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Gilli Smyth

Just Another Day with the Bulldozers

November 1998

Up early, phones ringing … alert! The bulldozers have gone into the Nature Reserve wetland, have trashed the water hole into a lake of fetid mud, with mashed up trees sticking out of it. Go down in haste. Turning the corner of the road the vista opens, two hundred or so tribal people, local residents, children, surfies, old people, orchestrated to mill in disarray around the cursing bulldozer drivers who are trying to manoeuvre into the pristine bush.

They get very angry. A big hulk of a man in overalls strides up to Paul, one of the protesters and a judo black belt…. "I'm gonna hit you mate" he says "ya bloody wimp". Paul looks calmly down with folded arms. "I'm not going to fight YOU, mate" he says scornfully. Whereupon the truckie hurls himself at Paul, but misses except for mysteriously impaling himself on Paul's front tooth before falling over. All that could be seen of his face as he stood up was a sheet of blood, and his shirt was soaked with it as if in a western death scene. The television news moves in, vultures for a news story. As he staggers back to the trucks, the other drivers, appalled, fall back and mock him "What happened to you then, mate?", while considering whether to flex their muscles for a big beat up.

Suddenly the police arrive and corral the drivers back to the trucks, where they stay glowering for a while. Then one of the trucks drives straight at the people on the footpath who all leap out of the way and miraculously nobody is seriously hurt. As the truckie roars off the police take his number and assure everyone that they will press charges (which they never did). Then they shake hands all round and leave.

This is just one small example of the fight to preserve the irreplaceable old growth forests, the wetlands full of endangered species, the bush.

The six o'clock news that night was witness to the full devastation of a major wetland watering hole smashed to a pulp surrounded by broken trees - the animals who depended on it forced to cross the highway. It showed the developers' team of thugs trying to get away with a probably illegal, and certainly unethical, clearing foray. They chose election day, a weekend of a public holiday, when nobody from the Council was available and definitely not their lawyers. For weeks now, the work has stopped, and lawyers argue, and the land cries "Shame".

There is a bigger fight that has gone on for weeks, up at the proposed Timbarra gold mine site. It is situated in a catchment area for the Clarence River, so contamination from the tailings would poison the whole river, particularly with mercury.

Up there the police are certainly not on television, and are not very kind. There are numerous stories of broken bones and rough arrests, freezing cold and harsh conditions on the tablelands. Another tough one is the protest camp at Jabiluka in the Kakadu World Heritage area. The "robber barons" moved in, arresting the traditional owners, the Mirrar people, on their own land for trespassing, and then set up the mining camp in a way that would cause great damage to irreplaceable "heritage" areas. The traditional owners appealed to the United Nations, and a U.N. team arrived last week. But it was apparently hi-jacked by the Government in Canberra, where they have been closeted in meetings ever since, meetings from which the Mirrar people are definitely excluded.

To counteract the despoiling of the land, the creation of dust-bowls, saltflats, polluted rivers, the greedy grab for all resources possible (despite the fragility of the bush and the thin topsoil) a whole class of eco-warriors has developed. They live in harsh desert or scrub conditions, meet constant aggression despite their "non-violence", are frequently arrested, and have become literate in environmental law and legal processes. Their motivation is the ethical need to preserve what can be saved in the face of the constant barrage of bulldozers which these days move over the landscape like monsters.

Originally published in the 1999 GAS Magazine

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