Rosebery, Australia – On June 17, Anthony Houston was arrested after attempting to block all industrial traffic into an area of rainforest on the island of Tasmania, Australia’s southernmost state.
The local businessman and farmer had set up a chair in the middle of an entrance road to protest against a proposed mining operation that would result in the clearing of a vast section of old-growth trees in the 439,000-hectare (1,085,000-acre) rainforest, known as the Tarkine or the Takanya.
Remote and sparsely populated, the Tarkine is a diverse landscape of rugged coastal heathland, grassy woodlands and Gondwana-era vegetation that is home to many endangered species and helps form the largest single tract of rainforest in Australia. It also hosts a mine owned by China’s Minerals and Metals Group, which wants to clear an area the size of 285 hectares (704 acres) – roughly equivalent to 350 football fields – for a new facility to store mining waste, also known as tailings.
Houston is one of dozens of protesters linked to the Bob Brown Foundation (BBF), a Tasmanian conservation group that has been organising daily protests against MMG’s plan at a site near the town of Rosebery.
“The message I want to give to all Australians is that it is really important to come and experience what is being lost,” Houston said after his release.
“I could not believe the ancient trees they are knocking down. They are knocking over more in one day than I could plant in a year. It’s like something from Lord of the Rings, we should not be losing places like this.”
500 jobs on the line
MMG mine has operated continuously for 85 years, mostly producing zinc, copper, lead and gold ore. The company says a new tailings storage facility (TSF) is essential to mining operations as it stores rock, water and silt that are produced as by-products of the mining process.
With mine operations and tailings storage “inextricably linked”, MMG said up to 500 jobs could be lost in Rosebery if the planned facility does not go ahead.
“The proposed site is currently the only viable option MMG has but we are actively looking at all possible options to extend the mine’s life,” a spokeswoman said. “This includes investigating an alternative site, but at this time, we do not have a viable alternative.”
While MMG does not yet have permission to begin its plan – which involves building a pipeline for toxic materials over the nearby Pieman River – the company is clearing vegetation to construct roads and conduct “engineering and environmental baselines and assessment to support a new tailings storage site”.
But the MMG is meeting fierce resistance from the BBF, however, which has said that construction at the site threatens not only endangered animal and bird species but myrtle trees estimated to be 500 years old.
The BBF’s patron is Dr Bob Brown, inaugural leader of the Australian Greens in the federal parliament. Since MMG first submitted its TSF proposal in May, activists linked to the foundation have largely stopped company’s movements into the area.
Their methods have varied from sit-ins on the road into the forest to strapping themselves onto heavy machinery, as well as establishing a tree-sit high up in the forest canopy. Some protesters managed to stay up in the trees for two weeks despite freezing winter temperatures.
At least 50 protesters have been arrested since the campaign began on May 18.
“Tasmania is a natural gem in an environmentally devastated world, and the Tarkine region is a place of wild and scenic beauty,” Brown told Al Jazeera. “It is culturally and environmentally precious, and is the last bastion of the iconic Tasmanian devil, the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world.”
‘Outstanding heritage significance’
Brown said the BBF is not trying to stop the Rosebery mine from operating, but is demanding an alternative site for the TSF.
“MMG, a Chinese state-owned company, wants to come in and level an area of rainforest the size of 350 football fields, not to drill for resources but to simply dump their mining waste,” Brown said.
“MMG has declared numerous times that there are options for this tailings facility. There are alternatives south of the Pieman River, and MMG must pursue one that does not result in the destruction of Tarkine rainforest.”
While its boundaries are contested due to having never been formally defined, the Tarkine was assessed by the Australian Heritage Council in 2013 and found to have “outstanding national heritage significance” for both its ecological values and for its cultural history. The diversity and density of the Tarkine’s Aboriginal sites – particularly shell middens, or refuse piles, which confirm an ancient connection to land and sea – ranks it among “the world’s greatest archaeological sites”.
However, just 4 percent of the region recommended for National Heritage protection has subsequently been listed by the Australian government.
The federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, is now considering whether the proposed TSF should go ahead. She was due to announce a decision at the beginning of June, but the government’s Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment advised in a notice that the deadline had been extended until July 23.
BBF’s protests have drawn national interest to the issue, with nearly two-thirds of Australians surveyed in a recent poll saying they would support Ley using her power to stop the proposed clearing of the rainforest and insist MMG find an alternative site for its TSF.
But in Tasmania, where the mining sector was valued at $1.82bn in 2016 and 2017, there is significant support for the construction of a new TSF for the Rosebery mine.
Tasmania’s Premier Peter Gutewin of the conservative Liberal Party has backed the project and hit out at the protesters, calling them “radicals” conducting “dangerous and illegal activities” that “attempted to destroy Tasmanian jobs that have supported the operation of the Rosebery mine for over 80 years”.
Julie Crawford, the superintendent of environment and community at the mine, told Al Jazeera MMG was committed to finding the “most balanced solution that secures the future of the Rosebery Mine”.
“We are still seeking to complete the preliminary investigations to select the best location for future tailings storage,” she said. “We are doing the work now that will allow for an informed decision based on facts and put through the necessary environmental approvals and permitting.”
The BBF pledged to continue its campaign, with Brown saying the foundation wants the Tarkine to be brought into the existing Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, which borders the region to the south.
“The Tarkine has already been identified as having values worthy of World Heritage protection,” he said.
“This area should be recognised as such to ensure that it is conserved forever, and that Traditional Owners are able to maintain their connection to the land. It is too precious to lose, and MMG should be aware that we’re not going to give up this fight.”