Liberation in chains.
Chains and locks represent a theft of freedoms and autonomy. But on a cold morning in the forests of takayna, for me the lock and chain became something else entirely.
It was dark. The kind of dark unique to an ancient rainforest yet to stir with the coming of dawn. And it was muddy, forcing the five of us to zigzag our way through rutted tyre tracks carved by trucks and machines. Machines that had no right to be there. A shaft of light momentarily pierced the gloom, causing the chain around my wrist to glint in my peripheral vision. I stopped walking, suddenly overwhelmed in this surreal moment. Standing in the chilled winter air, I contemplated the five strangers ahead of me, the task to which we had committed, and the hard metal embracing my arm.
What the fuck had I gotten myself into?
In 2008 global mining corporation MMG identified a site in takayna (known to some as The Tarkine) for a new tailings dam. Tailings are a toxic waste product left over from the process of separating valuable minerals from the uneconomic fractions of the ore. They are among some of the largest human engineered structures on Earth, involving vast earthen embankments designed for the permanent containment of mining refuse. The threat to the immediate environment comes from land clearing for a short-term use structure (dependent upon size), the release of toxic materials into the soil and waterways, and by potential acid drainage. MMG had decided it needed a new dam to service its mine in nearby Rosebery, with other sites outside of the forest since identified and rendering the demands on takayna unnecessary.
takayna itself is a landscape that is not only of global conservation importance, but is also of Aboriginal cultural importance, from the coasts to the plains, the caves to the forests. It offers refuge to countless free living animals as individuals and communities, including threatened species such as Masked Owls and the Wedge-Tailed Eagle. It is unique, and it is irreplaceable.
There have been numerous tailings dams failures resulting in catastrophic impacts on human, non-human, and environmental communities around the world. In 2019 the Brumadinho dam disaster killed 270 people, left dozens more unaccounted for, and released 12 million cubic meters of iron ore waste into the Paraopeba River in Brazil. Two years later, communities impacted by the disaster have finally been awarded over $7b in compensation and the senior management at Vale Mining are facing charges of murder. Tailings dams failures have occurred in Russia, Romania, Spain, New Mexico, Finland, New Guinea, and many more countries, killing thousands of people and causing unfathomable environmental harms.
The proposal by MMG in 2008 to put such a dam in takayna reared its head again in early 2021, as the company began to push a road through towards the site despite the project not yet having Federal approval. This unnecessary dam project will destroy nearly 300 hectares of rainforest including old growth forest and button grass plains, necessitate the installation of pipes across the river (jeopardising the pristine waterways), and store over 25 million cubic meters of tailings waste. Interestingly, the road MMG has attempted to push through follows on from a logging coupe which had been staunchly defended by activists with the Bob Brown Foundation in early 2020. Boco coupe, as it was called, was decimated, with stringy barks, myrtles, and sassafras hundreds of years old smashed before the activists moved in. After consistent pressure and multiple arrests, government-entity Sustainable Timber Tasmania ceded the coupe; the harvested trees worth thousands of dollars were left behind to rot.
One of the justifications used for the proposed tailings dam site was that the area had already been logged. Boco coupe is now being used as a gravel pit for the road.
How very convenient.
It was a haunting feeling walking through the coupe on route to our destination. I was among the activists who had occupied Boco. To see the corpses of those trees blackened and moldering in piles exactly where they had been left over a year prior filled me with rage and sorrow. And they inspired me with a new sense of resolve. “What the fuck have I gotten myself into” became “this can never happen again.”
Our mission that night as five strangers in the wilderness was to lock onto the excavator being used in the roadworks. We trekked 6.5km with heavy packs, arm pipes, and chains, as well as blankets, snacks, and water. The aim was to delay the contractors from being able to work that day.
The walk seemed to take forever, marked by brief moments of conflict with onsite security but also with the moments of brevity and comradery that come in these situations. We were all in that space and time a tightly connected team, individuals united by a common goal. As a friend later said to me, where or when else could you walk in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, with complete strangers, and know that you are as safe as you’ll ever be? And he is right. We were safe with each other, and together would protect each other from whatever we were to face come the dawn. I may never see these people again. Yet they are forever my family.
After yet another muddy hill slog we rounded a corner, and there it was sitting in the darkness; the excavator. I had built it up in my head so much that it was almost an anticlimax, as it seemed so small and lifeless. Yet once fired up, it could wield a power as devastating as a wildfire in a forest. It had to be immobilised, and our bodies would be the tools used to do it.
