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Fighting the Big Gunns in Tasmania

by Tom PriceSpecial to CorpWatch
March 14th, 2005

Along a narrow dirt road, about 90 minutes from Tasmania’s provincial capital of Hobart lies the small, residential community of Lucaston. It's an area of rugged, natural beauty that draws people looking to live a quiet life.

“A couple hundred acres of bush, wet forest thick with ferns and the like. Splendid, it is,” says Lou Geraghty as she describes her homestead near the top of a slope along a rolling valley. Along with her fisherman husband, this grandmother has dreamt of setting up an ecotourism retreat here. Ideally, this would mean little more than building a few small cabins out in the bush and allowing city folk to come traipse through the primordial old growth forests that carpet this Ireland-sized isle off the southern tip of Australia.

So when a few years ago the timber conglomerate Gunns Limited. announced plans to clear-cut the slopes below her house and run massive haul rigs right past her home, Geraghty did what most concerned residents would do; she talked to elected officials, she went to meetings, and eventually she showed up at protests to wave banners and stand in the way of logging trucks. But while her response may have been typical, the timber company’s was not.

Two weeks before Christmas, on December 14, 2004, Gunns stunned Australia’s conservation community by filing a 216 page, $6.3 million (AU) claim against a group of activists and organizations, including Geraghty. Gunns, the world's largest woodchip exporter, claimed that the group had cost the company millions and demanded their money back. The most costly allegation: environmentalists conspired to pressure Japanese buyers out of doing business with Gunns. “The demands were to be accompanied by threats express and implied,” reads the writ, “of adverse publicity, consumer boycotts, and direct action against the Japanese customers and all of their operations.” For corporate campaign activists, all those tactics are fairly standard fare. Gunns, however, is asking the courts to declare such activity illegal.

The term "SLAPP" was first used by George W. Pring and Penelope Canan, two professors from Denver, Colorado, who later went on to publish the book, SLAPPs: Getting Sued For Speaking Out. Previously, so called SLAPP suits (short for Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) have been used against critics of industry, but only a few have ever gone beyond just a threat. This case, on the other hand, seems certain to end up in court. It’s a sharp escalation in one of the world’s oldest and more bitter forestry fights, and as the impact continues to roil Australia’s conservation community, it’s also threatening to spill out to other countries. As another of the defendants, Dr. Bob Brown, an Australian Senator for the Greens Party representing Tasmania, explains, “The implications are enormous. If Gunns is successful, it would echo through all the legal systems of the English-speaking world. It would mean that criticizing a corporation could land you in bankruptcy.”

Yet keeping quiet isn’t an option for Brown or Geraghty, who have seen firsthand the negative impacts of widespread clear-cutting. The tourists that do pass through the area leave not refreshed but sickened at Gunns’ impact, and at the seeming total lack of governmental oversight. “Most First World countries wouldn’t have this kind of festering vandalism going on,” said one reporter who’s been covering the story but requested anonymity to avoid litigation themselves, “I mean, this isn’t the Congo or some place like that, this is Australia.”

This is far from the kind of story Australia’s tourism board would want people to read. Millions are spent every year promoting the “wonder down under” as a combination of urban sophistication and outback splendor, combined with the laid back atmosphere of a backyard barbeque.

Most of the residents of Lucaston Valley are farmers or small business people, along with a smattering of eco-commuters who are drawn to the lush natural landscape. Tasmania’s forests are a living relic of a lost world, with verdant multi-storied layers of ferns, creeping vines, and the world’s tallest hard wood forests. Overhead, branches reach more than two hundred feet high, while underneath, thick carpets of moss and mulch soften the step. “Our little area's a small community and 98% of us didn’t want logging trucks,” Geraghty explains. Since her neighbors knew she, “knew the gent who owned the land to be logged quite well,” it fell to her to call him up and invite him to a community BBQ to talk things over.

But her attempt was rebuffed, and the more her little group learned about the logging plans, the more worried they became. “There was clear felling, talk of the aerial spraying of pesticides. I was trying to start up an eco-tourism business, and that’s what the tourists would have been looking at: clear fell.” More that just timber cutting, what her potential clients would witness was an almost unmatched legal assault on the environment, as Gunns worked to subdue one of Earth’s oldest forests.

First, their loggers come and clear-cut an area. Then, rather than hauling out the felled trees, helicopters are sent in to drop incendiary devices to light the slag on fire. (Side note: Due to Gunn’s practice of not hauling out felled trees, more than 4,000 timber-related jobs have been lost in Tasmania since 1994.) The dense hardwoods burn hot and slow for days, but eventually cool back down, and that’s when the loggers return—but not to plant new trees yet. Instead, they scatter the charred forest floor with carrots soaked in a chemical known as 1080. All the animals that then come to feed on the carrots — including wombats, possums, and wallabies — quickly die. Only when all the native life has been drained do the foresters return, to plant non-native trees in massive plantations, which are then aerially sprayed with chemicals.

Whether those chemicals are dangerous or not is anyone’s guess. Gunns lobbying has eliminated most oversight — they’re not required to file environmental impact statements, nor detailed lists of chemicals used, nor announce their schedule of operations in advance — leaving communities with very little information. In one telling episode last December, a helicopter spraying near the town of St. Helens crashed, dumping some 80 liters of its load into the hillside. Gunns insisted there was no danger, and it took seven months for the Department of Health to check the small town's water supply. By then it was too late. In January, a “once in a lifetime flood” had roared through the area and within a week, more that 95% of the oyster beds in nearby George’s Bay were dead or dying. Government and industry officials chalked it up to “excessive fresh water.”

