‘We had no choice’: the silver-haired nannas guarding Australia’s environment

This story originally appeared on WAtoday. 

Property damage, midnight cement mixing, secret meetings with rogue public officials: in her new book, an Australian environmental protester has described the surreal experience of doing what she felt was right, only to find herself on the wrong side of the law.

As debate rages in Parliament over a bill to remove the historic ‘Roe 8′ road classification from Perth’s Beeliar Wetlands, West Australian writer Nandi Chinna has taken readers behind the scenes of the protests on the eve of the state’s 2017 election that won the wetlands’ eleventh-hour reprieve and stopped the clearing for the road.

Chinna, who has published four previous poetry collections and whose doctorate research documented lost wetlands, has just launched The Future Keepers, describing how ordinary people risked injury, confrontation and criminal charges as they wrecked fencing, chained themselves to trees and faced off with police horses; and how public servants risked getting the sack, to support the protesters.

The protesters sought to stop a highway being built through one of Perth's last remaining large urban wetlands.

The protesters sought to stop a highway being built through one of Perth’s last remaining large urban wetlands. BILLY AMESZ

It describes the lead-up: years of attempts to toe the line and work within approved Environmental Protection Authority and Supreme Court channels, and the eventual failure of these attempts leading to the last resort of physical protesting. One of the biggest Perth has witnessed, at its peak huge police teams were on site daily, protecting machinery the outgoing government rushed into action before election day.

Chinna’s poems flicker through images like a film: of official meetings at the EPA offices, conservationists and public officers poring over a 368-page report full of tea-stained maps; of clandestine meetings in anonymous cafes, where government workers against Roe 8, but afraid of losing their jobs, used cafe detritus – napkins, salt, sugar and water bottles – to demonstrate the scientific principles that would bolster the protesters’ arguments.

“How alienating it is to talk about nature in those terms, to have these graphs and statistics and offsets … if we take this we will give you something else,” Chinna told WAtoday following the launch of her book.

“They can measure the species, the flora, the fauna, hydrology, geology, but they don’t mention things like the experience and reality of it, the wonder and beauty, the extraordinary.

“To go through all these supposedly protective channels … then to find that there is no protection.”

Chinna reveals, after all else failed, the dislocation of being an everyday citizen – a longtime community volunteer, who saw herself as a good and law-abiding person – suddenly undertaking acts of civil disobedience in an increasingly hostile conflict that saw numerous injuries, arrests and charges laid.

Nandi Chinna

Nandi Chinna. FREMANTLE PRESS

 

Anxiety rises from the pages like steam as Chinna describes damaging fences by night, the local hardware store running out of spanners as the contractors repaired the boundaries daily.

So many older women took part that they had to cover their silver hair so it would not shine in the moonlight as they wielded their spoons – not over mixing bowls of biscuit batter, like good grandmothers, but over buckets of cement to be poured into the holes of the fence posts.

They recorded licence plates of utes driving in and out, even followed them, in their efforts to document gaps in the wildlife trapping process; and they donned armguards, thumbcuffs and even nappies, preparing not for admittance to a nursing home, but to trespass barriers and spend long nights chained to trees.

One passage shows protesters trying to stop the movement of a drilling rig, a mounted police contingent forming a line to drive back the people who tried to hold their ground.

“A friend held my hand, and they kept coming and came straight into us and knocking us out of the way with their horses,” Chinna said.

“We were stumbling and falling as this line of police and horses just kept pushing.

“We were just a bunch of people; of all ages, old ladies, older men and women and all sorts of people there just standing in the road.

The footage appears to show a police horse trampling on protesters at Roe 8.

“A lot of the police in attendance were very decent people, but there were just like in any crowd, people who were pretty rough.”

She described a young policeman, who confiscated her phone.

“He was only about 20, and being so rude and aggressive, I said to him: ‘You know, I’m old enough to be your Nanna.’ He snarled at me that I should start acting like a proper nanna. And I thought, I am! I am trying to protect this world for future generations. Isn’t that what a nanna should do?”

Chinna said the effort to attend repeatedly, as one poem puts it, to “the latest urgent request to bear witness” caused tension so intense it was at times nauseating.

“To watch a place you know intimately to be destroyed is a gut-wrenching, horrible thing,” she said.

“There were several times there when I suppose I lost it. I cried when I watched the tawny frogmouths being killed, the woody pears being torn out of the ground, the beautiful flowers that I had known from years of walking and being among them, weeding and planting.

The Future Keepers is out now.

“But … that was the only way we were going to stop this thing. We didn’t enjoy it. I don’t think the police enjoyed having to be there. But at the same time we felt that we had no choice.”

Meanwhile, government and media commentary painted them as ‘dole-bludging scum’, she said.

One morning, she stopped by the blockade about 7am on her way to work, and stood there with an elderly woman.

“People would do that; before work, or after, or some would get the day off work if they needed to,” she said. “Someone drove past and honked and yelled, ‘get a job, you bastards’. This lady turned to me and said, ‘I am a retired teacher. I am 80 years old. What do they expect me to do?’

“We were all sorts of people just asking the government for better solutions for transport. I know there’s been talk about putting Roe 8 back on the agenda and it seems to be the battle that is never won; but really I think people should learn from what happened in that suburb: that the community really won’t put up with this anymore.

“We want progressive solutions … to retain green spaces … not just ovals; places other species can live in. To have our shops and goods and transport and retain our natural systems as well.”

