Nonviolent Struggle for the Rainforests – Australia 1990

Robert J. Burrowes

After receiving an invitation from Sydney Rainforest Action Group (RAG), members of Melbourne RAG and Brisbane RAG arrived in Sydney to participate in a blockade of the rainforest timber ship Mayfair in Darling Harbour on 19 February 1990. The ship was carrying rainforest timber imported from South East Asia.

At 5:30am, after finalising preliminary arrangements, twenty-five activists paddled kayaks and rubber dinghies out into the harbour and adjacent to the ship’s intended berth. We then gathered in a circle to ‘clarify’ the remaining details of the action.

It was still dark when the Mayfair arrived. As it approached, many of us positioned ourselves between the ship and the dock. The police warned us to move and towed some of us away; but there were not enough of them and we continued to make it clear that we intended to stay.

As the ship was pushed by the tugs into the wharf, several kayaks and a dinghy were trapped between the ship and the dock. Despite the presence of more activists, waterside workers, police and the media up on the wharf, the ship was pushed right in until it was crushing several of the kayaks and the activists were stuck fast between the ship and the dock. Finally, the tugs stopped pushing with about seven activists trapped and the ship unable to be tied up.

Nonviolent activists from MRAG, SRAG & BRAG blockade the rainforest timber ship 'Mayfair' in Darling Harbour, Sydney, 19 February 1990.

Nonviolent activists from MRAG, SRAG & BRAG blockade the rainforest timber ship ‘Mayfair’ in Darling Harbour, Sydney, 19 February 1990.

Meetings of two waterfront unions then decided that they would not tie up or unload the ship while the activists were in danger. Consequently, the police now ordered activists out of their kayaks with renewed vigor and the threat of arrest; some activists were detained in a police van. Despite this, two kayakers with lots of support from other activists, refused to move because union delegates assured them that the ship would not be tied up or unloaded while they were blockading. The activists also explained carefully to the police and media that each minute of delay increased the cost of the shipment and hence the retail price of the rainforest timber. At least some police officers were clearly troubled by the moral dilemma the activists presented.

There was now a great deal of activity on the wharf with animated discussions involving police, unionists, activists and a very enthusiastic media. The blockade held firm despite police efforts to haul the last two activists out with boat hooks. In the end, police divers were used to remove the activists. The blockade had been in place for a total of three hours.

Although several activists were temporarily detained by police, there were no arrests. While members of Sydney RAG established an on-water vigil to protest the presence of the ship, members of Melbourne RAG and Brisbane RAG headed for home.

The blockade was reported extensively on television news throughout Australia and was shown on television in London.

Tactical Lessons

Some important lessons were relearned during this action.

It was evident that while members of Sydney RAG and Paddlers for Peace had a basic plan to ‘blockade’ the ship, the exact details of how this was to be done were far from certain or clear. Whether this reflected incomplete planning, uncertainty about the risks or deference to the concerns of new activists was also unclear. It was also complicated by the presence of activists from interstate who had just arrived. In any case, we paddled out to blockade the ship unsure of what we were going to do and whether we were going to do it as a group or according to individual inclination. This had important ramifications once the ship was being pushed into the wharf.

In the circle before the ship arrived, it became apparent that the comfort of individuals would be the determining factor for their role in the blockade. There was no group agreement to undertake a particular action according to an agreed plan. While the action obviously entailed considerable danger, there was a higher than necessary element of risk in the action because of this approach.

The action thus ‘evolved’. Most of us positioned ourselves between the ship and the wharf as the ship came to a halt. We did not know if the ship would be docked or not, but it soon started to move inexorably inwards. Some paddlers were towed away by the police (but were able to return), some paddled away and some remained. While the intention to stay was conveyed to the police, the decision to stay was largely spontaneous and variously reflected the deep commitment of some activists and (in the case of Melbourne RAG members at least) a combination of commitment, a sense of solidarity and a feeling of centeredness within the group because of their considerable experience in nonviolent actions together previously.

As the ship was pushed virtually against the dock, about seven kayakers were trapped and some kayaks were crushed. The tension, fear and courage at this point were genuine. It was now, however, that the shortcomings due to the lack of a complete plan, and an awareness of the dynamics of nonviolent struggle, became even more obvious.

Some activists, including a couple who had experienced a real fear of being crushed, were coaxed out of their kayaks by police with words such as ‘you’ve made your point’ or ‘the media have their photos now’. Others were coaxed out by the promise of not being arrested. It was clearly evident that we did not have the communication links to talk to isolated activists (who could now barely see the next activist along the side of the ship) in order to adequately support them to resist these ‘lures’. We had no radios, no-one on the wharf to run messages, and no other means of communicating with activists trapped in place. Several activists therefore were in the position of having no plan to guide them, no moral support to help them remain and apparently no understanding of the value of remaining.