This kind of unregulated behavior is common practice for Gunns, a Tasmania-based hardwood conglomerate whose main product is raw woodchips which are then turned into paper. Gunns ships five million tons of shredded trees to Japan annually. This business, and others including a small winemaking business, earn the company a revenue of $674 million, of which $105 (AU) million is profit.

Founded in 1875, by brothers John and Thomas Gunn, Gunns, Ltd. also has a great deal of political influence in Tasmania. As is often the case in areas rich in natural resources, the connection between industry and government is exceptionally close. For example Robin Gray, one of Tasmania's former Premiers, sits on the Gunns Ltd. board. Under such circumstances, explains Sharon Beder, a professor at the University of Woollongong in New South Wales, Australia and the author of Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on the Environment, normal avenues of protest often fall on deaf ears, leaving activists feeling the need to take extreme measures. “Gunns has a lot of influence over the government through political donations…so the normal avenues of controlling this corporation aren’t open,” she says.

And now the playing field is tilted even further in their favor. “Gunns already has legal protection — if the roads are blockaded they can and do call the police,” Beder says, but their December SLAPP suit “goes way beyond the company exercising its legal rights to protect it’s property. It’s using the civil court for the purpose of intimidating protestors, and shifting the forum from public debate to private court action — a situation where the corporation has far more resources.” Unlike criminal cases where a defendant has a legal right to representation, activists have few such rights during a civil matter. Even if the ruling goes in their favor the defendant may still end up on the hook for 20-40% of their legal fees.

The lawsuit couldn’t have come at a worse time for forest activists; in the run-up to last fall’s elections, federal candidates made promises to set aside some of Tasmania’s remaining wild areas. Which areas and how much remains to be decided, and for now much of the conservation community is sitting on the sidelines, wrapped up in legal wrangling.

“The implications are huge," says Geoff Law, Tasmanian Campaign Coordinator for The Wilderness Society. "It will change the landscape for all social change and protest movements in Australia.” Law was told that he is not legally allowed to speculate on any motives Gunns has not formally stated in the legal document, but he does feel the distraction has had a chilling effect on their activities, at a crucial time. “We’ve been distracted from dealing with Gunns’ proposal for a massive pulp mill in Tasmania…people feel increasingly intimidated.”

It’s not just activists and politicians who are getting sued — Gunns is also going after doctors who complain about potential health risks. In 2002, Dr. Frank Nicklason raised concerns about the possible contamination in massive woodpiles left on a harbor wharf, and called for an independent analysis. What he got instead was a letter from Gunns saying he had "recklessly, irresponsibly and negligently" misused his position as a medical practitioner to draw attention to "supposed health risks existing in the local community." He has also now been SLAPPed with a potentially large fine, raising alarm in the medical community. As Australian Medical Association's president told the Australian Financial Times: "Our Hippocratic oath demands we investigate any possible cause of disease, whatever that may be—tobacco, asbestos or any other concerns. It would be a dangerous development if doctors faced legal action any time they raised concerns about public health risks."

So far, the markets seem to be rewarding Gunns for their corporate buccaneering. Their stocks soared to an all time high of $4.56 on news of the complaints.

In response to queries by CorpWatch, a Gunns spokesperson declined to comment, citing the pending legal action. Instead they forwarded a statement issued at the time the suit was filed last December. Attributed to Gunns head John Gay, it reads: “Gunns Limited and the majority of Tasmanians are sick and tired of the misleading information being pedaled [sic] about our industry and our State. Gunns is taking this action to protect the interests of its employees, contractors and shareholders…These activities have been going on for years and it is about time they were stopped.”

While many of the small-time activists have been quieted down, at least one is staying vocal — Senator Bob Brown of the Greens Party. “If the idea was to put the conservation movement out of action, and it has had an enormous effect, they’ve picked on the wrong person.” Although he was not among those traveling to Japan before the lawsuit to influence Gunns’ customers, he has since “made it [his] business to go" for the recent Kyoto protocol meetings. There he takes advantage of the opportunity to distribute press kits and DVDs decrying Gunns’ logging. “Gunns has let us know just how successful we’ve been in Japan,” he explains, noting the writ claims some $3 million in damages. By continuing to speak out, he’s likely putting his savings and home on the line, but the veteran campaigner — who’s been shot at for his views before — won’t be silenced.

In the end, it may be Mother Nature who has the final say in the Tasmania forest debate. Climate change may force the end of wide scale tree farming in Australia. According to many experts, as the Earth warms Tasmania is drying out. This is bad news for a province run primarily on hydro power. “Forestry has never paid for any water because they say they never use it,” notes one reporter. But unlike natural ecosystems that have evolved carefully balanced hydrology, “these plantations capture a lot of water. If they get billed for it, it’s over, rover.”

True to their reputation, the Australian activists are maintaining a cheeky sense of humor about most things, even deforestation. Car bumpers all over the province, which have had a “Save Tasmania’s Forests” sticker on them, now have a new addition aimed right at Gunns: “So Sue Me.”

But for Lou Geraghty, who’s fighting for her children and grandchildren to have a safe place to play, finding the humor is a bit tough some days. She’s at once resigned and defiant. Her personal liability is $30,000, enough to cost her both the dream of a tourist retreat and the home along the ridge. “The only thing we’ve got to fight this with is the media," she says, “because there’re a lot of little communities like this one in Tasmania that the same things are happening to, or will happen to.”

Sipping a mug of tea on a cool March morning at her home in the forest, Geraghty can’t know when the next blow will come. “We don’t know when or if they’re coming back," she says. “We won’t ever be given any information.” Nor does she know how the decades-long fight over Tasmania’s forests will end. One thing, however, is certain: if Gunns’ trucks do return to the quiet dirt road along Baker’s Creek, “I’ll be down there with my banner again, yelling and screaming and blocking the road.”