BILL WILKIE The Daintree Blockade: The battle for Australia’s tropical rainforests. Reviewed by Suzanne Marks
Bill Wilkie draws us into the heart and soul of the protest movement, revealing the courage, passion and dedication of those who fought to protect Daintree.
At first glance this book could be taken for yet another coffee-table tome, printed impressively on paper from recycled sources and its 344 pages featuring 250 photographs and a foreword by well-known actor Jack Thompson. But it is much more than this. Winner of the 2017 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for a Work of State Significance, the book is a richly illustrated, beautifully produced and immensely readable account of the politics and practice of environmental activism. Specifically it charts the struggle to save the last of Australia’s dwindling rainforests, namely the Daintree in north Queensland. Despite the book’s length and the densely written narrative, Wilkie’s relaxed and informal writing style makes his meticulously chronicled dossier of a historically significant struggle over environmental values accessible and enjoyable. There are stunning and rare images plus many other documents and ephemera of the campaign, which add a vibrant and often humorous touch to the story.
Wilkie’s research has been thorough: he conducted some 80 interviews and makes extensive use of archival material. He takes pains to present all sides of the Daintree debate – from farmers, businesspeople and local councillors to hippies, greenies, scientists and anarchists. But while he does justice to the interests of all players we never lose sight of Wilkie’s own bedrock environmental values and objective – the preservation of the Daintree Rainforest.
Since the 1950s local farmers had been pressuring for the completion of the road from Cape Tribulation to the Bloomfield River (known locally as ‘the missing link’) even though it meant bulldozing through the recently declared Cape Tribulation National Park.
The action against this commenced in 1983 when the local Douglas Shire Council, supported by the Queensland Government and defying the state parks and roads authorities, pushed ahead. In response, a small group of residents decided to take a stand, organising a peaceful protest, which stopped work on the road. The blockade triggered a clash between greenies and developers, confrontations between hippies against the local council and anarchists against police
Wilkie’s story draws us into the heart and soul of the protest movement, revealing the courage, passion and dedication of those who fought to protect Daintree. He recreates the zeitgeist of the 1970s, which saw the drift of southerners to the northern rainforests and beaches in search of alternative lifestyles free from the materialistic values of mainstream society. Communes came and went, their members setting up marijuana crops, going naked in public places (including riding motorbikes on the beaches) and mixing with the locals from surrounding areas who also used the beaches north of the river for long weekends and school holidays. Wilkie’s narrative is sensitive to the impact of these newcomers on the area’s established and conservative communities. Who can blame those among them who may have seriously considered locking up their daughters?
Scientific research into the rainforest was increasing, bringing in more outsiders who were adding their voices to the protesters. We learn of the work in the 1960s of Webb and Tracey of the CSIRO, who made significant scientific discoveries that provided ‘tangible evidence that the rainforests of far north Queensland, including those around Cape Tribulation, were some of the oldest on the planet’. Between 1967 and 1974 Peter Stanton from the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service was charged with:
… surveying the state and recommending places to be preserved. Haste was required, with the state government hell-bent on opening up as much land for development as possible.
Stanton’s work ultimately confirmed that ‘the areas Webb and Tracey had identified were still some of the highest priorities for conservation’.
We meet an array of disparate characters: the eccentrics, the idealists, the direct activists and those working behind the scenes, mapping and studying the forest, as well as lobbyists from the Australian Conservation Foundation and the ‘alternatives’, who, regardless of their differences, were united in their love for the rainforest and determined to hang in – some literally – for the long haul to save it. There’s Gummy and the other ‘treehangers’, who ‘hang precariously in hammocks and fishing nets strung between branches, they are all that stands between the road builders and open slather on the rainforest beyond’. And Johnno and Ian, who creep out along the track at night searching for the treehangers’ trees to bring them supplies, braving the ever-present danger of the police and their dogs. And Ro, another passionate environmental activist, who left her job in the Physics Department at Monash University to work on a prawn trawler in North Queensland, becomes a key figure in the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre as founding Vice President.
Wilkie’s account of the human road blocks is both harrowing and inspiring, revealing yet again the lengths to which people can go to sustain and protect fundamental beliefs and values regardless of the danger.
This is a big story best summed up by Jack Thompson in the foreword:
The Daintree Blockade provided the flashpoint, the spark that ignited the decade-long campaign to have the rainforests of north Queensland protected. And due to the tireless, determination and courage of a small group of Australians, the Wet Tropics were eventually listed on the World Heritage register. But more than that, the conservationists who achieved the listing changed the way Australians thought about, and interacted with the environment – once something to be carved up and exploited, now something to be treasured, protected and understood.‘
This book will lie on my coffee table for some time, for there is much in it to absorb and understand. I hope my grandchildren will learn from it that ‘price’ is not the only measure of ‘value’.
Bill Wilkie The Daintree Blockade:The battle for Australia’s tropical rainforests Four Mile Books 2017 PB 344pp $39.95 available from the publisher here.
Suzanne Marks is a member of the Board of the Jessie Street National Women’s Library and the Sydney University Chancellor’s Committee. Her professional life has been in equity, human rights and conflict resolution.