Written by Sumithri Venketasubramanian
Graphic by Paris Robson
Walking Familiar Paths: How Many Marches Does It Take? was originally published in ‘Turning the Tide’, Bossy’s 2019 print edition.
In September, around 350,000 people took to the streets in Australia. As part of the School Strike 4 Climate movement, students and young people demanded strong action from governments, in light of an uncertain future with climate change. Attending the Canberra strike, amidst my recent anxiety and despair about the earth burning and everything dying, I was reminded that a whole of bunch of people care and are in this together. We feel that we are in a turning point in history, and that if we don’t do something now, our future will be unthinkable. In some ways, that is true. But environmental protests have also taken place for decades – and every one of those movements has been just as important as the next.
Protesters Falls in Nightcap National Park, about an hour’s drive west from Byron Bay, didn’t get its name by coincidence. In the mid-late ‘70s, proposed logging in the Border Ranges saw protesters come to the Northern Rivers from all over. “People were against it because it would open the door for a return of the cutting of the ‘big scrub’. It would be like back in the early settlement times when heaps of trees were cut down for farming and pastoralism.”
“The Terania Creek protests were intended to be peaceful, and everyone was united and protective of one another,” said Samia Goudie, a friend of mine who was in her mid-teens when she attended the protests. Today, she’s an Associate Professor in Indigenous Studies at the University of Canberra. “We’d said, no way we’re going to let logging companies ruin this beautiful rainforest. But the government said they were going ahead, and the trucks and loggers turned up.”
A call-to-action was made nation-wide, people travelled from all over and made camps at the base of the range. But back then, of course, there was no internet. All the organising happened by word of mouth, pamphlets, and street art (“you know, Banksy-style stuff”). “That’s the good side of social media. Like with the Arab Spring and Hong Kong, people can rally quickly – and anonymously.”
It’s said to be the first recorded time blockading was used to protect an environmental resource. “There were some people chaining themselves to bulldozers and trees, or climbing up trees and refusing to come down.” We see this in today’s movements too, with Extinction Rebellion demonstrators staging “die-ins” in the middle of major roads, the kind of activism that hopes to cause enough disruption for change to happen.
Just like protests today, Terania Creek saw many young people at the fore – many teenagers were there of their own volition. “Young people can see clearly what’s going on, and are able to say, ‘That’s wrong.’ You’ll be told you’re not informed, but in fact you’re not swayed by things around you and you’re not so jaded. You see things for what they are.”
I was lucky that my workplace was supportive of the Global Climate Strike, so I didn’t have to worry about getting in trouble for taking a couple hours off to attend. (And, on the university side, Echo360’s lecture recordings had my back.) The Terania Creek protests went on for months – and with all the travel from wherever you lived to the Northern Rivers … Your boss would have to have been really tolerant for that! “There’s less to lose as a young person – you don’t usually have a job, and you’re not as likely to be thrown in prison if you’re under 21. I guess there’s a sense of rebellion, by coming together as a collective to demonstrate like this. There’s a sense that I’m not alone.”
“Young people aren’t represented on the ballot box; many of us would have been too young to vote. This was our way of getting into the public eye and influencing people who could vote. It was a way to get the media’s attention, and it was how younger people showed what mattered to us.”
“As an Aboriginal person, we’ve been fighting this stuff since settlement. We tell our children, you’re inheriting from your ancestors, who had it a lot harder than you. And you owe it to them to keep fighting, because they fought for your rights. We were very aware that if we didn’t win this – for protecting rainforests and trees – it would set a precedent for logging to happen everywhere else in Australia.”
The loggers came every day, but couldn’t do anything while the protesters were there, tied to trees or camping around, singing songs accompanied by guitars. “Over time, some of them even saw the beauty in the landscape and thought, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do this anymore.’”
In the end, the protests were successful. Nightcap National Park is now World Heritage listed. “It felt really urgent and immediate. We used to say, ‘It’s five minutes to midnight,’ in terms of what needed to happen to really change the course of events. Now, we’re on midnight.”
“There’s things we can still do. You should never not act because you think it won’t make a difference. Doing nothing is worse. It mightn’t make a difference in your lifetime, but it will in the future.”
“I call it broke-back activism,” she laughs, referring to some troubles she’s been having with her back lately. “Put that in, I think it would make a funny title.”