Styx and stones
January 31, 2005
The Styx Valley has been a focus for protest against logging of the
world's tallest hardwood trees.
* The long road to justice
Political protest will never be the same if a timber company
successfully sues logging protesters. Andrew Darby reports.
As forest blockades go, the action at Styx Coupe 4A in Tasmania looked
to be what a timber man might call run of the mill. On a late autumn
evening, about 40 young people filtered onto the site, piled with the
stark logged remains of old-growth forest.
They pitched tents and climbed two remaining trees to fix platforms. The
platforms were then tied to logging machines, effectively immobilising
them because of the danger of tipping out the protesters.
Across the disputed valleys of Tasmania's old-growth forests, such
actions have been seen many times over the past 20 years. The Styx was
just the latest battleground.
A short walk away was the Global Rescue Station, a tree-sit visited last
year by rock musicians and then federal Labor leader Mark Latham. That
was in an area yet to be logged. In late November 2003, when this
particular protest was held, logging of Coupe 4A was well advanced.
The protest lasted about two days. Workers kept away. Green groups
contacted the media; some showed up.
The State Government declared an exclusion zone over the coupe, and, on
police advice, protesters gradually drifted off. No one was arrested,
and it seemed the action was remembered only in the archives of green
Until last month. Then it became part of a 216-page writ in a $6.3
million legal action against 20 individuals and green groups mounted by
the timber giant Gunns and a small harvesting partnership, T&H
Each of these plaintiffs is claiming $465,000 in aggravated and
exemplary damages from 13 of the defendants for Styx actions they allege
were carried out "wilfully, maliciously, recklessly and
You can tell by the flurry of car stickers when a new chapter is opening
in Tasmania's seemingly endless forests debate. The latest hot sticker
has, imposed on the Greens' familiar luminous triangle, the words "So
The Gunns writ comes as more high-profile Australian green issues are
being tested before judges rather than in the court of public opinion.
A long action in the Victorian courts by Otway forest environmentalists
against forest workers and their union is still unresolved. Five years
on, millions of dollars in costs are at stake.
In the Federal Court, the Humane Society International is trying to halt
Japanese whaling in Antarctic waters over which Australia claims
jurisdiction, while the sheep industry, through Wool Innovations
Australia, is mounting an action against People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals to halt its sheep mulesing protests.
Senator Bob Brown has been named in the legal suit issued by Gunns
Senator Bob Brown has been named in the legal suit issued by Gunns
But law academics see the Gunns action as different, even a watershed in
Australian environmental litigation.
"Gunns is a really disturbing case because the core of it is what I
would think of as ordinary political activity," says Tim Bonyhady,
director of the Australian Centre for Environmental Law at the
Australian National University.
"There is an upsurge in this kind of litigation but, from what I can
work out, there is a real imbalance in what is happening. Our legal
system is just much more concerned with protecting economic interests
than political expression. We are a poorer society for that."
Many commentators have pointed at what are known in the US as SLAPP
writs. The term, coined by two University Denver academics, stands for
strategic lawsuits against public participation. Aimed particularly
against environmentalists, these suits are filed by one side of a
political dispute to punish or prevent opposing points of view. Most
famously, this is claimed to have backfired on the fast-food giant
McDonald's in the British McLibel case (see panel).
In his book Slapping on the Writs (UNSW Press, 2003), senior counsel and
Greens candidate Brian Walters catalogues use of these civil actions in
Australia. Much of it is just intimidation, but to its target it is a
deterrent to debate, costs money and resources, and can be just plain
In a resource kit for activists called How to Face Legal Threats, the
Environment Defenders Office in Victoria says: "The good news is that
only a tiny percentage of threats ever proceed beyond a letter."
That is clearly not the case with Gunns.
Sharon Beder, a professor at the University of Wollongong and author of
Global Spin: the Corporate Assault on Environmentalism, says: "It seems
in this case they are serious about going to court, and even hoping to
set some sort of precedent."
Gunns, based in Tasmania's conservative business heart of Launceston,
was a little known sawmiller before the then chairman, Edmund Rouse, put
it on mainland front pages in 1989.
Bizarre though it seems now, Rouse was jailed for 18 months after he
tried to buy a state Labor MP with $100,000 to take the parliamentary
balance of power away from the Greens.
Rouse cited the potential damage to his timber interests as one reason
for his crime, and planned to use his own money on deposit at Gunns for
the bribe. At a subsequent royal commission, Gunns' chief executive,
John Gay, emerged unshaken from torrid scrutiny of his business.
Gay is now the executive chairman of a company that he believes has high
ethical standards and is well respected in the community. Advising him
on the Gunns board is Robin Gray, a former Liberal premier.
Gray's political career is long over, but he was most famously beaten by
environmentalists over the Gordon-below-Franklin dam. The other man is
David McQuestin, a one-time Rouse company executive.
In recent years the Gunns board has presided over a radical
transformation, from a medium-sized sawmiller and hardware retailer to
perhaps the country's strongest timber company.
The big change came in 2001, when Gunns took over Boral's forest assets,
as well as those of North Forestry Products, thereby increasing its
asset base from $143 million to $703 million.
Gunns is the nation's largest woodchip exporter. State port corporation
reports show it exports about 5 million tonnes of woodchips annually. It
also has vast plantation tracts, and is moving seriously into vineyards.
But its big new project is a proposed $1 billion-plus pulp mill. Such a
project fell over in 1989 under environmentalist attack when Gray was
Shareholders have reason to be very pleased with Gunns. Last year's
post-tax profit of $105 million was up $32 million on the previous year.
Since the writ was announced, its shares have performed strongly.
The action that has been filed in the Victorian Supreme Court alleges
that environmentalists conducted two broad offensives against Gunns:
disruption of its logging operations, and vilification of it as a
Those named range from local community activists to state Greens leader
Peg Putt and Greens senator Bob Brown. The main defendant is the
Wilderness Society, the hard-edged national green group born in the
Franklin campaign of 1982-83.
Gunns is suing the organisation, and five of its staff individually, for
a total of $3.5 million.
Apart from the Styx action, Gunns is aggrieved about another blockade at
Lucaston in the normally peaceful Huon Valley, south of Hobart, where
there has been a local dispute over logging a private forest. It is also
taking protests at two woodchip mills to court.
Gunns also claims it was vilified by its exclusion from the Banksia
Foundation's environmental awards short-list, and by allegations that a
woodchip pile could harbour harmful bacteria.
But more attention is being shown to two alleged green forays into the
business world. In one, conservationists are said to have targeted banks
connected with Gunns. In the other - the single most costly claim - the
writ says that green groups tried to pressure Japanese woodchip
customers to stop buying.
"The demands were to be accompanied by threats express and implied of
adverse publicity, consumer boycotts and direct action against the
Japanese customers and all of their operations," the writ says. For the
Japanese customers' action, Gunns is seeking $2.05 million in aggravated
and exemplary damages.
With the action newly launched, Gunns declined to comment. Those being
sued - known as the Gunns 20 - have chosen to present a united front,
first in a protest rally, and then when they gathered at the Victorian
Supreme Court to formally acknowledge the proceedings against them.
Senator Brown has already pointed to the personal price of the legal
action in terms of anxiety and costs, but he shows no sign of being
silenced. Next month he plans to publicise the plight of Tasmania's
forests on a visit to Japan.