‘I LIVED 449DAYS UP A TREE’

Con­ser­va­tion­ist Mi­randa Gib­son spent al­most 14 months – in­clud­ing two Christ­mases and a birth­day – up a tree to pro­tect en­dan­gered forests from log­gers. Shiva Ku­mar Thekkepat re­ports

Friday - - Real Life -

It’s a glo­ri­ous morn­ing, the sun’s first rays play­ing hide-and-seek be­hind the thick fo­liage of the eu­ca­lyp­tus tree, the mist send­ing up plumes of smoke that re­minded Mi­randa Gib­son of her mother’s siz­zling saucepan as she used to sleep­ily stum­ble her way into the kitchen for break­fast as a child. Now, she stretches and takes a deep breath of the fresh moun­tain air, be­fore jump­ing up to do 30 min­utes on her step­per. The 32-year-old works up a light sweat be­fore break­ing off for a cup of strong cof­fee.

As she stands on the edge of the plat­form, look­ing out over kilo­me­tres of ver­dant green­ery, one would as­sume that Mi­randa’s on hol­i­day. But she’s ac­tu­ally 60 me­tres above the ground, on a ledge erected around the trunk of a 400-year-old gi­ant eu­ca­lyp­tus tree in the south­ern forests of South West Tas­ma­nia, Aus­tralia.

This has been her home for more than a year as she lit­er­ally stands guard to pro­tect the en­dan­gered vir­gin rain­forests. Teacher Mi­randa climbed up the tree on De­cem­ber 14, 2011, and re­fused to come down un­til she was forced to, 449 days later, due to a rag­ing bush fire that threat­ened the area. When she did climb down the tree she was hailed a hero­ine for having se­cured the forests she so des­per­ately wanted to pro­tect.

Why would a mid­dle school teacher from Queens­land, Aus­tralia, put her ca­reer on hold, even put her­self in im­mi­nent dan­ger, for what was seen as a lost cause even among en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists? The an­swer lies in Mi­randa’s deep and abid­ing love of na­ture. She is the spokesper­son for Aus­tralian grass-roots for­est ad­vo­cacy group Still Wild Still Threat­ened, is in­volved in the mon­i­tor­ing of na­tive wildlife and en­dan­gered species in threat­ened forests and is the co-au­thor of the book Flora and Fauna Guide to the Up­per Floren­tine Val­ley.

So, when Mi­randa took the de­ci­sion to climb a tree to stop the log­ging of en­dan­gered forests in Styx Val­ley, she wasn’t be­ing im­pul­sive. “The de­ci­sion is some­thing I thought through for

‘I wanted to make sure peo­ple knew the forests were be­ing de­stroyed. I wanted to pro­tect them’

some time be­fore I at­tempted it,” she says. “I spent a few months get­ting men­tally pre­pared, talk­ing to ex­perts and peo­ple who had done this kind of thing as it takes an emo­tional toll, as well as or­gan­is­ing things, such as a base team to check up on me and get me things like food, clothes and ev­ery­day re­quire­ments to make sure it would go smoothly. It was a big com­mit­ment and some­thing I only wanted to do if I knew I was pre­pared.”

For Mi­randa, it was a last-ditch ef­fort to save the forests that have been de­scribed as the ‘big­gest un­touched tracts of tem­per­ate rain­for­est in the south­ern hemi­sphere’. “I went up the tree be­cause that area of for­est was un­der threat from log­ging,” she says. “The area was orig­i­nally meant to be in­cluded in the con­ser­va­tion agree­ment that was to be in place in Au­gust 2012. But un­for­tu­nately that never hap­pened.”

Ta Ann, a Malaysian log­ging com­pany, logged the area to meet the in­ter­na­tional de­mand for wood, which meant that a lot of for­est ar­eas that were sup­posed to be pro­tected are still un­der threat and be­ing logged. Ta Ann pro­duces ve­neer from logs taken from the forests, which is then sold over­seas, most no­tably to Ja­pan, where it is sold as floor­ing. Since the logs that are used are ac­cred­ited by PEFC, an in­de­pen­dent cer­ti­fi­ca­tion sys­tem that pro­motes sus­tain­able forestry, Ta Ann mar­kets its ve­neer floor­ing as be­ing eco-friendly, some­thing that en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists such as Mi­randa fiercely dis­pute.

