IN JUNE 1980, at the second World Wilderness Congress in Cairns, Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen talked up his government’s plans to create a national park at Cape Tribulation in the state’s far north. ‘The area provides a living museum of plant and animal species in what is one of the few remaining examples of undisturbed coastal rainforests in the world,’ he declared. ‘It is a breathtaking example of nature’s work.’ Three years later, when Douglas Shire Council decided to bulldoze a road from Cape Tribulation to Bloomfield, through the heart of the national park, the premier provided state support for the project when federal funding fell through.
Construction of the road led to Queensland’s most controversial and well-known environmental protest: the Daintree blockade. The protest gave the premier the opportunity to pursue two of his favourite pastimes, taking on the socialists in Canberra (the federal Labor government) and ruthlessly dealing with activists (this time, greenies).
The seed for construction of what is now known as the Bloomfield Track (a tourism icon in its own right) had been planted in the 1930s, when roads opened up previously isolated towns in Far North Queensland. In 1968, the farming pioneers who had settled north of the Daintree River tried to conquer the ‘missing link’, as the unfinished road between Cape Tribulation and Bloomfield came to be known. Their attempt to build the road – with two bulldozers, some army maps and money they raised themselves – fell agonisingly short. The few kilometres that remained incomplete proved telling in the years to come.
THROUGHOUT THE 1970s, Queensland’s north became something of a mecca for young hippies and runaways, who congregated on communes or squatted on vacant land in places like Kuranda, Cedar Bay and Cape Tribulation. The warm climate, cheap land and isolation brought people to the area who wanted to get away from the ills of society, and the prying eyes of the law. Some of these ‘new settlers’ (as the pioneers at Cape Tribulation referred to them) were middle class and had studied science at university. They came to the area with knowledge of conservation issues, and quickly fell in love with their surroundings.
The arrival of the new settlers coincided with an increase in scientific interest in the area. In 1962, Len Webb and Geoff Tracey from the CSIRO undertook the first scientific survey of the Daintree. Tracey would recall that every second plant they came across was an undescribed species. They coined the term ‘green dinosaurs’ to describe the ancient rainforests; in time, they would come to be considered some of the oldest on the planet, having remained relatively unaltered for millions of years.
In August 1971, local farmer John Nicholas arrived home to find four of his cows had mysteriously died. The cause of death was determined to be from seeds from a nearby tree that the cows had eaten. Dr Stan Blake from the Queensland Herbarium discovered that the seeds were from a species thought long extinct. The plant was given the name Idiospermum australiense, and a new family, Idiospermaceae, was created just for it. It was further confirmation of the ecological uniqueness of the area.
In 1977, one of the new settlers, Bill Sokolich, and the son of a pioneer, Paul Mason, formed the Cape Tribulation Community Council (CTCC). Sokolich had arrived a year earlier and instantly recognised that the rainforests around him were special; Mason grew up raising cattle and clearing land as his father and uncles had done (and about which he would later express regret). The council was formed in response to the toll that development was starting to take on the local environment. Pressure mounted between the CTCC and government when a controversial subdivision was approved by then Minister for Local Government and Main Roads Russ Hinze, which allowed lowland rainforest to be carved up into rural residential blocks. Other concerns included roads being widened with no consideration for the rainforest canopy, beaches becoming filthy campsites with no facilities, and plans for a bridge over the Daintree River, which would allow clearing for cane farms.
Some areas around Baileys Creek and Cape Tribulation had already been logged and cleared, but given the only transport across the river was an old council-run barge, and the track that wound its way from the river to Cape Tribulation was nothing more than rough dirt, geography and circumstance had conspired to keep this relatively small area of land – about fifty kilometres of coastline between the Daintree and Bloomfield rivers – relatively undeveloped.
IN 1983, TALK of building the Cape Tribulation–Bloomfield Road began, catalysed by funding from the Australian Bicentennial Road Development Program. As plans developed, conservationists began to put pressure on the federal government and the funding was withdrawn. Sensing an opportunity, Premier Bjelke-Petersen – having been approached by members of the local council about the issue – stepped in, and the state government provided funding to continue the project.
