Robert J. Burrowes
Throughout the world local activists and Rainforest Action Groups are engaged in campaigns to galvanise opposition to the desecration of rainforests in Central/South America, Asia and Africa.
Rainforest destruction occurs through such practices as forest burning, dam construction, logging and settlement. Once damaged, the rainforest is further degraded by uncontrolled fires, weeds, diseases and feral animals.
Rainforests are crucial to life on earth; they are the richest, most complex and diverse ecosystems on our planet. They constitute incredibly diverse gene pools, they provide habitat for millions of species, they store carbon (helping to contain the greenhouse effect), they are important elements in the global water and climatic cycles, they are the source of foods and medicines, and they are the home of indigenous peoples.
Rainforests now cover only 2% of the earth’s surface. Each minute humans destroy or degrade 100 acres of rainforest, thus wiping out an area of rainforest the size of Victoria each year.
Recent estimates suggest that between 50 and 200 species of plant, animal or insect become extinct in the forest every day. Once destroyed, they are gone forever.
Australia imports over 200,000 cubic metres of rainforest timber each year. Most of this timber comes from South East Asia; 80% of it from Malaysia. Rainforest timbers such as Meranti, Merbau and various teaks and ashes are the most common imports. These timbers are used for building and furniture, but also for such purposes as plywood packaging and concrete moulds. The Japanese use them for disposable chopsticks!
The Melbourne RAG Campaign
In order to draw attention to Australia’s role in rainforest destruction, the Melbourne Rainforest Action Group (RAG) has been conducting a nonviolent action campaign. The campaign includes all of the usual elements – research, negotiations, education, preparation, nonviolent action and an awareness of the need for protracted struggle.
Weekly meetings of RAG attract about 65 activists – compelling evidence of the growing concern about our global rainforest heritage.
As part of the campaign a tremendous amount of time was devoted to organising a blockade of the Yarra River during the arrival of a rainforest timber ship. After months of planning it was decided to blockade the Jupiter Island which was carrying a cargo of rainforest timber from Malaysia, 2500 cubic metres of which was delivered to Melbourne.
Although many of the RAG activists are relatively new campaigners, the group committed itself to an action based on the principles and dynamics of nonviolent politics. Consequently, for instance, the planning was all done openly with everyone involved; there was no hierarchy and no secrecy. In addition, the public, media, police and our opponents were all informed of our intentions well in advance.
Many activists engaged in the river action had undertaken some nonviolent action training (including a role-play) prior to the blockade. Further opportunities to learn more about nonviolent politics are offered regularly.
As part of our preparation, three rainforest timber ships – the Tai Yang in December 1988, the Pacific Swan in January 1989 and the Kabite in February 1989 – were closely monitored by RAG members in order to gain a clear understanding of ship movements and cargoes. Alex Perry took slides of the ships and timber as part of our research effort. This enhanced our careful planning considerably.
We also liaised with the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) and the Seamans Union seeking union support for our action. Robert Larkins, Catherine South, Joanna Sender and Hans Foik liaised with the police and port authorities keeping them fully informed of our intentions. We also had other collectives and individuals liaising with the media, Malaysian activists and environmental groups. Fiona McDonald and Tracy Neilsen organized the telephone tree and other activists such as Kerry Seaton coordinated the nonviolent peacekeeping team (in case it was necessary to deal with provocateurs).
Preparing for the action itself entailed many facets. For instance, identifying the precise arrival time of the ship involved cross-referencing ten independent sources: the ‘Daily Commercial News’ newspaper, Brisbane TWS, Sydney RAG, the ship’s Melbourne agent, an independent contact, a Customs source, the Waterside Workers Federation which tracked the Stevedoring company, the Seamans Union (which supplies the tug crews), the police and Harbour Control. Attempts at lighthouse and radio monitoring were not successful, nor needed, on this occasion.
After reconnoitering several sites, the action was planned to occur from a grassy verge on the bank of the Yarra River one kilometre from the ship’s berth at C Appleton Dock. Planning had included consideration of appropriate safety procedures in case a night-time arrival occurred, which was ultimately the case.
With the support of the WWF, RAG had planned actions entailing all three types of nonviolent politics: protest and persuasion, noncooperation and nonviolent intervention. The land activists displayed banners carrying our message of protest. The union put a 24 hour unloading ban on the ship in an act of noncooperation. The call for a consumer boycott of rainforest timbers – designed to encourage widespread community participation in the struggle to save the rainforests – urged public noncooperation as well. And the river blockade constituted an act of nonviolent intervention.