John and I are completely different people from very different worlds. Yet here we were, hands locked together, wrapped in blankets, offering each other unconditional love and support, tethered to this machine in the middle of a threatened forest.
Our support crew wrapped us up, tucked us in as though they were our mothers and we were children going to bed at night. There was care, there was commitment, there was love. So much love, it was almost overwhelming.
All it would take would be for the arm of the excavator to shift a fraction, whether by chance or a deliberate act, and I would be crushed to death. John would be locked to me as I died. Yet there was no fear. We were there for a purpose, the defence of takayna.
I found myself feeling raw and powerful emotions. There were tears, and there was laughter, and there were micro-naps that I’m not sure were actually restful but were probably as a result of my body trying to escape the cold. And there was liberation, not just of sacred spaces but of self.
Throughout history, chains have been the tool of the oppressor, applied to people and places in pursuit of the capitalism, colonisation and imperialism that rapaciously grasp at the world. When placed on a person without their consent, chains denote that they cease to be an autonomous individual with inalienable rights. Chains are used to turn people into mere resources and objects, or as threats to be locked away and disposed of. Chains are used to tether other animals under the will of human supremacists who view the non-human body as an object to dominate and exploit. Chains envelop natural spaces, preventing public access, and excluding Indigenous peoples from cultural and community connections with the land. Chains confine, they deny, they choke and strangle, they exclude and divide.
Chains are a symbol of oppression.
But within the context of protest, the oppressive purpose of the chain can be subverted; the chain becomes a tool of resistance. In voluntarily placing chains upon my body, I found liberation in that subversion. I felt empowered in my resistance. It was more than just “sticking it to the man.” My body in chains was a disruption to the capitalist system itself. It was a resounding “fuck you” shouted in the face of the corporate governance that sees politicians acting for the interests of ecological criminals rather than on behalf of the people. I wore chains in defiance of speciesism as I acted in defecne of free living animals. I defied the carceral system to arrest me. I acted in resistance against capitalism and against eco-vandalism. I wore chains to disrupt oppression.
In chains I found myself to be free in ways I could not have imagined.
But all good things must come to an end. Eventually the police came accompanying the site managers like body guards. They brought their their badges, authoritarian attitudes, and an angle grinder to cut through the pipe. The heat of the grinder coming closer and closer to my fingers inside the pipe was as incandescent as my rage. It is not a pleasant feeling. I was officially under arrest.
Surprisingly another moment of empowerment came when it was time to extricate myself from the hydraulics, and I achieved my first ever full chin up. As numb as my arms and legs were, I was not about to accept the help of the agents of the state who were acting against everything I stood for, who sought to place chains upon my body against my will. Agents of the state who voluntarily accept a pay check to protect destructive and violent industries. I would remove myself on my terms, not theirs.
Nor would I give them smiles and pleasantry as they processed me in the dingy temporary police station they had set up in the workers’ camp by the locked gates at the start of the road. There too was a form of liberation; under the law there was a level of communication that was required. Name and address. Beyond that, they would receive nothing from me.
Over seventy people have been arrested in takayna during the MMG action initiated by the Bob Brown Foundation. Over four hundred people have been on the frontlines of the action in varying roles. Dozens more established and continue to occupy tree sits within the proposed site itself. Together we achieved something remarkable; MMG halted the road works after two months of protests delayed works for up to half a day with each disruption. The Bob Brown Foundation also threatened to initiate a legal challenge over the legality of the road works. Most of the machines have been withdrawn. A temporary reprieve no doubt, but one to be celebrated nevertheless. And now we wait, to see what decision is made by the conservative environmental vandals who make up the Federal government of Australia. Will the dam project get approval? We don’t yet know.
We are all individual people and I am sure our experiences and perceptions would be as many and varied as we are. I can only speak for myself and must state that the views expressed here are mine alone. Yet no matter how we perceive these moments in the forest, chained to gates or excavators, onto hydraulics or suspended high amongst the trees, all of us are united in a common cause. And that solidarity with each other, with the forests and the rivers, and with the free living animals for whom those spaces represent life and community, is liberating.
It casts down the barriers between us, and it brings us home.
*I wish to acknowledge my privilege in being able to engage in resistance of this nature without an increased risk of victimisation and brutalisation by police or in police custody. 471 Aboriginal people have died in police custody or prison since the royal commission in 1991, and many more have experienced the violence of the colonial carceral system. When we enter takayna we are walking on what always was and always will be Aboriginal land, and we must never forget that sovereignty was never ceded.*