Consequently, some activists – who had been courageous enough to risk their personal safety in order to stop the ship – got out almost immediately. Some others were detained. The two remaining kayakers decided to remain in place despite police efforts to remove them with boat hooks. These activists had the benefit of a lot of support from a group in a dinghy and an understanding of the value of remaining. These reasons included the ongoing discussion by unionists whether to handle the ship (and what they thought about the issue generally), the moral dilemma posed to police, media personnel and others compelled to evaluate their response to the action, and the increased cost (and reduced profitability) of the timber which the delay in unloading inevitably meant. As communications between trapped activists and people on the dock improved, union delegates assured them that their presence would delay unloading of the ship indefinitely. This, obviously, was a primary (if unstated) goal of the blockade.

A nonviolent rainforest activist between the ‘Mayfair’ and the wharf, Australia, 19 February 1990.

A nonviolent activist between the ‘Mayfair’ and the wharf, Australia, 19 February 1990. Photo: Jane Russell, ‘Daily Mirror’

In all nonviolent actions, there is no substitute for careful planning, preparation and organization: if each activist has been part of the process of designing the action, and fully understands exactly what they are doing and why, the action is more likely to achieve its goal. Equally importantly, if activists understand the dynamics of nonviolent action, they are more likely to balance their personal courage with appropriate attention to safety procedures and an understanding of the importance of committing themselves to follow right through.

A lot was learned from this action and members of Melbourne RAG were particularly touched by the courage and friendship of Sydney and Brisbane activists.

Mayfair In Melbourne

At 9:30pm on 23 February, thirty-eight members of Melbourne RAG blockaded the Mayfair as it traveled up the Yarra River into Melbourne. It was the tenth rainforest timber ship blockade undertaken by the group – and the fifth at night. RAG had planned another multiple bowride on the vessel, but this ship was traveling so fast that four people who held hands in front of the ship were washed down its side. As usual in such circumstances the activists simply swam safely out of the way of the tugs and the stern of the ship. There were no arrests; the police had once again helped us identify the precise arrival time of the ship so that we could blockade it.

On 24 February forty members of Melbourne RAG went to Victoria Dock in order to climb the fence and use unloaded rainforest timber from the Mayfair to mark out the message ‘Don’t Buy This Wood’ on the wharf. On this occasion, the agent had asked the police not to let RAG members interrupt unloading, so police arrested sixteen activists as soon as they climbed the fence.


At 5:45am on 9 April 1990 Melbourne RAG blockaded the Fittonia as it travelled up the Yarra River. There were over 100 people at the action and a record fifty-five activists went into the water.

Our intention on this occasion was to place a five meter diameter inflatable Earth in the path of the ship to symbolize the lumbering juggernaut of capitalist civilization on a collision course with planet Earth. We, of course, represented the ordinary people everywhere who are trying to save the planet!

We arrived at the grassy verge on the edge of the river at 4am. After our usual focusing circle to remind everyone of the details of the action, our safety procedures and our nonviolent discipline, we gathered at the water’s edge. As the ship approached, we floated the Earth onto the water and pushed it out into the middle of the river. The police had again decided not to interfere with our action and so we placed the Earth directly in the path of the ship.

The ship hit our Earth head on; it rode slowly up the bow of the vessel before falling down to the side. We then rescued the Earth and supported it back to safety.

After sharing our excitement on the river bank and waiting for the dawn, we carried the Earth in a procession to Timbersales – Melbourne’s largest rainforest timber importer – and held a minute’s silence to mourn the destruction of the rainforests.

Morning Star

At 4pm on 1 May 1990, Melbourne RAG blockaded the Morning Star as it travelled up the Yarra River into Melbourne. It was the twelfth RAG blockade of a rainforest timber ship. Despite receiving only three hours notice (because the ship came in fourteen hours earlier than expected), there were about forty people at the action of whom twenty-two went into the water. Although this ship was travelling faster than many previous vessels, one member of the group still managed to bowride the vessel for a short distance. There were no arrests.

The ship had been stranded in Port Philip Bay for two days following a ban placed on it by the Waterside Workers Federation. Some unions in Melbourne have consistently supported our campaign in this way.

The action was again shown on television. More importantly, however, a huge close-up photograph of the ship’s bow ploughing through activists (together with an appropriate article) was printed on the front page of The Age – Melbourne’s respected daily broadsheet. It is the best newspaper coverage we have had.

