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Bob Brown on the fight to save Tasmania’s wilderness from a toxic waste dump

The Tarkine rainforest, in Tasmania's north west, is Australia's largest temperate rainforest and home to some of the country’s most endangered species. But now a mining company has started clearing the Tarkine, to build a new dam.

The Tarkine rainforest, in Tasmania's north west, is Australia's largest temperate rainforest and home to some of the country’s most endangered species. 

So far it’s natural wilderness has remained largely untouched.

But now a mining company has started clearing the Tarkine, to build a new dam. And the project could cause irreparable damage to the natural environment.

Today, former leader of the Australian Greens Bob Brown on the fight to save the Tarkine, and why the Morrison Government is so hesitant to intervene.

 

Guest: Former leader of the Australian Greens Bob Brown.

Show Transcript

[Theme music starts]

BETH:
From Schwartz Media, I'm Beth Atkinson-Quinton, this is 7am.

 

The Tarkine Rainforest, in Tasmania’s north-west, is Australia's largest temperate rainforest and home to some of the country's most endangered species. So far, it’s natural wilderness has remained largely untouched. But now a mining company has started clearing the Tarkine, to build a new dam. And the project could cause irreparable damage to the natural environment.

 

Today, former leader of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown, on the fight to save the Tarkine, and why the Morrison Government is so hesitant to intervene.

 

[Theme music ends]

 

BETH:
Bob, before we get to what’s happening in the Tarkine right now, can you take me back to the Franklin Dam protests in Tasmania in the early 1980s. You were there, playing a key role. Can you tell me: what was the campaign was about?

 

BOB:
The Franklin Dam was a proposal by the Tasmanian's Hydro Electric Commission to put a dam across the Gordon River, just where the Franklin - its major tributary - (these are the biggest rivers on the west coast of Tasmania) came in and it would have flooded many miles back, many kilometres back up the Franklin River, obliterating rainforest, extensive caves in the limestone where Aboriginal people had dwelled as far back as the last Ice Age. And back in the Franklin campaign, after seven years of campaigning, ended up with a blockade when the bulldozers actually came in to build the Franklin Dam in the wilderness and 1500 people were arrested and 500 went to jail. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Speaker:
“We believe that most of the people of Australia support us in believing this should be a national park and we don’t believe there should be a dam here. So we don't believe we're trespassing. So we're quite prepared to be arrested if necessary…” 

 

BOB:
Hawke came and won the election in March 1983, promising to stop the Franklin Dam...

 

Archival Tape -- Bob Hawke:
“I want to say unequivocally, because apparently there has been some attempt to suggest that position is not clear. I say to you that when Labor comes to the government after the 5th March, the dam will not proceed…”

 

BOB:
...and that was the promise he made on election night. The only promise he made was that the dam in Tasmania will not go ahead. And so the dam works had to stop. But 18 months later, that river was saved and it still flows free to the sea because enough people got involved. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Speaker:
“The High Court in Brisbane has ruled that the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam cannot be built.”
 

Archival Tape -- People Cheering.


Archival Tape -- Crowd Singing:
“Just let it be, that the Gordon and Franklin wild rivers run free…”

 

BOB:
The power of public opinion is just enormous. And we can see that same opinion being galvanised now. The problem is that most Australians don't know about the Tarkine, and they don't know about this toxic waste dump, or the plans to lologve the rainforest or the other mineral exploration which is getting underway, let alone the threat to the Aboriginal heritage on the coast.


BETH:
Hmm and as you said most Australians don’t know about the Tarkine but it really sounds like they should. Can you tell me about it? Why is it so special?

Archival Tape -- Sounds of the Tarkine Rainforest.

 

BOB:
The Tarkine, called by the Aboriginal community Takayna, is nearly 500,000 hectares of wild country - it’s all public lands - in north west Tasmania...

Archival Tape -- Sounds of the Tarkine Rainforest birds.
 

BOB:
...and it contains the largest temperate rainforest in Australia. And in fact, at this time of year it becomes snowforest because the snows fall across much of that rainforest.

Archival Tape -- Sounds of the Tarkine Rainforest birds.
 

BOB:

It's as big as the Daintree Tropical Rainforest in Queensland, but it's had much less prominence. However, it's very beautiful. It's a remnant forest from Gondwanaland when South America and New Zealand were connected with Tasmania and mainland Australia.

 

Archival Tape -- Sounds of the Tarkine Rainforest birds.
 

BOB:

Also, with rare and endangered creatures, it's a stronghold for the Tasmanian devil, which people will know has suffered from a facial tumour disease but the population in this rainforest is healthier than elsewhere. The Masked Owl, which is the largest Barn Owl on earth, has a stronghold across the Tarkine.

Archival Tape -- Sounds of the Masked Owl.

 

BOB:
It's an extraordinary place, but it's very, very beautiful too. These cathedral-like rainforests - you can walk through, there’s ferns in all directions at this time of the year. Multicoloured fungi. I was out there a week ago and it's just brilliant.

Archival Tape -- Sounds of the Tarkine Rainforest birds.

 

BOB:But if this corner of it's turned into a toxic waste dump, that's it forever. That rainforest is finished.

Archival Tape -- Sounds of the Tarkine Rainforest.

 

BETH:
Hmm that does sound very worrying. Can you tell me more about the specific threat the Tarkine is facing now?

