Since the 1970s Australians have regularly employed blockades to occupy space, prevent entry to a site, and directly interfere with environmentally damaging and anti-social activities. Building on picketing tactics long used in struggles for workers’ rights and against evictions these campaigns have added tactics such as tripods, tree-sits, and lock-ons to create delays, if not shut down sites completely.
Once mainly used as a tactic of last resort, blockades have come to be integrated into long-term campaigns employing a range of strategies.
Blockades demonstrate organised opposition and commitment to a cause through people putting their bodies on the line to delay or halt harmful activities. In doing so they also draw attention to an issue and impose financial and political costs on opponents. As with other forms of direct action blockades potentially allow individuals and communities to intervene in a situation without recourse to politicians, bureaucrats, or other mediators. Conversely, they can also put great pressure on those parties. For First Nations people blockades can also provide a clear expression of sovereignty.
In 2021 the Commons Library has highlighted blockades that have played a significant role in Australian history. The stories collected here first appeared on the library’s Facebook page. Some of the blockades were part of campaigns that resulted in major victories or introduced new tactics to the national and global toolkit. Others marked the first time the strategy was applied to a particular issue or demonstrated how blockading could be successfully integrated with other strategies. Feel free to contact the library to nominate a blockade as more will be added on a regular basis. Those interested in learning more about organising blockades, as well as the history of them, will find plenty of resources via the Commons Library’s search engine.
Blockades That Changed Australia #1: Anti-development, Beeliar Wetlands, Western Australia, 2016
On January 12th, 2016 action against the destruction of Western Australia’s Beeliar wetlands for road construction began early in the morning with two women locking onto a bulldozer and another engaging in a tree sit. By 7 am hundreds had gathered, fences were pushed down and the area around the main work compound occupied. As the day continued up to 1000 people joined in blockading the site enduring assaults by mounted and other police as well as attacks from police dogs.
This was just one of many days of protest against the construction of the Roe 8/Perth Freight Link on wetlands near Coolbellup, Perth. Plans to clear the area, and sacred sites within it, had been opposed for decades by First Nations, environmentalist and resident groups. Following the failure of legal action, clearing began in December 2016 prompting months of protests, pickets, tree sits and lock-ons. During this time 127 people were arrested and hundreds more issued with ‘move on’ notices by police before a change of government on 11 March 2017 saw work halted. Although much damage had already been done community action during the previous months had slowed work and made it a major election issue.
For more information about aspects of the campaign check out this report that was released in May 2017 concerning policing and community concerns.
Blockades That Changed Australia #2: Anti-Coal Seam Gas – Knitting Nannas, NSW, 2016
On January 18th 2016 three Knitting Nannas were arrested after they blocked entry to the Santos Leewood water treatment plant near Narrabri by locking their necks to its gates. 20 other Nannas held a tea party in front of them whilst around 40 other anti- Coal Seam Gas protesters gathered in support. This action came six days after another Nanna had locked onto the gates for 3 hours. The plant was being geared up as part of mining operations that will include up to 850 CSG wells and destroy sections of the Pilliga forest.
Whilst working on their knitting and awaiting arrest one of trio told the media “I object to all of these chemicals being put into our ground and water and these companies putting the Great Artesian Basin into jeopardy. We need to really protect our water. The law is wrong and the police is protecting these companies, the law needs to change, so that this can’t happen to our country.” All charges against the three were later dismissed. Resistance to the project continues, most recently with a court challenge set to be heard in March 2021.
Blockades That Changed Australia #3: Anti-Sand Mining, Middle Head Beach, NSW, 1980
On March 3 1980 resource company Mineral Deposits arrived at Middle Head beach on NSW’s North coast near Nambucca to begin leveling bush and dunes to make way for sand mining operations. Upon seeing a bulldozer a group of surfers immediately left the water to halt work by climbing onto the equipment, after which the company withdrew from the area. This spontaneous action kicked off a seven-month campaign that would eventually stop any further sand mining leases from being granted in NSW.
As the area involved was one of significance to local Indigenous people, members of the Gumbangerii community and Middle Head Sand Mining Action Group worked in a loose coalition to undertake a range of protest actions. Having held a 200 person protest days after the bulldozer had initially been seen off, further blockading would be held when the company resumed clearing in July. After confirming that the state ALP would not rescind the company’s license to mine, the company was faced by local residents who sealed entrances with their cars, used their bodies to block bulldozers, and removed fencing.
Large numbers of police eventually enabled clearing to take place, but from August onwards supporters began to gather from across NSW with the protest’s camp hosting 50 to 100 people at a time. This enabled regular actions to be carried out against dredging operations and also led to the formation of the Green Alliance, an electoral and organising body aimed at more effectively coordinating environmental and social justice groups which later fed into the formation of the NSW Greens. Protesters also held actions in Sydney and the Gumbangerii community and supporters set up an Aboriginal Embassy outside state parliament.