“Four months be­fore I went up the tree the Aus­tralian and Tas­ma­nian Gov­ern­ments had promised a con­ser­va­tion agree­ment over 430,000 hectares of for­est, in­clud­ing the site where the tree is,” says Mi­randa. “It was never put in place, and so when I found out that this area was due to be logged, I wanted to do some­thing to make sure that peo­ple knew that Tas­ma­nia’s forests – that had been ver­i­fied to be of world her­itage and na­tional her­itage sig­nif­i­cance – were be­ing de­stroyed. I wanted to pro­tect them. My intention was to stay up un­til there was pro­tec­tion for th­ese forests.”

There were rea­sons for choos­ing the par­tic­u­lar tree. “It was cho­sen be­cause of its lo­ca­tion,” says Mi­randa. “My orig­i­nal plan for the tree-sit was that if the for­est around me was logged, I would record that on film and show it on the in­ter­net so the world would be able to see the re­al­ity of the de­struc­tion. For this rea­son I chose a tree that was high on the ridge and over­look­ing the rest of the area that was due to be logged. The plat­form was set 60 me­tres high on the tree.”

She called it the Ob­server Tree. “I wanted to show peo­ple all around the world what is hap­pen­ing here,” she says. “I spoke to other peo­ple in my group [Still Wild Still Threat­ened] about it, be­cause I knew that this wasn’t some­thing I could achieve on my own. It took a whole team of peo­ple to sup­port me. I couldn’t have done this with­out them.”

Mi­randa got to work im­me­di­ately, set­ting up a blog – The Ob­server Tree – and up­dat­ing it daily, up­load­ing pho­to­graphs and videos she shot of ac­tiv­i­ties in the area on a war­foot­ing. The world me­dia caught on im­me­di­ately, and soon Mi­randa was giv­ing in­ter­views around the world through Skype and email. She was a cause célèbre in no time, her blog at­tract­ing 50,000 unique views. The log­gers started feel­ing the heat too.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists placed hid­den cam­eras in the for­est be­low, cap­tur­ing footage of a mother Tas­ma­nian devil, the day be­fore log­ging be­gan. This iconic Aus­tralian species is listed as en­dan­gered in both fed­eral and state leg­is­la­tion. “Luck­ily, the me­dia spot­light from my ac­tion had the log­gers pack­ing up and leav­ing af­ter a week, giv­ing th­ese young devils a chance of sur­vival,” says Mi­randa. But be­cause there was no pos­i­tive ac­tion from the Aus­tralian

gov­ern­ment to per­ma­nently stop the log­ging, Mi­randa con­tin­ued her tree-sit.

“I was pre­pared for it,” she says. “I had the ba­sic things to live up there and com­mu­ni­cate with the world – a so­lar panel to pro­duce elec­tric­ity, a small lap­top, phone, video cam­era, a sleep­ing bag and sleep­ing mat. I also took boxes of food and lots of warm cloth­ing. As time went on my team sent up things to make my life more com­fort­able, such as a small step ma­chine that could be used for ex­er­cise, and a small fold­out chair and ta­ble to make work­ing on the com­puter eas­ier. It be­gan to feel more and more like home the longer I was up there.”

But her home was only meant to be tem­po­rary, for what was ini­tially thought of as a few-weeks-long vigil. The plat­form was three me­tres wide, with a tar­pau­lin sheet above to pro­tect her from the el­e­ments. There were times when it snowed and when she was buf­feted by hail stones. But it only made her even more de­ter­mined to stay put. “I didn’t think of com­ing down even when I was wet and shiv­er­ing up there,” she says. “I just wrapped up in more clothes and sought so­lace in the books I’d taken up, or worked on my an­swers to the ques­tions [about the protest] from var­i­ous news­pa­pers across the world. There was always some­thing to take my mind off the dis­com­fort.”

Mi­randa also made sure to keep her­self ac­tive and healthy. “I spent time ex­er­cis­ing up there, do­ing stretches and other ex­er­cises,” she says. “I also prac­ticed walk­ing on the step ma­chine. I made sure I ate healthy food and stayed as healthy as pos­si­ble.” Luck­ily, she never fell se­ri­ously ill, al­though she did suf­fer oc­ca­sional colds and fevers.

