This story is part of a series created from interviews undertaken with five women who stayed at Camp Binbee for one week in late 2017 to take action against the Carmichael coal mine development. The interview project was organised by Robyn Gulliver, who hoped that recording these stories would both give a greater voice to the women who have played such a vital role in the Australian environmental movement since its inception, as well as demonstrate the immense sacrifices people often make in their efforts to stop ongoing environmental decline.
Each interview was recorded and transcribed, and then lightly edited and compiled into a narrative tracking the key elements in their stories and the key moments that changed them (note names have been anonymised). The stories begin with a note from Robyn about the context in which the interview was conducted.
Meeting Olivia at Camp Binbee
A movement is more than the sum of its parts. Through its numbers, it derives a greater strength. This strength might seem to be small in the face of resistance; yet looking back over the successes of social movements in the 20th century, there were moments that captured the hearts and minds of larger populations and changed history. The women’s rights movement across the globe would not have succeeded without years of hard graft building connections, networks, and strength between individuals and groups. However, sometimes the strength within a movement is very difficult to see. Sometimes it seems like the fight will never end, that a movement will never be strong enough to pull together as one and forcefully demand change.
Well, we would only think that if we hadn’t met Olivia.
She is more than she seems. On the outward side, she’s of a permanently sunny disposition. A bright yellow umbrella waving, singing, grooving one-lady band. She has the time and space for everyone. You get the feeling that you could never say anything wrong when you talk to Olivia; she’s seen it all, and accepts everyone for what and who they are. When I think of Olivia, I think of warmth, of wide-open-arms-welcomeness, and I think of the incredible talents of those amongst us who quietly but all pervasively build the foundation on which our groups and communities rest. Olivia is a builder. She’s a person who sees the gaps and fills them, not for any sense of recognition but because of her insight and empathy.
I didn’t come across her because she was giving a speech at a rally. I didn’t meet her because she was the leader of a big environmental group. I didn’t meet her because she knows everyone and everything in the environmental movement. I met her because she is the glue that holds groups together. Quietly, calmly, patiently, smoothly, the glue that binds a movement. We rarely get to read or hear the stories of those who hold everything together; too often our attention is grabbed by the louder amongst us, the ones jostling for a place in the sun. These people play crucial roles in the movement; yet without the Olivias, they would have no groups behind them, no individuals consenting for them to speak on their behalf. Olivia, in a way, makes it all happen.
Active for the Planet’s Sake
My name is Olivia, and I’ve been charged with looking after this earth as well as I possibly can. I want to do something – not just sit here and talk about it. I want to be active for the planet’s sake and that’s the biggest thing for me.
It began when I was part of the Greens party. At one of our inaugural meetings we went around the circle with new Greens members saying why we were here. I said that I wanted to get active. I wanted to do something. Not just sit here and talk about it.
In particular the Stop Adani thing was really, really bugging me, I was thinking about it so much. I was thinking about it because for me, as a reasonably logically thinking person, it was the most illogical act that anybody on the planet could do. And that illogicality was the thing that spurred me on to do something about it.
My advocacy activities started off being about children, helping create adventure playgrounds over in the U.K. when I was a primary school teacher in England. I started a children’s garden in the school I was at. One of the things, especially over in England, is you went out on nature rambles; you took your children out.
“Alright children, follow behind me!” I’d shout.
Then I became instrumental in starting other adventure playgrounds, so kids could get out and do their own thing and be adventurous in the outdoors. It was to get the kids building things, creating things, being, you know, out there experiencing things for themselves. I suppose in a way it was empowering children to be part of the environment and to hopefully spread that news out further, via the children. They had no support, and no grandmas and grandpas, because they were back in London. These kids needed that focus of really strong adventure and outdoors and building stuff.
Most of what I did was with the community related to outside activities, gardens and greenery, and the environment. It was also about helping the men. Community members were concerned about the youth in the area, especially in the second adventure playground. They were from very poor backgrounds in London, and they’d been transported to this rural area and were totally off key. They were displaced; they hadn’t got a community going yet. So, the men were involved in the construction and other similar things.
But, while women stepped up in the organising, the coordination was me. I couldn’t do the tools. I was really not taught by my father, who was quite a handy person, how to handle tools. My two brothers did, but I certainly wasn’t allowed to. There was no way I could do that.
I burnt out after two years and also became a Deputy Principal of a school. So, I didn’t have any time to do anything like that. But it was not all bad. Once I could see that something was up and running, it would be a really good time to drop back in to visit. The second adventure playground was successful; they got really positive people in charge. I said to them, “You’ve got it mate, you’ve got it. Well done.”
Change from Within
It was really important to make sure that the community wanted the playgrounds before they started. Very, very important. At first, I worked alongside a group who had actually imposed, as it were, the first adventure playground in the community. So, the first community where I actually put one in, it didn’t work as well as it should. I was teaching in that community. But it certainly didn’t work.