One symbolic reason for the river blockade was to demonstrate solidarity with the Penan and other tribal peoples of Malaysia. The Penan, who have lived for time immemorial in the rainforests of Sarawak, have been blockading the logging roads in an attempt to protect their tribal culture and local environment. On 24 April 42 Kayan tribespeople appeared in court to face charges following their road blockades in October 1987; the charges were dropped. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that international attention and pressure were partly responsible for this backdown by the Malaysian government.
After five months of careful planning, at 10pm on 13 April 1989, members of RAG blockaded the Yarra River during the arrival of the Jupiter Island.
Once we got final confirmation of the ship’s exact arrival time, the telephone tree branches were alerted; this was 30 hours before the ship was due. On arrival at the site all activists and the media were handed a three paragraph statement by Ayse Alpandinar, Chick Perrin and Alex Perry which outlined the disciplined, nonviolent nature of our action and asked everyone to respect it. Cars were parked at the river edge so that their headlights could be used to illuminate the river when the ship arrived.
One hour before the ship was due we formed a large circle adjacent to our fire and display boards. We sang songs and did a ‘circle sit’ to build group unity. Charley Daniel and Norman Keegel spoke at our media conference.
We then gathered all of the water activists into a circle enclosed by the big circle so that we could check our gear – we had previously agreed that all of those going into the water would wear wetsuits for safety and visibility, as well as flippers for mobility. We then put on our caps, checked our torches, selected a buddy (for safety) and did an accurate and final headcount.
The swimmers, lifesavers, surfers and kayakers then moved down to the water’s edge and spread out along the river. The police warned us that we would be arrested if we went more than 25 metres from the river edge! Everyone in the water had already been carefully briefed about the legal consequences of their action by barrister Rob Larkins; each was willing to risk arrest.
Once the ship was in sight under the West Gate Bridge, we fanned out across the river and virtually surrounded the ship with several people having a friendly contest to hold the bow. The three police launches and the zodiac were not sufficient to contain us all so most of their efforts were designed to ‘shepherd’ us away from the ship. Although some activists were picked up and removed, no one was arrested.
There was a minor breakdown in police discipline. This probably reflected their frustration at not being able to prevent us from surrounding the ship and perhaps indicated some distrust of our ability to maintain our nonviolent discipline. In any case, apart from some rough handling and one overturned kayak, police behaviour was given three cheers by all activists after we had gathered at the river edge to hold hands and do a final headcount. There was no breakdown in the nonviolent discipline of the activists.
After the action, several activists including Andrew Dyall, Wendy Orams and Thomas Rohan, were interviewed by the reporters. Their enjoyment, commitment and messages were conveyed widely through the media. We then formed a circle on the grassy verge to share our excitement.
There were over 200 people at the river that night, and 46 of them went into the water. Catherine South video-taped the action in order to ensure that it became part of the historical record. The action was given reasonable press coverage – despite the difficulty of getting good photographs at night – and very good television coverage. It was shown on television in London.
Feedback since the night has confirmed the tremendous feeling, power and impact of the action. The activists had a superb time: the action was fun, involving and empowering. The word has gone out that it was a great action in which to be involved and more activists can be expected next time, subject to reasonable notice.
The media has clearly indicated that the action was creative and eminently newsworthy. Our complete openness and frankness with the police and port authorities increased their awareness of our concerns and earned the respect of many.
In important ways, the power of our various opponents was clearly undermined; this is evident, for example, from the responses of the public, the unions and the police. There is now less public support for rainforest logging and higher levels of concern about the plight of forest peoples: many members of the public (through our public stalls) have indicated that they will now boycott rainforest timbers. Union opposition to rainforest destruction has been hardened and police willingness to thwart our blockades is less than enthusiastic. We have received messages of support from several new sources. And evidence of the sensitivity of vested interests is provided by the fact that it is proving more difficult to get information about the next timber ship!
Photo caption: Activists count heads to ensure that everyone returned safely after blockading the Jupiter Island in the Yarra River.
Article originally published: ‘Jupiter Island Blockaded in the Yarra River’, Nonviolence Today, No. 8, June-July 1989. pp. 8-9.
Source of this document: https://nonviolentstrategy.wordpress.com/case-studies/jupiter-island/