Inside View: Save Beeliar Wetlands

In June of 2014, I took two buses and a train from my home in Fremantle to the trail head of the Bibbulmun Track in Kalamunda. In rain and a leaky jacket I walked for three hours to Hewitt’s Hut, arriving in the dark. Already at the hut was my friend, his brother and two friends of theirs I had never met before. My friend was walking the entire track. His mates had driven in as close they could to the hut. They had brought eskys full of alcohol, meat for the bbq and mobile phones to watch AFL on.

A teetotaller, I sat back while they got drunk. Turned out the two guys who drove had walked the length of Bibbulmun track themselves a few years earlier. It was then that one of the guys revealed that he worked as a environmental consultant. Having studied Landscape Architecture and worked for an environmental company for two years, I was curious about his job. I queried him for a while and asked about their practices in relation to reporting. He answered that yes there was corruption and bias in their reporting and that the Environmental Protection Authority was powerless to halt the pressure applied by construction firms.

Fast forward to the morning of the 6th of Dec 2016. My housemate dropped me off at the eastern end of Hope Rd near Bibra Lake. I had seen an article the night before that the Barnett government had chosen to proceed with clearing nearly 100ha of bushland to build the Roe8 extension; a 5km toll road that will cost $100 million per kilometer. Reports from social media stated that areas of bush had been fenced off so I instinctively went looking around the Kwinana Freeway thinking this is where the works would begin.

Finding no evidence of works, and after walking around for over an hour, I headed to the Cockburn Wetlands Centre where I was told that the fenced off area was about 1.5km to the west. There I found about 30 police standing between as many protestors and the fencing contractors. Slapping on some sunscreen, one policeman said to another ‘we could be here all summer’. Over the course of the following two weeks, until the 22nd of Dec, I would return to the protest every day, some days from 6am to 10pm. I had never been involved in a protest in any way before, especially a multi-day one of this magnitude. Every sleepless night before bed I would tell myself I wouldn’t return the next day. Every morning I would find myself back at the camp.

img_2248

Between the 6th and 20th of December, preparatory works for bulldozing took place inside the temporary fencing. Contractors entered the bush to set traps for the removal of mammals, reptiles and birds. In the evenings local residents would return from work and survey what had taken place. Overnight security were stationed along the fence line to report suspicious activity. Every morning contractors would return to discover the fences in disarray. Almost every morning dozens of Police vehicles, including horses, would congregate either at the Adventure World carpark or along Northlake Rd, before moving in to create a pathway for machinery.

Every night, indigenous elders and children, musicians, locals and protectors would discuss the days events at the Beeliar Wetlands Protectors Camp, the ‘tent embassy’ set up on Northlake Rd. When at a loose end, people would stand in front of banners, holding signs to passing traffic. On the morning of the 10th of December, in 37 degree heat, a rally of about 1200 people met at the Cockburn Wetlands Centre  to voice their opposition to the desecration of the bushland. Former WA Premier and now President of the Conservation Council, Carmen Lawrence, was one of the speakers. After the rally many people visited the fenced off areas, tying messages on heart-shaped paper to the fence. I met a photographer named Doug who showed me photos of the environmental consultants who had deliberately driven over migratory Rainbow Bee Eater nests.

IMG_2783.JPG

The first of the major confrontations between police and protestors took place at the western end of Malvolio Road on the 12th of Dec. About 200 protestors chanted Always was, always will be, Aboriginal Land as a large dark red surveying truck was escorted up the bike path. On the side of the truck, strips of gaffa tape covered the companies name. A young man locked himself to the machine and two others were arrested for obstructing police business. About ten move on notices were given.

But it was a face off between a Nyoongar woman and a policewoman who said she was Aboriginal that was the most intense moment of the day. The Nyoongar elder pleaded with police to stand down their ground as her hopes and dreams were being taken from her. One point consistently made by the elders is that they have not been consulted about the highway, the bushland had not ‘always been gazetted to be a road’, as Mainroads claimed.

As the machine moved up the bike path I walked on the grey sandy track sticking to the outside of the pink police festoon to see what the contractors were up to. Standing next to Kate Kelly, one of the main organisers of Save Beeliar Wetlands, I saw a familiar face inside the fence. It was the environmental consultant from Hewitt’s Hut, the one I had met over two years earlier. The same guy who had told me that the reporting processes were corrupt. I yelled out his name and he turned his head which then went beetroot red in the hot sun. To let him know I was there, over the course of the next week or so I would call out his name and wave whenever I saw him.

One evening, my girlfriend and her family helped me make a costume that looked like a red tail black cockatoo. These cockatoos are endangered and the 94ha bush to be cleared for Roe8 is part of their habitat. In the evenings, after all the police, protesters and contractors had gone home I would stand on the now quiet road and watch small flocks of these beautiful birds move from tree to tree and then across Northlake Rd westward into the Coolbellup bush.

15493709_10154975138483690_7587048438574650943_o.jpeg

Other events occurred during the meantime, too many to mention in this article. Most notable was a young woman locking herself under the surveying truck when it moved to Hope Road.

