Last Friday dozens of armed New South Wales police officers raided a camp near Sydney and arrested two environmentalists. One was Aunty Caroline Kirk, an Aboriginal elder. She was charged with “wilfully obstructing and intimidating police”.

“I can’t run, I can’t climb,” she said. “All I can do … is teach my culture. Why are they doing this?”

The answer lies in the showdown of our age between greed and green.

At the heart of this is greenophobia, the fear of things green, including environmentalists. It involves the blighted idea that people should be stopped from taking action to defend the environment, especially if it gets in the way of making money.

It has infected the world of natural resource extractors and they have found the established political parties around the world extra helpful. So, in this year’s Queen’s speech, Boris Johnson announced a bill to jail peaceful UK protesters for up to 10 years. The proposal of those measures was one of the triggers that brought 400 alarmed scientists out to support environmental activists last year.

Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is a greenophobe who is letting the Amazon rainforest and its Indigenous cultures be destroyed. His nation has descended into environmental lawlessness in which two rainforest defenders, British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian Indigenous advocate Bruno Pereira, were murdered this month. Globally, 220 environmentalists were murdered last year and thousands more were injured, terrorised or imprisoned. Most of the perpetrators have not been arrested or charged.

My foundation’s campaign to defend the takayna/Tarkine rainforest in north-west Tasmania has run up against the Chinese Communist party’s mining corporation MMG. More than 80 people – nurses, teachers, students, ecologists, footballers and farmers – have been arrested for peacefully obstructing MMG’s machines invading the Tarkine rainforest to build a dump for the toxic wastes from its Rosebery heavy metals mine. There are options for the disposal of the waste outside the Tarkine.

MMG’s lobbying helped influence the Tasmanian parliament to vote last week for harsher penalties for the defenders of the Tarkine and its giant masked owls. A clear majority of Tasmanian MPs want MMG to get its toxic waste dump in the Tarkine and Tasmania’s defenders of nature to get a cell in Risdon prison.

Tasmania’s laws match those of NSW, with penalties of up to $11,000 for peaceful environmental protest and double that, or two and a half years in jail, for a second offence. Had these laws been in place in other jurisdictions at other times, the Franklin River would be dammed, the Daintree rainforest razed and much of Kakadu national park mined.

Victoria has also introduced legislation, one aim of which is to deter scientists who have previously gone into the highlands and found forests with protected species – such as the greater glider and the state’s critically endangered faunal emblem, the Leadbeater’s possum – being logged. That’s illegal. While the loggers faced no charges, the intention of the new laws is to stop or arrest those scientists next time.

In Newcastle last year a young man was sentenced to a year in jail for delaying a coal train. The court did not hear the assessment of the former chief scientist at Nasa who told the US Congress that, in this world of dangerous global heating, transporting coal is a criminal activity.

Greenophobia is percolating down. On the Monday before Aunty Caroline’s arrest, 100 or so officers raided Blockade Australia’s camp for peaceful protest at Colo near Sydney after four undercover officers who failed to identify themselves “feared for their lives” – though the police had the guns and the people in the camp, including the children, had none.

Corporate PR machines, with the rightwing media ready to go, are developing greenophobia to divert attention to their business wellbeing and away from the graver threat of the collapse of Earth’s biosphere, including through global heating and species extinctions. As the NSW attorney general, Mark Speakman, put it: “What we are stopping, or criminalising even further, are protests that shut down major economic activity.” It’s money before the planet.

The new federal environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, is now Australia’s most powerful environmentalist. She will decide if MMG should treat its toxic wastes inside or outside the Tarkine rainforest. In doing so she will also decide if Tasmania’s environmentalists will face the new draconian sentences there. Those penalties, for peaceful environmental action, are now the same as for aggravated assault or for threatening neighbours with a shotgun.

Such laws may be tested in the high court as earlier laws were, after I was among those arrested in Tasmania’s Lapoinya rainforest in 2017. The court found those laws unconstitutional because they took away the right to peaceful protest. Meanwhile the Lapoinya forest was flattened and burnt, along with its rare wildlife. No one was arrested for that.

If MMG’s needless waste dump is given the go-ahead I, for one, will help defend that vital forest, its owls, kingfishers and Tasmanian devils. They can take us out of nature but they can’t take nature out of us.

As for the “terrifying” Aunty Caroline, I would like to meet her and thank her. She may not be able to run or climb but she is an inspiration.

  • Bob Brown is a former senator and leader of the Australian Greens and is patron of the Bob Brown Foundation


Bob Brown

The GuardianTramp

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