Our next action will be directed at Timbersales – Melbourne’s largest rainforest timber importer – and will coincide with the visit of Bruno Manser [a prominent Swiss activist who worked with the Penan people in Malaysia and, having not been heard of for some years, is now presumed killed] to Melbourne.

The campaign so far

The nonviolent action campaign by Melbourne RAG to halt Australia’s imports of South East Asian rainforest timber continues to attract considerable public attention and support and is further evidence of the power of nonviolent struggle.

While it is premature to make too many claims, it is evident that Melbourne RAG is a highly successful activist group – and its adherence to nonviolent principles is central to this.

The commitment to powersharing group processes (including the lack of a hierarchy, the use of consensus decision-making, systematic efforts to deal with gender imbalances and genuine skill-sharing) has helped to attract an average of about seventy people to weekly meetings. Partly as a result of this large gathering, and the group’s appreciation of the need for solidarity struggle, Melbourne RAG is often approached by other groups for support in their campaigns. This support is usually gladly provided. For instance, as a result of a talk by Robert Thorpe of the Koori Information Centre [a local indigenous people’s group], Melbourne RAG now pays weekly rent for its use of Aboriginal land.

In addition, the strict adherence to basic nonviolent principles in the planning and conduct of the campaign, has maximised the impact of our efforts so far. We are engaged in ongoing research about the issues, negotiations with many groups, a substantial community education program and our regular creative and disciplined nonviolent actions. The group is widely respected for its commitment and effectiveness. Evidence of this regard includes the response of the public and the media as well as various ‘authorities’ not usually treated by activists as potential allies – the police and the judiciary. While our claims in this regard are still modest, they are significant; and include an article about our campaign in the latest issue of Police Life – the magazine of the Victoria Police, and the personal reactions of the Magistrate and court officials at our recent trial for reloading the Arawa Bay.

The campaign by Melbourne RAG may be the first of significance in Australian history to utilize a ‘strategic’ rather than a ‘tactical’ approach to the use of nonviolent struggle; that is, to focus its energy in trying to halt the import of rainforest timbers through grassroots action rather than elite reform. Virtually all of the group’s efforts are directed at mobilising ordinary people and community organizations to work with us to achieve our immediate goal; no significant effort goes into lobbying the government. In this sense, it marks a distinct departure from the traditional use of nonviolent tactics in this country of which the Franklin River campaign is perhaps the best known.

We continue to publicize the nonviolent nature of our campaign in order to encourage others to consider this approach and to draw attention to our goal. On 3 April, we reported our progress at a public lecture given by Dr. David Suzuki and later received a personal letter of congratulations from him.

The main successes of the campaign so far include the ban by the Building Workers’ Industrial Union on the use of imported rainforest timbers on all construction sites in Victoria, the decision by the three largest plywood manufacturers in this state not to use rainforest timbers in the manufacture of plywood, and increasing evidence of consumer boycotts of rainforest timbers. Our latest success follows negotiations between the B.W.I.U. and a major door manufacturer which has now agreed to phase out the use of rainforest timbers within a month. We continue to negotiate with a wide range of timber merchants, users and architects in attempts to attract their support.

We work consistently with unions in order to increase the level of their involvement in our campaign. On 5 April we arranged for Dr. S.C. Chin to be interviewed on ABC radio and to address two meetings of Victorian Trades Hall Council unions. We also pay some attention to the need to support unions, although so far we have not done enough in this regard. However, to demonstrate our solidarity with the unions we marched in the May Day rally. As a result of hearing about Melbourne RAG at the Suzuki lecture and attending one of our union meetings on 5 April, a member of the Transport Workers’ Union approached us at the rally and asked us to meet to discuss TWU involvement in the campaign. As it is TWU members who drive the trucks which remove the timber from the wharf, we are hopeful of engaging their active support. We are well aware of the crucial importance of unions to the success of our campaign.

As the campaign progresses, it becomes increasingly evident that we need to do more solidarity work with interstate and overseas activists if our ultimate aim (of halting global rainforest destruction) is to be achieved. It is also evident that a clearer strategic analysis and perspective would assist us to be more effective.

It is increasingly clear to me that the principles of nonviolent strategy require much more work from both theorists and practitioners before we will be able to fully utilize the dynamics of nonviolent struggle. Only then will we be able to demonstrate the truly revolutionary potential of this method of dealing with direct, structural, cultural and ecological violence.

Article originally published: ‘Nonviolent Struggle for the Rainforests’, Nonviolence Today 15, June-July 1990. pp. 3-6.

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