I believe that action itself is good, but it has to have that underpinning from people who want it to happen. And that’s where I think the community needs to be onside, rather than offside. We shouldn’t come in and impose our activism on them. For example, here at the mine we are in rural areas where all we are stopping is a piece of machinery or a certain part. That is fine for us. But when we are impinging on people’s lives and the way they are living their lives, we can create a really bad, bad vibe in the area.
I think there are an awful lot of people in the environmental movement who would prefer not to be out there doing something that is going to antagonise other people. We can’t do anything unless we are peaceful. So, for me, peace is the most important thing.
OK Tedi Papua New Guinea
My marriage failed in the U.K. Straight away I volunteered to go to Papua New Guinea. I went over there as a volunteer in a teaching and training college. I taught in training college students from all over Papua New Guinea. I taught there for two years, and met my second husband there.
He was a mission pilot then. It was sometimes a violent place; he recalls a time when he went into one of the outlying strips just to take in cargo. All these people were on the little grass airstrip. As he went down into the airstrip, and the waves parted, and one tribe went one way, the other tribe went the other way, and the spears were left in the middle. Oh gosh yes, it was pretty lawless.
We stayed there for two years. We went away and came back again after I had had my first baby. When we went back, they’d just started the logging at OK Tedi Mine It’s shocking now, but then we knew nothing of it. Nobody knew anything about it, except of course, the people ‘in the know’. Not the local people. They didn’t realise until the timber started to die further downstream.
I became a Community Development Officer when I was down in Victoria. A big part of the job was related to work with a neighbourhood house, and supporting local projects that had been started by somebody else. We helped people then by getting the council approval, or getting them in touch with people who do grants, or doing grant applications for them. One of the projects was a playground in a small village close by. And of course, for me, that was easy to facilitate. Other projects involved stopping tree clearing. We did work for many, many different facets of society. I suppose most of my environmentalism comes from a community background. The good of all, and the participation of all in the environment in which we live, is very important to me.
I hate meetings. But there seemed to be an awful lot of them! I hate it. I want to have a talk that is going to end in something positive happening. Change. Action. Movement. An action.
For example, I was giving out how to vote cards the previous year with the Greens, and I loved that. I was talking to people and I was out there communicating with them. I was fascinated by other people’s views. One of the big things for me is, how do we change other people? Their views. Or how do we assist them to express their views? They were miners I was talking to, and I don’t say I changed their views, but they saw a more moderate view from the Greens party. They had a human face to go with the Greens party.
It was always in me somewhere that I could make a difference. And now I see that it is all about the community. Bringing together the community because by myself I can’t do any of it. Whereas, with others I can.
One of the big things about this movement that I love is our ability to organise. My environmental group is exactly the same. It took a while – I was ‘shopping’ for the right space for myself – but I finally found the right team. I manage on the ground; I manage with people. Tom’s great because he goes out there with enthusiasm and does it. Elise does the research and is really good at meetings. I try to make it into a social occasion and I invite everyone around to my house, so we sit out on my deck and we have a meal together, and we are talking, connecting, having a social occasion and not just a meeting.
We have got a good group of three. I couldn’t have done it on my own. No. I haven’t got the confidence and I haven’t got the expertise.
Out of the Comfort Zone
My friends, a lot of them are very, very vocal about the environment, and about Adani. Yet, they don’t do anything about it. I think for most of them, it’s out of their comfort zone. Like being here at the Stop Adani camp, for example. My friends…they don’t mind camping, they don’t mind being out in nature…but to go out and do actions like this? It’s very, very scary. Very scary. It’s hard to motivate them to do something, because they have never done it before. They do have the choice to do it, but they choose their grandchildren or a more staid environment over going out there and doing whatever they are going to do.
Whereas for me, I am retired and can do what the hell I like. I have choices in my life every day as to what I do. I think I always had the belief that I could make change. Ah, it’s been knocked around a bit, but whatever happens in life, you have to be able to change; you can’t just stay in one place.
Our group, we are branching out. We are part of Stop Adani because we know it’s having an impact on climate change. The next big protest we are doing is this coming Saturday, and we’re having a march through town. It’s going to be focused on the reef. We are trying, during this election time, to bring it back to the fact that everybody’s got to care. It’s not just stopping it, we’ve all got to care about stopping it happening.
I don’t know, I have a hope that it will change. And somebody has to make it change.
It might as well be me.
 The OK Tedi Mine discharged 90 million tons of untreated mining waste annually into the OK Tedi River in Papua New Guinea. It was described as one of the worst environmental disasters caused by humans, with about 1,588 square kilometres (613 sq mi) of forest dead or under stress. For further info see the blog on OK Tedi mine.
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