How­ever, the loneliness was stark. “One of the hard­est things about be­ing up there was def­i­nitely the iso­la­tion and loneliness,” says Mi­randa. “Some­times I re­ally ap­pre­ci­ated the unique ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing by my­self in the for­est. At other times I re­ally missed my friends and fam­ily and craved that faceto-face time with peo­ple. I was always look­ing for­ward to get­ting down and spend­ing time with them.”

But though the protest was tak­ing longer than she’d hoped, with the gov­ern­ment back­track­ing on pro­tect­ing the forests, Mi­randa never con­tem­plated giv­ing up. “That’s not in my na­ture,” she laughs.

Over the months she en­dured high wind, snow, hail and other ex­treme con­di­tions. It was a tough win­ter when she started her tree vigil in 2011, and even more so in 2012 when she spent Christ­mas and New Year up there. And the weather wasn’t the only chal­lenge.

“Liv­ing on a three-me­tre plat­form sus­pended in the tree­tops made ev­ery daily task that I once took for granted very dif­fi­cult,” says Mi­randa. “No turn­ing on the tap for hot wa­ter or go­ing to the shops if you run out of milk! I had to bathe in a small bucket. And I hauled up ev­ery­thing I needed on a long rope, re­ly­ing on sup­port from the com­mu­nity for do­na­tions of food and sup­plies.”

Though the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment re­fused to budge, in­ter­na­tional me­dia

cov­er­age of her tree-sit en­sured that sup­port flooded in, lo­cally as well as in­ter­na­tion­ally. Many peo­ple vis­ited the base of the tree to shout up their thanks. “Their sup­port was over­whelm­ingly in­spi­ra­tional,” says Mi­randa. “It helped me get through what was the hard­est part of this ex­pe­ri­ence – the loneliness of be­ing sep­a­rated from my loved ones.”

Some Aus­tralian celebri­ties took up her cause. For the one-year an­niver­sary of her tree-sit, Mi­randa was thanked by mu­si­cians Nick Cave, John But­ler and Blue King Brown, as well as for­mer Greens leader Bob Brown, and an Amer­i­can ac­tivist, Ju­lia But­ter­fly Hill. “Having face-to-face in­ter­ac­tions was of­ten a wel­come re­lief from the iso­la­tion,” says Mi­randa. “I had friends and fam­ily climb the tree to visit me. When my mum, Glenys, came to stay up in the tree for a few days, it was in­cred­i­ble be­cause she had never done any­thing like that be­fore. My dad, Dave, came up to visit me an­other time and so did my sis­ter Rhiannon.

“It was great for them all to not only see me again, but also ex­pe­ri­ence the for­est from that per­spec­tive.”

The up­side was the chance to ex­pe­ri­ence and ob­serve na­ture from within. “It was a re­mark­able ex­pe­ri­ence,” she says. “Be­ing up there for over a year meant that I saw all four sea­sons come and go. I was able to see the trees flow­er­ing in sum­mer and cov­ered in snow in win­ter. I saw amaz­ing bird life, in­clud­ing en­dan­gered wedge-tailed ea­gles. And just the ex­pe­ri­ence of get­ting to know the for­est so well, be­ing im­mersed in it day in and day out, was truly in­cred­i­ble.”

As time went on and there ap­peared to be no pos­i­tive move from the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment, Mi­randa dug her heels in for the long haul. “It was ap­par­ent that the end (of my treesit) was not in sight,” says Mi­randa. “But having come so far I never once thought of giv­ing up.”

Even­tu­ally, the gath­er­ing global mo­men­tum be­hind the campaign, the sup­port of the World Her­itage Com­mit­tee and also the po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence of Fed­eral Greens Party, all helped to put pres­sure on the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment, who even­tu­ally made a nom­i­na­tion for World Her­itage sta­tus for the forests in Fe­bru­ary last year.

