‘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

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How Tim Winton got my mojo back, and other stories.

They all hurled sticks for galumphine mutts, their sun-fucked faces shining with adoration.

Tim Winton, Eyrie

The 2017 state election campaign was one of the most gruelling periods of my working life.

It wasn’t all because of the self-imposed workload; equally to blame was the nature of the work.

Without really intending to, I had become what felt like the sole statewide reporter questioning the Roe 8 project, simply because for every story I wrote, more swarmed from the woodwork with questions demanding answers. The more I looked in vain for those answers, the dodgier the whole project looked.

I wrote countless reports on the protests, the machine lock-ons, the clashes with police. I wrote The Idiot’s Guide to Roe 8, and covered the Senate inquiry into the unnecessary slaughter of animals caused by the haste with which the works were being rushed through pre-election. After the release of more than 350 pages of documents when Alannah MacTiernan’s Freedom of Information application was finally approved after the government spent years fighting it, I hunkered down with the documents and finally produced one of the most demanding stories of my working life, Figures fudged in Roe 8 rush job.

Roe 8 was by no means the only environmental issue I covered in the months preceding the election. I covered the Beach not Bitumen campaign against the Esplanade extension through Bush Forever land in Scarborough and Trigg and the No Houses in Wetlands campaign against the bulldozing of Carter’s Lot in Bayswater – including another trawl through Freedom of Information documents showing the approvals for the development had been based on incomplete paperwork.

I covered the establishment of marine parks scientists were calling “paper parks” because of the lack of inclusion of any sanctuary zones for marine life. I covered the race to the bottom that was the evolution of WA’s hunt-to-kill ‘serious threat’ shark policy. I covered the new Biodiversity ‘Conservation’ Act passing into law, complete with a clause allowing an environment minister to approve the extinction of any species should ‘progress’ require it.

Hot on the heels of this charming piece of legislation came the approval of the Yeelirrie uranium mine, ignoring the Environmental Protection Authority’s knockback on grounds the mine would cause the extinction of subterranean fauna species. Things that look like prawns, and aren’t cute, but whose role in purifying our underground aquifers could be significant – things that should be studied further, not destroyed by humans drunk on their own power.

As the election drew near I was going to write an opinion piece drawing all this together, but by then I was just too damn exhausted. (Note, it’s now May that I’m writing this). The only thing that kept me going was the emails that poured in from readers after every story, saying thank you, and pointing me to the next. Still, it was disheartening. I was starting to think it was just too hard to keep caring. Those emails from LinkedIn offering cushy jobs in PR, toeing the company line, were starting to look very attractive.

Especially since more emails were coming in from people asking me to investigate more stories, more stories I would never, even if there were twelve of me, have enough time to get to.

In fact, I just looked at my Evernote and found this. A blurt, jotted then forgotten on February 21.

I am utterly competent, hard, brisk but compassionate and capable. 
I am petrified 
The emails keep coming. 
Fifty-plus a day. 
I worry when i am there, 
more when i am not  
The people continue to reply
I try to leap out of the loop
But i cant stop checking
Clicking
Pecking
At these emails that just keep coming. 

Enter Tim Winton

It was in this frame of mind I picked up Eyrie. I was innocent of its subject matter, having seen it in a bookshop and remembered that I had been planning to read it since its 2014 release. I thought, now is the moment – I was headed to Rotto for the weekend for a wedding and planned serious down time.

Eyrie starts with a jangling hangover and a weird wet patch on the carpet for Tom Keely, divorced by his wife and disgraced in the public eye after an event in his previous professional life as an environmental campaign spokesman left him unemployed. The mining companies would love to have him come to the dark side in their PR departments, but he’s not yet having a bar of it.

Instead, he staggers from blind drunk to blinding daylight, trying to work out how to pay the bills now his old career has locked him out for good. He is “doubly bound, trapped like a bug in a jar – addled, livid, dizzy, butting his head and turning circles”, high up in his ‘eyrie’ – atop a bleak block of flats in Fremantle inhabited by people down on their luck.

The block, in real life, is one nicknamed the ‘suicide flats’, generally regarded as a colossal town planning mistake in Freo.

Into this block of flats, and the mess that is Keely’s life, returns a distant childhood friend, bringing a hefty set of her own problems and a vague but highly uncomfortable sense of responsibility for Keely.

Whenever I mention Tim Winton, one of my most beloved authors, inevitably someone tells me they still have a Cloudstreet hangover after being made to study it in school. I never understood this, but I never had to read it for school. I just read it because that’s the kind of nerd kid I was.

Whether or not they have a point, I say to them – get over it! You are missing out. This book is raw, angry and humbling in its brilliance.

It casts a merciless glare on to the murky underbelly of environmental politics and activism in WA, and their uneasy coexistence with the all-powerful mining industry.

It brings Fremantle and Perth into sharp relief, cities painfully under-represented in our national literature. Ours is a culture dangerously lacking in self-reflection and as Winton shines his pitiless light on Keely, he shines it on us all.

Here’s a glimpse of Freo’s cappuccino strip through the eyes of Keely:

It’s hard to look at but harder to look away, like squeezing a zit under a fluorescent bulb.

The writing makes you realise how long Winton has been honing his craft. It’s as though every year and every book that has passed has made him more devastatingly effective

He doesn’t have to be pretty. It’s stripped down to diamond hardness.

Back to work

The emails have piled up over my long weekend. But this time, a different email lies buried among them.

Would I like to interview Tim Winton pre-election on gas fracking?

You’ve got to be kidding me. I am spent. There is a week to go until I can drop this gargantuan election effort. I am behind. I still have more stories to write than I can poke a stick at. I have researched every bloody environmental issue under the sun in the lead up to this election. Except bloody gas fracking. I have only the vaguest idea of what it even is. I thought, bless me, there was one thing I was going to let slide.

Of course, I make time. I do some hasty cramming. He’s my hero.

People say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, because they will disappoint you. But this is not always true. Winton talks like he writes. He is funny and self-deprecating and wise and full of memorable idioms. He tells me it’s normal to get discouraged when you campaign on environmental issues. He riffs on power and politics and defeat in WA with the authority of someone who knows all the dirtiest secrets. I’m entranced.

He talks for 40 minutes. I try not to interrupt in case he remembers his time is valuable.

I summon energy, pull together research and write another pre-election environmental story. The result got more than 10,000 readers – testament to Winton’s star power.

There has now been a change in government. Polling said Roe 8 was a factor in the decisions of about 20 per cent of voters – a significant influencer.

The new government has helped buy back Carter’s Wetland, stopped the Esplanade extension through the dunes, and has said that while the Yeelirrie mine approval still stands, it will not approve further uranium mines. Its true stance on gas fracking remains to be seen.

My trust in governments, like everyone else’s, runs sadly low. But the election coverage was, nonetheless, worth the effort.

Eyrie? Even more so.