Concerned locals (mostly newcomers) formed the Douglas Shire Wilderness Action Group, with the intention to stop the road from being built. In the local press, those opposed to the road were vilified as dole-bludgers, Johnny-come-latelies, pot-smokers and hippies. They defended their position by arguing that there was just one area of tropical rainforest left in the country that remained relatively untouched. Here, at Cape Tribulation, the tropical rainforest came all the way down to the ocean, where just offshore lay one of the natural wonders of the world, the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef.
On 30 November 1983, Douglas Shire Council workers arrived at Cape Tribulation to begin work on the road. Thirty or so protesters were there to meet them. The protesters parked vehicles across the end of the road, strung banners up between trees, hoisted placards and held meetings to determine their course of action. During the day their numbers swelled to sixty.
It quickly became apparent that Douglas Shire Council weren’t adequately prepared for the job. They hadn’t done any surveying, and were unaware of where the boundaries of the national park lay. For two days there was a stalemate while council workers wondered what to do, and protesters held fast to their plans for a peaceful protest. In the meantime, word got out that trouble was brewing: the police were called in and the media arrived with them. (Just one year on from the Franklin Dam controversy in Tasmania – one of Australia’s most significant environmental campaigns to date – the press were eager to report on the latest round of environmental protest.) When they refused to move, some protesters were arrested for disrupting a public thoroughfare and disobeying police direction. Those who remained watched on in horror as bulldozers and workers entered the rainforest and trees were brought down.
The protesters held a sombre meeting that night, having seen how easily they could be brushed aside. The mood changed when a newcomer, Johnno Williams, suggested an alternative strategy. Williams was a member of the Nomadic Action Group. Originally formed in northern New South Wales during the campaign to prevent the logging of rainforest at Nightcap, the NAG high-tailed it to Cape Tribulation when word got out that support was needed. Its members had been involved in Franklin Dam and other campaigns; they had commitment and direct-action skills. Williams suggested they use high-tensile steel wire that he had hauled from Cairns to get into the canopy and chain themselves to trees. The locals were dumbfounded, but warmed to the idea when Williams himself volunteered.
Progress on the road was once again halted when the protesters began occupying trees. The council foreman threatened to use his chainsaw to take down a tree with a protester in it; he was restrained by police and led away. When they were eventually coaxed out of the trees – council workers threatened to go around the tree-sitters and do more damage to the forest – the protesters buried themselves in holes up to their chest, another action instigated by the NAG.
THE MONSOONAL RAINS soon arrived, and after three weeks the 1983 campaign ended with ‘The Battle for Red Hill’ – a muddy stoush that culminated in two protesters being swept up by a bulldozer blade, narrowly avoiding serious injury. The police called a halt to the work and the council pulled out for the wet season.
The break in hostilities allowed both sides to regroup. Conservationists continued to accumulate scientific data to demonstrate that the Greater Daintree region was worthy of the protection that a World Heritage listing would provide. They sought the support of the federal Labor government, which had intervened to stop the Franklin Dam project just a year earlier. The Labor Party were sympathetic to the conservationist’s arguments but resisted a full-on dispute with Premier Bjelke-Petersen, who was as the height of his powers. Many conservationists expected the local Indigenous people, the Kuku Yalanji, to support their protest; however, most came out in support of the road. Their family groups had been divided during European settlement of the area, and moved into missions at Mossman, Daintree and Bloomfield – both ends of the proposed road. A road would make it easier to visit their relatives and give them access to shops and services.
The state government continued to back Douglas Shire Council. The outspoken Member for Barron River, Martin Tenni, was interviewed for Four Corners and vowed, ‘We will bring dozers in there, if needs be, to clear this road up. And it will be needed. We will cut the tops of the ranges down, if it’s needed. No hippie, no greenie, no environmentalist will stop that from happening.’
IN AUGUST 1984, council workers returned to finish the job, better equipped than the previous year and with the full support of the state government. The protesters were better prepared as well: Tiny Toohey, one of the founding members of the Wilderness Action Group, had set up a radio network to enable communication from the blockade site. Communication had been a problem for both sides of the battle during the first blockade – there were no telephones, and it was an hour’s drive down a bumpy dirt road to the nearest coin-operated phone booth.