In a development that had ramifications for future blockades, Middle Head saw the introduction of a new tactic on behalf of the authorities. In a move that sapped the campaign’s human resources, magistrates began applying bail conditions to those arrested, primarily for obstruction, which prevented blockaders from returning to the mining site. A small number defied these, subsequently undertaking a hunger strike in jail.
Although mining was eventually completed blockading generated delays, financial costs, and publicity. This forced Mineral Deposits to withdraw plans to level a neighbouring beach. It also invigorated an overall campaign that would phase out coastal mineral sand mining in NSW and see the state government grant no new leases after 1980.
Blockades That Changed Australia #4: Anti-logging, Tasmania, 1986
During the summer of 1986 environmentalists kept themselves busy with a series of actions aimed at stopping the destruction of old-growth forests across Tasmania. During this time a protest camp and blockade was maintained on the south bank of Farmhouse Creek. This brought road building through the unlogged area to a halt. Police lacked the power to arrest the blockaders as at this time remaining in state forest did not legally constitute ‘trespass’.
The blockade marked the first time that a long-term tree-sit employing a platform was used in Tasmania. Former Wilderness Society director turned state MP Bob Brown had mentioned to activists that he had read about protesters using platforms in Oregon, USA. The group does not appear to have been aware of previous Australian tree-sits in NSW and Queensland where people had climbed trees, used rope to tie them together, and netting, platforms, and hammocks to remain in them. Lacking any details of US actions beyond Brown’s comments, the group patched together a platform from planks of timber and masonite. This would prove far from comfortable. They spent the best part of a day getting activist Alec Marr up a tree, where he remained for 16 days.
Tree sitting delayed work and helped the blockade gain increased media attention. Initially, this was due to tactical novelty and then for violence after timber workers attacked protesters while police stood by. An attempt was also made to cut Marr’s tree down with him in it and Brown was shot at.
None of this dissuaded Australian activists from continuing to mount tree sits. Having witnessed the tactic’s obstructive and media potential they would return to the tactic regularly in the decades to come. Miranda Gibson set a national record by remaining in a tree for 449 days from 2011 to 2013 as part of a campaign to protect Tasmania’s Styx Valley which eventuated in 170,000 hectares being added to the state’s World Heritage area.
Blockades that changed Australia #5: Anti-uranium mining, Jabiluka, NT, 1998
The Mirarr people have fought to protect our country and people from uranium mining for many years. Now we are defending our country against the proposed Jabiluka uranium mine. We invite you to come to our country to join our struggle to uphold the cultural and environmental values of Kakadu – Mirarr Clan, March 1998
This message from the Mirarr called on people to join a huge blockade which began on 23rd March 1998, eventually bringing more than 5000 to Kakadu to engage in non-violent direct action. Following years of protest and court proceedings, the blockade provided a focus for action acknowledging the Mirrar’s sovereignty over the area and their opposition to the construction of a uranium mine on their land. Months of protest, both at the construction site and in cities and towns across Australia, followed. Delayed in completing work and opening the mine due to the Mirrar people’s implacable campaigning the mine’s owner Rio Tinto eventually caved in, officially recognizing and admitting in 2002 that it could not be built with the consent of traditional owners.
Stories about the campaign and the symbol that came to represent it can be found here –
- Sign Language: The story of the Jabiluka symbol
- The Jabiluka Blockade – 22 years on
- 30 Years of Creative Resistance
Blockades That Changed Australia #6: Anti logging, Chaelundi, NSW, 1991
In April 1991 the North East Forest Alliance (NEFA) declared the Chaelundi People’s Wilderness Park/Chaelundi Free State. This covered old growth forest threatened by logging in New South Wales. A major blockade, combined with action in the courts, not only protected the area, but added many new tactics to the Australian campaigning toolkit.
From 1989 onwards NEFA utilised a strategy of employing blockading and other direct action to delay the logging of old growth forest in New South Wales while also generating media coverage and inflicting financial costs on governments and the timber industry. This was combined with a political and legal strategy, influenced by the 1982 Nightcap campaign. A series of legal actions were brought by lawyers instructed by John Corkill as applicant, on behalf of NEFA with the support of Dailan Pugh and others, including a suite of forest ecologists and other scientists as expert witnesses. These were designed to pressure the state government and force the NSW Forest Commission (FC) to comply with existing environmental planning laws.
A key campaign was that to protect old growth forests in the Chaelundi area. In March 1990 NEFA gained an injunction on logging. This was won in the context of a blockade involving lock-ons to cars and a logging truck. The blockade had also involved the first use of lock tubes above ground, metal cannisters into which activists arms were encased and locked together, which could be placed around equipment, gates and other points.