Mi­randa’s intention was to stay un­til there was full pro­tec­tion for th­ese forests. Un­for­tu­nately, a loom­ing threat of be­ing en­gulfed in a bush fire forced her to climb down on March 7 last year. “Al­though a bush fire burn­ing within 1.5km from my tree even­tu­ally forced me to evac­u­ate, my heart has not re­ally left the tree­tops,” she says. “Ev­ery day in my mind I am still watch­ing over that for­est, just as I had done for the 449 days atop the tree. Ev­ery day a thought hung over me like a cloud – the knowl­edge that the log­gers might re­turn and be­gin clear­felling once more.”

At that point Mi­randa’s selfless act had made many gains. A cou­ple of months later, in June last year, the World Her­itage Com­mit­tee made a unan­i­mous de­ci­sion to of­fi­cially list 170,00 hectares, which in­cluded her Ob­server Tree, as a world her­itage site. This was a huge suc­cess for the campaign. “Not only my ac­tion, but two decades worth of for­est ac­tions and

‘When my mum, Glenys, came to stay up in the tree with me for a few days, it was in­cred­i­ble’

com­mu­nity cam­paigns had gone into achiev­ing this out­come,” says Mi­randa.

How­ever, less than a year later, they were un­der threat once more. “The re­cently elected gov­ern­ment in Aus­tralia made a nom­i­na­tion to the World Her­itage Com­mit­tee to have 74,000 hectares re­moved from the list and opened up again for log­ging,” says Mi­randa. But suc­cess was on the en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists’ side. The United Na­tions’ World Her­itage Com­mit­tee, meet­ing in Doha on June 24, took just 10 min­utes to re­ject the gov­ern­ment’s ap­pli­ca­tion to re­verse pro­tec­tion for 74,000 hectares. This was a re­sult of co­or­di­nated ac­tion by Mi­randa and her col­leagues.

“In the lead-up to the meet­ing, we co­or­di­nated a 48-hour global ac­tion for World Her­itage,” says Mi­randa. “There were hun­dreds of events and ac­tions hap­pen­ing around Aus­tralia and across 16 coun­tries in­ter­na­tion­ally to de­fend our World Her­itage sites. And it has worked!”

In spite of having to aban­don her tree­top vigil be­fore the move­ment suc­ceeded fully, Mi­randa be­lieves her ac­tion was a suc­cess. “It made an im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the campaign to pro­tect th­ese forests,” she says. “Even though we still need to keep fight­ing to make sure that pro­tec­tion is not taken away, it is still a sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ment. In ad­di­tion, I be­lieve the in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion to this is­sue and the way in which my ac­tion in­spired peo­ple to not only stand up for the forests, but to take ac­tion in their own lives and have the courage to stand up for what they be­lieve in, I think is the true suc­cess of my tree-sit.”

She hopes her ac­tion will be a cat­a­lyst, in­spir­ing oth­ers to say no to wood prod­ucts that come from un­sus­tain­able forestry prac­tices.

How­ever, it’s not back to the class­rooms as yet for her. “I see my­self con­tin­u­ing to fight for the future of the forests. They are ir­re­place­able and we can­not af­ford to lose any more of the re­main­ing ar­eas of high-con­ser­va­tion­va­lue forests. I will keep on fight­ing un­til our forests are pro­tected and Tas­ma­nia sees an end to in­dus­trial-scale log­ging of our na­tive forests.”

Maybe that would mean tree-sit­ting again, or tak­ing ac­tion in other ways. “If I thought that it would achieve the out­comes we need, I would def­i­nitely con­sider do­ing it again,” says Mi­randa. “How­ever, I also think that it is good to be cre­ative and think of new ideas and new ways to take ac­tion. So maybe I will do some­thing dif­fer­ent next time. One thing is for cer­tain though, I will con­tinue to stand up for th­ese forests.”

Teacher Mi­randa put her life on hold to try to save the rain­forests

Mi­randa used the me­dia spot­light to help her cause

Home sweet home, 60 me­tres above the ground

A team of peo­ple sup­ported Mi­randa in her campaign

The tree was cho­sen be­cause of its great van­tage point

Mum Glenys was a wel­come guest

Apart from an oc­ca­sional cold, Mi­randa man­aged to stay healthy

Fel­low ac­tivists greet Mi­randa as she re­turns to terra firma

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