Again, the initial protest was easily overcome. The first blockade of hole-sitters was dismantled by the council, with the assistance of the Queensland Police Force, on the first day.
Protesters took to the trees again, taking up strategic posts: for work to continue, it would have to go around the trees where the ground sloped awkwardly. One by one, however, the tree-sitters were talked into abandoning their posts: they had a birds-eye view of the destruction that was taking place beneath them, and could see the amount of damage council was willing to do to widen the road and go around them. One of the more well-known activists, Gummy, held out in his perch for six days – at the time an Australian record for the amount of time spent in a tree-sit by an environmental campaigner.
The defining moment of the 1984 blockade came when the protesters tried to create a diversion so that the tree-sitters could be resupplied with food and water. Holding a candlelit vigil, they walked along the beach singing songs and ventured up the hill, into the forest and onto the road. They were set upon by the police dog squad; many were bitten and one injured person was rushed to Mossman hospital for treatment.
As the campaign continued, the protesters found themselves outnumbered and out-resourced. After a heated discussion, the organisers called the protest off. Southern environmental groups were withdrawing their support, and the large number of people needed to maintain the direct-action campaign had never arrived. Many of the protesters who had put their body on the line were furious, but the calmer heads prevailed. They knew the protest was just one part of a much larger campaign. Three weeks in, and the 1984 protest was abandoned. A hastily built 4WD track – now known as the Bloomfield Track – was completed. The protesters had the last laugh, however, when rain washed out the opening day and large numbers of people become stuck on the road.
WITH THE BLOCKADE over, conservationists began a campaign to have the Greater Daintree area listed as a World Heritage site. In 1987, Prime Minister Bob Hawke went to a federal election promising to make this happen. Labor won, and the new Minister for the Environment, Graham Richardson, took on the complicated task of following through on this promise – against the wishes of the Queensland state government. Boundaries for the protected area were created from maps that conservationists had been compiling since the early days of the campaign. In the end, what became the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area covered a far greater area than any of the conservationists would have dared to imagine.
Opposing this World Heritage listing was one of the last acts of Joh Bjelke-Petersen as premier. He was forced from office in disgrace in December 1987: his government faced serious corruption allegations (that would be exposed during the Fitzgerald Inquiry) and he had lost the support of his party. Two years later, the National Party was voted out of office for the first time in thirty years.
Over the following years, the arguments that conservationists had put forward as to why the road shouldn’t be built and why the area should be preserved were confirmed: the intrinsic value of the Daintree lowland rainforests was established by the number of species in such a small area, and new species being regularly discovered over the years following the blockade; by research into the medical applications of tropical plants; and by the economic potential of the area for tourism. The conservationists weren’t just passionate, they were visionary. Tourism is now the mainstay of the Douglas Shire’s economy, and Daintree, along with the Great Barrier Reef, is one of the main drawcards.
What the organisers of the Daintree blockade and campaign did was ground-breaking: under extreme pressure, with limited funds and support, they maintained the momentum of Australia’s environment movement and proved an inspiration for conservationists and direct-action protesters around Australia for years to come; and they changed the way people in the far north, and nationally, perceived the natural environment. As one of the key proponents Mike Graham would later say, they managed to pull off one of the biggest land grabs in Australian history.
For conservationists, the wars are rarely conclusively won: they open up on new fronts continuously, and old fronts re-engage from a new angle. Much of what we accept, even take for granted, about the environment and conservation today, was not known or was only just being conceptualised thirty-five years ago. What ground breaking work is being done today, that we will look back on and be proud of?
Bill Wilkie is the author of The Daintree Blockade (Four Mile Books), winner of the Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance at the Queensland Literary Awards 2017. Bill grew up in Brisbane and studied sociology and Australian history at the University of Queensland. He regularly speaks at conservation events about the Daintree Blockade. His research interests include Queensland’s Bjelke-Petersen years, conservation and the environment, and the history of Far North Queensland.