On the morning of the 20th of December, entering from the Northlake Rd fence, the first bulldozer entered the banksia bushland. There were about 100 police protecting the machine, but only a core group of protesters. Up until that point most people I had spoken to were in disbelief that the clearing was a definite thing. The bulldozer went deep into the forest. Gaining a clear line of sight was impossible. It wasn’t until much later that day, when overhead footage of the scale of the destruction (captured by a drone) spread through social media that the number of protestors grew.

IMG_2501.JPG

The next morning about 500 protestors filled the median strip on Northlake Rd and another 200 sang and watched on in horror on Malvolio Rd. That morning another bulldozer had to be ordered as two women had locked their hands together inside a welded metal pipe around the gate of WA Limestone, the machinery company hired for the clearing. Meanwhile, police had blocked traffic on Northlake road for about 30 mins. I went out into the middle of the road to take a photo when a sergeant charged at me, yelling, get off the road, you watch it, I’m sick of you. At this point I realised my identity was known to the police.

Fairly sedate up until this point it seemed the police were determined to intimidate protesters. One bloke Neville, who I had gotten to know at the camp, was punched in the heart by a policeman. Winded, he exited the protest gasping for air.

IMG_2570.JPG

A woman driving in her car by was grabbed by the throat by a policeman. I didn’t see it happen, but I caught her on video straight after.

The bulldozer tore down large trees -balga, gum, tuart, banksia – long into the afternoon. The clearing extended all the way to the fence at the Elinor Rd end, 2km away. Local residents, torn between staying away, and bearing witness to the destruction, shook the fences as tears fell from their eyes. Top-soil dust floated into their faces.

The weather forecast for the following day was extreme heat of over 40 degrees. Normally, under total fire ban conditions, the Deptartment of Fire and Emergency Services, state that machinery can not be used. But Main Roads, in cahoots with the Barnett government, had negotiated an exemption for this law until 2020. Cockburn Mayor Logan Howlett said the exemption granted to Main Roads WA clearing machinery was “unsafe and a high risk for nearby Cockburn residents, commuters, workers, protesters and police officers in the area.”

That afternoon as the crane used to install the concrete barrier along Northlake Rd was leaving, I spotted the Bibbulmun Track guy in his car on the public path. Without thinking about it, and upset by the days events, I stood in front of his car and began reciting all the names of the huts on the Bibbulmun track to him. Hewitt’s Hut, Ball Creek, Mount Helena, Waleigh… Then, his colleague came up from behind the concrete barricade, took a photo of me, and said he would have me arrested the next day.

The next morning, the morning of the 21st of Dec, since the majority of clearing had taken place inside the fence, it was likely to be the final day of protest for the year, so I wore the cockatoo costume. When I arrived, about 300 people had locked arms in front of the gate where the bulldozer enters. Forty police were present.

The sergeant who had singled me out the day before, spoke to the group explaining that no bulldozing was going to occur that day. A water truck would be coming along soon to suppress top soil erosion. Why the water truck was absent the two days previous, I’m not sure.

Minutes after the large group returned to the ‘tent embassy’, a large tractor approached from the southern end of Northlake Rd and I automatically started walking towards it. Soon I found myself surrounded by about ten police and five of the environmental consultants. The guy I met on the Bibbulmun Track was inside a car, further down the footpath. His colleague who had taken my photo the day before pointed me out and said I was the guy who had been intimidating him. With his back to the crowd and standing over my left shoulder, the sergeant stood in my face and said something along the lines of: ‘I don’t mind you protesting. But the second you make this personal and start threatening the workers, I will knee cap you.’

IMG_2507.JPG

Coda: Shaken from this encounter, I left the Beeliar Wetlands and went home to decompress. It was then my thoughts turned to how we ended up in this mess. The conclusion? Many mums and dads, local residents, doctors, lawyers, tradies, war veterans, professors, students and teachers are taking to protesting because the Environmental Protection Authority is not bound by its own policies. We are in this mess because even as recent as December 2015 Supreme Court Chief Justice Martin found that “the E.P.A. took no account of its own published policies at the time it made its decision and provided its report to the Minister.”

The minister was then able to override the court decisions by sloppily addressing the problem instead of looking for better solutions. In this case the Environment Minister was able to hastily locate an offset site and then proceed with clearing nearly 100ha of the Beeliar Wetlands. The challenge now for any future state government is to clean up the E.P.A..  Boost its funding. Make sure that the employees are properly educated. Raise the entry level for students entering into courses that enable environmental employment. Employ people who are interested in PROTECTING the environment.

The clearing of bush is occurring all the time right around Western Australia, right around the country, and citizens are generally powerless to stop the destruction. Below is a photo of unnecessary clearing on York-Quairading Road over the same period as the Beelier Wetlands were being bulldozed. Less than 4% of bush is left in south-west Western Australia. Usually when citizens ask what is going on with the clearing they are given an answer like: ‘those trees were tagged accidentally’. Accidentally? The environment is in the hands of a bunch of amateurs. Can we allow this to continue until there is nothing left?

IMG_8288a.jpg