 

BOB:

90 percent of it's under mining exploration licences and there's over 100 coupes. There are some established mines, and one of those is in the little town of Rosebery. It's been...this mine - for silver, lead, zinc and gold - has been there for 85 years. It was bought in a decade ago by a very large Chinese state-owned mining company, MMG. And now they want to put a dam in the rainforest. They want to cross the Pieman River, which is the border of the Tarkine from the mine at Rosebery with a pipeline and a bridge and dump toxic waste into this magnificent rainforest. Having been in there, it's just one of the most beautiful places on Earth. But they want to put a dam across the creek at the bottom of the rainforest and flood back the toxic tailings coming from that mine for the next 40 years. 

 

BETH:
And Bob, the last time we saw this kind of threat to Tasmania’s natural environment, there was a huge movement to stop it, and as you explained it was eventually successful. So what’s happening now, in the Tarkine - are there people mobilising against this proposal?

 

BOB:

The dam is about to  burst. People have had enough. They're fed up. They're seeing destruction of the environment. We're in a climate emergency. We're in the sixth age of extinction of our fellow creatures on this planet. And we all know that's because of us. And it can only be fixed by us. And people are on the move and it feels very much to me, like the 60s or 70s. There's a new wave of environmental and social justice awareness and it's not going to go away. It's getting bigger. And our appeal is to Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister of this country, to be like Bob Hawke, to intervene when absolutely world class environmental assets like this Tarkine are being threatened for no good reason by a company like MMG and just say, haul off, you're not going to turn this fabulous rainforest into a toxic waste dump. 

 

BETH:
We’ll be back in a moment

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BETH:
Bob we’ve been talking about the threat currently facing the Tarkine in Tasmania. You’re calling on the federal government to step in. What’s their role in all of this?

 

BOB:

The federal government has carefully avoided having responsibility for the Tarkine by not having it listed as national estate. Even though it's advice has been it should be. However, it remains responsible for rare and vulnerable and threatened species of wildlife and plant life and communities of plant life - that is a national responsibility. And in this forest and dependent on this forest are the Masked Owl, the Tasmanian devil, the Spot-tailed quoll, the white Goshawk, the Giant Wedge tailed eagle, a number of snail and other species, that the federal government has listed as endangered, and therefore has a responsibility to protect. Our contention is you can't protect these species if you allow their habitat to be destroyed. And that's what Canberra is doing at the moment. It should be protecting this habitat because in doing so, you protect the wildlife that’s there. They haven't done a study, the company hasn't done a study, and they are allowing this company to proceed with this project, but now the minister’s said, ‘oh, well, I'll need a study further down the line’ - that study is going to take 12 months. It's an appalling situation.
 

BETH:
Can you tell me more about that company, MMG. Who are they? 

 

BOB:

MMG comes out of a mining company that was set up during Mao's time back in 1970 when China was a closed country. After China opened up to the world and some decades past, you move into early this century. MMG bought up some mining potential in South Australia. What they do is: they're underground mining for silver lead zinc and gold, they bring that ore up to the surface, they've got a mill there where they process it with a chemical process and the gold and the other minerals are extracted. It's cheapest just to put a pipeline across the Pieman River and dump these tailings for the next 40 years into this ancient, pristine rainforest.

BETH:
And so, Bob, do you think there will be federal intervention here, like what we saw with Bob Hawke 40 years ago? 

 

BOB:
Well, there's no sign that Scott Morrison has ever heard of the word environment. What has he ever done to protect our national heritage? Indigenous or natural, you know? I'm all for Scott Morrison following his minister to come down and see this forest. She was the minister for the environment, and instead of going with the environmentalists, she went with the mining company to see the forest and therefore didn't get to see it. But the Prime Minister should come down and see this for himself. He's got no trouble visiting coal mines. He's got no trouble visiting gas fracking places. Surely he should be on his way. He should have been here by now to see such a contentious place as this rainforest. But I don't think it's even on the radar. There's an election coming up, but surely we don't have to leave it to an election this time. We now have the environmental laws in place. We know the Tarkine’s of world heritage value, but we've now got this situation where the Tarkine doesn't have the protected status it needs, but it's open to exploitation. And really, today, tomorrow, the next day, the Prime Minister could intervene and stop this toxic waste dump. They have the power to do it, they could stop this right now and they should stop this, under the environmental laws of this nation, but they’re failing to do so. Beijing doesn’t care what’s happening in this rainforest, but Canberra should.

 

BETH:
Late last week MMG paused work on its mine expansion after receiving legal threats from conservationists and the Bob Brown Foundation. It’s not clear how long construction will be stopped. Meanwhile, activists are continuing their campaign to protect the Tarkine.
 

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BETH:
Also in the news today…

 

New South Wales recorded an additional 105 cases of Covid-19 yesterday, as state Premier Gladys Berejiklian described it as the most difficult day she has had during the pandemic so far. Meanwhile, Victoria recorded an additional 16 cases, all linked to the existing outbreak in the state. The premier Dan Andrews said it was too early to say whether the current 5 day lockdown would end as anticipated on Tuesday midnight.

I’m Beth Atkinson-Quinton and tomorrow on 7am we’ll be taking a closer look at Australia’s vaccine rollout with senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton. I‘ll see ya then.

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