Having carried out the requisite Environment Impact Study the FC announced plans to log in July 1991, but soon found itself stymied by a five-month long blockade which included three camp sites. After moving into the forest in March and declared the Chaelundi People’s Wilderness Park/Chaelundi Free State in April 1991 blockaders, including an engineer and riggers, went all out in constructing barricades and obstructive devices.
Some tactics were new. Building supplies intended for a new road were scavenged from the area and concrete culvert pipes used either as barricades or devices with activists locked inside and on top. In addition, some blockaders were further anchored around the wrist and neck by chains connected to a concrete slab. With wooden poles supplied by a local alternative community, variations on tripods were innovated including placing activists upon two pole bipods and monopods, the latter featuring a single pole attached to a “Star of David” assemblage of timber poles or a tripod. In another innovation a “web of life” was created by connecting netting between trees to allow activists to hover and move above ground.
These were deployed alongside updated versions of tactics from Australia and overseas, such as people locking onto equipment, devices and each other, tripods, tree sits, road barricades, car bodies, soft blockades, a dam, bonfires, heated rocks and activists buried in the ground and chained to concrete slabs or locked to vehicles placed above them. Action was coordinated by an efficient communications system and combined in a series of obstructions. When police moved in they found themselves spending entire days dismantling obstructions only for a new set to be in place by the time they returned.
After more than two weeks and 200 arrests authorities were only able to regain control of the area for a day before NEFA gained a court injunction against logging. The group subsequently secured a decision protecting the area on the basis of threats to endangered fauna. A failed appeal from the NSW government led to regulatory attempts to exempt logging from environmental protections but this in turn was blocked after a government MP resigned over the issue, costing conservatives their parliamentary majority. Legislation toughening protections for fauna was subsequently passed, but continued direct action and litigation was required to test its provisions and ensure the FC met its requirements. In 1997 the state government officially recognized the community declaration made six years earlier and created the Chaelundi National Park, covering more than 19 000 hectares, was declared.
In these photos, which originally appeared in the World Rainforest Report, Rainforest Information Centre members John Seed and Patrick Anderson can be seen taking part in lock on actions during the campaign.
Blockades That Changed Australia #7: Anti-coal and gas, Bentley, NSW, 2014
On 15 May 2014 the people of the Northern Rivers scored a major victory against the expansion of the coal and gas industry in their region when the NSW government canceled resources company Metgasco’s license to drill at Bentley. Following on campaigning and capacity building carried out over a period of years a blockade of the drilling site, which was able to draw on up to 10 000 participants, was mounted. This was the third blockade in the area over the issue and one of many concerning environmental issues that had been held since the late 1970s. Although the state had mobilised hundreds of police to break the blockade internal briefings that described the occupation as “‘an unprecedented public order challenge” provided the final push required to force the NSW government to give in to the will of the community. Thanks to https://aidanricketts.com/
An examination of the methods and dynamics of this successful, direct action based campaign can be found here – Enabling Emergence: The Bentley Blockade and the Struggle for a Gasfield Free Northern Rivers.
Blockades That Changed Australia #8: Anti-Uranium, Broken Hill region, NSW, 1982
From the 1970s onwards Australians have protested, marched, placed union bans, occupied docks, and offices, and taken other action against uranium mining and exports. The first action at a uranium mining site was held in mid-May 1982 when four days of protest against the Honeymoon uranium mine ended with a ninety-minute occupation of the main compound.
The site was 75 km northwest of Broken Hill and the protest brought together hundreds of local residents, First Nations community members, environmentalists, peace activists, unionists, and others. The Broken Hill city council, Amalgamated Metalworkers and Shipwrights Union, Friends of the Earth, and other organisations and individuals opposed the mine due to its role in the nuclear cycle, the abrogation of Aboriginal sovereignty involved, and the damage that in-site leaching would inflict on the area’s ecosystem. Although a pilot operation was constructed, concerted opposition prevented further testing from occurring until the 2000s and the mine did not fully start production until 2011. With uranium prices falling and opposition continuing it was mothballed again in 2013.
For more about the history of anti-uranium blockades in Australia visit – The Australian Movement against Uranium Mining: Its Rationale and Evolution
For more about the history of environmental blockades and what they can and have achieved visit –
- Environmental Blockading in Australia and Around the World – Timeline 1974-1997
- Treesits, lock-ons and barricades: Environmental blockading in the 1980s
For more about the history of Australian labour, environmental and social movements visit –
For more about the history of rent strikes and housing activism visit –
Note: Whilst the text in this article is copyright please note that some images in this article are under copyright.
- History - Australia
- Movements_Campaigns - Anti nuclear_Uranium
- Movements_Campaigns - Environment_Nature