Non-Violent Eco-Warriorship
by Chris Lee

The sanctity of the forest
Walking into one of these forests is a bit like walking into a cathedral. At its very best there is almost no understorey, just the towering giant Karri trees interspersed with Marri trees which are as gnarly and curly and cranky as the Karri trees are straight and tall. The Karri forest is the spectacular one, the one that takes everyone’s breath away with its huge, gigantic, smooth-bark trees. These trees are being decimated through woodchipping. They started woodchipping in 1975 and the fight to stop it has been going on since then.

Standing within the trees themselves, standing on a platform high up in the trees and looking out at the forest is so beautiful. The area where we had most of our tree platforms, and particularly the early ones in Giblet Forest, were in an area which had been scrub-rolled. This means the workers go through the forest with a bulldozer and flatten everything between the big trees, leaving only the big trees standing. In one way looking down, it looked such a mess with all the squashed understorey. But looking across the trees, looking out parallel and horizontally, I felt like I was standing there with soldiers or other silent sentient beings, all facing in the same direction, all with the same focus and intent.

A Fear of Heights

It was imperative getting up into the trees as quickly as possible as they had started work in that particular part of the forest. I was frightened. I am not a climber and as I was the first to go up I found the prospect rather daunting to say the least.

I designed and built a steel platform and erected it about two thirds the way up a very tall Karri tree. This was about eighty five feet up in their air, right in the treetops. I went up and sat with my back against the tree breathing hard for several hours. I would not even look over the edge. I was petrified. But I stayed up the tree for five weeks and I suppose I got used to being up there.

At night it can be scary especially in bad weather and when it is windy. In winter, which is the time we are usually in the Karri forest, because that’s when they log it, there is a succession of wild storms that come through and I found it a bit like being at sea. The tree wobbles and you sway around a bit as the tree sways. The tarp that covers the platform is cracking and buckling and crashing round in the wind so it’s also very noisy. You hear these great rolling gusts from miles away before they hit, and sometimes they hit the platform directly and they shake everything around. You are really out there among the elements hoping that you have got everything right with the platform and everything is tied up properly and nothing is going to blow off.

Living up in the tree felt very much like being a beacon. Because we had a telephone there for the first time, the media were very interested in the protest so the telephone would ring constantly and the first month was hectic with one interview after the other. It felt like a mast or an antenna beaming out into the wider world. It did not feel at all isolated, it felt almost like the centre of the universe. I felt completely and utterly rooted to the ground and cradled in that tree, I felt joined with the tree. After a while I began to relate to the other trees around me and I felt as though they knew what we were doing. There is a definite feeling of approval from the trees that I was close to. And that felt good.

You really see the power of the forest when activists leave the forest and go and do actions in the city. Young people who have been in the bush for a month or maybe six months have a glow about them which makes people turn their heads, it is really very noticeable. I think that glow comes from taking some of the power from the forest with us back into the city.

Non-Violence Training
In being part the group that established the blockade, I felt that non-violence was an ethic that we had to establish in the camp from Day One. The other important thing was that we had to be completely independent, financially and decision-wise from the bigger environmental groups in the city. As I was up the tree, the only thing that I got involved with that was happening on the ground was the adherence to those principles. I spent a bit of time bellowing from the tree about non-violence and independence and it really paid off.

I think it was over fairly strict adherence to being independent and to non-violence that galvanized much of the public support for the campaign. We were able to show clearly that non-violent tactics work when you are dealing with angry people or with carloads of drunken yahoos who would come into the camping area at night. We’ve had camps wrecked and burnt, we’ve had groups of twenty or thirty guys clad in balaclavas and wielding baseball bats and axes in the camps. It could have got out of hand easily.

Of all the people I worked with, the young women were the most amazing. At night, if a carload of yahoos would come in, they would race to get there first, to practice. They are good at it. It was obvious to everyone that these people had something that was working that they had not seen before. At first the women would listen to the abuse that was being shouted to them and they would just smile. I think being non-violent in the face of violence has got a lot to do with thinking very clearly and being smart. You could see that the women were thinking on their feet and saying exactly the right things, allowing the abuse to wash over them and not taking it on board. Without fail they would invariably get these guys into camp having a cup of tea or with their can of beer and laughing, joking and sitting around the fire with us.

We were always training. The training sessions are pretty standard non-violence training. We look at conflict and violence and at people’s personal reactions to violence and how violence feels in their bodies. We usually roleplay a few situations so that people can experience the difference between being aggressive and being non-violent. We also practice some decision-making skills. Everything in the camp was based around consensus decision making. This helped built up a sense of openness, honesty and trust within the camp.