It was this hope that lay at the heart of her work, Chinna said; hope and celebration of conservation work taking place in Perth, such as at Kings Park and Botanic Garden, where Chinna was the first ever Writer in Residence in 2016, and which inspired a whole section of her book as well as its titular poem, The Future Keepers.

“The quietness of the work they do is such that I don’t think people know about it,” she said.

“They work all over the state and internationally working to revegetate old mine sites and preserve endangered species; they are at the top of their field and they are such amazing people.

“There is a metaphorical thread through this book that we can work together, respect Indigenous knowledge, and protect this extraordinary planet.”

The Future Keepers is published by Fremantle Press at $24.99

All I want to say is that, they don’t really care about us.

OPINION

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees will require nations to phase out coal by mid-century and leave most fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Even at 1.5 degrees, warmer, up to 90 per cent of the world’s coral reefs will die.

Oil and gas companies are pillars of our society. Requiring them to offset their pollution would amount to reckless endangerment of our jobs and economy.

Right?

The Gorgon site.
The Gorgon site. AFR

Well, let’s take a closer look at this narrative.

Oil and gas production is causing Australia’s emissions to rise even as coal pollution dropsReports last November indicated half of the increase in Australia’s annual carbon dioxide emissions can be attributed to Chevron’s failure to bury the carbon coming out of Gorgon in WA’s Pilbara.

WA’s emissions have seen the most rapid increase of any Australian jurisdiction, rising more than 27 per cent in the past 15 years.

So our Environmental Protection Authority had the gall to suggest Chevron, and the other oil and gas companies causing the rise in emissions should pay to offset their own pollution.

Shell, Santos, Chevron and Woodside sent their biggest wigs into town to talk to Premier Mark McGowan behind closed doors and hours later, the EPA backed down and withdrew its guidelines pending industry “consultation”.

I’m not saying that the guidelines were perfect or that business certainty counts for nothing.

The Macquarie Group warned the guidelines could delay projects and cost WA’s LNG industry billions.

But Macquarie and now the Reserve Bank of Australia have both warned, in the same breath, that the economic risks of climate change can no longer be ignored.

And let’s not forget we are talking about companies used to measuring costs and profits in the billions.

Children protested government inaction on climate change on Friday in Perth's CBD.
Children protested government inaction on climate change on Friday in Perth’s CBD. CAMERON MYLES.

Chevron reported $2.1 billion in revenue for 2016. Gorgon is a $55 billion project. It’s reportedChevron can potentially make $32 million per day across Gorgon and Wheatstone. Canberra-based think-tank The Australia Institute has calculated – using the publicly reported potential earning above, Chevron’s publicly reported emissions and the price for a federal government carbon credit – that Chevron could go carbon-neutral for about 2 per cent of their profits.

This would drop to around 1.7 per cent if they managed to get their underground carbon storage facility at Gorgon working.

Promising they would take 80 per cent of the CO2 in the gas coming from the reservoir, and inject it beneath Barrow Island, was key to them getting their environmental approval to operate in the first place. But they have been permitted to operate without having fulfilled that promise – surprise, surprise.

A year after they began operating it still doesn’t work; they are releasing millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas.

They recently told media it was going to take another nine months. This was reported on March 5, the same day Chevron announced commencement of domestic gas deliveries from Wheatstone.

The WA government put out a media statement “celebrating” Chevron’s “important milestone” getting Wheatstone going, without ever mentioning Gorgon’s little problem.

If it was a problem stopping their gas flowing, you can bet your bottom dollar Chevron wouldn’t allow that situation to continue for a year and nine months. They’d throw everything at fixing it. Maybe even billions.

Read the rest of this piece here at WAtoday.

Perth rivers in ‘palliative care’ after decades of mismanagement

The Swan and Canning rivers are on life support after a decade of being treated as a “political football”, a provocative new report by a collective of WA policy and environmental experts says.

My Clean River, a new group of chemical industry and urban planning experts, and current and former public servants, have published a confronting description of five concrete and steel oxygen injectors operating in the rivers as “palliative care systems”.

The report – Swan Resource 2017 – says the government has been for some years treating the river’s “symptoms”, but not its disease, avoiding direct action on polluters for fear of backlash from the agricultural sector.

The news follows the Department of Parks and Wildlife’s April 21 and April 28 warnings to the public not to eat shellfish from Melville and Perth as algal blooms impacted the river.

Read more at WAtoday

$3 million saves one Perth wetland – but what about the rest?

The state forking out $1.5 million will help Bayswater council double its money and save ‘Carter’s Lot’, but activists say many other vital urban wetlands are exposed to developers because of an archaic classification system.

Despite vocal disagreement from some of Perth’s most prominent scientists who rated its ecological significance highly, ‘Carter’s’ wetland management category was as low as they go.

Environmental organisations, local MP Lisa Baker and Bayswater councillors joined the community in a nine-month campaign against a large housing subdivision planned for the site.

They carried out protests outside Parliament and Ministerial offices, fundraisers, petitions and letter-writing drives, convinced development would not only devastate Carter’s but also lay waste to the millions in state and local government funds spent on restoring the adjacent Eric Singleton Bird Sanctuary.

During the campaign, documents released under Freedom of Information showed planning approvals were issued and clearing began based on half-complete environmental reports.

Planning Minister Rita Saffioti announced this week funding to honour her election commitment, to match Bayswater’s bid to buy back the land from private ownership.

Read more at WAtoday

This article is the fourth in a series:

  1. ‘Damaging’ development approved on doorstep of $3 million wetland
  2. Minister halts bulldozers on doorstep of $3 million wetland
  3. Government approves wetland bulldozing based on environmental study of wrong lot