, Western Australia in 2013. The Kimberley coastline in Western Australia is also under threat from development and industrialization. (Photo credit: Bob Brown Foundation)

Take Action

Brown’s arrest is just another example of the lengths environmental activists go to safeguard our natural resources. You can show your support and take action for Lapoinya, helping Brown’s continued campaign to protect Lapoinya’s unique forestland. You can also stay in touch with Brown and his campaign developments via his newsletter.

“At what stage do we human beings get out of our comfort zone for the planet’s beleaguered wildlife, which is now going extinct at the greatest rate in human history?”

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