Direct Action
We were lucky in that we started out on that footing and we never wavered from it. We never made one of those mistakes. For example, there is always a chance that a protest can get out of hand, that it can become aggressive. We kept the focus on non-violence by not responding to violence or provocation, just refusing to buy into it, because usually these things start with verbal abuse. Being totally vulnerable is a very powerful thing.

There is something about that vulnerability that makes even the most violent person think twice before they give them a kick in the ribs. We experienced this kind of provocation many, many times and each time we worked carefully to maintain a non-violent approach.

What held us together or the key to our success was the group. If you can have a group that believes that non-violence is the way to go, then non-violence will be the way it goes and it doesn’t mean that protesters don’t get bashed, it means they don’t bash back.

Organized Chaos
The success of a campaign comes through a deep belief and a philosophy and having an open structure without any hierarchy despite the chaos that that might bring. You have to learn to live in the chaos and embrace it. Rather than no leaders, everyone ideally becomes the leader.

Chaos is a powerful thing. There’s a lot that comes out of it. The people who come to blockades are young, usually well-educated, middle class people who are generally disempowered and disillusioned with the world. So those are the people that you are working with. If you accept that, then you also have to accept that there is going to be chaos because nobody in that group wants to be seen as a leader. Nobody wants to take leadership from somebody who wants to impose it on them, so everyone has huge leadership issues and it’s on both sides.

The purpose of those camps is not only to protest for the forests but to teach activists how to be non-violent. What we are trying to do is draw out of those people their leadership qualities, their courage, their love, their ability to communicate, all of these things which they have but keep hidden away.

Heart circles and community building
The other aspect of the camp is to build community. This takes time, discussions and many meetings. There were a lot of circles in the camp and a lot of discussion. Every morning we would have a lightening business circle which would last about fifteen minutes and covered organizational matters for the day. Then periodically we would have heart circles which were usually smaller, more intimate groups where there is an opportunity there to say in a safe environment what people are feeling and a lot of emotional stuff comes up in these heart circles.

I think they were enriching experiences for many of the people who came to the camp. The most amazing meetings that we had came when the pressure was on and we had to make very difficult decisions in a hurry. We found that our training and experience in heart circles enabled everyone to be heard and agreement to be built.

My picture of a true warrior is someone who is a really wise and compassionate person who sees the big picture, who is not fighting their own personal battle but is involved in the whole war. It is really good when the fiery young guys who just want to dig holes every night and blow things up, gradually start to take in the big picture, and they gradually see that what we are trying to do is get public opinion on our side. Stopping a particular bulldozer that day, does not matter a damn. I watched so many of them change over a period of months, from being thoughtless, fairly violent young men who wanted to save the environment to people who actually want to change the world into a non-violent place. This is a very big change.

There is no guarantee that violence will not be done to a non-violent protester. In fact it is quite likely that violence will happen. But the courage is to do with being able to stand there in the face of that sort of violence or abuse and to be prepared to experience pain: to suffer rather than to impose suffering. I think it was Gandhi who said that ‘non-violence is suffering’. But at the same time empowerment comes out of the suffering and the courage.

My belief in non-violence comes from a range of sources, from Buddhist philosophy and from people like the deep ecologist Joanna Macy and Gandhi and Martin Luther King. They all realize that compassion is the other side of the courage coin, and that you can’t be one without the other. It is very hard to be courageous without being compassionate. It’s a lot easier to be courageous if you are compassionate for the other. What we’ve learnt is that no matter how revolting a persons behaviour is, by treating everybody with compassion, we get much further. People don’t have an answer to compassion, they don’t know what to do. When that combines with disobedience to authority figures, they are completely bamboozled, they don’t know which way to turn. To say ‘no’ to a policeman who is asking you to do something and to say it and to look at him in a way that validates him as a human being, he is completely thrown off guard, he doesn’t know what to do next. It’s the same with an angry logger. He might turn round and swing his chainsaw at you but he can only maintain that rage for a minute or two.

Tough Love
My drive to keep going and my love for doing what I do comes from the earth, from Gaia and there is an endless supply of love, there is so much of it there. The fact that I can draw from Gaia means I am more able to touch more people.

I suppose there is a spiritual element to this love. I am a deep ecologist and also an ecofeminist. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out exactly which bits of both worldviews complement each other and where they merge. I believe that the only way that anything is going to change in the world, the only way we are really going to save any forests is when everybody starts to respect the earth and respect each other and all the other creatures on earth. The tools to bring that about are compassion and love and non-violence. There seems to be little point, and certainly no historical justification for a violent revolution if what follows is also going to be violent. We have experienced that over and over. The change that needs to happen now is a non-violent change and it is happening all round the world.

At some point it all becomes your life. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.

More information on non-violent forest activism is avaliable at the West Australia Forest Alliance (WAFA) website: http://www.wafa.org.au/